This was my first ever rope competition, let alone Nationals. I’m always taken with how the small things about competition climbing matter. And, it’s not that you read the rules and know what to do, it’s that the rules are engrained in you and the options come readily, in the moment. That, if anything was one failing of mine in my preparation; but despite not making finals, I learned a lot and upon reflection of my training, I can say that there was more I could have done. Still, I am not overly disappointed with my performance given that I was training in the dark and searching for direction with very little guidance. Why is it so hard to capture someone’s attention and get the help I’m looking for? Frustrated with this, it’s one of the primary reasons why I started my own climbing training business. No one should have to search so hard and scrounge so deep to find morsels that the inexperienced can only guess will be the right tools.
Having made it through qualifiers, I did some comparison to boulder climbing. First, rope competitions are very unforgiving. At least with Boulder competitions, you have some set time to attempt a problem, which means you can fall and still try again. With roped climbing competitions, you get one shot. As soon as you are off the wall, your turn is done–that’s your high point, your score, the end of your attempt. You just hope, like me, that you don’t blow it on something as trivial as a foot unintentionally popping off.
I didn’t get to watch many qualifier competitors because my round was later in the day to accommodate my work schedule. Fortunately they were running these late and I had that option. Mike had come to Boulder for work and decided to sign up and compete as well. We both worked the day and took the later spots in the line up to give us time to get to the gym, warm up and decompress from work.
Now, Mike, on the other hand, managed to do well in qualifiers despite slipping off of a hold, low, on problem 1. I was free to hang out Saturday and enjoy some bouldering at Dark Water Cave in Clear Creek while he logged some work time at the office before heading over to compete in Finals.
One of the most notable experiences I had from this event was watching some old timers come out and compete. I was thrilled when I saw Hans Florine had signed up, for example. In the end, there were a few more ‘classics’ in the line up like Steve Hong and, of course, Mike Doyle. For the women, however, I had anticipated the same turnout, but instead, I remained the old-timer against a crowd of under 25, with mostly under 20 competitors.
Michaela Kirsch was first out for the women and watching her struggle to make that first boulder problem to clip the first bolt was heart wrenching. I’m pretty sure she would have gone further on the route if she hadn’t had to fuss so much at the start. Maybe it was the striking height to the first bolt that got into her head, or maybe the move was really hard (she’s short, shortest competitor in the field that night?). Either way, her attempt up the wall was admirable.
Tiffany Hensley stood out, once again, not because of the color of her hair (though this dye job looks remarkably normal and good on her) or the outlandishness of her outfit, but because she continues to amaze me at how well she places in both bouldering and routes. Despite her oddities, she is clearly a gifted climber. She was only 1 of 3 who made it to her high point, but going back to qualifiers to determine her overall placing (15% qualifiers, 85% finals), she did not podium.
Alex Johnson, the AJ from bouldering comps, gave a surprisingly good show making it to a high point on the finals route that would have placed her in the top 3 had the scoring not been so jacked. Her and Carlo Traversi amaze me in a different way than Tiffany. AJ and Carlo are boulderers, primarily. But their fitness level is extremely high making it possible for them to do well in roped competitions in addition to bouldering comps. Carlo not only crushed the first two qualifiers, nearly topping both, he crushed finals taking podium next to Matty Hong.
A hero of climbing, in my mind, Emily Harrington having only 3 weeks to train for this competition after spending a month doing charity work in Nepal, climbed super strong but fell too low to podium. I didn’t get to watch her qualifiers because she had competed long before I came out. Her dad, Tim Harrington, mentioned how she and I did the exact same thing on qualifiers #1, only Em didn’t suffer the fatal right arm-blow out like I did and made it several moves further. Still, he noted, she and I were the only 2 to do the roof section in the intended sequence and we both were determined to clip that final draw before spitting off the wall, from the same hold, which upon reflection of the route, was probably not the best clipping hold to choose. I smiled at the notion that I could be compared in the same sentence with Emily and took note that despite not making finals, I nailed a sequence on a climb. That could not be said for Qualifiers #2. Em made high progress, I was told, and that put her into Finals. On the Finals route, however, just into the high section, she came off. A few more moves and she would have tied with AJ and Tiffany.
Paige Claason has been someone that I saw as forging a path for women and I was excited to get to watch her climb. I had not experienced her in competitions before but had heard that her mental state was ‘2nd to none.’ Maybe this is a good time to note that so far, all of the competitors in the field, except me, had been competing since as early as age 8. They all come out of the Youth circuit and the year they turn 16 or age out of Youth, they take up adult climbing competitions. That means these girls have had professional coaching for most, if not all, of their climbing life. Further, Youth circuits have rigorous competition line-ups that they are forced to participate in (or not progress) so they have a lot (years) more experience, including exposure to Youth World Cup events for their categories. And, until they age out, they can compete in both Youth and Adult categories. That’s double the exposure and double the experience! When I consider all of that, I am sometimes taken aback that I can even keep up! To watch her in action, among all of the other seasoned juniors and former juniors, was truly a treat. She moved decisively through the moves, seemingly unperturbed by a pump until she came off in the upper section. It was a heartbreak moment, same with everyone else. I mean, if Paige couldn’t top it out and she is in phenomenal shape, then will anyone do it? Of course, that leads me to conclude with Sasha DiGuilian.
Where to start with Sasha? I guess I can start with how friendly and nice she is. She’s no stranger to competition climbing, whether it’s ropes or bouldering. I’ve only competed with her in bouldering and have gotten to know her through time back in isolation (where they keep the competitors before bringing them out to climb). One thing that often stood out with her is that she had non-stop energy. Her entire warm up was trying to enlist others to join her in a game of add-on. When she wasn’t ‘playing games’ she was on the wall doing small circuits and I believe I’d seen her at one point get direction for which holds to grab. She could stay on the wall forever and that was even before going out to compete. Usually, I find it difficult to judge when I’ve gone too hard in the warm up and worry about overdoing it. I am always thinking I need to save my energy for the competition problems. Not Sasha. Beastly is what she is, I have seen her take down even the most thought provoking and burly-esqu problems.
It is no surprise to me, though it does blow my mind at the scale to which she has recently achieved, that she is breaking barriers and beyond blazing a path for women, she is challenging the heights that women in climbing history have achieved. Her 9 day escapade to the Red River Gorge is probably a small glimpse into what she will be capable of soon. In just one week, she onsighted her first 5.14a, 5.13d, several 5.13bs and redpointed in 6 attempts each, 2-5.14c’s. Sure, it was the Red River Gorge where endurance matters, but even the best endurance climbers like Chris Sharma, Sean McColl and Mike Doyle would say that her sends were impressive.
Coming to Boulder, Colorado for the SCS Nationals straight off of her sending-streak in the Red positioned her to take the gold and take it, she did. Not one female competitor came close.
High up on the route, snatching the hold that eluded others, then fighting through the lip to risk a 20-25 foot fall as she hesitated with a pump before leaping to the top of the wall and latching the finish. She had qualified in first and secured her position by a long-shot. It was impressive. Her tiny Euro-esque frame beamed with delight as she pumped the air with her arm, smiled broadly at the crowd, then proceeded to clip the shuts. Placing 3rd at the ABS Bouldering Nationals, she is a force to be reckoned with and where will we see her compete next? Tour de Bloc, Ontario, the Canadian Bouldering Nationals (the Canadian version of the US ABS competitions). And, guess what? I’ll be there, too. I’ll probably join her in her add-on game until I am pretty sure I need to save some energy for the competition problems and no matter how I place, I will be rooting for her to take it all the way—get the triple victory, finish the school year and leave for Europe on the best note anyone in our history of women climbing has had. At a tender age of 18, she has only just begun executing on her full potential.
And, ladies, take note, while she may seem like a mutant to us mere mortals, she had to start somewhere. And like her, we can begin to follow in her footsteps, be inspired by her achievements and look within to see that possibility exists in us, too.
For the men, I had high hopes for Mike. Another veteran to competition climbing, I was excited that he put himself into the lineup and further, that he had made finals. Mike is a strong competitor and strong climber, not just physically but mentally as well. When I saw him fall off of a hold, low on Men’s Qualifier #1, I wasn’t sure how he would take to Men’s Qualifier #2. Barely pumped from the first route, he had a long time to rest and cruised up the second qualifier. He didn’t top it, but he made the very same high point as all of the top climbers. Had he not slipped off of the first route, he would have qualified in a higher position and with the weird scoring, would have finished higher as well. As it was, he made finals and though his Final’s high point was attributed to a foot unexpectedly slipping off, he made a high point of only a handful of finalists, which would have placed him high except for the odd scoring.
But, while Mike made an impression by participating, and is impressive (in my mind) as a climber, I was struck by the fitness of the top few climbers. First, Alex Johnson. Alex is making waves right now with his ABS bouldering and Speed titles (Sean McColl actually won the bouldering comp, but he’s Canadian and doesn’t count in the overall USA ranking). With 1 international competitor (Norwegian Magnus Mitboe) in the SCS rankings, Alex finishes SCS in 3rd, which is enough to secure yet another USA team spot. Next is Carlo Traversi. A bouldering fiend who somehow manages to nearly top all 3 competition routes. Finally, Matty Hong, Steve Hong’s son, taking the cake (next to Magnu) with his impressive progress on each of the three routes. Matty and Carlo were the only two male competitors to make it a few holds from the finish. Magnus, one hold shy of tying with Matty and Carlo, slips off trying to gain better ground. With the strange scoring system, Magnus seals top spot (based on his top qualifying position) followed by Matty, Carlo then Alex.
As for myself, Sitting in 12th position, I must cross my fingers and pray to the gods of luck that the draw will include me for invitations to the World Cup this October. Until then, I am savoring the impressions from the weekend and headed back to my drawing board to map out how I can get my fitness up to tackle my roped climbing projects, which I am hoping I can take down this summer (good weather pending), before leaving Seattle to settle in Las Vegas, full time.
If you read this whole thing, drop me a line and say so. I welcome thoughts, feedback and criticisms.