If you’ve spent time bouldering in Squamish, you’ve likely encountered one of Canada’s most exceptional female climbers. Perhaps she passed you on the trail with a boulder pad on her back and toddler in tow, or you saw her quietly working out the crux on her latest project. Thomasina Pidgeon, Canada’s top female boulderer, has been on a sending rampage over the past year and a half, surpassing her past feats and showing no signs of slowing down. Those who have climbed with her attest to her unwavering focus, ability to push her limits, raise a child, and still climb every second day.
Born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Pidgeon’s first experience climbing was pulling plastic, but it wasn’t until a friend convinced her to try climbing outside that she got hooked. He took her cragging beside the ocean. While she admits that it scared her, she was drawn to the rock and the way she could move her body to complete a route. Growing up, her spirit never felt content on the east coast. Inspired by televisions shows set on the West Coast like Danger Bay, Thomasina decided to move west for an adventure and to pursue her studies at the University of Victoria.
In 2001, shortly after moving to the West Coast, Pidgeon discovered bouldering and her true passion for the sport began. Bouldering was a perfect fit. For her, it was not nearly as scary as roped climbing, where she tended to hold back, and the social aspect of bouldering allowed her to meet other climbers easily. Pidgeon was also drawn to the style of climbing. “I like how you can try strange, hard moves with your body without having to worry about falling,” she said. Pidgeon changed her approach to climbing, becoming a serious athlete. This is when she says that she truly became a climber.
With her natural talent and new-found focus, Pidgeon began sending boulder problems most women in Canada at the time had never thought of trying. Later that year she began her long-running sponsorship with Metolius. While she dabbled in route and competition climbing, Pidgeon spent most of her time in the boulderfields. If none of her friends were up for climbing, she would set out with her boulder pad and either find people to climb with or work on projects alone.
Squamish was home away from school. Pidgeon went on numerous vacations to other climbing areas to try new projects and different rock. In Europe, she climbed routes in Sardinia, Italy, Wales, and Ireland, and bouldered in Cresciano, Fontainebleau, and Albarracin in Spain. In 2005, she did an exchange through the University of Victoria to Sydney, Australia which allowed her to pursue her studies and climb at Arapiles during her free time.
Shortly after returning to Squamish from her semester abroad, Pidgeon’s life changed dramatically with the birth of her daughter, Cedar. Up until Cedar was born, she continued to climb devotedly, though no longer pushed herself. Since exercise is good for both mother and baby, Pidgeon would do easy traverses and light climbing in the boulder fields, right up until the end of her pregnancy. After Cedar was born, however, Pidgeon decided to take a break from climbing to focus her energy on motherhood. As she describes it, “The first year and a half, you don’t get to climb like you want to. You don’t have time. The first six months you’re pretty much a cow. You sit on the couch forever giving them milk. After that it gets easier.”
Having moved temporarily back to Newfoundland with her baby girl, Pidgeon reached a breaking point for her climbing. While she was getting to the gym occasionally, she wasn’t projecting like she had in Squamish. She made the decision to either quit climbing or return to B.C. and go for it again. “There’s no halfway,” says Pidgeon. So last summer, she and Cedar moved back to BC.
Although she was skinny again, her body felt different and her balance was off when she returned to climbing. She also had to consider another person in her life and always make sure she had people to climb with in order to keep an eye on Cedar. It wasn’t long before she was climbing hard again and pushing her limits. Over the past year, Pidgeon has climbed harder problems than she ever did before she had Cedar. Last summer, she sent The Backseat V10, Lucky Charms V11, and Jim Carrey V9/10 in Squamish. She also went on a sending frenzy in Leavenworth, finishing The Coffee Cup V10, Pimp Squeak V9 and flashing Atomic Energy V9 and The Lonely Fisherman V9.
In December 2008, Pidgeon sent The Egg, a burly V11 which has defeated attempts by many strong climbers. She had tried it a few times before having Cedar, but was never powerful enough to do the first move. Last year, she felt stronger than ever and moves that were impossible before, felt attainable. Pidgeon says, “On the Egg, the way I had my foot, I could consistently get up on the start holds, but couldn’t reach the next move by about an inch. It was one of those moments where I wanted to be 5’3″ or 5’4″ (instead of less than 5′ 2″). When I figured out the first move, I was sitting there and angled my heel a little bit differently. It gave me enough push to reach the hold.” Pidgeon has always been more of a static climber, but in the past year has begun climbing more dynamically. She continues, “It’s just funny how you can try something for so long and not be able to do it. Then you just change your beta by an inch and you can do it.”
In January 2009, Pidgeon won the Tour de Bloc competition at Beyond the Crux in Kelowna, B.C.. It was a rare appearance by Pidgeon, who tends to avoid the spotlight and focuses most of her attention on climbing outside. “One of the main reasons I don’t compete often is because I don’t train enough and I don’t climb enough inside,” says Pidgeon. She admits that she gets very nervous before competitions. “I don’t feel confident enough in my abilities to compete.”
Pidgeon is 5’1″and ¾. When asked whether or not being short prevents her from climbing, she replies that most of the time it is an excuse. “Sometimes being short can be a barrier. There are some problems in Squamish I can’t do because I just can’t reach a hold. Other problems have long moves so for me they’re a lot harder. I used to think ‘I’m too short, I can’t do this.’ But really I just wasn’t strong enough, powerful enough, or dynamic enough.” She stopped making excuses for her height in 2003 when she met Anna Burrows. At 4’11,” she walked up to a climb they were both projecting and announced, “Watch out, I’m gonna be a rocket.” Pidgeon respected Anna’s no-excuses attitude. “It might take a little longer to figure out your beta, but usually there is a way. Unless there are no holds. Then it sucks,” she laughs.
This spring, Pidgeon and Cedar spent seven weeks climbing in Hueco Tanks. They arrived late in the season, so finding climbing partners was more challenging and climbing in the shade became essential as the temperatures rose. Initially, Pidgeon spent her time climbing as many things as she could and just having fun. After a few weeks, she decided to shift her focus and project some hard problems. Without much trouble, she sent Ten Ten V10, Loaded with Power V10, and Fern Roof V10 which she admits felt easier with some secret beta. She also made a fast send of Butter Pumper V12.
The project that posed the greatest challenge was Rumble in the Jungle V12. Though she could do all the moves, on the first day she had trouble piecing it all together. According to Pidgeon, “It’s pretty long, and I kept falling off at the end; just getting pumped, tired or screwing up my beta. Then I went back and did it, but my foot brushed the ground, which is not rewarding and doesn’t really count so I had to go back and do it again. On my next try, I got past all the hard stuff, and then on the slab top out, which is about V2. I couldn’t get it together and I fell. It was kind of a scary fall. I got a little emotional.” She had reached the last day of her trip, and still hadn’t sent. With temperatures soaring, the population of climbers at the Rock Ranch had dwindled and Pidgeon was having trouble finding people to climb with. Luckily, her friend Hueco guide Andy Klier agreed to go out with her for one more shot at Rumble in the Jungle. It was her last day in Hueco and the pressure was on. She was able to pull it together and, after six days of projecting, sent the problem.
She is the first Canadian woman to climb V12. She modestly shrugs off her accomplishments, “grades are so irrelevant. Some problems are easier if you’re short and others are easier if you’re taller. Every climb is different. I think grading should be on a sliding scale.” Pidgeon isn’t sure exactly what to attribute it her recent success to. She doesn’t believe it’s because she’s stronger, “I think I’m a little more determined and being less of a slacker.” Before Cedar she could climb every day. Now she has to climb with a greater focus when she’s out because she can’t go as often or for as long. She still manages to climb every second day, a feat most climbers, let alone parents do not achieve. She thinks part of her inspiration has come from recent experiences with other strong female climbers, such as California’s Lynn Verinsky, Siemay Lee, and Courtney Hemphill. Despite having similar body types, they had very different climbing styles. It’s motivating says Pidgeon, “It’s good to have different eyesight for the same boulder problems. I like climbing with people that try hard and are psyched to climb. I don’t care if they’re male or female, just as long as they’re psyched.”
Pidgeon admits that being a mom has its challenges, which are only heightened when trying to climb with a toddler trying to run underneath you. More recently, however, the problem is keeping Cedar from climbing too high. She’s already displaying her mother’s focus and determination. She put up many baby ascents in both Hueco and Squamish, and last year she sent her first project, the carving in the Squamish boulderfields.
Rock climbing can become an obsession, especially for top climbers. Pidgeon becomes so frustrated and emotional that she’s considered quitting on more than one occasion. She admits, “I have quit climbing many times, including a few days before I sent Rumble in the Jungle. I usually quit out of frustration but always start climbing again five minutes later. I used to get frustrated when climbing quite frequently, but not so much anymore. Nowadays, if I’m not having fun, I will step away and go back another time. I don’t think I could ever give up climbing; the older climbers I saw in Fontainebleau have left too much of an impression on me. It just feels so nice and relaxing the way climbing enables the body to move.”
When asked to reveal her training secrets, she replies, “I asked a super-strong climber that question recently while climbing in Hueco. He told me, ‘Pidgeon, strong climbers will never tell you their secrets’ (she laughs). Honestly, I just try to climb as much as I can. I try to climb in different areas and in the winter, I climb in the gym as well.” Recently, with advice from Andrew Wilson, she’s begun cross-training at a fitness gym in order to build up her strength. For both health and environmental reasons, Pidgeon says, “I try to eat local. I eat a lot of whole foods like brown rice, oatmeal, and vegetables. I’m not a vegetarian but I don’t eat beef. I also make a lot of food from scratch.” She’s sponsored by Vega, a whole food company specializing in whole fruit bars, energy drinks and protein shakes.
When she’s not trying to climb hard, Pidgeon likes to play around on her favourite problems in Squamish such as Viper, Stu’s Slopers Problem, Sesame Street, or Worm World Cave Low. She’s more comfortable on a rope these days, so when she gets the opportunity she also likes to head up Angels Crest or the Grand Wall. This summer she’s planning to shift some of her attention away from bouldering and into sending some hard routes in Squamish. Her ultimate project this summer is to send Dreamcatcher (5.14d) on the Cacodemon Boulder which was first sent by Chris Sharma. With what she’s accomplished in the last year, it’s a feat that seems to be only a matter of time.
Meghan Jones is a climber and writer based in Squamish.