The biggest takeaway from last weekend’s Bouldering National Championship at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds in Redmond, Oregon, was that Nathaniel Coleman is still the best male boulderer in the United States. It has been easy to forget that because Coleman, a multi-time bouldering national champion, is more often cast as the best male all-arounder due to his Olympic qualification in Toulouse, France. His improvements in the speed climbing and lead climbing disciplines have been touted a lot recently. And I am as guilty as anyone for shifting the focus away from Coleman’s bouldering and onto the Olympics in the past few months. Back in December, 2019, I wrote: “A greater story going forward might be how Coleman is getting much better in the Combined format.”
So this year’s Bouldering Nationals were a forceful reminder of Coleman’s bouldering prowess and legacy, especially following last year’s upset victory by Sean Bailey. In fact, Coleman was nearly flawless the entire weekend this year. He topped every boulder in the qualification round (with four flashes); he topped two boulders to lead the field at the end of the semi-final round; and then in the final round, he topped the first three boulders—including struggling and then succeeding on a pommel press sequence on the dynamic third boulder.
Much credit should be given to Bailey as well, who stayed hot on Coleman’s heels the whole weekend to create a climax on the fourth boulder, a powerful overhang of cube-shaped volumes. Bailey repeatedly tried to catch that boulder’s overhanging volumes with a quick hand-flip, but with only small jibs attached to the volumes’ larger surfaces, he couldn’t make the beta work. Coleman opted for a more static approach and eventually campused through the lip of the overhang. He wasn’t successful in finding the top either, but his total score of 84.5 was enough for the win. Bailey, scoring 74.4, placed second, and Ben Hanna (69.5) placed third. The victory marked Coleman’s fourth Bouldering Open National championship; he won the event previously in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
The women’s division showcased unequivocal supremacy too, with Natalia Grossman capping off her undefeated bouldering streak of the 2019-2020 national circuit with a win at the biggest bouldering competition of the year. Grossman previously won the Yank-n-Yard, the Battle of the Bay, and the Southern Grit events of USA Climbing’s National Cup series, so her national championship provided a storybook ending to one of the most remarkable single seasons in American competition history.
But Grossman’s win was never a foregone conclusion. She led the qualification portion by topping all the boulders, but Cloe Coscoy rallied in the semi-finals. Coscoy topped all boulders of that round, including a dynamic, swinging third boulder that bested Grossman, to take the lead. In the early stages of the finals, Grossman continued to be challenged by Coscoy, as well as circuit veteran Alex Johnson and a pair of youngsters from Seattle’s Team Vertical World, Matti Dennis and Quinn Mason. The second boulder, a collection of smooth volumes that necessitated static movement and constant stemming, separated the field. Grossman flashed it, while all other competitors struggled to even reach the 15-zone-hold. All the women struggled on the ensuing third boulder, but Grossman’s progress on it (to reach the 15-zone-hold) gave her a 25.2-point lead over the rest of the field. She would eventually top the fourth boulder, but it was merely a formality—she had already mathematically secured the victory, with Coscoy and Johnson rounding out the podium.
There were other aspects of the weekend’s competition too—some good, some bad—so let’s take a closer look at the action.
A Lot of Cracks
Over the last year, the competition world became fascinated with crack climbing. The trend started during the Meiringen World Cup's finals, when the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra flashed the final boulder—while the rest of the field struggled mightily with the requisite hand-jam. Since then, gyms and competitions have been bolting volumes close together to force unique jams. Last weekend’s Bouldering Nationals might have been the apex of this routesetting craze, with cracks appearing in every round. The third boulder of the women’s qualification portion featured a crack near the top; the fourth boulder of the men’s semi-finals featured a fist-jam start; and the third boulder in the women’s finals invited a toe-cam near the boulder’s arête. Never mind that many of the competitors avoided the jams, instead employing shoulder-searing double gastons. It was still cool to see all the cracks. Maybe the trend will entice the die-hard traddies around the country to tune in to watch a competition in the future. Plus, we can all place bets with our friends now: Will the Olympics include a crack climb?
Ben Hanna’s Arrival
There are a lot of competitors who are worth singling out for their respective performances. Alex Johnson continued to wow us with her ongoing (and now multi-year) comeback on the elite level of the competitive scene. Quinn Mason was able to stay focused when she was ushered into isolation to mend two bloody fingers while attempting the third boulder in the finals. But let’s focus on Ben Hanna for a moment, who was making his first-ever appearance in a Bouldering Open National Championship finals. He topped two boulders in the final round and was only five points away from earning a silver medal. He ended up earning the bronze and was visibly emotional on the podium. Hanna is one of the most charismatic competitors, and one of the most enjoyable to watch given his penchant for dynamic moves. His climbing sometimes reminds me of a younger Sean McColl, and that gets me even more excited for what the future might hold for Hanna.
One of the most interesting facets of the routesetting was also one of the subtlest. On the fourth problem in the men’s semi-final round, the 25-zone hold was not the large slopey volume that resided at the top of the boulder, but instead a small screw-on handhold in the shadows of the volume’s left side. Many competitors realized the difference, but some did not. Colin Duffy twice climbed to the slopey volume and matched his fingertips on it thinking he had reached the 25-zone-hold. Commentator Sean Woodland predicted, “That could be costly for Colin Duffy,” and it was; 16-year-old Duffy, one of the best climbers in the country, only earned 14.9 points on that boulder and did not advance to the final round. Then Colin Wills did the same thing, misreading what he thought to be the boulder’s official top. Subtleties like this could be seen as cheap tricks on the part of the routesetters, but I don’t see them that way. I see these as nuances that add to the competitive palette, along with a ticking clock, a loud crowd, and a requirement to deliver under pressure.
If I can quibble with the routesetting a bit, I was frustrated with the third boulder in the men’s final—that pommel press that was topped first by Ben Hanna and then by Sean Bailey and Nathaniel Coleman. It was an interesting boulder, a fun mix of dynamic lower movement with a methodical pistol-squat reach to the top. But it did not have a 5-zone-hold or a 10-zone-hold, just a 15-zone hold and the 25-zone hold. This absence of certain point zones occurs sometimes on other boulders in American competitions too, and I don’t get it. What is the point of adopting a scoring system designed to separate the field with various point designations (5, 10, 15, and 25)—if boulders then lack half of those designations? My frustrations are illustrated by the scores on that third men’s boulder—and the subsequent lack of separation. Three competitors gained zero points, and three competitors reached the top, with no in-between. If the American scoring system allows for four scored zone holds to parcel the field, then four score zone holds should always be set.
Zach Galla Gone Early
Ever since winning the Combined Invitational last year, Zach Galla has been considered one of the “big four” at every competition he has entered—along with his 2019 National Teammates Nathaniel Coleman, Sean Bailey, and Drew Ruana. Galla can win any competition on any given day, so his struggles as this year’s Bouldering Nationals progressed were surprising. He started out strong, separated from Nathaniel Coleman in the qualifying round by just one tenth of a point. However, Galla failed to top any boulder in the semi-finals and did not advance to the finals. “One of my worst days of climbing ever,” Galla later reflected on Instagram. “I still don’t know what really happened.” A lot of us fans were thinking the same thing: What the heck happened? But we also know that Galla will likely be back and better than ever in many competitions to come.
- Nathaniel Coleman
- Sean Bailey
- Ben Hanna
- Zach Richardson
- Zander Waller
- Sam McQueen
- Natalia Grossman
- Cloe Coscoy
- Alex Johnson
- Matti Dennis
- Quinn Mason
- Megan Lynch
John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, which chronicles the history of American competition climbing and will be available March 3, 2020.