From Computer Scientist to Rock Climbing Powerhouse

An Interview with Szu-ting Yi

As part of our ongoing partnership with The Mountain Guides, we had the opportunity to participate in women’s rock climbing clinics this spring. My first clinic took place at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just outside of Las Vegas. While I had taken several private and semi-private classes with The Mountain Guides previously, this would be my first group climb, and I was a bit nervous going into it. How would my ability measure up? Would everyone already know each other? Would I have enough stamina for two days? I felt a bit intimidated, but also excited to push myself into the unknowns.

Our first day was super windy. Apparently that’s not unusual for that time of year, but it sure added an extra layer of challenge. It required a bit more caution, and I had to shout much louder for my belayer to hear me! We were all pretty reserved that day, trying to stay warm and safe and still getting to know each other. But day two provided for much better weather conditions, allowing for us to relax and enjoy the experience more fully. It was during our lunch that day, that one of the members in our group asked our two guides, Miranda Oakley and Szu-ting Yi (who also goes by Ting Ting), to tell us their stories — about how they got into climbing and guiding and what their experiences had been in the profession as women. The stories that then unfolded became my favorite part of the weekend. Miranda spoke about learning in a gym and the support that her mother gave her. On the flip side, Ting Ting spoke about how she moved to the States from Taiwan to get her PhD in Computer Science, only to find her way into climbing, at which point her mother disowned her. Ting Ting spoke with such humor and authenticity that she drew me in, and I just had to learn more. Lucky for all of us, I was able to score the following interview with her.

I remember your story about how you got into rock climbing while studying for your Computer Science degree, but can you please tell the story again?

I was getting my PhD degree in Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania. When I was studying there, I started to venture outside and experience different outdoor activities — such as skiing, white water kayaking, backpacking, etc., and in 2006 I followed a multi-pitch trad route led by a friend I met in a local climbing gym. It was an eye-opening experience, because it made me see climbing in a new light, based on my academic background. I was so impressed by the way that cams and nuts got placed, reclaimed and reused; it reminded me of programming languages, which consist of a finite set of rules that can solve an infinite number of problems. I realized that my own imagination is my limit.

I also remember that you said that you got into guiding, because you didn’t want to have to rely on your now-husband. Can you please explain a bit about this motivation to become a guide?

I never thought I would become a guide. After I got into climbing, I taught rock climbing for various outdoor education programs; I enjoyed teaching but back then teaching rock climbing was one of the jobs I did so that I could keep traveling and climbing to hone my skills. My dream was to do alpine first ascents, and my husband was my mentor on the topic. He took good care of me and let me lead during our expeditions; however I wanted a way to prove that I could pull off a remote expedition on my own and be confident that I would be an equal partner. So I started my AMGA route to become a certified rock guide. My reasoning was that if I passed the exam to prove that I could guide people, of course I would be competent in remote alpine terrain and it would enable me to shoulder more responsibility in our climbing partnership.

What excites you most about climbing?

One thing that I love about climbing is the freedom. When I was pursuing alpine first ascents, the mountains often seemed unapproachable from afar, but when I drew closer and stared longer, patterns began to appear. My mind would trace a long rift to a ledge, wander up a square corner, and hop onto a skyline crest until my body felt a strong urge to follow. It felt liberating to interpret a vertical landscape for myself without the influence of previous climbers’ ideas — simply by going out there and seeing what might happen.

What are some of the things that you have learned as a guide that surprised you?

I wasn’t sure whether I would love guiding after I dived into it full time. Turns out I really enjoyed it. I knew that guiding was never about “get paid to climb.” I envisioned that guiding was about nurturing people who wanted to learn new skills and helping people to achieve their objectives and have fun. However guiding was more than that; I loved talking with the people who I met in my line of work. They come from so many different backgrounds and places and have many interesting life stories. I really love this aspect about guiding — meeting new people and learning new perspectives.

What are some of the emotional and physical benefits that climbing offers?

There are so many!

But I guess the biggest one for me is that in order to keep progressing on my climbing, I really have to understand myself (both mind and body). I really have to know when to push myself and when to call it a day. I need to understand my body well in order to put my body in the optimal position that the rock demands. I have to pay attention to my lifestyle because no training can outdo a bad lifestyle, which means paying attention to my daily schedule to get enough and quality sleep, enjoy nutrition dense meals, etc.

Why is hydration important as a climber, and what are some of the aspects to hydration that are unique to the sport?

Hydration is super important, especially on a long route on a hot day. Climbing requires intense focus and demands a clear mind to make good decisions, to manage risks. When the body is not well hydrated, the mind can get cloudy which is very dangerous. I like to say that climbing is a judgment based activity, so keeping the brain functioning well is the most important thing.

What type of food do you crave most when climbing?

I used to bring energy bars on long climbs. However nowadays I try to bring more “real” food, for example, a sandwich. Eating real food just makes me happier, and if I am happier I perform better.

What are some of your climbing goals?

Figuring out a good balance between guiding and personal climbing. And at this phase in my climbing career, I’m focused on pushing the grade on single pitch climbs.

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In answering some of my questions, Ting Ting referenced several articles in the acclaimed Alpinist Magazine that she wrote on her climbing explorations, one about a first ascent in the Qionglai Mountains in China, and the other about her adventures in Wyoming. Through reading these, I had the fortune to learn even more about this strong woman with such a beautiful perspective on the natural world. Here are a couple of my favorite lines that capture Ting Ting’s essence -

In Chinese philosophy, everything consists of aspects of yin and yang; to strive for a balance is to achieve excellence. As I’ve entered shifting vertical mazes of geological features, natural hazards and weather patterns, I’ve sought that delicate equilibrium that harms neither the environment, nor myself.

I don’t want to die either, but I need to fail.” I grabbed Dave’s hands, and I spoke softly, “Thank you for looking out for me. Please help me to own my own decisions.”

I went into that Red Rock weekend expecting to feel a bit more confident as a climber, physically. And while I did achieve that goal, it doesn’t compare to what I gained emotionally by having the privilege of speaking with Ting Ting and being able to reap the benefits of her graceful and wild spirit. I will surely take that with me not only on my literal ascents to come, but on my figurative climbs as well.

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Elyse Sara is the Founder of Fat Leaf Water, a cactus-water based sports hydration beverage. She is based in Long Beach, CA and is about to embark on her first multi-pitch climb.

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