In this age of media hype, the term "world's best" is often overused. But Katie Brown is an obvious contender for the title of "world's best female sport climber." After only a few years in the sport, she has reset the standards and set a new benchmark for her peers. This diminutive 18-year-old climber has sealed her place among the elite, a group which includes the world renowned Lynn Hill and Robyn Erbesfield.
Brown started climbing at age 12, when her family moved from Denver, Colorado to Lexington, Kentucky. Instructors at Climb Time, a climbing gym in Lexington, quickly realized her talent and encouraged her to compete. In August of 1995, after several small junior competitions, she won the Junior Nationals for her age group. The following October, Brown took another age group title at the World Junior Championships in Laval, France, and since then, has won several top-level competitions, both World Cup and the famous Arco Invitational.
But she didn't leave the Southeast without a parting gift.
On April 11, Brown made her best ascent to date, on-sighting Omaha Beach, a route in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky. It was on her third consecutive day of climbing after having already done a couple of 5.13 routes when Bill Ramsey, who did the first ascent of the route, suggested she try it without cluing her into its difficulty. With little hesitation, Brown hopped on to give it a go.
"I just thought, well, since I'm tired, I might as well just try it and see how I go," she said. "And so I just started climbing it and the higher I got, the less I wanted to fall, like the more I wanted to do it. So I just got more and more determination as I went."
When she reached the signature move of the route, she found out why it's called Omaha Beach, "because it's such a struggle to get off it. It's like a big shelf that you kind of have to climb over." After puzzling out the moves, she did a dyno to overcome the gap a divergence from her characteristic smooth, static style. When she reached the top, she achieved something that no other woman has done, an on-sight ascent of a 5.13d. The rating of the route has since been confirmed by fellow Red River Gorge wunderkind David Hume, who recently did a very quick redpoint of Just Do It, 5.14c, in Oregon. Only two men, Swiss Elie Chevieux and Australian Garth Miller have on-sighted harder, both having sent 14a routes.
This year has been one of competitive ups and downs for Brown. At the Leipzig World Cup, she climbed off route and finished a disappointing seventh. She rebounded at the next World Cup in Besancon, where she topped an all-star field that included Muriel Sarkany and Elena Choumilova. At the X Games in July, her three-year winning streak was snapped by a switch in format from lead-route difficulty to bouldering. She was foiled by the long reaches and lack of intermediate features that are usually available on natural rock; she is not enthused about trying any more indoor bouldering comps.
Brown plans to take fall quarter off from school in order to return to Europe and spend as much time there as possible. Aside from competing in the World Cups in Italy, Slovenia, and England, she hoped to climb at Ceuse in France and several limestone crags in Spain. She and 19-year-old Beth Rodden, another up-and-coming US climber, will also compete in a unique team competition in Italy, where the duo will attempt to climb as many difficult routes as possible within a set time.
While she is currently focused on sport climbing and indoor competitions, Brown plans to try more crack climbing and long free routes and has already spent some time working on placing natural protection. "Right now I'm really focused on sport climbing, I think, and I'd like to get into trad climbing and doing multi-pitch free routes and stuff. I don't have any desire to aid-climb. But I see that being quite a ways down the road right now."
Whatever she decides to focus on in rock climbing, one thing is certain about how Katie Brown will do. With her focus and natural talent, she will continue to push the limits of the sport, and not just in comparison to other women, but in the sport as a whole.
Matt Stanley, MountainZone.com Staff