Climber’s Perspective: Raanan Robertson

When I first started climbing I had the pleasure of meeting Raanan Robertson. He quickly became a hero to me in the climbing world, by starting the Texas Rock Climbing team. Below is an excerpt of my interview with him from last week, where we talk about how he started climbing, why he founded the team, and what makes a team successful.

Before you get to the interview, here’s what you need to know about Raanan:

  • He is one of the most polite, humble, genuine and encouraging people you will EVER meet in this world
  • He is a climbing beast
  • He is incredibly well spoken and (as you will see) well written–probably because he studied English at the greatest university on Earth–the University of Texas
  • He is currently involved in linguistics research
  • He has the hair of a greek god. Exhibit A:

GreekGod

Sarah: Okay, so first off, just tell me a little bit about how you got started rock climbing.

Raanan: Basically my dad and brothers and I used to go visit parks, campgrounds, and public spaces a lot when we were growing up. We would go out to Bull Creek and see people bouldering on the rocks in the pea gravel, and all decided it was something we wanted to try out. So we would go up and join them, and everyone was super welcoming and inviting. At this point I was around 6 years old.

Bull Creek was where we first met John Myrick (known to most as “Coach” Myrick), and he gave my brother his first pair of climbing shoes. The more we got into it, the more friends we acquired and the more we knew we liked it. My dad took it upon himself to learn proper rope technique etc. so that when he belayed his own kids, he knew exactly what safety precautions to take. He instilled the value of safety from the beginning, for which I am very grateful.

My first indoor gym experience was at Pseudo Rock way back when it was still around! They quickly gave way to Austin Rock Gym not long after I started climbing.

I’d say the welcoming community in the Austin climbing scene is what kept me going for so long.

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Raanan and Coach Myrick at CCS Nationals

Sarah: Nice! I rarely hear stories about people getting started outdoors, and even more rare is a family who all got in together. How did your outlook on climbing change as you grew up and got more into the sport?

Raanan: That’s a great question. I think at first, climbing was just something I did when I was with my dad (among other outdoor activities). There’s no doubt I loved it as a physical activity, and the fact that my family and friends encouraged me in my early years definitely kept me with it. But for a while we did it almost as a routine (every Wednesday I’d get picked up from elementary school, followed by my brothers, and we’d all go off to Bull Creek to climb). Like any pastime, you kind of phase in and out of interest as a kid. The passion didn’t really come till later, but again it felt good to be encouraged in it.

I stopped climbing regularly for a while as I moved to other things and family scheduling surrounding my parents’ divorce made weekend trips to the greenbelt less and less routine. Then when I was looking for things to keep me active in middle school, I turned to ARG’s PE waiver program. It was a way of getting physical ed credit by participating in a kind of gym-led rock climbing “class.”

At this point it still felt to me like climbing was a fringe sport because not a lot of people I knew were into it. In some ways that kind of added to its appeal — I could become good at something that not a lot of people knew about, which made it more interesting to talk about 🙂

Then in high school I had the idea of wanting to start a club, and climbing seemed like a great way to introduce something I knew about to other people who didn’t. There was a tremendous amount of interest at my high school. I would say this is where I really began to get passionate about climbing, and see it as more than just a recreational activity or even just something for exercise.

For me, climbing became about the community —  a group of people sharing common interests and enjoying the outdoors.

That lasted on through college, and while I’ve never had a real competitive spirit, I always enjoyed competitions because of the unique atmosphere they seemed to have compared to other sports comps I was aware of. Before anything else, I’ve always had the impression that climbers are there first for each other and for the community and sport, and only second for winning any medals or taking first in a category.

Those things are awesome too, and they have definitely taken the sport to new levels. But go to any climbing comp, and you’ll see a bunch of “competitors” giving each other beta and cheering each other on. That’s what I love about it!

So I’d say my view of climbing as a sport has matured in several ways over the years, and it has also come to mean different things for different people as the sport itself has grown. So long as people are passionate about it and enjoy it in their own way, climbing will always hold that opportunity for people to come together.

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Sarah:  I think it’s really impressive that you started the club in high school. It seems like you’ve always had a firm grasp on the importance of community in climbing and helping to make each other better. I know that myself and many many many others have benefitted from that. When you started the Texas Rock Climbing team in college you helped to introduce countless newbies to climbing. Can you talk a little bit about your motivation in starting that group?

Raanan: Absolutely. I should start by saying that I was initially dubious of the proposition of starting an organization in college with everything else on my plate. It was my mom who really encouraged me in it — even my dad had the same hesitations I did when weighing work and school in the mix. But my mom had the foresight in knowing it was really important to me, and she convinced me to put in the paperwork and get it started, especially considering there wasn’t one yet.

The conversation first came up when I bumped into Coach Myrick at La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant here in town. He told us about the CCS (Collegiate Climbing Series) he had started a year before, whose pilot regional championship had been held at Baylor in its first year. He told me I should start a team at UT since the last one had been unsuccessful, and that’s when I first started turning the idea in my head. I’m glad my mom finally gave me the push on that! As it turned out, some papers were already turned in for a climbing club by another UT freshman, Adrian Resendez, so I approached him about it and we worked together for a short while to pull a club together and advertise it.

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Raanan and the first group of officers hosting their very first climbing competition–Texas Flexes (which just celebrated its 4th year)

Sarah: I remember, when I first joined your club that you really emphasized giving everyone access to climbing. The dues were $5, so that money wasn’t an issue for anyone. And I remember how that you made the officers teach a knot tying clinic and take new climbers outside a couple times per month. I think that kind of attitude is what makes the climbing community so great!

Raanan: Yeah I remember that, that’s awesome! I always wondered how useful or inviting those events were, but it’s definitely something I always wanted to emphasize. Climbing being more than just the gym or hard routes.

Sarah: Another thing I want to applaud you on, is how incredibly successful the team was. I know it’s taken a lot of turns since you have graduated, but it never lost any momentum. In conversations with other college climbing teams, I’ve come to realize how rare it is to find the kind of camaraderie and serious dedication to training that Texas Rock Climbing has. What factors do you think were key to creating such an awesome group?

Raanan: First of all, I’d say the team, what it is today, and how far it’s come in its new clothes as it were, owes entirely to Coach Myrick and that first set of officers who paved its path. I know we all worked really hard to set some basic features in place to carry on afterward. But it feels like an understatement to say that I couldn’t have done it without you, Cayce, Adam, Jacob, Killian, Renzo, Tyler, Ashley, Alek, and Myrick. And eventually Will and Danny when they entered on the scene and took up the baton. What I really mean to say is, all you guys, combined with Myrick’s awesome training regimen and psych, put UT at the top of the charts and made the team so successful. In all honesty I had the passion for the sport but I was never so driven in the competition arena, and it took some dedicated people who were willing to push their friends and push themselves to make a great team. The fact that we had so many freshmen stick around to become better climbers, officers, and team cheerleaders made all the difference.

It helped that there were some key athletes there to inspire freshmen and sophomores and show them what was possible. But you can have a really solid core group of climbers who still don’t show the same encouragement or group spirit for others, so I’d say that’s what we had to our advantage.

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Raanan and the UT team winning CCS Nationals in Boston. 2012. (the smallest group ever sent to nationals by UT)

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UT carries on the tradition, winning it’s 3rd national championship in 2014, this time sending 25 people to compete. 

Sarah: Yes, I would have to agree that we have had the tremendous luck of meeting some truly dedicated people. What advice would you give you other climbers who want to start or improve their climbing club or team?

Raanan: Two things come to mind. The first is that every club and team is going to be slightly different, and every group of people is going to want something a little different out of an organization like that. So I’d say set out a clear vision for what you want your group to be about. Is it about training for comps? Hanging out with friends? Giving back to the community? Putting up new routes, gaining access, maintaining trails, etc.? Get a feel for what the people in your group want, and use that as a core identity and focus. That way people can join it passionately — I’ve seen groups go under because the vision wasn’t entirely clear; half the group wanted one thing and the other half something else. You’re always going to have that tug and pull, but if you have something like a vision to go back to (like a focus on community) then it really serves everyone’s interests.

The second thing that comes to mind is keeping people engaged in multiple ways. Even if you choose to be a hardcore training team, find ways to get people outdoors semi-regularly, going to movie events, eating out, or spending time with each other in other ways. I’d also say tradition plays a huge role in team spirit and morale. We certainly had some of ours! I remember bbq and Chinese food stops on the way to comps with fondness!

Sarah: That’s great advice. I know I will never forget Christmas White Elephant parties every year.

Raanan: We had some fun White Elephant parties!

As far as training and getting really good as a team, I’d say embrace the newcomers and always look for enthusiasm over initial skill. Some people can be really good at climbing but not contribute much support to the team. Others can be complete novices, but be so enthusiastic about the group and the sport that they get good really quickly — those are the people to encourage,  and who perhaps stand to gain the most and contribute the most in the long run. Then of course you’ve got people who are both naturally skilled at climbing AND incredible team members — that never hurts 😉

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Raanan giving out some beta at the gym

Sarah: Okay. My final question: I think a lot of people know you for how much you give back to your community, but even before that, I just knew that you were a total beast of a climber–both competing and outdoors. Nowadays, I know you don’t manage to get out to the gym as often, but on our last trip to Hueco you still crushed as much as ever. How do you manage to be such a beast off the couch?!

Raanan: Hahaha. You’re being very generous by the way.

It’s a hard question to answer. If it’s a question about training, I’d say there’s a lot to be said for push ups and pull ups when you’re in one of your climbing “dry spells.” That’s something I do every now and then, and in my better phases I’ll establish a strict routine of both. Part of it may be that I was lucky in starting so young — some technique, and some strength, never leaves. But ultimately I still feel weak like everybody else after not climbing so long, and it’s always a reminder that I better get my ass in gear and climb out there more often!

Sarah: Well thanks so much for all the advice! You’re someone that I always looked up to when I was getting into climbing, and I’m sure that I was not the only one!

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