Ten-year-old Selah Schneiter of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, climbed the Nose (VI 5.8 C2, 2,900′) of El Capitan (also known to Indigenous people as Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La) on June 13 after a casual five-day ascent with her dad Mike Schneiter and their close family friend Mark Regier.
Selah appears to have the youngest documented ascent of the Big Stone–Scott Cory climbed the route twice in 2001 at age 11; more on that later–but the age record wasn’t part of Selah’s or her parents’ incentives.
“We did this climb for us; it was her energy and her idea,” said Mike, who has done the Nose in a day twice before and is an AMGA guide who has owned and operated Glenwood Climbing Guides since 2011. “If anything, I’d been trying to talk her out of it. I think El Cap has been so much a part of our story as a family that she’s wanted to do it for a long time.”
Mike and Joy Schneiter met on a climbing trip 15 years ago and roped up together for their first time when they did Lurking Fear (VI 5.7 C2, ca. 2,000′) on El Capitan as a group of four that included Regier. “[Mike and I] stopped using the divider on the portaledge by the third night,” Joy said. They were married eight months later in a ceremony officiated by Regier, and in 2009 they took Selah to the base of El Capitan when she was two months old.
Selah–who has three younger siblings: Zeke, 7; Sunny, 5; and Salome, 17 months–started climbing on toprope in a body harness at 18 months old, and began ice climbing at age 5 with small custom tools crafted by her dad. “She only truly got into ice climbing this year because it takes some strength to swing the tools,” Mike said. She climbed her first desert tower, Otto’s Route (5.8+, 400′) in Colorado National Monument when she was 7, something that had been her birthday wish as a 6-year-old.
Up until recently, if you asked her about her favorite activities, she would have likely told you, “climbing, skiing and miniature golf.” After El Cap, she told her dad that she’s decided to focus less on golf and more on climbing and skiing.
To prepare for the Nose, Selah practiced leading trad and aid pitches, lowering out on pendulums and jumaring. She spent a night in a portaledge and got a feel for hauling a bag up the cliff. “They climbed all over Colorado and Utah, and also practiced in the garage,” Joy said.
Even though Selah still hadn’t really climbed anything taller than Otto’s Route before she launched up the Nose, her practice paid off.
“She showed Mark [Regier, who hadn’t practiced those skills in a while] how to lower out,” Mike said. “Another climber above us said, ‘She’s schooling me!'”
Ultimately, Selah led the start of the route (Pine Line, a 5.7 variation to the original start); the bolt ladder from Texas Flake to Boot Flake halfway up; and the final pitch of fourth class to the tree on top.
She wanted to lead more, but Mike said he was concerned about her being able to reach the widely spaced bolts on the final bolt ladder–she had to use two stoppers hitched together as a mini cheat-stick to reach the bolts going to Boot Flake–and in general he just wanted to err on the side of being cautious. “I feel like we’ve been really conservative,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Selah didn’t do her share of the work. Mike estimates that she cleaned 80 percent of the route.
“She weighs about 60 pounds, and a kid’s harness only has two gear loops, which isn’t enough to carry all the gear, so she wore a sling to clip gear to as well–that’s a lot of weight for anyone to carry, especially her,” he said.
With Selah often jumaring as the second, the adults were freed up to rig and haul the bag. Sometimes she helped with hauling, too, and a couple times she arrived at a short-fixed belay and put the leader on belay. They were actually moving faster than the party ahead of them.
“We were originally intending to do a four-day ascent,” Mike said. Instead they embraced the slower pace and enjoyed casual mornings and long lunch breaks. “It was a relaxing time,” Mike said.
When asked if there were any moments of adversity, Mike said, “Early on the bags were heavy and the pace was slow, which made it feel overwhelming, but then our motto became, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ We had plenty of food, water and clothing, so we just broke it down to the individual steps and took our time. There were a couple moments where she was exhausted, sore and sunburned, but she was never really scared. She was comfortable sleeping up there. She said the hardest part was the hike up and the hike down because of all the gear we had to carry.”
Mike and Selah FaceTimed with Joy a few times during the climb.
“I wanted to be there so bad; I hope I get to go back eventually,” said Joy, who climbed the Nose in 2008. “Zeke is climbing on the woody in our garage everyday, and he really wants to climb El Cap now, but I’m not sure if he understands what that means.”
When Mike started sending Joy photos from the climb, she couldn’t resist posting them on Facebook, which tipped off the media and subverted Mike’s plan for an undercover mission.
“My friend Chris Van Leuven lives in Mariposa [just outside the Valley] and I didn’t even tell him what our plan was when we arrived,” Mike said. (Van Leuven ended up writing the breaking story for Outside Online.)
After summiting the afternoon of June 13, Mike, Selah and Regier spent the night on top. They made a beeline down the next day to get pizza and swim in the river.
“My favorite part was the whole experience, and I don’t think it’s even over yet,” Selah told Alpinist during their drive home. I asked her if any other El Cap routes caught her fancy: “Zodiac might be fun,” she said. “I’d also like to do Lurking Fear because of the family history.” She agreed that the odds are good that she will eventually climb both routes.
“Having a climbing guide for a dad helps,” Joy said.
It’s worth noting that Mike wears many hats that pertain to teaching and guiding. He’s been a high school teacher for 20 years; he coached track for quite a while; and in addition to his guiding company he is also an adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College, where he teaches climbing-related skills, and he certifies single-pitch instructors for the AMGA. During that time he has completed first ascents of quite a few single and multipitch routes, especially near his home in Glenwood Canyon.
Young Climbers on the Big Stone
Scott Cory is the previous official record holder as the youngest to climb the Nose. He first climbed it with Hans Florine, Beth Rodden, Tommy Caldwell and Steve Schneider over three days, topping out September 9, 2001. Two days later, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, and Cory, Caldwell, Rodden and Florine decided to climb the route in a day on October 2 to raise money for the victims and first responders of the attacks. A 2002 interview with Cory can be found here.
According to YosemiteSpeedClimb.com, Tori Allen ascended the Nose in 2001 at age 13, which made her the youngest girl previously to have done the route. The youngest team to complete it was Bill Price, 14, and Kurt Reider, 15, in 1977.
Last November, Connor Herson free climbed the Nose (5.14a) at age 15 and had climbed the route without using jumars at age 13.
Chris McNamara climbed Zodiac with his younger brother at ages 16 and 13, respectively. There are rumors that a foreign guide brought his 9- or 10-year-old son up the Nose in the 1960s, but no one has been able to verify this and it seems unlikely because the route did not see many ascents during that time, so there’s a good chance that a father-son team would have been noticed.
Regardless, it’s clear that today’s generation of climbers has a lot to look forward to.
“I hope [Selah’s ascent] inspires other girls!” Joy said.
A Miwok creation story about Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La (El Capitan) can be found here.