My Shining, Beautiful, Devastating Memories From The World Cup Circuit
The fist raised in victory; the bright lights; the roaring crowd—from the outside, competition climbing seems to be all glitz and glamour. But what is it like on the inside, from the lived experience of a onetime competitor?
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It’s the day after a Lead World Cup in Briançon, France, July 2015. In the aftermath of the action, you find yourself alone on the rooftop of the apartment where you’re staying. It’s sunrise. It’s so beautiful you could cry. You do start crying, but you’re not sure if it’s because you’re happy or sad or both.
The sun crests the surrounding Hautes-Alpes, splitting everything into gold and shadow. It’s quiet; the world is just waking up. Caducous leaves catch spindrifts of wind in the morning air. Verdigris rooftops sparkle in the encroaching light while pigeons dance on the undercurrents. In the distance, the columns of the collegial church rise up above the famous Grande Rue, a street cobbled together in 1345 as the city’s central vein. You can almost smell the bread and the croissants cooling in the café windows. You can almost hear the laundry drying on high lines strung above the narrow, twisting avenues. Layers of life, old and new, woven into the modern world.
This is so nice, you think.
Yet you can’t help but feel a small part of you creeping up from your gut. It rises into your chest and then throat. It sits there like an unswallowed peanut. Your toes stir. Your body wants to vibrate.
This is so nice, you try again, but already the phrase has lost its meaning.
Dull on the outside, steaming on the inside: like a baked potato. You had carried yourself with an all-consuming intensity. Eyes burning, heart pounding, a crisp, clipped walk that did not deviate or hesitate or pause and took you everywhere you needed to go. You didn’t make friends easily. It’s never been in your disposition to yell or scream in rage even though you wanted to, and maybe that’s part of what made it all so difficult—climbing, training, fitting in, etcetera. It was only when you were on the wall that the world stopped spinning, that the air returned to your lungs.
But that feeling, of clipping chains, of winning. Every cell in your body simultaneously drained and overflowing. It’s a knife-blade, liminal-space kind of feeling. For the briefest moment, the weight on your chest would be gone, and you’d drift through the evening after the event like dust glinting in sunlight: beaming. Trying to soak it all in before it disappeared.
Half the time you couldn’t even think straight. Once, during isolation at Youth Nationals, your friend told you and others some simple joke: What did the grape say when it got crushed? But your turn was approaching; you were steeped in apprehension and sound and people and motion, so you didn’t laugh. You didn’t process the joke. Didn’t really hear it. The grape said nothing … What? Only that night, hours after the comp, did the punchline sink in and flood you with a mix of delight and shame: It just let out a little wine.
It was all too easy to miss things in that state of mind.
When people ask what the international circuit was like, you say, “A blur.” Sure, you saw llamas dotting the improbably green valleys and slopes of Ibarra, Ecuador, where the air was barely there and clouds wriggled around your feet. You did little air donuts while paragliding in Chamonix, the Aiguille du Midi winking in and out of view. You spent too much time in airports, once waking up on the floor with unknown food crusted in your hair, still knotted in a high pony from whatever comp had happened before. In Arco, Italy, you watched pistachio gelato melt down your hand, leaving translucent streaks of sticky chartreuse. You took artsy photos of abandoned locks left by lovers on bridges in Paris, and you could only guess at how many broken promises they contained.
The competitions themselves? They faded the moment they began.
You’re on a boat, an old plastic rental with an outboard motor, tooling around the dark, isle-studded waters of Flatanger, Norway. The air here, in late summer 2015, is still and warm. Waves bounce against the shore, the foam forming white gossamer that gets swept up in the undertow.
You’re here because in three days, you’ll compete in another Lead World Cup, also in Norway, but 600 miles south in Stavanger. You’re on a boat because it’s a rest day. After walking to the nearest grocery store to kill time, you saw the water and the dock and the boats, and that’s how you knew exactly how you’d spend your day: not thinking about climbing or World Cups or real life—but allowing your fatigued body to drift in the sea breeze aboard an old plastic boat.
You rented the boat after promising you knew how to drive it (you didn’t). You did donuts in the ocean. Around and around and around in the water: White sand, rocky palisades, carmine starfish, prickly mauve-colored sea urchins, sparkles of light flashing like fine bijou.
And then you ran out of gas.
You’re walking down a side street in Wujiang, China. It’s October 2015, and it’s hot and humid—like dog’s breath. You should be wearing your U.S. uniform, because you spent the morning competing in a World Cup. Instead, you’re wearing a hot-pink tank top, the one you flew to China in, and a pair of cerulean shorts from the local grocery store because the airline lost your luggage. You wonder at how you must have looked to the other athletes, like a cotton-candy colored Q-tip.
Not all World Cups are glamorous. The warm-up wall here was a dilapidated, 15- by 8-foot piece of plywood, set nearly vertical and mostly with jugs, some of which spun. The holds were an eclectic mix—slippery, old, rounded, in dull pastels and shades of brown. Since both men’s and women’s rounds ran at the same time, you had to wait in line to get on the wall. You’d done the same as a child, when coaches would point out your traverse on the bouldering wall at your local gym.
The route had been relatively straightforward—long, crimpy, slopey. The kind where the sequences come easy but you need to squeeze your lower core the entire way up. You felt dazed in the afternoon light, still swimming from jetlag. Your head stuffed with cotton balls, you’d begun your shaky, and ultimately brief, ascent.
The street leading out of the venue is lined with cherry trees. The leaves are green and diaphanous in the filtered light. After the round, you walk with two friends from Canada. Another from the Czech Republic. None of you made finals, and so there was time to kill. But no matter, you think. You’re in China. This is nice.
Behind you, a mom walks hand-in-hand with her daughter; she could be 5 or 6. The girl’s dress has big pink polka dots. Her face is small, round, and shiny, like a fresh apple. They overtake you and continue ahead. Seeing them there, on that street of stippled light, you think it’s one of the most elegant things you’ve seen, like something from an Impressionist painting. You fish for your phone to steal a picture.
And then something strange happens: The girl stops; the mom whips around toward you. The mom takes a picture of the girl, with you and your friends in the background. You can only guess that the girl wanted a picture with the World Cup climbers. You should be flattered.
Then the moment ends—it’s passed you by—and you didn’t manage to get your picture.
In his Four Quartets, the American poet T.S. Eliot wrote: “Desire itself is movement / Not in itself desirable; / Love is itself unmoving.” An elaborate structure of words to describe ultimately ordinary feelings. But Eliot missed something. Addiction is the ultimate mover: It drives desire. And at some point, you decide competing is about addiction.
Addictions form when there is need. And because there is always need, there is always addiction. Even the Buddha, who said something about life being suffering, knew that.
You need to tell yourself to keep chasing your dreams, no matter how tired you get, how disoriented you feel, how low your bank account dips, how much you should have gotten a real job, how much you sent and didn’t send over the year (and what that looks like to sponsors), the comps you won and the comps the comps you didn’t. You need to keep trying, because it’d be worse to give up, and, more importantly, because there’s still that feeling, way deep down: You can do it. Don’t let your understandable, logical, defensible, valid doubt squelch whatever might be possible; if only you could just try harder.
So you do try harder. And in so doing you trap yourself in a tunnel of your own making, one that will never quite reach the surface.
You awake in a stupor, Dutch chocolate cake crusted around your mouth. Your mascara is half on you, half on the pillowcase. You can see flecks of it on his chest, like tiny ants glistening in the morning light.
You didn’t sleep well, and your head aches from the alcohol. You peel yourself from his bed—dark room, clothes scattered, bathroom down the hall, shifting hardwood floors—and your stomach rolls. You stare into a vanity mirror, your face looking saggy and oiled and flushed—compressed and clownlike, as if falling in on itself. You wash up, grab your things, and escape to the street.
Outside, the snow is glaringly white. Thick, sharp flakes come down like a wall. You hail a taxi in the quiet susurration of dawn. The night before was, it would turn out, your second-to-last Nationals. It was on your twenty-first birthday. You were first in semifinals. And you had that feeling: You would top the final route and claim your fourth National Lead title. But then you misread the beta, jumped to the wrong hold, and came off by the second bolt. And then you ate cake.
You wanted to try again. But that was it.
After flying home to Fort Collins, Colorado, where you’re attending Colorado State University, you hop in your car and drive into the wilderness west of town. You’re going to a famous Buddhist temple, one that’s crowned in gold. It’s seated in a valley of frozen snow. No one is there when you arrive. You remove your shoes, enter, and find a seat at the edge of the circle, atop a small folding chair with a red velvet pillow. Crimson meditation cushions lie strewn about the floor. They lead to the great golden Buddha seated at the center of the stupa. He stares blankly ahead, both seeing and unseeing. It’s not long before you fall asleep.
You awake in a stupor. Now’s my chance, you think. You want to try again.
In between comps, at home in Fort Collins, you liked to wake before sunrise. You’d drive away from campus and run, usually up to Horsetooth Falls, following the trail to a small precipice. You’d climb it and sit down and wait for your heart rate to slow. The world dropped off around you, rock giving way to bristlecone pine and then Douglas fir, giving way to fields of sinuous grass, broken with patches of juniper. These moments of solitude were precious.
There was one semester in which you traveled every single weekend. Be it to a comp, an event, a clinic. You hated flying. The stale air, the feeling of being trapped. Prior to every flight you’d beeline to the bar and take a shot of tequila to numb your mind. Going from place to place, week to week, sometimes you felt like a plastic ball that someone else was bouncing.
But there was nothing that stilled you again like a solitary sunrise in the woods.
Culver City, California, November 2018. Not a World Cup, but a comp that your sponsors paid you to go to, one that’s unique in that it’s for women and set by women. Although you’re not sure you can relate to the whole female-empowerment thing (which makes you feel like a shitty feminist), you’re thankful for the change of pace. You qualify for finals, even though you feel out of shape.
Sitting in isolation, you close your eyes. You can hardly pull on the wall to warm up again, you’re so exhausted from qualifiers. You put on headphones and try to remember that this one doesn’t matter. As dusk gathers in the small window outside, you recall you’ll need to breathe. Just breathe.
And then it’s time for preview. You and the other competitors walk out single-file. The crowd applauds. A small girl steps out to give you—you!—a high five, and for a moment you’re shocked back into your body.
Back to Briançon. Prior to arriving on that early-morning rooftop, the cheesiest goddamned thing that’s ever happened to you happened to you. It began as you waited to compete in finals the night before, sitting on the cold, hard plastic chair behind the stage at the Lead World Cup. It was a cool evening but humid enough to cause your legs to stick to the plastic. Staring at them, the bumps on your skin. Staring at your shoes, your harness, your knot. Staring anywhere and everywhere to drown out your thoughts. Remember to breathe, you tell yourself. It wasn’t working, so you closed your eyes and listened to the dull rataplan of your heart. It ached inside you like an unswallowed grape.
Here it was: this dream. Dream is a dumb word, but there’s no way around it. This was your opportunity to podium at a World Cup. All you had to do was climb. After previewing the route, something inside you knew that you could do it, that you could top that route. It was just a feeling—a small voice deep inside that said You’re capable.
You grab the start hold: small, green, and flat, a ripple through the middle carving two small crimps. Your mind goes blank. Everything else falls away.
Shall we skip ahead? Yes. Let’s breeze through the part where you skipped the second draw, your attention too zeroed in on the next hold. The part where the announcer called you down, and hearing him was like waking up from one dream and falling into another. As you lowered, untied, and waded through the crowd toward your coach, you’ve never felt so untethered from yourself. Yes, let’s breeze past this. It was all a blur anyway, right? Descendingstagefindingseatwatchingfinalssittingsittingstaringstaring. The air knocked out of you. You watched the people move around you, the awards ceremony, the winning athletes giving signatures and hugs to fans—and pitying looks in your direction. You felt as swollen and as delicate as a water balloon.
You had a friend from Israel—a fellow competitor. He had curly red hair and eggshell-blue eyes. When he talked in that Israeli accent, sometimes leaving out h’s and overpronouncing vowels, your heart melted. When he glanced at you from the crowd, smiling his curled smile, the kind that said You’re fine—well, you tried to believe him.
At the end of comps, setters remove the bolts from the starting holds to prevent climbers from trying the routes afterward (an inevitability once the alcohol starts flowing). They were quick to do so at this comp, too. The starting hold on your route remained up via a sole set screw at its corner—one the setters had missed—leaving the grip to pivot like an upside-down question mark. Seeing this, your Israeli friend did something funny. He made his way through the crowd, up onto the stage, and over to the base of the route. He snapped the hold right off the wall, breaking it at the corner. Then he brought you the pieces and told you the route should have been yours.
You still have that handhold. Chalk marks demarcate where you and the other competitors bit down on it with your fingers. With its dense, heavy, and impenetrable mass, it’s practically an antique. The hold sits on your desk, a lumpy paperweight.
You now live in Rifle, Colorado, a small town that smells like cattle and dirt. It’s quiet, which feels decadent. You retired from competition climbing a few years ago, after seven years on the circuit—long enough. You never did realize your dream of podiuming at a World Cup. It was all a slow, beautiful slip.
You’ve since turned your attention to other people, trying to understand what drives them and put that into words. You work on your vocabulary by writing down big words, like sesquipedalian. You decide you love this word, because it means “having many syllables.” You say it every so often, to feel it come out of your mouth.
You interview great athletes and read about great athletes. You wonder about dreams and clichés. You promise your editor a story about why we compete. You deliver one that’s about repeating patterns and attempts. And you want to try again.
Delaney Miller is a digital editor for Climbing. She graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s of science in health and exercise science, and competed on the open circuit until late 2018.