Grit, Passion, and Steady Progression with Scott Pagel

Grit, Passion, and Steady Progression with Scott Pagel

“This is the moment where a person is actually ready and willing to change their life.”

Tim Ferriss, on Harajuku moments

There are certain routes that incite a Harajuku moment for people. If you are unfamiliar, a Harajuku moment is a term coined by Tim Ferriss in his book The Four Hour Body. The term came about from Chad Fowler’s sudden realization that he needed to lose weight while sitting on a wall in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. After this moment, he went on to lose 100 pounds. He made big life changes and stuck to them, yielding great results.

Years apart, without knowing each other, Scott Pagel and I had Harajuku moments of our own. We each separately were smacked down off of a particular 5.10d in the Red River Gorge. Defeat on Tesseract inspired a Harajuku moment for both of us. After which, we each retreated to our respective metaphorical bunkers, and started training.

Though the feats of pro athletes are certainly inspiriting, there’s something about weekend warriors crushing goals that gets me more excited. Scott has a full time job running his own IT consulting company, runs a non-profit organization, and still manages to progress in this sport we love so much. He didn’t start climbing on a competitive team when he was five, he started in his early twenties. Despite being a relatively “normal” person with typical responsibilities like you and me, Scott has made leaps and bounds in his climbing in a relatively short amount of time. In spring of 2016, he could barely get up Tesseract. By the fall of 2019, he ticked four 5.13s. This might seem like magic to some, but it is not. Scott trains diligently and it is paying off dividends.

It’s easy to look at a single season of breaking into 5.13 and v10 and thinking, “that’s it, that’s the pay off.” In a time where we’re being told to set “big, hairy, audacious goals” we rarely pause to celebrate things like, “I just did my ninth 5.12!” or “What would me from three years ago think if they could see where I’m at now?”, but that’s exactly what Scott did.

Coach Nate Drolet on Scott’s progression

So what happened between the Harajuku moment and now? Let’s start with Scott’s first 5.12.

Simple, not easy

Scott’s showdown on Tesseract happened in the Spring of 2016. By the Fall, Scott ticked his first 5.12. But how did he do it? The answer is simple. He got a training plan and he followed it. Simple, but not easy.

“I’m going to get a Power Company plan – the climb 5.12 PDF. I followed it to the letter.”

Scott reflects on his first step in the right direction

Between the spring and the fall, Scott followed the Power Company Climb 5.12 plan. And his efforts paid off. That fall he sent Magnum Opus, 5.12a. He followed that up a few weeks later with Naked Lunch. Later that season, in a single weekend in the Red he sent not one but two 5.12as in a day: Twinkie and Nicorette.

Scott hanging draws on a trip to the Red River Gorge

Slow and steady

As climbers, especially in the beginning of our climbing careers, we can sometimes get hung up on grades. We get this idea that after we’ve done however many 5.12a routes we should be able to send 5.12b, then 5.12c, and so on. We become entitled to improvement. So I was excited to talk to Scott about his progression throughout the years. He certainly had breakout success in 2016, but what did it look like after that? Here’s a timeline.

Though the progress is steady. If you look at a few of those years, there were periods of time where Scott’s redpoint went up by 1-2 letter grades. Like Nate Drolet said, it can be really hard to stay psyched about your 9th or 10th 5.12a. Improvement won’t always look like a new redpoint grade. Sometimes improvement looks like sending your hardest redpoint faster, or being able to do more harder climbs in a day.

Feeling defeated when your redpoint is not increasing is a good way to get burnt out. Fortunately, Scott kept chipping away, and continued putting down route after route, steadily progressing to his successful Fall season.

Come back king

The ride to 8a hasn’t been completely smooth for Scott. In fall of 2018, Scott injured his shoulder while training in the gym, separating his AC joint. I asked him how his morale was throughout the recovery process which was interesting to me since I’m going through an injury of my own right now. I identified with Scott’s feelings. It is natural to feel discouraged when you put so much work into improvement.

“Coming back has been a long progress, believe it or not.  I still get pain in that shoulder, but I work hard to keep it improving.  My morale has been up and down about it over time.  I tend to get a little defeatist when I’m injured and will see doom and gloom…. Crushing 13’s has been unreal, and I owe it to years of dedication, a shit ton of hard work and a team of people who kick ass (Create Your Own Finish Line and Power Company Climbing mainly).”

I appreciate Scott’s candidness, it made me feel better about my own morale issues while I’ve been injured. Fortunately, Scott came back stronger than ever. I asked him how his training progressed throughout the years.

scott pagel hangboard
Scott on the hangboard.

With great power comes more specificity

When Scott and I started talking training for 5.13, he remarked on the overall change in strategy.

“My training got a lot more specific in the spring through the summer. It got a lot more strength oriented and there was a lot more hangboarding. I started working with a fitness trainer. The trainer remarked ‘You’re insanely strong, we just need to figure out how to let your brain express it’. The [climbing] drills got more specific and more intentional.”

Scott’s training became specific to his goal routes. He also transitioned from the more general training plans to working one on one with coach Kris Hampton. Here Scott recalls a near-send on his former project, Table of Colors 5.13b, in the Red River Gorge.

“There is a direct start to table of colors which makes it 5.13b. It makes it like a long V6. I fell with my hand in the jug on the second crux – it was heartbreaking. Kris compared my footage of me vs. Margo Hayes. His point was essentially that Margo had climbed in a particular speed with a particular sort of pacing and rest. When I climbed, I was resting too much. In resting too much, I was actually not giving myself the opportunity to potentially climb faster and use the power that I had. His point was that I needed to try to learn to go faster. Kris developed a drill for me called “I am bolt”. The idea behind the drill is climb 5 boulder problems back to back. Do it at the edge of control, speed up until control is almost lost. It requires a lot of self-awareness. The point is that you’re supposed to get faster, but not just for the sake of getting faster. We also want to get a deeper understanding when I should and when I shouldn’t stop to shake.”

As he progressed from 5.12 to 5.13, Scott’s training became a lot more nuanced.

Scott, busy man that he is, was speaking to me in between interacting with clients. He’s been running his business for just over three years. I asked him about how he came about becoming a business owner, which started with an unfortunate event in 2018.

scott pagel kris hampton
Scott tying in, ready for coach, Kris Hampton to give him a catch.

Pivoting in crisis

Before starting his IT consulting business, Scott had a more traditional 9 to 5 – a really great gig, as a matter of fact.

“I will never forget. I had gotten the software engineer job of my dreams. In 2017 they brought me onboard, I was so excited. This is about the time I launched my business, I did it on the side. Then in May of 2018, I was laid off. They had a 4% layoff across the board, which obviously sucked for so many reasons. It really was a dream gig for me. I got to work from home full time. When I got laid off, I was devastated. So I went out West – 10 days and I just went west because it felt like the thing that I needed to do.”

Time away from it all gave Scott some time to think, especially when he was on the wall.

“I was lowering off of a route called ‘Killer Cave’ in Sinks Canyon. The sun was going down over the western range, I’m in this cave. I just thought ‘this is it, I have to be able to do this. I have to be able to rock climb and be out here. I think the only way I can do this, is if I run my business.’ At the time, I had a couple of opportunities that looked like they might be able to carry me through the September/October time frame. I had one last interview with a software company and it fell through. Everything kindof crumbled. It was like the world or the universe of God or whatever you believe in…. gave me all these green lights. So I said OK, let’s go!”

And with that, the 9 to 5 was no more. Scott became an entrepreneur. As someone who has recently assumed the position of business owner and operator, I wanted to learn a little bit more about the ins and outs of running a business as a climber.

Making it work

Within a few technological constraints, Scott can run his business from pretty much anywhere. He has customers all over the US from Cincinnati to Texas. “I’m all over the map.” He reflects on what he has to do to keep things running while he travels.

“The tricky part is making sure I have access to what I need and that I can be on site. My goal with most of my customers is to get them to a place where they basically put me on retainer and I just keep track of those hours and say ‘hey, here’s that time.’ If I can get 4 or 5 customers that put me on between two and 5 days a month, that’s a good life. My goal is to work 30 hours a week, make somewhere in the 6 figure range, and rock climb a lot. I let my customers know ‘if you need me call me’.

Scott notes that when he started this endeavor, he did not quite know what he was getting himself into.

Was I idealistic, yes? But I’m the type of person that when I set a goal, I’m gonna get that goal.”

Own your business, own your time

We talked a little more about creating a lifestyle around entrepreneurship and climbing.

“I want to be someone who hasn’t neglected the future, but hasn’t forgotten to live now.”

Scott Pagel

Scott and I talked about what it’s like for milennials who don’t necessarily want to follow a traditional path in life, but don’t want to sacrifice financial security.

“It’s a tricky thing for people in our generation because we want to live now. We were told ‘go get a degree so you don’t have to flip burgers’. We’ve been handed a shit show compared to our parents or our grandparents.”

Hearing Scott tell his story about how he went out on a limb when he started his own business inspired me. Upon graduating from college myself I was a little depressed. The degree I’d worked so hard for seemed to lead me down a path of good money, unhealthy amounts of stress, little freedom to do the things I loved, and not enough time to see the people I care about.

I was pretty excited to talk to Scott. He is a great example of what you can do when you stop accepting a life that isn’t everything you want it to be.

Scott’s ambitions transcend business. He also runs a non-profit, The Climbing Initiative.

About the Climbing Initiative

Although climbing outdoors is one of my favorite ways to spend my time, I know relatively little about the overall impact that developing a climbing area has on the local economy and the environment. Fortunately for me – and the rest of us, The Climbing Initiative is working to change that.

The Climbing Initiative is expanding the body of knowledge about the growth of climbing and its economic, social, and environmental impacts around the globe. This includes case studies on the challenges and opportunities currently facing climbing communities and reports that share lessons learned in different locations.

Thus far, Scott and the Initiative’s crack team of experts have conducted case studies in Palestine, Kalymnos, and most recently North Macedonia. There’s another one upcoming in Slovenia.

Scott enjoying a cup of joe on a chilly day outdoors.

On climbing 5.14

Scott’s apetite for big goals does not stop with his professional pursuits. He’s got big climbing dreams as well, and I would be surprised if they didn’t get done. Scott recalls a promise he made to himself on his 30th birthday.

“I’m going to climb 5.14 by the time I’m 40.”

With his latest ticks coming in at 5.13b, and a few more years to go, the odds are looking good for Scott Pagel.

Parting thoughts

Overall, Scott is “Super psyched about the climbing initiative.”

He reflects on his work with his Climbing Initiative Colleagues “I think what we’re doing is monumental. We’re researching climbing like no one else is and connecting people like no one else is.”

Where you can find Scott

Instagram: @scott_pagel, @theclimbinginitiative


How are you able to manage the work-climb balance? Are you able to find a happy medium? Let me know down in the comments!

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