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When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, the adults in my life didn’t exactly encourage climbing. Whether I was toppling furniture as a toddler or falling out of trees in grade school, anytime my feet left terra firma was cause for concern and reproach. The only isolation room I experienced was my own bedroom—when I was grounded for tearing loose some shingles trying to mantle past the overhanging eve onto the roof of our house.
Like most climbers of my generation, I got into the sport after I left home and went off to college. There I fell in with the mountain-club crowd and soon found myself dangling from cliffs and bashing my knuckles on frozen waterfalls.
In those days climbing still retained its rebellious underpinnings. We may not have been the derelicts and outcasts who put up all the classic lines during the ‘60s and ‘70s, but, nonetheless, we engaged in risk with a wantonness of spirit that ran counter to accepted norms. To wit: my college lay nestled in the fertile hills of Vermont’s Champlain Valley. The Adirondacks perched just the other side of Lake Champlain, an hour’s drive away. To get there, we crossed a half-mile-long bridge at the southern tip of the lake, where it pinches down before emptying into the Hudson River.
One day we stopped at the bridge and did something that had always tempted us. We walked out to the midpoint, lowered a climbing rope down to the water, pulled it up about 20 feet to give ourselves a suitable margin, and fixed it to the bridge. That left a good 80-plus feet of rope dangling. We pulled it up and one of us tied into the end. He clipped some ascenders to his harness, traversed sideways about 50 feet, and jumped.
He jugged up as quickly as possible so the next guy could have a turn before the inevitable happened, which it did while this one pendulumed over the water cutting loose whoops of exaltation. A New York state trooper pulled up and ordered us off the bridge.
“But sir,” our ringleader said, pointing to a small plaque riveted to the steel a few feet away from the anchor point, “we’re on the Vermont side.”
The statey looked at the plaque. Then, quite astonishingly, he turned back to us, shrugged, got back in his cruiser, and drove off. We finished our jumps and hustled off the bridge before a Vermont trooper showed up.
Later, we marveled at how we had gotten away with breaking some law or other, yet, due to what should have been an inconsequential technicality, were all but given the New York State Police’s blessing to carry on merrily.
And so with climbing cliffs: there was the visceral rush to be had from the exposure and adrenalin, but also an equally thrilling, if less palpable, sense that we were pulling off some sort of intrigue. To a kid just out from under adult supervision, climbing with one’s friends—learning largely through trial and error how to place gear, build anchors, twist in ice screws—felt like this glorious secret, a loophole in society that would surely be closed if only it were discovered and investigated by authorities.
* * *
Climbing has come a long way since I first laced up rock shoes and tied into a rope in 1990. El Capitan has seen its first free-solo, which back then seemed about as likely as traveling to another solar system—conceivable, but in no way realistic. As with other seminal feats in recent years like the Dawn Wall, it was headline news throughout the western world, a sensation among climbers and non-climbers alike. And climbing is now an Olympic sport, debuting in the 2020 Tokyo Games. The top climbers aren’t even “climbers” anymore, they’re “athletes,” well nestled within the folds of respectability.
“I always refer to the Team ABC kids as ‘athletes,’” says Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, former world-champion competition climber and owner and head coach of ABC Kids Climbing in Boulder, Colorado, a facility dedicated to developing young climbing talent. “They are athletes—they’re coming to us three days a week, nine to twelve hours, participating in competitions. They’re serious about it. Even if they’re six years old, they’re already showing that they’re athletes.”
I’m sitting in Erbesfield-Raboutou’s office at ABC shortly before her elite-level team commences a three-hour evening practice. I’ve come here to see what this structured and sanctioned youth competitive climbing is all about. I know next to nothing about indoor comp climbing, having only first heard of a discipline called speed climbing—something that resembles an action-hero film scene more than any kind of climbing I’m familiar with—a week or so earlier. It was only when I entered the gym and saw a banner displayed prominently over the entrance touting an ABC athlete’s recent first place in the Youth World Championships that I learned that there is a Youth World Championship.
I’ve been told that if I want to see the epicenter of elite youth climbing in the U.S., this is the place. After watching a video in which Erbesfield-Raboutou says, “it’s not Funtopia, it’s really a program where we teach rock climbing—that’s who we are. Our goal is to build the best climbers in America,” I’m canted a bit toward thinking that the soul of the sport I deeply loved for almost 20 years has withered and is being replaced with the striving, must-win compulsion my generation seems to inflict on everything it touches. I wasn’t dissuaded from this view when I talked with Erbesfield-Raboutou on the phone to set up the visit. She insisted on vetting anything I write mentioning ABC as a condition of granting me access to her program. She mentioned specifically that she has certain “trade secrets” she doesn’t want printed. I know very little about Erbesfield-Raboutou other than what I may have read about her in the 1990s when she was winning World Cups and I was devouring the climbing magazines like a bag of pretzels after a long multi-pitch on a hot, sweaty day. I remember now only that she always appeared earnest and intensely driven in photographs.
I ask Erbesfield-Raboutou about the goals of her program.
“The goals of the competitive team are to build a well-rounded climber actually, despite the fact that competition is our main focus,” she says, “one who has respect for the community, the environment, and themselves.”
Her words drop in a measured and practiced meter. I probe some more, trying to get beyond what sound like prepared talking points. I ask what are the common misconceptions about her program.
She tells me one might be that the coaches push the kids beyond the point of having fun. “If they’re coming in the door, it’s because they want to be here,” she replies. “We have kids that really love what they’re doing and I think we’ve created an environment, having a kids-only facility, where they walk in the door and they’re just psyched.”
Erbesfield-Raboutou and I chat for another 20 minutes. Among other things, she tells me how she starts kids climbing as young as two-and-a-half years old and how, because she trains them methodically from such a young age, she can get a level of performance out of them that she would not recommend other coaches, without specific and extensive experience working with kids, attempt to replicate.
“We live in Boulder, Colorado, and we have the strongest kids in Boulder,” she says. “The program that we put together for our kids is appropriate for who they are as athletes.”
Erbesfield-Raboutou tells me that she has several kids in her program whose families have moved to Boulder from other parts of the country so the child could train at ABC. She has kids as young as 12 who are sponsored by outdoor companies with free gear, and at least one kid a few years older who receives a cash salary from sponsors. I ask about how the Olympics will influence what she does going forward. She replies matter-of-factly only that she expects to be training kids for the Olympics.
As we wrap up, she steps out into the gym and brings in Max Burgess, 18, a guy she describes as one of the most dedicated and driven in her program, even though he’s only been climbing a couple years. He’s here early, getting in some extra workout time before practice begins. Max talks in a quick, clipped cadence, telling me he recently moved to ABC from another program because he wasn’t being pushed hard enough.
“I’d go into my old gym like forever trying to train and stuff. I just wouldn’t really come back tired,” he says. “I always leave here feeling super tired. That’s why I joined this team.”
When I ask Max about his plans for the future he talks vaguely about maybe going to CU Boulder at some point. Erbesfield-Raboutou cuts in. “He’s focused on his climbing right now. I think it’s totally OK to say that,” she says. Then she turns to Max. “Be really clear and transparent with people—if that’s where you are, and you’re not in school because you’re focused on your climbing, that is so OK.” Max nods and smiles abashedly.
“Yeah, that’s awesome,” I chime in, thinking back on my fifth-year prep-school reunion. I played in the alumni vs. varsity lacrosse game and, after the game, strolled up to my old coach to say hello. He asked what I was doing and I happily told him I lived out West, climbing, skiing, and pounding nails to pay the rent. He looked at me disgustedly for a moment. Then, without saying anything, turned and walked away. I never saw or spoke to him again.
That incident left me chagrined to say the least, and my immediate reaction is to give Max the figurative pat on the back and echo Erbesfield-Raboutou’s whole-hearted support. But then I think some more about the contrast between this moment and my own youth: I didn’t have any mentor figures telling me it was “so OK” to focus my life on climbing. And while my parents weren’t overtly displeased with my chosen lifestyle, they certainly weren’t motivating me to go as far with it as I could, as Max says his parents are. To be a climber—one squeezing all the juice you could out of that lemon—you had to take a detour off the traditional path to success. Climbing defined your sense of self as existing outside of the prevailing mores, and you necessarily cultivated a certain defiance, which you shared with other climbers, toward the social pressures funneling you into a more conventional life. It made for an informal brotherhood: nothing could be more important than climbing, and you were willing to stigmatize yourself in the eyes of others, sacrifice some respectability, to live that life. We didn’t have the Olympics to train for; we were just addicted to clinging to the sides of cliffs for god-only-knew-what reasons. I wonder whether that pointlessness conferred some deeper meaning to climbing that might be lost on this new generation—something I now feel compelled to get to the bottom of.
Max gets up and heads back out into the gym. Erbesfield-Raboutou and I follow. The younger kids in the after-school recreational programs have mostly cleared out, replaced by a dozen or so lithe and sinewy teenagers. They’re milling about, chatting with one another, stretching, or casually warming up on the bouldering walls.
Erbesfield-Raboutou tells me a little about the history of ABC. She started it 15 years ago in a spare room at the Boulder Rock Club when her own children, Shawn and Brooke—both now world-class climbers who compete on the international stage—were just toddlers. She says there wasn’t much of a climbing community for children back then, so she decided to start her own.
“The community that has been built for them has now been built for others. I love kids and I love climbing—it makes sense,” she says.
Standing next to Erbesfield-Raboutou, who’s now 54 years old, I realize how slight she is. She appears to be barely over five feet tall, and I’d have to flip a coin to guess which side of 100 pounds she’s on. I ask about her own climbing, and she says she’s still getting after it as hard as she can. Then she ends our interview, telling me she needs to attend to practice.
I mill about on my own for a few minutes, taking in the place. ABC, which opened its current facility five years ago, is a tiny gym by today’s standards. The tallest walls stand only 15 or 20 feet high. Only a few have fixed quickdraws and anchors, which appear more for practice clipping than actual leading. I notice more banners. ABC has evidently won the team national bouldering championship several years running.
Then a guy pops up in front of me. He has shaggy, unruly hair, like he just got zapped with 110 volts, and true to his appearance, he crackles with energy. He tells me—the words zipping out rapid-fire—that Erbesfield-Raboutou sent him over to talk with me. Though he’s smiling and congenial, he’s twitching like a Labrador eyeing a tennis ball in your hand, clearly antsy to get back to his climbing.
Zach Arenberg, 16, lives in south Denver, an hour-plus drive from ABC. He gets himself up to Boulder three days a week to train, leaving immediately after school to avoid the worst of rush-hour traffic. He sits in the parking lot waiting for practice to begin, cranking out homework for a couple hours before coming inside to crank on the walls. He’s been climbing seven years, having started at a rec center in Denver. His goal is to make it back to Nationals this year, but he says so in an off-handed way as if it weren’t very important.
“I climb outside as much as possible,” he says. “Most of my goals are for outside. Competition I just do for fun mostly.” I ask what’s fun about competing. “Because you get to hang out with all the other strong people—it’s a good time.”
Then I ask something that’s been on my mind from the beginning, whether climbing is a team sport or solely an individual one. He pauses momentarily for the first time before answering. “When you’re climbing it’s pretty individual, but preparing for it is a team thing,” he says.
I’m eager to learn more about the team aspect of climbing, which is something I never experienced with the sport. Sure, I had bonding experiences with partners—some of the most intense in my life—and the sense of membership in a nebulous tribe of sorts, but the ritual of gathering in a group with a strong collective identity day-in, day-out, like my high-school football and lacrosse teams, never played a part in my own climbing. So I ask Zach about the atmosphere at ABC.
“It’s so fun,” he says. “Yeah, it’s so fun.”
I want to get more about this, but I’m afraid that poor Zach will blow a fuse if I don’t release him back to the climbing walls. And perhaps he’s just given me the most eloquent answer I could hope for anyway, so I give him a quick “thanks” and he darts away.
* * *
Drum and bass plays over the PA system unobtrusively, like mood music in an upscale restaurant. I’m standing on the mezzanine overlooking a group of kids lounging at the base of a new boulder problem just put up by Garrett Gregor, coach and head route setter at ABC. Practice is in full swing now, but the vibe is surprisingly relaxed.
Erbesfield-Raboutou and another coach stand on the periphery of the group, as each kid, one by one, attempts the problem. It looks desperately hard. I ask Gregor, who’s standing next to me, what it’s rated.
“As a setter I tend to shy away from giving grades to things,” he says, “but I thought somewhere in the range of at least V12 to V15.”
At first no one comes close on the problem, but, as the session continues, a couple of the older boys manage to get it, and everyone makes it well past the start holds, which I’m not sure I could even hang. I also notice very little in the way of formal coaching. I keep expecting Erbesfield-Raboutou to interrupt the session to offer critique or demonstrate some nuance of technique. But she just stands back joining in the chorus of encouragement—the same stuff climbers egg each other on with at the crag: Come on! You got it! Stick it now! and so on. I ask Gregor about the lack of direction being given to the climbers.
“From a coaching perspective, you don’t want to be telling somebody how to do something every time because somebody might find their own way,” he says. Then he explains that this is a free-flowing bouldering session wherein the kids just attempt whatever problems that want. “It’s ‘let them have at it,’” he says.
Earlier in her office, Erbesfield-Raboutou told me that climbing style has changed rather dramatically in recent years, so much so that a climber who put up a 5.14 say, 20 years ago, would have done the route noticeably differently than a climber today. Modern climbers are much more dynamic and fluid compared with those of yesteryear.
“The nature of the sport has changed a lot in that it’s super young and frolicy,” she said. “So an older climber is going to be a little more reserved and set back, whereas the younger climbers are just balls-to-the-walls. I mean, they just go.”
Which is just what I’m watching here: the kids literally throw themselves from hold to hold, using momentum to stick moves that seem implausible to my eye.
Eventually, Erbesfield-Raboutou directs everyone up to the mezzanine where the various campus boards, hangboards, and similar training panels are located. They break out into groups of three or four kids, each with a coach, and begin more structured training of the sort I’ve expected to see here. I edge toward Erbesfield-Raboutou’s group of girls. She sees me and gives me a look that halts my approach. Despite her rather insistent and business-like demeanor on the phone, she has been nothing but warm and welcoming toward me ever since I arrived at ABC earlier this evening. Now, however, I’m sensing that I might be witnessing one of her so-called trade secrets, so I stand back and observe quietly without asking any questions.
The girls run timed laps on a steeply overhanging panel roughly eight feet by eight feet and peppered with holds on a three- or four-inch grid. Erbesfield-Raboutou keeps time while each girl takes her turn. The mood is quiet and respectful, reverent almost. As time goes on, my presence feels more and more intrusive. It reminds me of a trip, more than 20 years ago, up to Baffin Island. Our team hired Inuit guides to haul us and our gear some 70 miles deep into the Fjords with their snowmobiles. They were some of the most gregarious and fun-loving people I’ve ever met, constantly joking and laughing and very much including us in their banter. One day I awoke and looked out of our tent to see them all huddled around a small fire 100 yards or so away from camp. I walked over to see what they were up to, and got close enough to realize that they were roasting meat from a freshly-killed baby seal. But as I approached, they gave me furtive and unwelcoming glances. We had established an open sharing of food and stores between our team and them, so I expected to be waved over to taste a morsel of their most prized quarry. But no; I suddenly realized I had intruded on a moment of sacramental importance. I beat a hasty retreat back to the tent.
And so now I choose this moment to take my leave, tossing a quick wave goodbye to Erbesfield-Raboutou when I briefly catch her eye.
* * *
Earlier this year, Scott Davie found himself tip-toeing across a tiny ledge on Castle Rock in Boulder Canyon. The ledge petered out and he had to make a big move, stepping across a blank gap in the rock to the next set of holds. His rope drooped across the gap and then snaked up and around a corner out of sight.
“Take in!” he yelled.
The tug at his waist pulled him off balance and he nearly fell. He looked down 150 feet of sheer vertical cliff to the ground. He’d never experienced this kind of exposure before. Like has happened to most novice climbers once or twice in similar situations, Scott Davies felt himself starting to wig out.
Scott, his wife Rhonda, and their son Quinn, age 12, sit around a table on the back patio of their north Boulder home as Scott recounts the story.
OK, I’m thinking, I remember being in Scott’s shoes once. Now suppose it was my 12-year-old kid’s anchor and belay I had to trust. I ask Scott about this and he says neither the anchor nor his son’s competence bothered him; he was just a little freaked out by the position. He managed to real in his panic with a few deep, calming breaths.
“Quinn has always led,” he says. “At this point Quinn’s a stronger climber and certainly the more experienced. He’s done all the gear placements, so it means he’s always done the anchor builds.” In fact, Scott tells me he just did his first lead—mentored by his son—only a month earlier.
Quinn Davie found climbing the way many kids do these days: When he was five or six, his parents took him to a gym. He liked it well enough to get his own shoes and harness, but for him it was just another sport or activity, like soccer or track, that he tried and didn’t much take to. Quinn didn’t think of himself as an athlete; he’s a cerebral kid with a keen, analytical mind. He gravitated more toward building stuff—rockets, cardboard boats, ramps for his bike.
When Quinn was ten, Rhonda looked out the window to see that he’d somehow strung himself up in the large front-yard tree with a rope and his climbing harness. When he came inside Quinn mentioned that he might like to try climbing some of the rocks he could see in the foothills just beyond his neighborhood. So Scott bought a book on top-roping, learned the basics of anchor building, and the two started climbing outside. It was then, when Quinn learned about gear, knots, and rope systems, that he fell in love with the sport.
“Quinn is passionate about climbing,” says Rhonda. “Your kids, they try all kinds of stuff—this is the first thing that I have seen that’s an enormous passion.”
Soon after Quinn got bit by the climbing bug, he joined the team at the Boulder Rock Club, began training, honing his technique, and competing. Now he could climb circles around his father, so Scott and Rhonda hired guides from Colorado Mountain School to take Quinn on bigger climbs outside. They took him up into RMNP and out to the desert, and taught Quinn how to place gear and lead. Now Quinn regularly hauls his dad up routes around Boulder and Lumpy Ridge. Other climbers often do a double take when they realize this little kid is basically guiding his dad up climbs. The two recently did a route at Castle Rock and when they got down some people started asking Scott for beta about the climb.
“I just point to Quinn and he does all the answering,” says Scott.
I look over at Quinn who, with just a hint of a smile, nods in agreement. He wears eyeglasses, is soft-spoken and still carries some baby fat on his small 12-year-old frame. He doesn’t come off as particularly athletic, that is until I glance down at his hands. Thick sausage-like fingers lay preternaturally curled in his lap, sporting a few cuts and gobies. I imagine these hands dusted with a little chalk, some tape around a digit or two—you’d mistake them for the dense and powerful pincers of a much older and more hardened climber.
I ask Quinn whether he enjoys competing on the team.
“I really like outdoor climbing a lot more, especially trad climbing,” he says. Then he quickly adds that he also enjoys the indoor competitive experience, that he’s become a much better climber as a result, and always learns a lot from participating in competitions. But he’d much rather tell me about his recent trip to Indian Creek or the mini-epic he and his dad had up on Lumpy Ridge last year.
What about his goals and aspirations? I ask. I’m expecting the rock-climbing equivalent of the Little Leaguer’s dream to play in the World Series—El Cap speed records, Patagonian linkups. Quinn tells me he hopes to climb the Casual Route on the Diamond this summer with one of his guides, but other than that he has no grand aspirations for future climbs. He actually asks me what routes I’d recommend. I tell him The Bastille Crack in Eldo is a good one if he hasn’t done it yet. And of course he’ll have to do the Naked Edge eventually. I look down at his little paws. “One of the cruxes is a number-three-Camalot-size fist jam, so you might want to wait a few years—but someday …”
* * *
I’m standing with Quinn’s coach, Chris Wall, long-time director of Team BRC, at the Boulder Rock Club’s local youth climbing competition. I’m here to see the kids of Team BRC and Team ABC—many of whom I’ve now had the chance to meet and talk with—in action.
This isn’t the high-pressure, do-or-die format like the Regionals, Divisionals, and Nationals later in the season. In local comps, the kids have three hours to tick as many routes—which are ranked according to their difficulty—as they can. They mill about the gym, trying this route or that, giving belays to their friends, lounging on the pads between burns. The atmosphere feels fun and relaxed, but it’s a comp nonetheless; they’re here to make a good showing for themselves in preparation for the bigger contests to come. I ask Wall how he helps his climbers cope with the pressure.
“It’s not so much trying to control feelings as trying to control actions when you’re having those feelings,” he says. He goes on to explain that this mental aspect of climbing and competing is a big part of the team curriculum and key to the program’s overall goals of developing important life skills and having a lasting impact on kids’ lives. “Can you control your actions when you are awash with emotion? That seems transferable to just about everything for the rest of their lives—relationships, work, you name it,” he says.
I mention an observation I’ve made which is that the kids seem to manage themselves quite well when they fail on a route; I’ve seen no angry outbursts or even head-hanging looks of disappointment. I recall to him how, back in our heyday, loudly cursing at the injustice of a thwarted send was de rigueur behavior at the crags.
“Temper tantrums seem a lot less prevalent than back when I was climbing consistently,” he says. “In the ‘90s I threw some really good warblers myself—I was the occasional shoe thrower, yelling at the top of my lungs. And then once I really understood just how lame that is [laughs], I kind of revised my behavior.”
Wall says he absolutely expects kids to keep from coming unglued. “If you throw a tantrum at a competition, we’re going to talk about it for sure,” he says. “It’s unacceptable for any of the kids on the team—that type of expression. It brings everybody down.”
It occurs to me that when young people rebel against convention and authority, they often throw the baby out with the bathwater. In Wall’s and my day, we climbers prided ourselves on operating according to a different set of values outside of the mainstream. We sometimes forgot that the virtues we were taught in Little League or the Boy Scouts don’t really fall out of fashion; you’re never too cool to keep your cool. Wall heads off to attend to his kids, and I go in the other direction to check in on one of the ABC girls. Natalia Grossman, 16, moved to Boulder from Santa Cruz, California a few years ago so she could train with Erbesfield-Raboutou and crew. I find her tying in at the base of climb #25. There are 27 routes in all, ranging in difficulty from 5.9 to 5.13 and numbered from easiest to hardest. The majority of the routes are skewed toward the harder end of the spectrum, so #25 is a stout proposition.
I hop up to the mezzanine for a better view. Natalia climbs with a fluid power, moving fast and maintaining momentum through the blobby holds. The climb seems to consist only of slopers and crimps, in roughly equal measure—a pump fest to be sure. About halfway up the route, I notice her becoming just a bit erratic, but she keeps moving, keeps sticking each dyno. As she closes in on the anchors, I can tell she’s flaming out fast, but she maintains an implacable composure, clipping the last draw from a grubby little crimp, then launching herself upward for the final hold before the finish jug. She hits the hold but can’t quite stick it and drops 15 feet onto the rope. She spins slowly through the air toward the mezzanine, smiling with a look that says, Wow, that was hard!
I catch up with her a few minutes later resting on the sprawling pads beneath the bouldering wall.
“Good effort, you almost had it,” I say. Then I comment on her composure and ask about performing under pressure.
“You got to remember it’s just for fun,” she says through her big smile. “As long as you’re having fun then you’ll be more relaxed. If you take it too seriously then you’re going to be really stressed on the wall and you’re not going to climb well.”
Sure, but what about at the bigger comps with the do-or-die format? I ask.
“I have to tell myself over and over again [that it’s just for fun]. You just have to convince yourself that what you’re saying is true because you get really stressed out in the bigger competitions,” she says. “You just have to accept failure, and once you can accept that then you can really try your hardest.”
I ask if her parents are here at the comp and she cheerfully offers to go look for them with me. We find Norma Grossman up on the mezzanine. While Natalia heads back down to the gym floor, I ask Norma about the family’s move from Santa Cruz to Boulder. In California, she and her husband were driving long distances so Natalia could climb and train. There isn’t a strong program in Santa Cruz, to they trekked up to Berkeley—an hour and 45 minutes one way—at least once a week so she could work out with a team there. Natalia had met kids from ABC at comps, and one day she said, “Why don’t we just move so I can be at ABC?”
Turns out, the idea wasn’t so far-fetched; Norma’s husband could take his job with him, and she’s a teacher with 15 years of experience, so quite marketable. It was hard taking the plunge of selling their house, but once the move was made and Norma had a good job, it was a big relief. Now they live five minutes from the gym.
“It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. We’re very happy,” she says.
I ask how Natalia got into climbing. Do they climb? No, not at all it turns out. The family just happened to live close to the one gym in Santa Cruz. “We went for a walk in our neighborhood and just by accident happened to see it. Natalia wanted to go see what’s inside,” Norma says. “We walked in and Natalia was just like, with her mouth wide open, wanting to do what they were doing… She was four years old at the time.”
Little Natalia walked right up to the counter and inquired about climbing. The staff told her she couldn’t climb until she was six years old. “So once she was six, she came and asked us to enroll her at the gym, which we did right away—on her birthday,” Norma says. “That’s how she started.”
I’ve heard the same thing again and again from these kids: many of them started climbing on their own initiative. The inspiration, the sustained interest and motivation, these are entirely self-generated in a lot of the young climbers I’ve talked with. Mostly, like Norma and her husband, the parents don’t climb and knew nothing about the sport until their kids got involved in it. And another curious thing: a lot of the kids, like Quinn Davie, never considered themselves athletic until they climbed.
Surf Thompson, 18, of Team BRC, started climbing indoors two-and-a-half years ago. He’s climbing 5.13- now in the gym and goes outside as much as possible. Before Surf discovered climbing, he only dabbled in sports.
“I tried baseball, I did a little bit of soccer, I tried karate, I ran cross country, I tried a lot of sports and I just couldn’t really get into any of them,” he told me at a practice prior to the comp. “And then I started climbing and I really enjoyed it. I don’t know why—I think probably because there’s no rules and you’re not competing directly against other people.”
When I pointed out that he climbs on a competitive team, Surf explained that he doesn’t see competitions as “head-to-head,” but rather as competing against the route and against himself. He said he likes competing because it helps make him a mentally stronger climber. “It forces you to really focus,” he said. He also told me the team has taught him how to deal with failure and use it as motivation rather than getting discouraged. “It’s given me a lot of confidence,” he said.
As Norma and I wrap up, Natalia comes back to tell us she just got #25. I’ll later learn that she pulled out the win for the girls age 16-17 category with that send. But there’s no talk of first place now, she’s just happy to have finished the route.
* * *
In 1987, Michael Kennedy, long-time editor of Climbing, encapsulated the general view (not necessarily his own) of American climbers at the time, noting, “many feel that organized competition discourages the pursuit of adventure and fosters an increased urbanization of the climbing experience.” Back then, climbing as scored athletic competition was in its infancy, having just begun in Europe two years earlier. The early comps were held on real cliffs with manufactured routes—chipped and glued-on holds—so that an on-sight format could be used. Climbers on this side of the pond were collectively scratching their heads. The cultural milieu of American climbing existed on a wholly separate plane from that of corporate-sponsored televised events with their podiums, prize money, and formal rankings. Many chaffed at the direction their sport was taking in Europe; controversial climbing trends that began over there—rap-bolting was the latest culprit—invariably made their way stateside.
Lynn Hill competed in many of these early events. Writing in the same issue, she expressed her own qualms about formalized competition: “Climbing in this contrived set of circumstances, in front of 10,000 expectant eyes, bears little resemblance to the usual act pursued strictly for its personal value.” She also presciently predicted that, were competition climbing to gain any traction, it would need to take place on artificial climbing walls of the sort most climbers were still unfamiliar with.
Today, the vast majority of climbers in the U.S. go inside a building to pursue the sport, and most everyone embraces its new identity as an Olympic-worthy endeavor. Indeed the proliferation of gyms and, more to the point, the gym experience—how cranking plastic has come to augment the regimens of even the most gnarled-knuckled hunchbacks—has “urbanized” the sport to an extent Michael Kennedy circa-1987 never could have imagined.
“It’s not an outdoor gym, it’s the wilderness,” says Naomi Guy of Boulder, regarding the environmental toll taken by the ranks of gym rats who sooner or later take to the outdoors. Guy, 50, is a former two-time British national champion who competed on the World Cup circuit in the 1990s. But her passion was always for the heady and picturesque gritstone trad climbs that she cut her teeth on in her early years. I’ve called Guy to get her take on the youth-climbing scene in Boulder.
She tells me she moved to Colorado in the late ‘90s after falling in love with the Western landscape during a competition stint in the U.S. “I’d never experienced anything like it,” she says of her first day in Vedauvoo, Wyoming. “I thought cowboys and Indians were going to come galloping round the corner on horseback—it’s an amazing environment.”
Guy still climbs regularly around Boulder. Ten or fifteen years ago she started seeing heavy impact from climbers at her favorite bouldering areas. “I did start seeing places just getting trashed—overpopulated, crashpads being thrown on small saplings, loads of litter, chalk tick marks everywhere,” she says. “The younger generation—and it’s not millennials, it’s teenagers—they need to be made aware of the effect they’re having on the environment.”
Long-time Boulderite and hard woman, Bobbi Bensman, agrees: “I went to an area in the Flatirons the other day, and I walked up and there were like forty tick marks on this rock. It was just like, ‘really guys?’” she tells me over the phone.
Bensman is also concerned that kids coming out of gyms don’t have the knowledge and awareness to climb safely. She regularly finds herself walking up to young climbers and pointing out their mistakes or lapses, like belay devices going the wrong way or belayers standing too far back from the wall.
“I’ve seen a lot of really scary things, like kids getting dropped almost to the ground,” she says.
Erbesfield-Raboutou is equally concerned about kids’ safety on the rock, and it’s a huge emphasis of her program, she says. Gym-to-crag is a big component of the ABC curriculum—they regularly take trips in the U.S. and abroad—and all of her outdoor programs are run by an AMGA guide with the highest level of certification. Likewise, Team BRC partners with Colorado Mountain School to operate its gym-to-crag programs.
Ushering kids into outdoor climbing as safely as possible with certified mountain guides is certainly reason enough that climbing teams do a service to the overall community. But it’s on the environmental stewardship side of things that climbers everywhere may more generally experience the positive influence these programs can have.
I catch up with Ty Tyler, National Stewardship Director for the Access Fund, on the road in his van, which he and his wife live out of full-time as they travel the country meeting and talking with land managers. Tyler tells me that a recent study based on sales of climbing equipment estimated 7.2 million current climbers in the U.S., up from 350,000 in 1991—a 20-fold increase in less than 30 years. The data doesn’t differentiate between indoor-only and outdoor climbers, but Tyler estimates that outdoor numbers have tripled at a minimum from the 350,000 figure in 1991 (when all climbers were outdoor climbers).
And anyone who’s been at the sport for more than ten years has experienced firsthand the increasing numbers vying for a limited supply of routes. Garret Gregor, the route setter at ABC, told me of a recent spring-break trip he took to the Red River Gorge.
“It was almost to the point where we had to wait in line,” he said. “At some of the areas there was probably thirty or forty people at one crag. It will be a real problem. As more people go outside, the more we’re going to have to figure out how we allow people to access it.”
One way that might happen already exists at the RRG: Tyler explains how Roadside Crag was closed several years ago due to heavy use and the resulting erosion around the base of the cliff. It re-opened recently, but only under a permit system that limits the number of climbers at any given time. And, as most climbers know, Hueco Tanks State Park in Texas has long restricted the number of people who can access the world-class bouldering the place is famous for.
If climbing gains momentum as an Olympic sport, we could see a surge of interest on top of the current growth. Perhaps most of these new climbers will never touch chalked hand to real stone, but if even a fraction of them do, there may come a point when other land managers around the country have no choice but to adopt similar permit systems at heavily-used crags.
Imagine having to get a tee time just to go clip some bolts on the local choss pile. It sounds dystopian, but it’s not too unrealistic a possibility when you consider the exploding popularity of the sport.
“My biggest concern is numbers … just feet on the ground,” says Tyler. “But I’m also really excited that our sport is gaining a lot more respect.”
Compared with when? I ask. Turns out he’s referring to my ilk’s time: “Back in the day,” he says, “the Valley Uprising sort of time frame when all the rangers were against the climbers because they thought they were just outlaws and a lot of our user group was off the radar, behind the scenes, sneaking in, climbing where they shouldn’t be, and there was a lot of push to close climbing areas, prevent bolting, those sorts of things.” (Hmm, sounds faintly familiar.) “I think we’re well on our way to being looked upon as a user group that has the ability to steward our own resources,” he says.
Tyler thinks the brave-new-world scenario of widespread top-down regulation can be avoided as long as climbers continue to demonstrate the ability to carefully self-regulate—which is where he and others at the Access Fund, Leave No Trace, and smaller local groups collaborate with youth climbing programs to produce an educated, respectful cadre of young climbers who will go outside and become the standard bearers for the next generation.
“I feel it’s less likely that the kids coming out of teams are going to be as large a contributor to the problem as just the general population of people that are coming into the gym and then going outside without having the team education,” Chris Wall tells me over the phone. “They’re not necessarily being taught the stewardship; they’re just learning this new sport.”
At the BRC comp, Wall also told me that youth competition climbing is growing just as fast as the rest of the sport. These days, comps fill up fast and organizers often have to turn away a lot of kids. Climbing teams simply can’t keep up with demand, but, to the extent they do—and will in the future—they can capture and educate a growing slice of the next generation taking to the cliffs.
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People of my generation and older often look back on their youth as a golden age, regardless of time, place, or context. The knee-jerk impulse to condemn any development or evolution since one’s own glory days (back then we had leather helmets and no face masks—that was real football!) is indulged, at least in part, to assuage the pangs of slipping down the backside of the proverbial hill. It’s an easy attitude into which one can uncritically fall.
And so I came into this piece more or less agreeing with the sentiments Kennedy wrote of in his 1987 editorial. Climbing gave me the ultimate sense of freedom—no rules, no scores, no one telling what to do or how to do it. It came along in my life just after I’d been released from the confines of boarding school, where a lot of sanctimonious morality had been shoved down my throat, so I suppose the lawless spirit climbing still embodied at the time resonated particularly strongly and made a lasting impression. The fact that very few people understood the attraction of risking life and limb in the vertical world gave my generation of climbers the space and anonymity to more or less do whatever we pleased there. Sure, we respected raptor closures and the prevailing ethics of the time, but no ranger was going to tell us where, when, or how we could bivy or take a shit. For better or worse, those were my golden years.
So, although I wouldn’t have outright condemned organized competition climbing, it did always seem a rather silly pursuit to take seriously and get excited about. Climbing was about going offline, as it were, and having an experience you could only get on the side of a cliff, out away from society, not about beating the next guy, where you stood in the rankings, or even necessarily succeeding in any definite, measurable way.
I can pinpoint the moment that perception shifted: when Zach Arenberg stood before me, eyes all a twinkle, talking as if someone had pushed a fast-forward button in his brain, just basically oozing stoke out his every pore. This kid loves this place—whatever it’s about, I thought.
Now to be sure, we can certainly botch it if we’re not careful. Rhonda Davie, Quinn’s mother, wrote to me after we talked: “Regarding a competitive environment: I believe that it is alive and well amongst the parents of these young climbers…. I have witnessed parents focused more on winning than the fun…. Climbing is going to be part of the Olympics and some parents have goals for their kids to be a part of that.”
I have no doubt that Rhonda has a good read on the youth comp scene—human folly has a way of seeping into every nook and cranny of society—but I, for one, saw no Friday Night Tykes-type antics at ABC or BRC, nor at the comp I attended. And, no, these programs aren’t just churning out soulless, eastern-bloc-like climbing robots.
But they are producing ridiculously strong climbers. The leap from 5.14 to 5.15 was made by young talent—Sharma, Ondra, Hayes, et al—that came up through gyms and competitive programs. Erbesfield-Raboutou told me she thinks the modern “young and frolicy” style born of the gym sensibility is the main reason this crew is now knocking on the door of 5.16. Even Honnold got his start in the gym, and his story—feeling awkward and lonely until he came into his own as a climber—points to a heartening trend I found: through these programs, kids are discovering themselves, finding something that resonates deeply with their souls, at a young age—while they still have plenty of time to enjoy their youth. Erbesfield-Raboutou’s kids might be athletes, but, for the most part, they aren’t the Bo Jackson types who crush whatever sport they try. Climbing may be going mainstream, but it remains a niche sport in the sense that it clicks particularly well with a certain type of kid who evidently struggles to latch on to any other sport.
You won’t see Surf Thompson in any Olympics—so he says—but he and so many like him may be the real success stories coming out of youth comp programs.
“Some days I’ll think, ‘how good can I get,’ and then other days I just want to have fun with it,” he told me. “So it kind of changes, and I don’t know where it will go, but it’s opened up a ton and I’ve had a ton of great experiences with it, so I’m definitely not going to stop any time soon.”
Erbesfield-Raboutou and I talked briefly the other day. She left me with a sentiment I don’t doubt the sincerity of: “My whole goal is to bring climbing to the community of younger people. Over and above everything I did as a professional athlete, that’s really why I’m on this earth, to just share my passion with the younger generation.”