With thick sandpaper skin on the backs of her hands and fingers perpetually swollen from jamming Yosemite’s punishing cracks, it’s hard to believe that at one time Gena Wood was not a hard trad climber. But before moving to Yosemite seven years ago for a job, she’d never heard of the splitters that make Yosemite one of the most celebrated climbing areas in the world.
Over her tenure in the park, she’s upped her game from bumbling up easy trad and big walls beyond her ability. And her work has paid off. Her latest goals include redpointing Astroman at 1,100 feet and 5.11c. Back when it was freed in 1975, it was “the most continuously difficult free climb in the world,” wrote Steve Roper in SuperTopo: Yosemite Free Climbs. To date, she’s completed the route twice but hasn’t yet sent the 5.11 Changing Corners pitch on pitch 9. Her other goal is to redpoint the 5.13a 130-foot splitter, The Phoenix. These climbs ascend flawless stone with an epic backdrop. “When I saw these routes, I knew I had to climb them,” she says. These lines — steeped in history — inspire Wood to climb in Yosemite and call the park her home.
Wood was raised in the suburb of Elgin outside of Chicago, and at 18 moved to Tustin, California. While attending junior college, she started bouldering at Rock City gym (now closed). In 2009, when she was 19, she visited Joshua Tree for the first time, which also marked her first visit to a National Park. She and her friend Alix Morris came to boulder on the golden blocs, nap in the sun, and take in the desert landscape. Morris would later influence Gena to move to Yosemite and eventually join the Search and Rescue team.
Before her visit to Joshua Tree, Gena had never seen or heard of crack climbing and she’d only top roped at the gym. Shortly after arriving at the park, she saw teams leading classic cracks around Hidden Valley Campground and was confused. “I didn’t know that trad climbing existed,” she says. “I had no idea people were doing that.”
“Joshua Tree changed my life,” she says. “Seeing people enjoy the park opened my eyes to living a life outdoors.”
Morris, who had been taking regular trips to Yosemite, suggested Wood live and work in the park so the two could climb together. Taking her up on the suggestion, in 2014, the day after graduating from Humboldt State, where she studied environmental education, Wood moved to Yosemite.
During her first week there in May, her friend Jason from Humboldt led her up her first long mixed-sport and trad climb, the runout 5.7 and 2,000-foot Snake Dike on Half Dome. Because Jason had done the line before, the climb went smoothly and Wood reached the summit exhausted and stoked for her next adventure. Later that season, under the mentorship of her then-boyfriend Kai, she led her first trad climb, the slick, technical 5.9 entrance pitch on the Regular Route on Fairview Dome. During that hot day in Tuolumne Meadows, Wood found herself over her head and froze up at the crux that was positioned in a wet streak. Here “I blacked out,” she says. “I didn’t know if cams worked yet, and I was so gripped that I didn’t fall.”
Terrified but determined, Wood returned day after day to the crags to up her climbing game. Kai gifted Wood her first rope and later introduced her to big wall climbing.
For her first two seasons in the park, Wood guided tours and hikes and did graphic design for the interpretive division of the park’s concession. Her trips included astronomy programs, historic tours of the luxurious Ahwahnee hotel, and hosting evening programs. Her second job in Yosemite was for the National Park Service, where she manned the megaphone on the Green Dragon, a sightseeing bus holding upwards of 60 people.
Dressed in park service greens and donning a brown flat brim hat, she’d call out points of interest: “On your right, you’ll see El Capitan, climbers have been scaling this 3,000-foot rock since 1958, and today it contains over 100 different routes.” During winter when the Green Dragon was closed, she guided snowshoe hikes at the Badger Pass Ski Area. “I helped people develop a connection with the place,” she says, “which is what it’s about.”
Wood later joined the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team. “At first, I didn’t have interest in doing it, but my friends said they wanted to work with me,” she says. “I’d climbed El Cap with people who were (on the team) and they knew I could work under stressful situations.” After YOSAR Wood moved
By the end of 2019, after a season in Wyoming as a climbing ranger and her first season on YOSAR, “I got better, and my skills started to match my luck a bit.” Working on rescues showed her what can and does happen to climbers when things go wrong. During this time, she helped with carry-outs, technical rescues and body recoveries.
Her time on YOSAR made her reflect on her sketchy early years on the rock, including the terrifying leads that were over her head and following people up long routes that were beyond her at the time. She says she feels lucky that she didn’t end up injured or worse. “It could have been catastrophic. I feel like I got away with something.
At 5’1”, Wood calls herself “a member of team five-foot,” which includes her long-term climbing partner, Alexa Flower. The two bumbled their way up their first walls together, including the Nose. Today Flower, a former Yosemite Climbing Ranger and now a Bishop Climbing Ranger, climbs 5.13 and does big walls smoothly and efficiently. “Gena is one of those invariably driven people who can accomplish anything she puts her mind to,” says Flower. “We grew into big wall climbing together and it is inspiring to look back and see the storyline of how far she has come.”
To compensate for her short stature, Wood aims to focus on building finger strength by training on a campus board. She picked up that tip and others by reading climbing blogs and listening to podcasts, including Training Beta and Lattice Training. “I’ve realized that to climb harder I have to train.”
Today, seven years after calling Yosemite home, Wood climbs more than ever and balances that lifestyle with work as a seasonal Climbing Ranger. Starting in May and ending in November, she works alongside five seasonal climbing rangers and one permanent one, named Jesse McGahey. “He was my supervisor on YOSAR and my climbing mentor,” she says. Climbing Ranger’s duties include climbing patrols, trail maintenance, rescues, running the Ask a Climber program in El Cap Meadow and hosting climber coffee.
As a Climbing Ranger, she combines her background in park interpretation, leadership and strong skills on a rope. “I love the climbing community and the people I work with,” she says of her motivations to take the job, “and I love working in wilderness.”
Wood has tallied an impressive list of accomplishments in big wall climbing, trad and sport. She’s rope-soloed El Cap twice, first via the A4- The Shortest Straw in 2016, taking eight days. During that climb, she pushed herself out of her comfort zone, which she looks for when choosing a route. When the terrain demanded long stretches of hooking and expanding features, she led calmly and boldly. The complex ropework required to solo El Cap also pushed her to her limit. On that wall, she made mistakes that cost her falls, and once got her Gri Gri jammed into the haul line and had to cut herself free. She returned to El Cap alone two years later in 2018, now with 15 walls under her belt, to solo the A3/C3 Zodiac. In comparison to the horrors she faced on the Straw, this time, “It was super fun and super chill. It felt like a vacation wall.”
Her breakthrough free climb came last year. “That’s when I did Tales of Power (5.12b, 110’). I had never been so inspired by a rock climb before.” Located below Separate Reality and above the famed Cookie Cliff, Tales of Power is a tight-hands splitter positioned over a thousand feet of air.
This past season I climbed twice with Wood. First in winter, for her redpoint attempt on Astroman. That day with me she led most of the route as she cruised through her leads, saying half-heartedly that the Endurance Corner (5.11) was easy and the notorious Harding Slot (5.11) feels “super-solid” and is her favorite pitch. She only hung on the rope once, on the 5.11 Changing Corners pitch, which is face climbing protected by RPs and micro cams. She led the final rope length under pink skies as the sun crested behind El Cap. Here she negotiated runout 5.10 face, where balancy moves are protected by a half-way-sticking-out piton and small cams shoved behind an expanding flake. We topped out to snow-covered ground and descended by headlamp over frozen sand that crunched beneath our shoes.
Last week we climbed the four-pitch 5.11c Great Escape at Yosemite’s Chapel Wall. She arrived that morning with a giant gobie on the back of her hand, which she got two days earlier while jamming a 3.5-inch crack on 12b Mary’s Tears to the Crucifix on Higher Cathedral Rock. Her fingertips were raw. Despite being worn down from the earlier climb, that day on the Great Escape she only struggled once, at a short bouldery crux on pitch two; she straight-in-jammed the crux pitch 4, which I took several falls on.
After The Great Escape, she headed out to work on the Phoenix, the world’s first 5.13. When it was first done in 1977, it was “The line that cemented new tactics, new gear, and a new grade,” wrote James Lucas in Climbing Magazine.
“I do these routes because I have to try my absolute hardest,” she says.
To Wood, the incredible climbing in Yosemite is only half of what draws her here. She also loves the history of the routes and conversing with the first ascensionists, many of who still live in the park. “I love that I get to talk with Ron Kauk in Camp 4. I get to climb his routes and talk to him about them.”
She adds, “after you and I climbed The Great Escape, I messaged Dan McDevitt (the first ascensionist). Where else can you do that? I find that super inspiring about this place.”
This week she’s returning to Astroman for the redpoint. “I’m not even close to falling on the other pitches,” she says. “The Changing Corners is the only crux for me now.”