Taming the ‘alligator’ routes with climber Kathy Karlo

There are realizations that many climbers share: The freedom of the open road is more rewarding than the confines of a cubicle, early morning light blazing into a tent is more life-giving than compact fluorescents and sharing the company of good friends while pursuing what you’re passionate about brings happiness.

That can be said about many outdoor sports, but to Kathy Karlo, it’s about visiting the world’s most famous “traditional” climbing areas. Traditional (or trad) means routes that are not bolt protected — as you would find at the lead walls in the gym — and require placing and removing your own protection (cams and nuts).

Well-known trad hotspots of this type include the Shawangunks (Gunks) in New York, Indian Creek, Utah, and South Platte, Colorado.

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That’s where Karlo finds her happiness.

Kathy Karlo jamming wide cracks in South Platte, Colorado. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Ziechmann

Her specialty is crawling up crack routes that are wider than her hands and fists, but (generally) too narrow to wiggle her 5-foot frame into.

These wide cracks, or offwidths, are known for gashing the skin off your ankles, wrists and arms as you thrash around to make upward progress. Ascending offwidths can be compared to alligator wrestling: It’s a full-body workout so intense it’ll make the uninitiated ill from overexertion.

It requires stacking your hands, wedging elbows and knees in the crack and worming your way upward — or even getting inverted and climbing with your feet over your head.

A post shared by Kathy Karlo (@inheadlights) on

Add in abrasion burns, intense fear and a super-specialized technique, and it’s no wonder that climbing offwidths is an activity pursued by only a select few. Though Karlo is not a pioneer in the sport of wide-crack climbing, she has a unique passion for it.

“I don’t think doing offwidths requires being crazy and wild and enjoying pain,” Karlo tells GrindTV. “I’m the biggest baby I know and I don’t like painful things. Like a lot of offwidth climbers, I enjoy a different type of challenge.”

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Raised in New Jersey until age 18, Karlo lived in Brooklyn for five years, working at a gear shop and as a nanny before hitting the road for a year in 2015 in her Honda CRV and settling down in Boulder, Colorado. There she’s found the balance required to work enough to sustain her climbing lifestyle, but not so much that she’s bogged down and unable to travel. She also maintains her blog, For the Love of Climbing.

On March 12, Karlo completed For Turkeys Only at the granite mecca area of South Platte, located south of Denver. Mountain Project describes it as “one of the hardest offwidths out there … Don’t forget the barf bag.” The 80-foot-long, 5-inch-wide overhanging crack took her three attempts over three days to complete. She got it after consuming “just the right amount of coffee: three cups,” she says.

“I’m sure she worked hard to do it,” the route’s first ascensionist, Jimmie Dunn, 68, tells GrindTV. “I know other super-strong climbers that have been unable to do it. I’m psyched for her.”

“The only way I could do it was upside down,” Dunn continues. “That was in 1974. I remember feeling my toes bending backwards in my climbing shoes and it felt like they were breaking. I gave it the rating ‘F’in Hard.'”

Today the climb is rated 5.11d.

Karlo making a rare ascent of For Turkeys Only in South Platte, Colorado. Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Ziechmann

Karlo believes success on offwidths is just as much about employing proper technique as it is about persevering through discomfort and mental fatigue. “You always feel like you want to give up. A lot of what is required is working through the mental barrier,” she explains.

“[Offwidths] hurt, so get kneepads and elbow pads.”

After her ascent of For Turkeys Only, Karlo spent the week of April 16 in New York City speaking on a panel for the hiking and adventure guide service Discover Outdoors, sharing how being a female outdoor enthusiast has shaped her identity. Later that month, the women’s adventure film organization No Man’s Land hired her on as their event coordinator.

Karlo recently decided to trade the west for the east and move back to New York City to live with her boyfriend. But she doesn’t plan to cut back on her climbing; she’ll be within driving distance of the historic trad areas of the Gunks and Adirondacks, happily chasing gators.

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