Paige Claassen Interview: Thoughts on Climbing, Starting a Non Profit and Having a Family
Paige Claassen is one of the strongest, understated climbers of her generation. For the past decade she has dispatched with some of the hardest routes in the world – and doesn’t gloat about it. What’s always struck me about Paige is her eye and desire to try meaningful climbs – beautiful, historical, stiff – they are always “king lines” in my opinion.
She recently got married (happy almost one year anniversary Paige!) so naturally I wanted to know when she was going to have kids…ha! In all seriousness though, she’s also recently started a non profit and I wanted to know what her life looks like now and how she envisions it in the future. She was kind enough to open up about all of that and more. I hope you enjoy!
You grew up in the very mountainous town of Estes Park, CO. When did you start climbing? And what led you to the sport?
My family moved to Estes Park in 1999, when I was 9 years old. I was shy and struggled to find my place for a while. I tried soccer, swimming, saxophone, and piano. But it wasn’t until my parents took me to the small climbing gym in Estes that I really found my niche and started to build confidence. I began competing right away, and loved that my success or failure was a direct result of my own efforts. Climbing taught me dedication and perseverance at a young age, two traits I’ll never forget.
Who were your influences and who inspired you at a young age?
I always looked up to my teammates and coaches, but didn’t read climbing magazines or watch climbing movies as a kid. I just loved to be in the gym burning energy. I do remember you and Tommy Caldwell coming through the gym during team practice in Estes Park once or twice and feeling a bit star struck, but not really understanding the extent of your accomplishments. My signed poster of Tommy on To Bolt or Not To Be represented my perception of hard climbing – spider-manning your way up a perfectly smooth wall. It wasn’t until I was a bit older and started climbing outside more that I built an appreciation for the work that went into developing routes and breaking down barriers of grade, gender, and age.
You started a non profit (SAEF), can you tell me a little about what led you to start such an inspirational endeavor?
My husband, Arjan, farms table grapes in Namibia, where living conditions are incredibly harsh – think temperatures over 120, dust storms, houses built out of reeds and bits of tin and cardboard, limited electricity, and no clean water. The local farmers do a lot of work to improve conditions in the village, provide higher wages for workers, and work with the government to improve utilities and infrastructure, but there’s always something more to be done. I started Southern Africa Education Fund because I firmly believe that education is the only path out of poverty. By making education more accessible and teaching kids and families that school is a safe and fun environment that provides long term value to an individual’s life, we can keep kids in school and encourage them to pursue further education and a life beyond manual labor. Currently, we provide a kindergarten and orphanage with 3 meals a day, school supplies, student fees, and facility renovations. As we grow, we plan to expand the Primary School so that kids can attend full days of school, and build a Youth Center so that kids have a library and a safe place to go before and after school to keep them out of trouble.
You recently got married and now split your time between traveling, Colorado and South Africa, what goes into planning a “typical” year juggling it all?
I’m known for my over planning, but I’m learning that I just have to go with the flow and ease up on some of my OCD scheduling. Arjan is in the process of applying for a green card in the US, and I’m working towards permanent residency in South Africa, but the timelines are a bit unpredictable. We don’t know where we’ll need to be 5, 10, 30 years down the road, so we’d like to have the flexibility of living in either, or hopefully both, places. We’re so fortunate because we get to split time between two of the coolest places in the world, but it certainly comes with challenges.
We’ll always be in Namibia for the November and December harvest season, which sounds kind of romantic but it actually entails highly stressful 18 hour work days, 6 days a week, for about 8 high pressure weeks. The remaining 10 months of the year we will split between Colorado, South Africa, and other climbing based travels. We try to choose 1 big “international” trip each year, and then squeeze in one climbing stopover in Europe in route between the States and South Africa.
I know when I got married the next question people always asked was “when are you going to have kids?!” … do you envision having a family one day?
Definitely, but not for a while. We’re both from pretty traditional, conservative families, so people were asking us how many kids we were going to have even before we were married. We decided two seems like a “manageable” number to wrangle while traveling.
As a professional athlete how do you see that fitting into your life, both personally and professionally?
I think it depends on the team you’re a part of. Arjan and I are a team in climbing, and we want to be a team in parenting as well. When both people are 100% involved and on board, then planning a day out or a trip becomes a bit less intimidating. You both make sacrifices and trade-offs, but the team is still unified in working towards common objectives. We’re fortunate that we’re both on the same page with professional and family goals.
I honestly don’t know what having a family will look like as part of my professional climbing life. I think that’s a difficult thing to predict, because there are so many unknowns when you start a family. Until you have kids, you don’t really know what it is going to be like. I know that my relationship to climbing and my objectives will change, but climbing will always be a part of my life in some form or another, and I like to think that I’ll still be able to climb at a level I can be proud of with kids. We have a lot of great examples of families who make it happen, so I’m not too worried about the balance.
I’m sure there are going to be a couple harrowing flights along the way, but hopefully our kids will adapt, because they’re not really going to have a choice. At the very minimum, they’re going to have to travel between South Africa and the US. It’s only 30 hours, so it will be fine, right!? Eek! Every time there’s a hiccup in travel, I always think, “how much harder is this going to be with kids?”
If you see having a family one day, do you see this as an either/or? Or do you envision sharing your passion and profession with a family?
I don’t think it’s an either or, but more of a learning curve in flexibility. Our kids will definitely grow up in the dirt, but if climbing isn’t their thing then that’s okay. Maybe kite boarding and surfing will be their thing. Maybe they’ll be into team sports, or trombone or something. That would be a rough transition, but ultimately they get to choose the person they want to be. We just have to help guide and mold them into being kind, respectable humans with ambition and values.
Mostly, I want to instill in my kids an appreciation for the outdoors, like my parents did for me. I watched very little TV growing up, and mostly invented games outside. I hope we don’t have a million kids toys laying around our house someday, because it seems like all kids really want to play with is a cardboard box and a sheet fort and sword sticks and mud. That’s perfect.
Are there any professional female athletes that you look to for inspiration with that regard?
You and Randy, as well as the Caldwells, have definitely paved the way in showing the climbing world that it is possible to travel and climb with kids. We also have a lot of close friends we look up to with young kids who haven’t given up what they love to do, they’ve just absorbed the extra logistics of toting a little person around the world or out to the crag. Keith and Emily Bradbury and Mikey and Elissa Williams are two families I really look up to. Their kids are outside playing in the dirt all day every day, and they’re so happy! Elissa is climbing harder than she ever has, one year after having her daughter. That’s so cool!
Based on what I’ve witnessed, Arjan and I are going to need much stronger legs to carry around heavy packs on hikes to the crag; the more dirt the better; and you have to be flexible. Oh, and also bring a million snacks to the crag, which is basically what I have to do when I take myself out climbing for the day, so that will be easy enough.
Having started climbing as a young child, do you have any advice for parents with young kids on how to have a healthy relationship with climbing?
Don’t force it. Especially as climbing grows, I see so many parents being way to aggressive and involved in their kids’ climbing. Be supportive and encouraging, but each child must develop a love for climbing on their own. My parents never pushed me, but supported all my objectives, whether competitive or outdoors. I think because of that, I grew up with a healthy relationship with the sport, rather than drowning in pressure.
If your kids do enjoy climbing, it can be one of the most awesome family activities. My parents made a lot of sacrifices so that we could travel to competitions around the US and the world as a family, but they never complained about having to go to Chamonix or Austria for a World Cup!