Star climber Laurel Melton PZ ’20 reaches new heights with national team, Claremont Climbing Team

A woman in the center of the image scrambles up a rock face, holding on precariously to ridges and divots. A pair of hands at the very bottom of the image are extended, ready to catch the climber if she falls. There are evergreen trees in the background.
Laurel Melton PZ ’20 founded the 5C rock climbing club in 2018, and wants to pursue a career in the climbing industry. (Courtesy: Logan Melton)

Laurel Melton PZ ’20 has never been afraid of heights. 

As a competitive rock climber who’s represented the U.S. Climbing national team worldwide, it’s a good thing she isn’t.

Melton, the founder of the Claremont Climbing Team and coach of a youth team in Santa Ana, began climbing in fifth grade after a short stint in gymnastics, which ended due to injuries and expenses. She qualified for her first national climbing competition in seventh grade and never looked back. 

Now, she will soon graduate from Pitzer College as an accomplished rock climber at both the national and international levels.

“Almost all of the travel I do is for climbing. It’s really cool, the opportunities [climbing] has provided for me,” said Melton, who has competed in Ecuador, Slovakia and Switzerland. “The best part about it is traveling with the U.S. team. … The community at competitions is really supportive and really great.”

In 2018, Melton placed 16th in speed climbing at the International Federation of Sport Climbing Pan-American Championship in Ecuador and placed 34th at the 2017 IFSC Climbing World Cup in Switzerland. She also competed at the World University Championships in Slovakia in 2018, after finishing in 9th place at the same year’s collegiate nationals. The national team selection is based off of placement at national championship competitions, Melton said.

Rock climbing meets typically showcase three types of climbing: lead, bouldering and speed. Lead climbing is an endurance-based discipline in which climbers clip a rope onto a 50-foot wall as they ascend. Bouldering involves more challenging individual moves, a shorter wall and no rope. Speed climbing also contains a 50-foot wall, but the route always remains the same. Melton described it as “a track, but [upwards].”

Melton started her climbing career with bouldering and generally prefers it over the other two forms. However, she excels in competitive speed climbing on the national team, and trains in all three disciplines to keep improving her overall abilities. 

Melton also discussed how the mental aspect of climbing draws her to the sport.

“One of the reasons I really like climbing is that it’s really physically challenging but it’s also really mentally challenging,” Melton said. “A lot of the times that you can’t do a climb or you’re not doing well at [competitions], it has nothing to do with your actual ability to perform, and it’s completely mental.”

Melton started the climbing team at the 5Cs in 2018 to help introduce peers to the sport.

“I didn’t really see that many opportunities for new people to get into climbing, so I really wanted to start a team to open up a space for people who wanted to start climbing but didn’t feel like they knew how,” Melton said.

In the club’s first semester, the team only had nine consistent members, but they were highly successful — seven went to the regional meet, and three went on to the national collegiate meet.

By the next year, the club began holding practices three times a week with over 20 members attending each practice. Today, the team has grown so large Melton said she has had to limit the number of people who can attend each practice to 30 members. The club has a total of 52 climbers.

“Having a team to go to these [meets] with makes it much more of a fun community event,” Melton said. 

Serena Faruqee PZ ’20, Melton’s teammate and co-captain, has known Melton since they both entered Pitzer as first-years. Faruqee spoke highly of Melton’s leadership on the team.

“There have been [competitions] where she’ll just put one attempt in on every climb and spend the rest of the three hours coaching,” Faruqee said. “The team is very important to her and being supportive of people is important to her, sometimes over her own climbing.”

Melton hopes the club will continue to prosper after she leaves. She said she’s trying to cultivate the next generation of leaders by taking a step back and letting other team members take charge. 

Melton graduates in the spring, but her climbing career won’t end there. She currently serves as an assistant coach for the Sender One Rock Climbing Center youth team, which she hopes to continue after graduation, and she hopes to remain in the sport.

“I want to pursue a career in the climbing industry. Ultimately I want to open my own gym,” Melton said. “Right now, my goals are starting to shift towards outdoor climbing. Honestly, I just want to climb as much as possible.”

While Melton continues climbing to new heights, she also wants others to know that it’s never too late to begin.

“A lot of really strong climbers got into it when they were 20,” said Melton. “Something that I hear a lot is, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to try [climbing], but I feel like it’s too late to get into it.’ It’s really not; you can start climbing late!”

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