University of Colorado… or University of Climbing?

Photo credit: Julian Olea

CTT Athlete Noelle Crowley recently applied to a short-list of universities for her academic masters program. In doing so, she factored in her desire for world-class rock climbing. Noelle’s story is below, as she migrates from her undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California, to her masters program at the University of Colorado.

Editor’s Note: Thank you, Noelle for taking the time to reflect on your climbing story, your accomplishments and sacrifices, and your recent life changes. Let us know if you need Colorado Front Range climbing beta or climbing partners!

Noelle: I was first introduced to climbing six years ago by my boyfriend, when he took me on our first date to his bouldering gym Arcadia Rock Climbing (ARC). Although my technique was terrible – my training as a pole vaulter and sprinter had given me a substantial amount of upper body strength, which I heavily relied on to drag the rest of my body up the wall – and I could not climb anything harder than V1, I loved rock climbing’s simplicity and functionality.

Whereas running was often painful, and pole vault could be technically frustrating, climbing felt instinctual and fun. Climbing in the bouldering gym reminded me of my childhood, swinging from the monkey bars and scaling beech and pine trees in Connecticut. I loved the variety of boulder problems, from burly movement on an overhang to delicate flow on a slab, and the various ways they could be solved. While my below average height was a handicap in pole vaulting, in climbing it could often be advantageous. Furthermore, climbing has been the vehicle that silences my often hypercritical and self-analytical mind. When I climb, my sole focus is on my movements in relation to the wall. Nothing else. It is like magic.

I was hooked after that first time bouldering. The next day, I went to REI and bought my first pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. I have been climbing ever since.

Noelle Crowley on Kauk Problem (V5), Tuolumne Meadows. Photo by Lynn Wang.

When I started climbing, I was a high school cross country and track and field athlete. As such for me rock climbing was initially more of a hobby, rather than my main sport. Some months I would not be able to climb at all, depending on the season, my competition schedule, and the intensity of my track practices. This initially made it difficult to progress much in my climbing, although I still enjoyed getting in the bouldering gym whenever possible, and occasionally exploring local outdoor climbing areas. When I first I climbed outdoors I was primarily an observer, since even the easiest climbs seemed too difficult or scary for me – I will admit I have an often debilitating fear of heights!

When I started my undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California (USC), I simultaneously joined USC’s climbing and marathon teams. Although I was now on a competitive climbing team, climbing continued to take the back burner. This was due to the time-intensive and exhaustive nature of marathon training, as well as the high-stress academic environment of being pre-health at USC. I casually competed that year in USA Climbing’s Collegiate Climbing Series, and reveled in the experience of climbing in new gyms and meeting climbers from different schools. My primary focus, however, was on running the LA Marathon, which I did in March of 2015. I ended up coming in ninth place for my age group, which opened up new doors on my newly found path of long distance running. After my performance in the LA Marathon, I made plans and had aspirations of running in the competitive New York City Marathon, as well my first ultramarathon.

Noelle Crowley on Kill By Numbers (V5), Joe’s Valley. Photo by Aaron Jurasevich.

The summer going into my sophomore year at USC, I decided to reexamine both my academic and athletic priorities. To be honest, I hated studying Human Biology – not only was the program incredibly competitive and stressful, but frankly I found cellular biology to be quite boring. I was far more interested in evolutionary biology and ecology. Athletically my body was having trouble fully recovering from the prolonged stress endured while long-distance running, and I was having difficulty staying motivated since finishing the marathon. I should mention, running eight to sixteen miles around USC’s campus was becoming monotonous and dull. Climbing was still the only sport that still inspired me as deeply as my initial joy when I discovered the sport. With this in mind, I made two very important decisions. The first was to switch my major from Human Biology to Environmental Studies. The second was to stop long distance running, and make climbing my primarily sport. These decisions radically altered the course of my life, and drastically improved my state of fulfillment and wellbeing.

Since then, climbing has been my athletic focus, as well as a way to structure my life. Now I cannot imagine my life without climbing in it. Whereas prior to sophomore year it was a miracle if I made it to the climbing gym twice a week (or two weeks in a row for that matter), I now aim to climb in the gym two to possibly four days per week. Within one year I went from climbing V2 in the gym to V4, and have since progressed to consistently climbing V6. Because of my background as a NASM-certified personal trainer, I have been co-captain of USC’s climbing team for the past two years, leading team practices and preparing the team for competition season which takes place in the spring. I have consistently placed in the top ten for local Southern California CCS competitions, something I never thought possible when I first began competing.

As I mentioned, for the most part I had been a spectator while on previous outdoor bouldering trips. I have now been on outdoor trips all over the country, from Southern California and Eastern Sierra rock climbing areas such as the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Black Mountain, Bishop, Tuolumne Meadows, to more distant bouldering destinations including Joe’s Valley in Utah, Leavenworth in Washington State, and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I have spent a considerable amount of my free-time living out of the back of my boyfriend’s truck (and my Subaru), in the pursuit of outdoor bouldering.

My biggest bouldering achievements thus far have been climbing Kill By Numbers (V5) in Joe’s Valley and Kauk Problem (V5) in Tuolumne Meadows. Climbing outside has been the source of some of my greatest memories and inspiration – not just those derived from physical achievement, but also by spending time with like-minded people in the outdoors, and being humbled and awed by sublime nature. I never could have predicted how much of an impact climbing would have on my life, or how many wonderful experiences and opportunities climbing has given me, such as being able to compete on Ninja Warrior College Madness with my USC climbing teammates, which was super fun! In short, climbing is not just my primary physical activity, but my social outlet, stress reliever, and source of inspiration.

From left to right: Noelle Crowley, Julian Olea, and Antonio Ayala. Photo by American Ninja Warrior.
Living out of the back of a truck. Photo by Aaron Jurasevich.

As large of a role that climbing plays in my life, it was extremely challenging to balance climbing with being a full-time STEM student at USC. While the past couple of years I have been much better about climbing in the gym and climbing outside whenever possible (especially this past year since I now have my own car), school has been my number one priority. I have always been academically driven, and I hold myself to high academic standards. Since my first day of undergrad, I knew graduate school would be in my future, and thus have done everything possible to ensure I would be a competitive applicant. In addition to graduating magna cum laude from USC this May, I received four fellowships for my independent research on harmful algal blooms, interned at various research institutions, and worked as a personal trainer and F45 instructor at USC’s fitness center. These activities have taken up a considerable amount of my “free” time, and during especially busy weeks, have resulted in me being unable to train or climb. While I derive my most meaningful experiences from being outside, it is obviously a commitment to drive from the concrete jungle of Los Angeles to more wild settings, and I have been unable to get outdoors as much as I would like. I don’t regret spending my time in undergrad this way, since I have had incredible and valuable intellectual and professional experiences, but on their own have not provided me with the meaning and fulfillment I desire.

Noelle Crowley performing substrate surveys in Palau. Photo by Tom Carr.

This past autumn while choosing universities where I would apply for my master’s degree, I reflected about my last four years. I am proud of what I have accomplished academically, but it has come at a cost. In my pursuit of academic success, I had to put aside the experiences I find most meaningful – being in nature, climbing, connecting with others (and animals), and my relationship with my boyfriend, which has been long distance since he went to undergrad in Seattle. I am thankful for the opportunities, which attending USC afforded me, but knew I did not want to continue there with my master’s. I have had enough of the blaring sirens from the fire station around the corner from my house, cars racing down my street at 2AM, and the grime and cacophony known as Los Angeles. I needed to get out of LA. For the first time ever, I wanted to prioritize climbing, and choosing a school that would enable me to climb more was the first step.

I have been to Boulder, Colorado a few times over the past four years and, like my first time climbing at Arcadia Rock Climbing, had instantly fallen in love. Not only is Boulder absolutely gorgeous, it also has one of the largest climbing communities in the world. I remember driving through Boulder on my first summer bouldering trip to Colorado, and being blown away by just how many fit people were walking on the street. Part of what attracts so many outdoor athletes to Boulder is the opportunities for various recreational sports. Boulder is home to professional climbers, bikers, long-distance runners, and skiers, to name a few categories. The Flat Irons themselves contain miles of hiking and biking trails, bouldering, and sport climbing. Not to mention just minutes away are Boulder Canyon and Eldorado Canyon, which are premiere sport climbing and trad climbing areas, and a bit further are stellar bouldering destinations such as Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes, and Mt. Evans. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to live. Ever since that first trip there in the summer of 2015, I knew Boulder was where I wanted to be.

Noelle Crowley on The Goose (V4), Moe’s Valley. Photo by Aaron Jurasevich.

At the end of February I was delighted to find out that I was accepted into CU Boulder’s environmental studies masters program, where I will specialize in sustainability planning and management. It has been gratifying to see my hard work in undergrad pay off, and that it has culminated in being able to move to my dream city and pursue my master’s degree in a subject I am passionate about. CUB’s program is an accelerated degree, and I plan to condense a two-year academic load into a year and a half. Therefore I must manage my time as I have in undergrad. However, since I will forgo having to do additional research, internships, or personal training clients (in addition to my studies), I intend to use this free time to focus on climbing and training for climbing. An additional plus is that my master’s program classes only meet Monday through Thursday. So, for the first time ever, I will have Fridays off! This ensures I will never have an excuse to skip day trips, especially when exceptional climbing exists on the Front Range.

While there are many reasons to be excited about moving to Boulder and starting my master’s program, one of the biggest reasons is the chance to surround myself with like-minded people. In particular, I would like to find a crew of women I can train and climb outside with. Although there are plenty of strong female climbers in Southern California and on USC’s climbing team, it has nonetheless been difficult to find other women I can consistently climb with, especially considering how crazy college student’s schedules are. I have had many climbing partners throughout my time at USC, but most have been men, and many have graduated before me. Over the past couple of years, I have primarily climbed by myself, which has been important for me to figure out my own style and technique, but has prevented me from really getting into sport climbing, or refining beta. When in Boulder, where there is a larger concentration of climbers, I hope to find a community of strong women I can learn from, work beta with, and help push me to train harder and more often. I believe that being encircled by a closely knit group of capable and strong women will motivate and inspire me, and help make me a better climber.

At the end of June I will pack up my Subaru with my two cats and house plants, and make my move to Colorado. There I will move in with my boyfriend (finally, no more long distance!). Shortly thereafter I will be the mom of a mini Australian Shepherd puppy, which has also been a three year dream in the making. I plan on taking full advantage of alpine season in the Front Range before my master’s program starts at the beginning of August, bouldering in Mt. Evans with the pup, and checking out some of the more local bouldering on Flagstaff Mountain. I also want to explore and experience some of the places I have not yet visited, such as spicy trad climbing in Eldorado Canyon, sport climbing in Boulder Canyon, and taking a drive down to Shelf Road. There are still many aspects of my move that I have yet to figure out, such as where exactly I will live in Boulder, which gym to climb at, and other facets of relocating. Amongst all the thrilling changes in my future, it has been important to remain present in my reality of being a senior at USC, and preparing for the upcoming regional and national competitions for USA Climbing’s Collegiate Climbing Series. Nevertheless, I am extremely excited about my future in Colorado, which I have dreamed about for several years. I look forward to becoming part of the Boulder community, and hopefully surrounding myself with amazing athletes and role models. I cannot wait to see what is next!

The Buttermilks of Bishop, CA. Photo by Louven Reyes.
Icicle Creek Road, Leavenworth. Photo by Aaron Jurasevich.