Most children dream of celebrating their birthday with a party, cake, and maybe some games. But Selah Schneiter of Glenwood Springs is not like most children. Instead of taking part in normal festivities, Selah spent her seventh birthday suspended hundreds of feet in the air alongside her dad, Mike Schneiter, climbing Otto’s Route, a sandstone rock tower in Grand Junction’s Independence Monument. When she reached the top, around 400 feet, her dad surprised her with a red velvet cupcake.
For Selah, her love of climbing was all uphill from there. On June 12, the 10-year-old became the youngest person to ascend the Nose route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which stands at almost 3,000 feet, in a five-day climb alongside her father and a family friend, Mark Regier.
El Capitan is an iconic, sheer granite feature that is too daunting for most climbers. Of those who do attempt it, only around 50 percent make it to the top. But Selah’s journey to the Nose wasn’t quick or easy. In order for her to complete such a feat, she had to learn the necessary skills to successfully and safely make it through the climb’s difficult 31 pitches, (a pitch is section of rock that can be climbed in a single rope length).
Luckily, Selah had an amazing mentor to help her out: her father, who is a professional climber and owner of Glenwood Climbing Guides. “As crazy as we might seem as parents for letting our kid climb El Cap, we are also still very safety conscious,” Mike says. In order for Mike and his wife, Joy, to feel comfortable with Selah embarking on the epic route, they had to spend many hours practicing tasks such as lead climbing, lead belaying, fixing a rope, lower outs, cleaning gear, and using a portaledge, which is essentially a makeshift ledge that allows a person to safely sleep on the side of a cliff.
The father-daughter duo began their training in their garage, where they (naturally) have a climbing wall. Once the snow began to melt and Selah became more confident, Mike took her out climbing across the Western Slope. Not only did they climb in Glenwood, they also visited the majestic routes around Independence Pass, and tackled difficult climbs in Rifle, where Mike bolted a 5.5-rated route called First Steps in 2013, so Selah could climb in the area when she was very young.
As they continued to climb, Selah grew more confident in her skills. But could she spend days up on the wall, eating, sleeping, and climbing? To find out, Mike took her to Unaweep Canyon, a hidden gem that weaves through western Colorado, about 30 minutes from Grand Junction. Mike calls the area the “Poor Man’s Yosemite,” because the steep, 600-foot granite cliff faces emulate the infamous valley’s walls. As Selah and Mike began their two-day journey from the bottom to the top of Unaweep, Mike says he thought to himself, “She has always been comfortable with exposure, but she might get to a point when exposure gets to her.” That never happened. After their overnight adventure, it seemed as though Selah might be ready to conquer El Cap.
While Mike prepared Selah for the climb, he also prepared himself. As a professional guide, he has long lived by the mantra that it is OK to turn around at any time. When Mike guides fourteener trips to places like Capitol Peak, Pyramid Peak, or Maroon Bells, he often sees people who have what he calls a “summit or die” mentality. In contrast, Mike practices conservatism, not taking anything for granted and having a healthy respect for the risk involved, especially with his daughter in tow. His thoughts naturally transferred to Selah, who says she was able to climb El Cap because she knew that if she ever got uncomfortable, they could always go down.
While on the Nose, there were moments when Selah says she thought about bailing, as many climbers do. “I feel like there were times where I just wanted to stop, set up the portaledge, and go to sleep,” she says. “And it was only nine in the morning.” As the days wore on, she would get tired from climbing for hours on end and carrying gear that most likely totaled a third of her weight.
But in the end, she says she never seriously leaned toward quitting. When asked what kept her going, she thoughtfully responded with, “My dad.” He was, and always has been, by her side, supporting her throughout her journey from Colorado to El Capitan.