The Phenom Behind Smith Rock’s Hardest Route

Young gun Drew Ruana talks Olympics, his definition of success, and what he plans to do now that he’s got a driver’s license–and a bolt kit.

It takes a sharp eye to discover a new linkup at Smith Rock. Climbers have been bolting the tuff and basalt spires since 1983 when the area became host to the first sport climbs in North America, and lines that grizzled veterans have missed for 33 years are few and far between.

Enter Drew Ruana, the 17-year-old responsible for establishing Smith Rock’s newest—and hardest—route this February (The Assassin, 5.14d).

The Oregon native is back home after a summer of competing at Youth Nationals in Atlanta (where he notched third place for speed climbing and 10th for lead) and projecting in Ceuse, France, and we caught up from the Ruana’s light-filled kitchen. Drew’s father, Rudy, and coach and old family friend, Tyson Schoene, chat in the background, crossing between counters with coffee cups. These three trade jibes during the whole of our conversation. Drew, bright-eyed, wiry, and earnest, is a good sport about the banter, all smiles, but when he talks climbing, he gets serious. 

You once said the first time you went climbing you didn’t like it that much. When did it first start to click for you? 

The first time I really climbed I was seven. It was down at Smith Rock. There was this 5.7 called Dancer, and my dad said I could have the quick draws if I did it without falling. I did it, and then I liked climbing a little bit more after that.

When it really clicked, I was 10 I think. I did my first 5.13. That was Churning in the Wake also at Smith Rock. I was just climbing 5.11, and one of my coaches was down there with me, and he said, ‘I’m going to find a 5.13 you can do.’ I started trying it, and it was hard, but I realized, hey, I can do this. A couple tries later, I did it, and after that, I was super psyched on climbing, and that’s all I wanted to do.

Drew Ruana on Just Do It (5.14c) | Photo: Nate Gerhardt

What kind of mindset do you need to send really hard?

I have to know I can do the route. Recently when I was climbing in France, I was trying the route Biographie (A.K.A Realization, 5.15a). I one-falled it ten times. I physically could have done it, but for some reason, I didn’t think that I could. I’d get to the crux, not pumped, but I’d just fall. So for me to send routes outside I just really need to believe I can do it. It’s a matter of getting back on the route and seeing progression. It’s a matter of just staying psyched and trying again.

I used to get upset when I would climb [and fall], but I think it’s helped to just take a step back and try to stay happy and calm and focus on having fun.

Many of your most notable accomplishments have been outdoors. Do you prefer that over indoor climbing and the competition scene?

I like competing indoors a lot. It can be really rewarding, especially when someone has a really good day. But there’s also the opposite side: In a competition, you only get one try, so if you mess up on that one try, it can be really frustrating. Outdoors there’s not really that aspect, and you can try something as many times as you want.

Mainly, I think training for competitions keeps me accountable and gets me really psyched to go outdoor climbing. I always feel a lot stronger after training for competitions than I would after training for a route outside. 

What are your thoughts on climbing in the Olympics?

I think it’s a good thing. One part of me doesn’t like it because of the combined aspect, but I think whoever’s best at all three [bouldering, sport climbing, and lead climbing] is going to do the best, and let the best climber win. I’d rather have it single style format, but I think triple style format will work as well. It’s strange, but I like it.

Are you going to try out?

I think so. Might as well.

Drew Ruana, Smith Rock | Photo courtesy of Trango

You’re a junior now. Have you started thinking about colleges or what you want to do?

I’ve thought about going to Stanford quite a bit. I think the programs there appeal to what I’d like to do, something like bioengineering.

So you don’t want to climb professionally?

I’d like to do more semiprofessionally, because for pros it’s nonstop, and I think after a while I would get burned out. And when you’re 35 or 40, you can’t really keep up with the 20-year-olds. It would be fun for a while, but I’d like to go to school and have a career option for myself.

Where are your favorite places to climb?

Smith Rock is definitely one of my favorites spots because I’ve grown up here, but I also like Ceuse a lot – I’ve been there a couple of times. There are a few 5.12’s there that are just beyond good. There’s a 12b, Cent Patates. I think the literal translation is 100 potatoes, and it was just the most photogenic and the most fun route I’ve ever done. There’s also a 12d called La Femme Noir at Ceuse that’s maybe the best 5.12 in the world. For Bouldering I really like Bishop.

Now that you have a bolting kit, do you have any ideas of new areas with potential?

[Drew’s face lights up, even as his dad yells “You’re welcome!” from the background and explains that the gift came out of a desire to spend equal amounts of time with Drew’s siblings without holding Drew back from seeking out new climbs.]

There’s this one area near me called Split Rock and there could be potential for like 500 routes there. It’s crazy. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s Sasquatch country, and it’s kind of hard to get to, which is why it hasn’t really been climbed before. But the climbing is really good there.

You seem drawn to first ascents. If you wanted to look back at your life and say you were a successful climber, would you use first ascents to measure that or something else?

There’s a cool adventure side to the climbing when you don’t know if the route is possible and you don’t know if anyone’s done it before. I would define successful for myself as being able to try the routes I wanted to try and go to places I wanted to go. It’s not like I’m going to send every single route ever put up, but if I can do the fun routes and have a good time and check out new areas, that’s success for me.

What advice do you have for young or aspiring climbers?

The biggest thing is to keep climbing. A lot of people will do 11b and instantly try to do 11c or climb 12b and instantly try 12c. Aspiring climbers just need to climb more, get confident with their climbing, and build their base before trying the next hardest route. It takes time, but I think that’s the most beneficial thing. People don’t go from climbing 5.12 to 5.14 in a year; that’s a 6 or 7-year process. It’s important to keep the process in mind.


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