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I’m No Janja. Confessions of the World’s Worst Comp Climber

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Aka “Ernie” Rides Again

As a kid, I was terrible at team sports. This was probably because I never had much fire for winning or understood the point of competition, but also because I just kind of sucked. I played soccer, mediocrely, but as soon as I aged out of the more recreational American Youth Soccer Organization at age 11 and joined the more competitive Duke City Soccer League in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, I quit, barely finishing one season. I didn’t care if we won or lost. It didn’t make sense to me: OK, you won the game, but now what? Does your life change? Does anyones life change? What about the next game, and the one after that? Does any of this even matter? This, of course, is more or less the opposite of a champion’s mentality.

My soccer coach was a former Marine drill sergeant who looked and acted like Coach Buzzcut from Beavis and Butthead (“Kick me in the jimmy!”). He had nicknames for all of us players: “Dog Breath,” “Puppy Breath,” “Shit-Face” (I’ll let you guess whether I’m making this last one up). Mine was “Ernie,” and he generally kept Ernie benched because that’s where Ernie belonged. I sat on the sidelines, bored, embarassed, drinking Gatorade, fattening up, wishing I could just disappear.

I also tried basketball, but didn’t make it through my first  season. The coach was overstoker to a psychotic degree; he’d huddle us up during practice, then scream “Are we having fun yet???!!!” while his eyes bulged and forehead veins popped and his warm spittle coated us like tropical rain. My answer, of course, was “No,” but I screamed “Yes!” just to go along. I made it through four of five practices, then simply stopped showing up. Again, I didn’t care if we won or lost—or even whether the stupid ball went through the stupid hoop—and could think of better places to put my pre-teen try-hard, like riding my BMX bike up and down our neighborhood alleys looking for discarded nudie magazines in dumpsters (a practice that forced me to process things about human sexuality that no 11-year-old should have to).

My final foray into competitive sports was wrestling in sixth grade at my middle school where, again, I invariably got my ass kicked. Because wrestling was less of a team sport—more of a mano-a-mano contest—I thought I might be more into it. But I wasn’t; again, I couldn’t have cared less about winning, and so I half-assed it at practice and at the events. Out of my 10 or so matches, I prevailed in just one, against a developmentally disabled boy whose reflexes were slower than my own. I felt terrible about pinning him, within the first minute, even as his teammates rooted for him to win; in retrospect, I should have let him have the match, but it was all over with so quickly.

My Fantastically Distinguished Comp-Climbing Career

I soon drifted into street skating, then rock climbing. Both were individualistic pursuits, done for the sheer thrill of the movement and of being outside, liberated from rules, coaches, points, and screaming parents. I felt completely myself in both cases, free to push as little or as much as I wanted on any given day. This was heaven: No winning. No losing. Just doing. And being.

After learning the technical side of the sport, at age 15, on a course with the New Mexico Mountain Club, I was hooked. Soon I found friends closer to my age to climb with, and as we got our driver’s licenses we spent every afternoon we could bouldering, on the crystalline granite of the Sandia Mountains foothills and on the dark, pocketed basalt of the West Mesa. All that micro-crimping and pocket-tugging helped me improve, and I soon led my first 5.12 sport climb and was doing harder boulder problems: B1+’s and B2s back when we used the Gill Scale.

As I got stronger, I tried my hand at a few competitions, just for something to do and because this was one way that climbers used to interact, before today’s Shit-stagram era of obnoxious check marks (“Sent The Gnar (V14). Feelin’ blessed.” √), saccharine “100s,” and cancelling each other for sport. The first was the Phoenix Bouldering Competition. My friends and I spent the day before the competition, when we should have been resting, wandering around the desert near the venue doing gerbil-tooth problems on the volcanic rock and smoking brickweed. The next day I was a wet rag, with cramping muscles and holes in my tips. If I didn’t get last place, I probably deserved to. I had no game, no strategy, no passion, no fire: Ernie rides again.

I also entered the first three Hueco Tanks Rock Rodeos, and did passably in the first two: second place (I think) in the Intermediate category the first year, and second place in Advanced the next year. I returned to the Rock Rodeo on year three, a recently graduated high-school senior and aspiring hardman, to enter the Elite category, the top of the climbing heap. The only problem was, I’d had my wisdom teeth removed two days before the competition. Still groggy and off-balance from the anesthesia, I did my best on the gnarly problems that John “Vermin” Sherman had selected for the Elite field: a sadist’s buffet of slabs, roof cracks, dynos, and mantels that tested one’s all-around skills, which, three years into my climbing career, did not exist. I fell—a lot. And when I cratered, the empty sockets in the back of my mouth would start bleeding again and I’d have to slither off to spit out gore and pop Vicodin. Eventually, I gave up, turning in a scorecard with lots of goose eggs on it: Ernie rides again.

I also entered a handful of gym competitions, but they were never my bag (again, not much fire) and my results were mixed at best—one win, one second place, and lots of “failed to podium.” Some of these competitions were so early there weren’t even lead walls—to make the routes difficult enough, the setters would have us traverse into a toprope (epic!). Eventually, I stopped trying altogether. The last climbing competition I entered was sometime in the mid-1990s, and I failed to finish most of the problems because I was in crap shape, didn’t warm up well, and got flash-pumped. It was time for Ernie to retire, after a bona fide shit-stain of a career.

The Pursuit of Meaning

Which is why I found it odd that I got so emotional when watching climbing debut at the Olympics earlier this month. I don’t much follow comp climbing. Sometimes I watch recaps on YouTube to kill time while doing PT, so I know more or less who the major players are, but that’s about it. Still, when Janja Garnbret crushed the field to take gold, I teared up. 

Janja Garnbret, women's lead final, Tokyo Games.
Janja Garnbret of Slovenia powers through the big, footless moves during Lead Finals at the Tokyo Games, where she won gold. Photo: Jon Glassberg/LT11

I’ve been thinking about why Janja’s victory should matter to someone like me, who prefers the meditative, interior side of climbing more than the driven, competitive, performance-focused side. Who likes obscure, empty crags over name-brand venues. Who got into climbing precisely because it was the antithesis of team sports, with their blinkered emphasis on winning. Who sees the sport not as a competition between me and the rock, or even me and myself, but as simply something that makes me feel good physically and which I enjoy doing. And I realized I cared about Janja winning because she cared so much and had put so much of herself into it—this, right now, to her, was what gave her life the most meaning. You could see it in the elation on her face when it was clear she’d won. The Olympics were a challenge she had set in front of herself: not necessarily to beat the other competitors or to “conquer” the wall. But to climb her very best in the Olympic arena, with all the attendant pressure. 

I consider climbing to be inherently pointless—but so are most things people do. Other than meeting our basic biological and emotional needs, and doing what we can to be kind to others along our journey to the grave, there’s very little in our daily lives that we need to do. We just choose to do these things—call them hobbies, passions, callings, distractions—because we like them and they fill the time. Climbing is no different. It’s a luxury. A pastime. A trifle. We love it and connect with it and it gives us exercise and gets us out in nature. But it’s a trifle. Something that, in the end, provides a pleasurable and immersive way to pass the time instead of thinking about the void that is waiting for us all. (Have you ever spent a day, much less an hour or even a minute, literally doing nothing? It’s fucking terrifying….) 

And so we climb. And if blitzing up huge, lethal mountains with only 20 pounds of provisions on our backs gives our lives meaning, great. And if spending months falling on the same move on  the same boulder problem gives our lives meaning, great. And if returning to the same slippery sport route year after year, while refining and revising our training in the off-season to build a foundation for the send, gives our lives meaning, great. And if racing up red plastic blobs, doing spine-bending parkour boulder problems, and trying to see how high we can get on an artificial route that will be gone the next day gives our lives meaning, great. We have to do something.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering about Ernie. Is he back? Will we see him competing for America at the 2024 Paris Olympics? At that point, I’ll be 52 years old—not ancient for a climber by today’s standards, in which climbers in their sixties tick 5.14, but definitely three decades north of “young.” So, no: Ernie is not coming back. Instead you’ll find me playing soccer or basketball or wrestling with my kids, who, unlike Ernie, actually seem to enjoy and understand team sports/competition and, as a result, are good at them. And the best news is, I won’t even have to try to let them win: Ernie rides again!

Matt Samet is the editor of Climbing. He has been climbing since the 1980s and living in the Boulder, Colorado, area since 1991.