It is 4:15 p.m. on a late-winter day in 2017. The third-floor yoga room at the Boulder Rock Club in Boulder, Colorado, swarms with kids in matching blue T-shirts. They stand in a circle chatting and giggling while half a dozen coaches linger on the periphery. The climbing team comprises boys and girls of all ages and heights—from pint-sized up to gangly teenagers. Stretching begins. One child at a time leads a stretch and the others follow. It is a routine they know well, and the chatting and giggles quiet as the children awaken their muscles.
Such kids are a source of widespread jealousy among adult gym-goers. They are the mini-crushers that flash your project despite lacking 18 inches in height, simultaneously inciting a pang of admiration and a sense of crushing inadequacy. We live in an era where age seems not to be a limiting factor in ability—just look to Ashima Shiraishi, age 16 and climbing V15 and pushing 5.15, as an example. Whether it’s inspiring or demoralizing, one thing is certain: Kids crush. The growing popularity of climbing teams and modern gyms have contributed to a changing landscape—one in which young climbers can develop the technical skills to maximally exploit the peak physical abilities of their late teens and early 20s: think Adam Ondra and Alexander Megos. This evolution has expanded and will expand the boundaries of our sport, perhaps to 5.16 and beyond.
At the end of warm-ups, head coach Chris Wall stands before the team to lay out the day’s practice. Two levels of climbers are practicing today. The Power Micros are the strongest climbers in the 8–10 age group. They receive their practice plan then scamper off downstairs to warm up, leaving Varsity, the 13- to 19-year-olds, behind.
Among the remaining climbers is Christopher Deuto, a seventh-grader from Clear Creek County, Colorado. At 13, he is one of the youngest Varsity climbers. Christopher listens intently to the directions. He wears a BRC tank top that matches his teammates’, but is faded and worn. He has blond hair and a rosy complexion and braces. A tight necklace with wooden discs adorns his neck—the kind of thing a young Chris Sharma might wear.
Wall uses a whiteboard to diagram the drills. After a four-by-two bouldering warmup, the kids will get on lead with assigned partners. Today’s lead drill is called Leapfrog—it’s like running suicides on the wall, an endurance marathon that requires downclimbing to the previous clipping stance at every bolt before continuing upward.
Coach Wall dismisses the team, but asks Christopher and his partner, an older boy named Nick, to stay behind. Wall tells them they are to get special attention today from another coach, Juan Usubillaga. “You are arguably two of the strongest on the team,” he says. The boys are not to focus on sending, he explains, but on the intricacies of their movement. “You want to be a creature that functions entirely by rhythm,” says Wall.
They take to the walls. Christopher boulders with his chalkbag draped over his arm. It’s furry and looks like a toy monster—Christopher is sponsored by 8b+, the company that makes such chalk bags. He is also sponsored by Butora. Christopher says he doesn’t exactly brag about having sponsors. But, “you can almost trash talk your friends about it,” he says with a smirk. Christopher’s best friend, Tanner, is sponsored by Mad Rock.
Christopher goes from one problem to the next, hardly resting. “Wait, your onsight level is 5.13-?” asks a teammate, a kid not much older than Christopher with a blond buzzcut. “Yeah,” Christopher responds. “What the heck, dude!”
Christopher hops on a blue problem that’s graded “advanced.” The holds are big and slopey—many shaped like fat elephant trunks. He climbs the problem up and down twice without coming off the wall, resting on a kneebar to blow the hair out of his eyes. He drops back to the ground casually as the same teammate watches.
“Dude, you’re insane,” the boy says.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Christopher Deuto leaves school half an hour early to make it to practice at the Boulder Rock Club, 90 minutes from the family home in the mountains. Between parents, Michelle and Josh Deuto, 12 hours each week are spent driving to climbing practices, competitions, and the crag. Sometimes, if the weather is nice, Josh will pick Christopher up early from school on a Tuesday or Thursday to climb outside. Weekends are dedicated to competitions and real rock. The father and son spend most weekends in Clear Creek Canyon projecting sport routes.
Josh Deuto, who works as a firefighter, has been climbing for nearly 30 years, and Michelle, a nurse, for around half that. When Christopher and his younger son, Luke, were born, Josh stepped away from climbing to focus on family. But it wasn’t long before his eldest son became interested in the sport and Josh’s passion was reignited.
“My wife and I decided early on that we weren’t going to push Christopher into any sport. It was going to hopefully be as completely organic as possible,” he says. Nevertheless, climbing permeated the family’s home, with magazines, photographs, climber friends, and a home wall in the basement. Christopher’s exposure to the sport was inevitable. When asked why he likes climbing, he says, “It’s kind of in my blood.”
At age six, after a weeklong camp at the local recreation center, Christopher began to develop an interest in the sport on his own. Even then, his aptitude for climbing was obvious to his parents. Soon, he was enrolled in a non-competitive after-school program at the Boulder Rock Club, and before long he asked to sign up for the team. He’s now been on the BRC’s team for five years, and takes training and practice seriously.
Before moving on to the Leapfrog drill, Christopher and Nick chat with Usubillaga. Christopher sings along and dances a little to the pop song playing over the gym’s speakers. The conversation returns to today’s goal about rhythm. Juan asks Christopher to repeat the objective in his own words, drilling it down before he once again gets on the wall. Christopher asks a lot of questions, then rephrases, using words like “eloquence” and “flow.”
First, Christopher belays Nick, who falls near the top of the route. Now it’s Christopher’s turn. He hands an uneaten half a granola bar to Usubillaga, who pockets it. The boys have chosen a steep 5.12 with small holds. Christopher ties in, cinches down his blue Butora Acros, and stands. Before approaching the wall, he pauses and observes the route, mimicking each move with cupped hands held up in front of his face. His eyes focus in on the grips as he pantomimes the beta.
Then he fires off the ground, climbing with confidence and clipping the first three draws smoothly. At the third draw, he descends to the second, pauses, and continues up in a display of masterful technique and endurance. An older woman standing on the ground nearby watches in awe. The pattern continues, up and down, up and down, until finally he clips the chains at the ceiling. By the time he’s done, he’s been on the wall for at least five minutes.
They do this twice more on the same route and thrice more on a different 5.12. Taking a break from his own climbing session, Josh watches the drill. (Josh and Michelle will often use the time at the gym during Christopher’s practice to do their own climbing.)
“Dad, watch this. It’s gonna be awesome—I’m gonna dyno from the bottom to the top,” Christopher jokes.
“That looked heinous,” says Josh after watching his son complete another set.
But Christopher lowers to the ground with a grin on his face. “That felt really good,” he says, high-fiving his coach.
At 13, Christopher’s climbing credentials surpass what many adult climbers hope to achieve in a lifetime. During his first competitive season as a Power Micro with Team BRC, Christopher made it all the way to Youth Nationals. But the satisfaction of climbing doesn’t come solely from competing. “I don’t want to push through my life competing in World Cups,” he says. According to Christopher, climbers aren’t remembered for success in competition, but for accomplishments on rock, like flashing a 5.14a at age 16. He may be a few years shy of 16, but the 5.14 benchmark is not so far off.
Christopher has sent multiple 5.13s in Clear Creek Canyon, the first of which, Express Yourself (5.13b), went down in fifth grade. Recently, he sent his first V10, Finger Hut in Joe’s Valley, and made the first ascent of a 5.12d sport route in Clear Creek Canyon called Runt of the Litter, a wild roof climb at the Dog House. He’s been projecting a 5.14a, Shine, also in Clear Creek, for nearly a year. He has every move memorized, and could talk about it for hours, analyzing his own capabilities and struggles with the route. “It’ll go down this year,” he says.
Christopher talks about climbing with the sophistication of someone who’s been around the sport for decades. He lives and breathes route beta and climbing history, self-analysis and discipline. His Instagram account resembles the popular accounts of professional athletes, each action shot captioned with route descriptions and shout-outs to his sponsors. But at the same time, he’s just a kid who plays basketball during school lunch, dreads math class, and looks forward to woodshop.
“I don’t know about college because I want to climb,” he says. “But if I do go, I want to go to Stanford or Princeton.” He’s got some time to decide, but such goals may not be so far-fetched—the seventh grader was recently inducted into the National Junior Honors Society. “School has to be first,” says Josh. It’s a well-established rule in the family: If Christopher’s schoolwork suffers, he isn’t allowed to climb. Christopher sees himself living in a van one day and climbing all over, but he has other goals, too. One day he might start a climbing-hold company or become a rescue diver for the Coast Guard. “If that doesn’t work out, I really want to be an astronaut,” he says.
Nevertheless, climbing pervades every aspect of his life. When he isn’t training, Christopher’s interests include setting on his home wall, route development, and documenting new climbs near his house. With his friend Tanner, Christopher has established dozens of boulder problems in the national forest just beyond his backyard.
It’s the boys’ paradise—endless first ascents, many of three- and four-star quality. The pair often ventures out on overnight trips to scope new problems or mess around at areas they’ve developed and named. Christopher keeps photos on his phone: There’s Gold Wall Area, Robot Crown, Back to Back. Christopher thinks he also has found a boulder that might rival Nalle Hukkataival’s Burden of Dreams (V17). “I can’t wait to get up there and establish it,” he says.
In 2017, such young talent is no longer rare in the climbing world. In fact, there are many kids across the country who climb harder than Christopher. The second- and third-place female competitors in this year’s ABS Open Nationals, Ashima Shiraishi and Brooke Raboutou, were both 15. Margo Hayes, the first woman to climb 5.15a, hasn’t yet entered college. Have kids always been so strong? If you think back 20 years to when Tommy Caldwell and Chris Sharma were climbing 5.14 in their mid-teens, it would certainly seem so, but the difference these days seems to be volume: There are more kid crushers than ever.
The explosion of climbing gyms and youth teams certainly has something to do with it. While adults may feel a surge of jealousy watching children hang off tiny crimps or stick powerful dynos, few adults put in the practice time that kids do. “A lot of people don’t realize just how hard kids on the team are training,” says Wall. Even regular after-work sessions and weekends spent cragging don’t match up to working with a coach multiple days a week. In addition, kids’ low body weight and ability to recover quickly are added advantages.
For someone like Christopher, there is the benefit of having been exposed to climbing since birth. The children of climbing parents often get a head start simply by being comfortable in a harness before they know their ABCs. For Josh, sharing his passion with his son is a special opportunity. “Certainly I am the dad and he is the kid, but we get to talk about stuff that I want to talk about. We get to do stuff that I want to do,” says Josh. “The ability to go out and spend the day with my kid doing the thing that I wanted to do anyway is awesome. I think our relationship has really benefitted from that.”
His parents sometimes worry that he is too hard on himself. Christopher has worked extensively with his coaches, especially Wall, on the mental aspect of climbing, particularly on how to overcome the pressures of competitions. Christopher doesn’t think he puts unusual pressure on himself—he climbs for the fun of it—but he nonetheless has a self-discipline that is unusual for a boy his age. Training and climbing hard are always on his mind.
“I don’t know what his biggest strength is climbing is,” says his dad. “What is that thing that causes someone to be stoked? To take that next step in terms of preparation? He’s 13 and he’s thinking about his diet. He doesn’t always follow it, but he’s thinking about those things, and that’s not coming from us. Certainly his coaches encourage good nutrition and it’s a topic at school, but lots of kids his age don’t pay attention to that.”
They may be stronger than many adults, but Coach Wall bears in mind that his team members are, in the end, just kids. “We have to be very thoughtful about how much performance a kid is trying to squeeze out of himself or how much a coach is trying to squeeze out of a kid during his developmental years,” he says.
Like in any sport, burnout is common. According to Wall, you can notice a distinct drop-off trend by observing the numbers of competitors in each age bracket. Few athletes make it up to the oldest (Junior) level, with numbers dramatically tapering off from the younger age divisions. Perhaps this is because youth competitions breed an intense atmosphere, with isolation rooms, judging, and singular pressure to perform—at a certain point, it becomes too much for kids to handle. Still, with climbing soon to be an Olympic sport, it’s likely that young climbers will only get more serious about training and competing in years to come.
“We’ve got to be cognizant of the fact that there’s a big difference between youth competition and adult competition. Recreational athleticism and professional athleticism,” says Wall. Wall puts his focus on creating lifelong athletes in his kids—people who love climbing for the joy of the movement and the sport’s rich history and culture, not just its performance and competition aspects. In a climbing town like Boulder, there are perhaps as many seasoned veterans still getting after it as there are young crushers, a testament to climbing’s staying power in the lifers.
“The nice thing about climbing is you can climb at a very high level and never compete,” Wall says. “You can be very successful and you can get better for a long period of time and you never have to have a scorecard, which is very different than almost every other sport.”
Christopher Deuto seems to be in it for the long haul. “I do see him being a climber for the rest of his life,” says his dad. “And the reason I say that with such commitment is that he’s just so excited about it on his own. I encourage him to do well, but his climbing is really from someplace deep inside of him. And those of us who have been around the sport for a long time know it doesn’t take much, and once that happens, it’s there.”