“Climbing is a subjective experience, and you can always find new challenges… In that sense, the experience is very similar, regardless if you are a 5.6 climber or a 5.14 climber. And if the challenge takes you right to your limit, then it’s exactly the same.” – Matt Wilder
Matt Wilder blames it on the shoes. “I had just gotten my first pair of Miuras, which was the first technical shoe I ever had,” he says, recalling one of his first big adventures at the crag. “They felt so amazing on my feet that I had to try them out.” Wilder wandered out to his local climbing area, planning on just bouldering around the base of the eighty-foot cliff to test his new footwear. Soon, however, he found himself starting up a 5.8 climb, with the intention of down-climbing once he reached a comfortable height. “I can’t remember why, but I didn’t have any chalk with me that day... Emboldened by the feel of the new shoes, I decided to keep going. As I got near the top, the climb became quite dirty and slippery. Without chalk, the holds felt terrible and I began to be a bit concerned. I pushed on through and made it to the top, but this experience gave me lots of perspective on the role of danger in my climbing.”
Raised in the flatlands of suburban Connecticut, Wilder credits his family with introducing him to the outdoors. “My dad, my brother and I used to go on camping and hiking trips. I was involved with outdoor activities through my summer camp as well and those eventually led to my first climbing experiences”, he says. “My brother and I were psyched to do our first ever trad lead: Three Pines, a 3 pitch 5.3 route [at the Gunks]. Equipped with nuts and hexes and two tri-cams, though not proficient in their use, we headed up to the wall. The climb took a good portion of the day and I still remember being scared following the ‘cruxy’ 3rd pitch!” Wilder went on to attend Middlebury College in Vermont, author a guidebook to Hueco Tanks, and help push free-climbing standards in Yosemite Valley.
Today, sixteen years after he first tied into a climbing rope, the same curiosity to explore both physical and mental boundaries that inspired Matt’s first vertical adventures still propels him forward– most recently his focus has turned to highball bouldering and cutting-edge gear-protected climbs. Now residing in Boulder, Colorado, Wilder is a ph.D candidate in Computer Science – but one of his favorite activities is still to wander through the boulders and crags alone, in search of new challenges.
You shared some of your first real climbing experiences with your older brother Andrew. How important was it to have a like-minded partner to share those early adventures with?
My brother was a huge factor in my development as a climber. Sharing it together, there was an element of competitiveness, an extra drive to learn more, and improve our technique. For the first four or so years, he was my main climbing partner, and we were about at the same level – we were constantly getting better, but neither of us surpassed each other. And, you know, on the flip side, I can say how my relationship with my brother improved my climbing, but I can also say climbing improved my relationship with my brother.
Was there one turning point when you discovered your true potential as free-climber? What did it take to realize that potential?
There wasn’t moment when I was like – holy-shit! – I can climb well. But as I grew as a climber, my circle of people I was climbing with grew, and I started realizing I was always one of the strongest guys in the group. At first, I didn’t climb with many people so I didn’t have much context. In college, I started traveling around, I did my first trips to Hueco and to the Valley [Yosemite Valley]. The more people I climbed with the more I realized I was capable of climbing as well as anyone.
It took you three seasons to complete the first free ascent of the South Face of Washington Column (5.14a), and I know you’ve spent even more time working some of the free lines on El Cap. What kind of mindset does it take to lock horns with such involved projects, knowing that success may well be years away?
You know, before Washington’s Column, I had done a few first ascents here and there, but I assumed all the best lines had already been done. When I started working the South Face [of Washington Column], I realized there were still classic lines out there waiting to be done, and I might be capable of doing them first. That was huge!
For me, I’m motivated by the question of whether or not something can be done, and the exploration involved in figuring that out. You look at a line on El Cap, you have no clue if it can be climbed or not. You get up there, you start rappelling, put your head six inches from the rock looking for the smallest footholds. You just spend hours, days up there. That process is more fun, more rewarding for me then the final send. When you do a hard sequence for the first time, it’s pretty special. On the books, my El Cap record isn’t good, but I’ve found a lot of satisfaction.
Care to offer any thoughts on your training philosophy?
One thing that I’ve found that’s really important in climbing is motivation. That short term feeling of being out underneath a climb, and being totally inspired to do it, that makes the biggest difference in how you are going to perform. And for me, if I were to train non-stop, I wouldn’t have the same level of inspiration to project. Everybody is different. But for me, I find that pure training isn’t the reason I climb, and it takes away from my general enjoyment of the sport.
What advice would you have for beginners who are just getting into the sport?
My view on climbing is that it is a recreational activity, a hobby, a way to challenge yourself, but also a way to have a pleasurable experience. I’ve always tried to make sure when I go climbing I’m having a good time. The point I’d like to make to beginning climbers: Always keep the quality of the experience the number one priority. For me I get enjoyment from pushing my limits, but one aspect of pushing that line is failure. You’re not challenging yourself if you don’t fail. But if, as a climber, you find yourself having a negative experience when you fail, that’s a problem.
What Mountain Hardwear gear is in your quiver for a typical day at the crag?
I really like the LS Belay shirt – comfortable, light, but warm. The Sub Zero Jacket can’t be beat for those cold weather bouldering sessions (everyone else at the boulder is always jealous). And the Piero Pant is my go to pant for climbing. It’s comfy, flexible, stylish, and durable.