On November 8, 2020, after 160 feet of climbing, Lauren Shartell of Rifle, Colorado, stuck both picks into thin ice and pulled onto the slab that rims Vail’s Rigid Designator Amphitheatre ( Nuu-agha-tuvu-pu [Ute] territory), becoming the second US woman to complete the Lightning, a Will Mayo route originally graded M13+. Her send follows that of Katie Bono, who became the first US woman to redpoint the route in 2015. At the time, the route had a consensus grade of M13-. (Canadian Sarah Hueniken has also climbed the Mustang, an M14- linkup that includes much of the Lightning.)
Shartell has proposed a grade of M12+ for the Lightning, noting that it felt comparable to other D12s she’s tried, including Fear Index at Tomorrow’s World in Italy’s Dolomites, which she one-hung in 2019. (The ‘D’ denotes a dry grade, in this case a route of M12 difficulty but without ice.) However, Shartell adds that she wanted to ensure the lower grade was still within the context of other routes in the amphitheatre.
“I would call it a Vail M12+,” she says.
Local climbers note that the downgrade does not necessarily take away from Mayo or Bono’s historic sends.
“It’s hard to know how hard the route really is,” says Hueniken. “It depends on the [amount of] ice a bit, too, and whether the holds have changed.”
Longtime local climbers like Dave Roetzel and Ryan Vachon, who secured the second ascent of the area’s hardest route, Saphira (M15-), in 2016, say that recently added tick marks and increased traffic have likely reduced the difficulty of the longer routes, and that some grades may not reflect those changes.
The limestone in the Rigid Designator Amphitheater is soft, and pockets and edges often grow deeper with use.
“People don’t realize just how much the holds can change within just a handful of ascents,” says Roetzel, who’s been climbing and maintaining routes in the Amphitheater for decades. (In 2014 he became the first person to solo all of East Vail’s major ice formations in a day.)
That said, Vachon and Bono both support Shartell’s prerogative to propose a new grade.
“I’ve been following Lauren, and I’ve seen her climb all this stuff that’s pretty gnarly. You don’t do that without some serious chops,” Bono says. “She’s totally within her wheelhouse to call this route exactly what she thinks it is.”
Shartell is unsponsored and relatively new to the mixed climbing scene. Her hardest send before the Lightning was a D11, a flash of Super Juan in Ouray’s Hall of Justice. Since then, she’s projected harder and harder climbs. In 2019 she traveled to Italy to train on the long cave routes of Tomorrow’s World, an area that was developed by the late Tom Ballard. Shartell also has access to great climbing close to her home, which is near Rifle Mountain Park, a canyon that is famous for its overhanging sport climbs and, in winter, for its intimidating columns of aerated ice. And just a little bit farther away is Vail, where she first attempted the Lightning in 2019 at the urging of a friend.
After climbing the King Cobra roof, M10, where the Lightning’s difficult climbing begins, she recalls, “I tried just the first move and got scared and came down. The second time, I got that first move, then tried the second [move] and fell. Every time I was just trying to go one move farther.”
Shartell says this stubbornness in her climbing was new; for years, she’d characterize most of her climbing in Vail as timid. That was partly because she felt intimidated by some members of the local “hardman” community, she says.
“I was a newer climber. I didn’t feel like I was one of the ‘cool kids,'” she says.
Shartell didn’t start climbing–rock or ice–until 2014, shortly after moving to Colorado from her hometown of Detroit.
She was driving a semitruck over Red Mountain Pass, on her way from Rifle to New Mexico for work, when she saw a sign for the Ouray Ice Festival.
“I’d never even put on a harness before,” Shartell says of her first Ice Fest. “I had a puffball on my hat so my helmet was sticking way up. I had mittens on.” But she was hooked on climbing immediately. Soon after, she moved to Rifle.
Even as she progressed, Shartell says her new-climber complex dogged her heels.
“In Vail, I was too afraid to say ‘Take.’ I felt I couldn’t hang and figure out moves because I felt pressure to come down in case someone else wanted to try something,” she says. It took a dramatic shift in mindset to start really trying in earnest.
That shift came about three years ago, when a local woman told Shartell that she wasn’t good enough to climb in the Amphitheater, and that she didn’t belong.
“It was a defining moment for me,” Shartell says. Something clicked, and she found herself channeling the confidence and stubborn determination that she’d built through her eight-year career working in oil, a male-dominated field with a “macho” culture, as she describes it.
“That’s a really cutthroat industry, especially for women,” she says. She’d worked at the EPA for years before inventing a more environmentally friendly alternative to fracking chemicals and starting her own business. “I was dealing with men on a daily basis who assumed that just because I was a woman I don’t know how to drive a semitruck or hook up to a well or turn a wrench,” she says. “That taught me a lot about how to be strong.”
On November 8, Shartell didn’t expect to send.
“But that day, I knew I wanted it really bad. I had this mentality that there was no way I’m going to take. I’m going to hold on as long as I can and just keep going until I can’t anymore.”
Everything fell into place. When she finished the 14-move roof sequence, during which she used just two Figure 4s–inverted movements in which one leg wraps over the opposite arm to provide leverage for long reaches in overhanging terrain–she found herself at the lip of the cave with a sense of mild surprise. There was little ice, usually crucial to pulling over the lip and onto the slab above.
“But I was already on [red]point,” she says. “So I figured, if I was already up there, why not just try it and take the whip?”
She found a series of small, insecure holds on rock, as well as some thin ice she was able to use. When she pulled up onto the slab, she stood and stared down at her belayer, Jedrzej Jablonski, who confirmed her send.
“That’s when I kind of snapped out of it and realized I needed to get down,” Shartell says. Since there was less ice at the top, she would either have to bushwhack to reach anchors from which she could lower off, or down climb to the last bolt she’d clipped. She down climbed and lowered, having joined the upper echelons of American mixed climbing.
“I feel really good about proving that anybody can go up to Vail and try a route and work hard and send it, even if they’re not a sponsored athlete. You don’t have to be one of the ‘cool kids’ to work hard and feel like you belong,” she says.
Dawn Glanc, a longtime leader of women’s mixed climbing in North America, calls Shartell’s send a “great accomplishment.”
“Women and men are both climbing at such an elite level. There is really no dominant gender anymore. The standard of excellence has been advancing every year,” Glanc says.
The Rigid Designator Amphitheater is home to some of the first mixed routes established in the US, including Amphibian (M9), an early Will Gadd route, and Octopussy (M8)–a Jeff Lowe testpiece that is often credited for sparking an age of rapid evolution in mixed climbing across North America. Over the past six years, more routes and linkups have been established through the sweeping horizontal roof of the cave.
“I think [Shartell’s send] is certainly a great achievement, and just the fact that multiple women are projecting the Lightning at the same time–that’s awesome,” Bono said, referencing local climber Beth Goralski, who has also been working the route. “There are a lot of younger climbers coming into the sport and psyched. Hopefully this just continues.”