After onsighting Zion’s 10-pitch Moonlight Buttress 5.12c for his first hard multipitch trad route when he turned 20, Sam Stroh set his sights higher. The following year he attempted El Cap’s 35-pitch Freerider 5.12d/5.13a, but couldn’t do one pitch; the next season, he ticked it free in a day. All this before he was legally able to drink.
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Stroh had little interest in climbing, preferring instead to skateboard competitively, which he picked up at age 7. He also played various team sports and aspired to become a big mountain snowboarder. But a family trip to Taos, New Mexico, where his parents planned to move, he and his sister spent a day on the rocks with a local climbing guide, which inspired him to change direction.
Thirty kilometres outside Taos on a chossy crag above a mountain stream, Stroh worked his way up the lines under guide Jay Foley. On day one, Stroh was so excited after top-roping the sport and trad lines that he came back to learn even more. On his second day, he joined Jay at the top of the wall where he learned about anchor building and did mock leading, where he’d practice lead climbing with the security of a second rope from above.
Once back home in Houston, Stroh joined a gym and poured the Stroh level of intensity he showed on the rock as when he was on his skateboard. He liked how climbing required similar balance and hand-eye coordination, but when he was on the rock, he could feel the air swirl around below him, and being high off the ground gave him a sense of euphoria. After climbing all day, he’d spend the evenings reading climbing stories and studying the sport on YouTube.
Six months later, Stroh and his family moved from Houston to Taos and Stroh reconnected with Jay, who took him under his wing — he needed a partner, Stroh says — and the two became regular climbing partners. During this time, Jay introduced Stroh to the local bouldering co-op. Even though Stroh was only 17 at the time and the co-op required attendees to be at least 18, his friends let him in. Day after day, they’d train on the 20 foot by 20 foot space. “At first, I could barely do the V1 boulders, but I got a lot stronger within a few months,” he says. Stronger as in V5 and above, all within his first year of climbing. Before finishing high school, he ticked his first 5.13s.
After graduating, Stroh moved to Bend, Oregon, where he attended Oregon State University, home to Smith Rock, the birthplace of American sport climbing. Here he continued his way up the grades. But in March of 2020, Covid spread around the world, closing businesses and schools and forcing Stroh to move out of the school dorms. Once back in Taos, he sold his car and built out a Ram ProMaster van with his girlfriend. Soon the two took off on the road for a year, where he kept up with his studies while climbing full time.
His first stop was Ten Sleep Canyon, Wyoming, with its striking limestone walls where he ticked off his first 5.13c. He visited Rifle, Colorado, for more limestone sport but soon tired of it and headed to Moab in the Desert Southwest, where he had his first taste of trad at the sandstone crags on Potash Road. Here, armed with a single set of cams and the strength to clasp onto the smallest of holds, he set off with anticipation. His next stop was Indian Creek, where he geared up for the classics Incredible Hand Crack and Supercrack, where “I was epic-ing,” he says of leads where he held on for dear life and constantly fumbled gear placements. Hand jamming was foreign to him, but he held on anyway and kept coming back to the crags until he could muster his way up the harder grades. Within a few days, he picked up hand jamming, and in a month he was leading 5.12 finger cracks, which, with his budding technique, tore the skin off his fingers and bruised his bones.
Soon his friend Spencer Platt invited him to Zion to have a go at the uber-popular Moonlight Buttress, where “I expected to have my ass handed to me, but I onsighted it. Platt fell once when a hold broke, but otherwise he bone-crushed it.” Due to their inexperience, they wore a “huge” pack when following leads; they were weighted down on 5.12+ terrain.
From Zion, Stroh went to Las Vegas and ran into his future climbing partner, Adrian Vanoni while perusing the Kraft Boulders in Red Rock. “We were stoked,” Stroh says. “I’d never had a partner my age ask me to do a hard route.” Like Stroh, would spend his free time in his van studying routes and setting his eyes on the next big prize. Their first outing was the 5.13 roof crack Desert Gold in Red Rock, where they spent day one sussing out the beta before Stroh returned on day two to nab his redpoint, which marked his first 5.13 trad line.
As they drove to and from the crags, they’d listen to climbing podcasts. One that piqued their interest was The Nugget Climbing Podcast, where Mikey Shaefer explained the “fix and follow” method of climbing. Instead of belaying from above, the second (third, fourth, etc.) climbs via self-belay on a Micro Traxion or similar device(s). He dialed in his new system within a few pitches, and now uses the method exclusively for big wall free climbing. “I can’t even remember the last time I belayed from above,” he says.
Next up for the team was Red Rock’s Jet Stream, a six-pitch 5.13 known for its impeccable stone. Some leads took them more than one go to send, but each time they fell, they’d pull the rope and try again, dispensing the cruxes quickly before continuing up the wall. The route demanded 5.12 runout climbing, Stroh’s first taste, which he called “super heady.” Following this was 5.12+ climbing in a micro-nut width corner. Having never placed tiny brass and steel nuts before, Stroh had to learn on the fly, redpointing the terrain.
The two finished the route in the dark, where they navigated the final 5.12 by headlamp. “It was cool having a partner push me; I’d never had that before,” he says of Vanoni’s encouragement and positive support. Today the two are roommates in Bend, where Stroh is studying nursing at Central Oregon Community College, and Vanoni is attending Oregon State. “We’re always encouraging each other. I’m appreciative of what we have.”
After their success in Red Rock, the two set off to Joshua Tree and fired the splitter Equinox, 5.12c, first go, then ticked Asteroid Crack 5.13a. After a brief stint of bouldering in the Buttermilks on the Sierra Eastside, Stroh and Vanoni headed to El Cap and Freerider. Climbing ground up over five days for their first overnight wall, the two managed a mostly clean ascent, with Stroh ticking all the cruxes, including grueling 5.10 offwidth and sending multiple 5.12 leads. What stymied him was the “Scotty Burke” offwidth, a 5.10 flare merely a few pitches from the top. Hard trad was all he wanted to do.
On their next climb, Stroh and Will Sharp freed the Westie Face of Leaning Tower, 5.13a A0, ground up, which they fired over two days. Since Stroh balanced school full time while climbing, he prioritized his studies over social time. “I would get off the wall and do homework for three days and not hang out,” he says.
Four months later he returned to Yosemite. With his new system in hand and climbing alone, he rappelled the entirety of Freerider and stopped along the way down to work out the moves on the Scotty Burke section and revisit various cruxes as he passed them by. “I worked the Boulder Problem, stashed some water and did the Monster on a Mini Trax. I had sleeping stuff with me and food for the night, but it went much smoother than I thought, and I reached the ground at 10 p.m. Rapping El Cap alone — that was exciting, I’d never done anything like that before.”
Two days later and partnered with Graham Webb, Stroh returned to Freerider and led the route clean in 18:51, nabbing the youngest known free ascent of El Cap in a day. He was 20. Then he headed back to Indian Creek, and on the week, he turned 21, he flashed Learning to Fly 5.13b and sent Air Sweden 5.13R.
He has his sights on Leaning Tower’s hardest, Wet Lycra Nightmare, a 5.13d radically steep line with tips laybacking. He also wants to do El Cap’s Pineapple Express 5.13c, opened by Canadian Sonnie Trotter. He wants to do both lines with Vanoni. For Pineapple Express, Stroh and Vanoni are bringing their friend Tavish Hansen.
Today, Stroh remains dedicated to his studies as ever, but he’d also like to expand beyond the bubble-life of studying in his van when he’s on the road. Sometimes he finds it hard to stay motivated with school and he pivots over if he should take a break and focus full time on climbing.
“Getting more immersed in the climbing community would be cool,” he says. “And I’d like to have a relationship with a company. Being able to inspire your peers is a rad thing; I think it’s cool to feed off each other’s energy. When I’m not climbing, I always watch videos of Trotter and Will Stanhope, and Leo Houlding. If someday I can inspire someone in that way, that would be really cool.”