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Inside the 2009 SCS Nationals

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Amidst a soggy evening snowstorm on Sunday, January 25, just outside Salt Lake City, the Momentum climbing gym bustled with energy — a crowd of hundreds gathered to witness America’s top climbers vie for the 2009 SCS Adult National Championship ( Outside of Momentum’s thick walls, the echo of cheers and applause faded into the night, while inside, Carlo Traversi and Emily Harrington bested the competition to clinch first place finishes.

“It was a big confidence booster,” said Harrington. “I just tried to focus on climbing well and not really worrying about how I was going to do. I try to take it one move at a time.”

Harrington, 22, the 2008 SCS Nationals champ, managed to grab the last hold of this year’s wandering and pumpy women’s route before falling. Her closest competitors struggled just moves away from the top of the route, stymied by a long reach to a poor right hand pinch, followed by a big move off of a small crimp to the finishing jug. For second place finisher Paige Claassen, the competition came to a sudden close when she reached for the right hand pinch with her left hand, confusing the sequence and falling soon after.

“When I got to the top, I knew I probably wasn’t going to be able to match and finish it; I was kind of stuck,” Claassen said. “I decided to just go for the points, but making the decision was probably the hardest part. The wall is just so tall that you get increasingly tired, but I didn’t think the holds really got worse until the very top.”

Although Claassen and Harrington are often each other’s main competitors (last year at Nationals, Harrington beat Claassen in a semi-final showdown by a single hold), their friendship remains unsullied by the pressures of competition.

“We’re really close friends and we train together all the time,” said Claassen, who can be spotted climbing with Harrington at the Boulder Rock Club in Colorado.

Claassen added that she feels she climbs better under pressure and the crowd only serves to motivate her. For men’s champion Carlo Traversi, the key is staying calm and confident.

“Comp climbing is just very hit or miss, but I was pretty relaxed. I’m confident in what I can handle nowadays, so I felt like I could definitely do the route going into it,” Traversi said. “I generally move pretty quickly on routes because it helps conserve energy. A lot of other people like to take it more mellow, but for me it helps if I kind of get in the flow of things and keep moving.”

Traversi entered the finals tied with Ethan Pringle, who took third in the finals, and first-time competitor Jonathan Siegrist, who took fifth. The men’s final route opened with a technical slab that culminated in an intimidating dyno, followed by a steep section of larger features and tough clips. At the end, a long, footless reach from a handlebar jug to two final holds went untouched. Traversi earned the win by attempting to dyno off the handlebar jug; second-place finisher Dave Graham touched, but didn’t hold, the handlebar.

“The vertical slab start was dicey, since I’m more of a boulderer and we tend to favor the steeper angles,” Traversi said. “The dyno was pretty easy for me and after that it was just resistance climbing. I knew I needed to do a figure-4 on the last move, but I was over-gripping and felt too tired. I figured I might as well get movement toward the hold rather than trying to huck my leg over my arm.”

Siegrist, on the other hand, “felt right at home” on the slab and dreaded the dyno. Siegrist, of Boulder, Colorado, said his reason for giving comp climbing a try was to stay motivated and fit during the Colorado winter, which he calls “the least-inspiring time of the year.”

“I saw it as an opportunity to experience a new kind of mental challenge,” Siegrist said. “I tried to be as relaxed as I could and just climb like I was the only one there and really zone out the crowd, the pressure, and the environment. I was really nervous up until the moment I started climbing, and then a lot of the anxiety left and it felt completely natural.”

Competition climbing’s high-intensity environment is also a natural setting for head route-setter Kevin Branford, who competed professionally for eight years before becoming a setter.

“It’s a labor of love,” Branford said. “I unfortunately attended a couple of comps along the way that were just poorly run and I didn’t want that to happen to other people.”

For Branford, the challenge of setting for a comp lies in the right combination of function and flair.

“It’s very tricky. There’s a fine line between having flashy moves that excite the audience and having moves that are functional, not to mention safe,” said Branford, who worked alongside setters Molly Beard, Chris Danielson, Kyle McFarland and Steven Jeffrey. “You spend an entire week setting routes for a really strong set of people and then you just get to sit back and watch them climb. If the climbers walk away happy with the routes, that’s just icing on the cake.”