Tiny Hand Over Hand
Ashima Shiraishi at Hueco Tanks in Texas on a climb known as Greasy Kids Stuff. In March, Shiraishi won the youth bouldering national championship.
HUECO TANKS STATE PARK AND HISTORIC SITE, Tex. — With a concentrated squint, Ashima Shiraishi silently sized up her first rock of the day, a menacing slab of jagged beige boulder 20 feet high, scuffed by white chalk left behind from bigger, older, more experienced climbers.
A black crash pad as thick as a mattress was placed on the ground, and without a rope or harness for protection, Ashima shrugged off her purple jacket, hoisted herself onto the boulder and began to scramble up, her calf muscles bulging gently as she grabbed one nearly invisible ledge of rock after another. With a final stretch, she reached the top, her glossy black ponytail disappearing first, then one limb at a time, until she was out of sight.
A tiny voice floated over the top of the boulder. “How do you get down?” she said.
Ashima had just begun a two-week climbing expedition this spring at Hueco Tanks, a state park that is a mecca for bouldering enthusiasts, 860 acres of rock masses surrounded by endless desert and sky 30 miles northeast of El Paso.
Three days after she arrived, she stunned the bouldering world by climbing Crown of Aragorn, an exceedingly difficult route that requires climbers to contort their bodies and hang practically upside down by their fingers as they navigate a rock that juts out from the ground at a 45-degree angle.
On the scale of V0 to V16 that governs bouldering, Crown of Aragorn is a V13, a level that only a few female climbers had reached.
None were 10 years old, as she was.
Ashima, a petite girl with pale skin, a toothy smile and a thick fringe of bangs cut in a perfect line across her forehead, is not only the best climber her age in the United States, or maybe anywhere, but her accomplishments have already placed her among the elite in the sport.
In 2008, when she was only 7, she began sending problems — bouldering lingo for ascending routes — that some adult climbers could not handle.
On a trip to Hueco in 2010, she climbed a V10 called Power of Silence. The next year, she ascended a V11/12 called Chablanke.
At the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship in Colorado Springs in March, she easily came in first place, all 4 feet 5 inches and 63 pounds of her.
Before finishing fifth grade, Ashima, who recently turned 11, is redefining what physical tools are required to be an elite climber and showing how a child can hold her own against professional climbers who are adults.
This summer, she will accompany a group of American climbers for an expedition in South Africa, where she will be the only child climber in the bunch.