Emilie Pellerin

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In the world of professional rock climbing, Emilie is exceptional by any standard. Since she started climbing in 2008, her intuitive climbing style, cool trad head and uncanny ability to find a rest in the most unlikely of places has earned her understandable recognition among her climbing peers. Predominately a rock climber, although she dabbles in ice and mixed climbing, Emilie has sport climbed 8b+, bouldered V10, and in 2020 made history as the first Canadian woman, and one of only a handful of elite female climbers anywhere in the world, to have climbed 5.14 trad. In particular it is her drive and proficiency when onsighting hard trad routes that she is best known for, and with well over 80 trad and sport onsight ascents of 5.13c (8a+) or harder—on a diverse range of rock types—it’s easy to see how she gained her reputation.

Emilie, who grew up in Repentigny in Quebec, Canada, found rock climbing when, at 18, she was looking for somewhere to direct her energy:

I had a falling out from a metal band that I slayed electric guitar in and was looking for a new outlet,” says Emilie. “Rock climbing wasn’t a ‘thing’ at that point. In fact, I’d never heard of someone getting up an overhanging face of rock with a rope before.

Rock climbing quickly did become a ‘thing’ for Emilie though as she dove into the local scene, fast becoming acquainted with placing gear at her local crags in Val David and finding every opportunity to get out and climb. Within months Emilie was packing up and hitting the road, following her intuition and seeking out a life of travel and climbing. Little did she know that this was the first step to her becoming one of the most accomplished Canadian rock climbers around, and since then she has amassed a jaw-dropping tick list of hard onsights, flashes and redpoints from more than 150 locations across 13 countries, from North and Central America to Europe, Asia and Australia.

Emilie climbing the Opal (6 pitches, 5.13a), Squamish, BC. Photo by Peter Hoang
Technical face climbing on The Opal (6 pitches, 5.13a), Squamish, BC. © Peter Hoang

Part of Emilie’s drive to climb was her fixation on the hunt for ‘flow state’, which came effortlessly to her:

It was very natural,” says Emilie. “It was a thing that I realised I was doing rather than I tried to do it. People were talking about how they felt scared on a route or how they felt intimidated or were hearing people around them talking, and I was like, ‘I don’t hear any of that!’ I’m in that zone where there could be a plane exploding next to me on the same cliff but I wouldn’t hear it!

Her affinity with flow quickly became one of her strengths, allowing her to relax and climb intuitively, and to gain confidence on the rock. Having started in trad climbing, she found her rapid progression with sport climbing—reaching 5.12 (7a+ to 7c) grades within a year—gave her the edge she wanted to push her trad climbing.

I came from a really good school in trad climbing,” says Emilie. “I started with trad and it was a thing that I was super into. Then I went into sport climbing, so I knew how to place gear before I ever clipped a bolt. But then clipping bolts and coming back to trad is what made it much easier to progress.

Talking with Emilie about trad climbing it quickly becomes apparent just how much experience and wisdom she has, and as she describes her approach to hard onsights it’s clear that her successes are as much to do with honed focus and experience-derived methods as they are about strength and physical climbing skill.

Methodical is a good way to describe how I go about trad routes,” says Emilie, who has a quiver of tactics for approaching hard lines, from practical gear rating systems and route breakdown strategies, to being acutely self-aware of her own feelings towards routes on any particular day.

But of course, giving 100% to onsight hard trad comes with a risk, and Emilie isn’t immune to the fear and has taken some big whips on trad gear.

You have to work on it,” says Emilie, when asked how she manages this. “Some days you’ve got to accept you feel like a wimp, and some days you feel like a superhero and you can pull everything and nothing matters; you can fall 20 feet, 30 feet, it’s not a problem. And the next day somehow something changes in your mind. It’s not a constant thing like I’m bold and I can push it. I can do it when it’s the right time.”

Emilie onsighting the Travel Diaries (8a+) in Shigu, China. Photo by Julian Reinhold
Emilie employing her endurance during an onsight of the Travel Diaries (8a+) in Shigu, China. © Julian Reinhold
Emilie climbing Gravity Bong (5.13a, 9 pitches), Squamish, BC. Photo by Peter Hoang
Emilie on the 9-pitch Gravity Bong (5.13a, trad) on The Chief in Squamish, BC. © Peter Hoang

Europe, and Spain in particular, were particularly important destinations for Emilie in her early climbing years, where she spend many years living in a van and making ends meet by offering massage therapy—Emilie is a qualified massage therapist and kinesiotherapist—to fellow climbers in car parks at climbing venues.

It’s kind of difficult to say for sure but I feel like in total I probably spent six years in Europe,” says Emilie, who still spends winters in Spain when she can. “Spain is kind of like my second home”.

Given the time Emilie has spent in Europe it’s unsurprising that routes in that part of the world have made it onto her list of top achievements, including an onsight of Siempre Se Puede Hacer Menos (8b) in Chulilla, Spain, in 2015; a flash of the wide mono tufa Hulkosaure (8b) in the Gorge du Verdon, France, in 2018; and redpoints of the 60-metre, exposed and run-out tufa system of Tom et je Ris (8b+) in the Gorge du Verdon in 2016 and the endurance test of Momento Payaso (8b+) in Otinar, Spain, in 2020.

Indian creek is another location that holds particular meaning and fondness for Emilie, as it was on these ancient sandstone buttresses that she honed and developed the crack climbing skills that have proven invaluable to her career.

I went to Indian Creek and I think that’s when it all clicked,” says Emilie. “[…] I think that learning in that setting just sets you up for any other crack in the world.”

Emilie found that endurance was one of her strengths when it came to desert crack climbing, which often calls for repetitive movement for 30 or 40 meters, and in 2012, after a season in the Creek, Emily ticked her first hard crack: the thin and sustained Ruby’s Café (5.13-).

I just love that place,” Emilie continues. “I think it’s very likely it’s my favourite area in the world.”

With crack climbing skills firmly under her belt Emilie went on to tackle some imposing crack test pieces, almost always attempting to onsight them. Some of her highlights include: a redpoint of Pete Kamitses’ four-pitch mixed-route Fire in the Sky (5.13c) in the Adirondacks in 2018; a historic onsight ascent of the overhanging corner of The Shadow (5.13-) in Squamish in 2019, a feat which hadn’t been achieved since it was tackled by Peter Croft in the early 1990s; and in Liming, China, ascents of the red sandstone splitters Krypton Corner (5.13-, onsight) and the serious, R-rated Air China (5.13d).

That’s sort of the flow and the mental state of climbing,” says Emilie, when asked how she copes with fear and pushing on during serious trad onsights. “You get on there and it’s like ‘okay, I really don’t want to fall here, this is the moment when I’m starting to solo here’. You have to accept that moment.

A typical rest day activity in the Bugaboos. Photo by Graham McKerrell
A typical rest day activity for Emilie while on a trip to the Bugaboos. © Graham McKerrell

Emilie doesn’t really consider herself a boulderer, but she has climbed up to V10 (7C+) outdoors, including the sit-start to Motivos Personales in Abarracin, Spain. She also doesn’t climb regularly inside, opting always to focus her efforts outdoors. However, in 2017 she made the unusual switch from outdoor climbing to competition climbing, including the bouldering and lead World Cup circuit. At home in Canada, she proved that her ability outdoor was easily transferred to plastic, winning the Tour de Bloc Championship, Coupe Quebec Overall, Quebec Lead Provincial Championship and Bouldering Provincial Championship, and placing 4th in the Canadian Bouldering Championship. On the World Cup circuit her best result was an impressive 27th in the Mumbai Bouldering World Cup. Despite these good results, Emilie decided to return her attention to climbing outdoors.

I really enjoyed the local circuit,” says Emilie, “but this is not my sport and I never considered myself as a competition climber.”

Her year competing also brought other benefits, as Emilie was based back in Quebec and able to visit her original stomping ground of Val David. There, having climbed all the challenging routes, she found herself considering La Zébrée for the first time. One of the toughest crack climbs in North America, La Zébrée is a steep, leaning finger crack advancing through two strenuous roofs—and has the added complication of rarely being in good condition. Coincidentally, Emilie had seen someone working the steep, leaning finger crack the first day she ever went climbing, and never dreamed she would be able to one day try it.

I went up this route and I remember thinking ‘Holy moly, never again!’” says Emilie. “It destroyed my fingers, it was wet, it went really badly and I felt like everything but the crux I flailed on. But I did really good on the crux part.

Emilie walked away from the climb that day, but it stayed in her mind the next couple of years as she gained more experience and confidence. In 2020 she tried again.

I just put the effort and the time in, and I think a big part of it was in visualising it,” says Emilie. “It’s a lot of work to do that route, you have to go up with sponges and clean it and try to get the water off the holds you want to use. It would usually take me and hour to just go up to dry the holds. Then I’d come back down and then I’d be able to have one go within half an hour and it would be wet again.”

After just a handful of sessions working the route, Emilie made the fifth known ascent, and the first by a woman. She also made history as the first Canadian woman, and one of only a small group of women in the world, to climb 5.14 on gear.

Emilie on the onsight of an unnamed 8a route in Lion Cave, MaShan, China. Photo by Jan Novak
Emilie finding rests in the most unlikely of places during her onsight of an unnamed 8a route in Lion Cave, MaShan, China. © Jan Novak Photography
Emilie on the trad line La Zébrée (5.14a) at Val David, Quebec. Photo by Witek Slusarczyk
Emilie on La Zébrée (5.14a, trad) at Val David, Quebec. © Witek Slusarczyk

When Emilie is not climbing, she works as an AMGA apprentice rock guide, and is particularly interested in providing clinics and coaching on practical and technical topics like trad skills, rescues, or helping people manage their fear or falling. 

“I feel like it’s super useful,” says Emilie. “I’d rather do this than a guided day up The Chief. I feel like I’m at the right spot to do this because people trust my judgement on this stuff and I feel like I’m the right person to do it.

Outside of climbing Emilie loves cooking, playing guitar, skiing, running, crafts and enjoying big multiday adventures in the mountains. More recently she has been dabbling in ice and mixed climbing.

It’s a strange medium but it’s beautiful,” says Emilie. “I value having experience in different styles and that’s not a style I would usually go for. I feel like it’s such a good medium and good training to be on more alpine terrain.”