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School of Rock

How The Climbing Academy—a traveling high school centered on rock climbing— is building the next generation of redpoint and academic crushers

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Soma Smith, a junior at The Climbing Academy, on Tufa King Pumped (5.12c), Kalydna Crag, Kalymnos, Greece.Julie Ellison

Right before the redpoint crux on Marci Marc (5.13a) at the Odyssey crag on the Greek isle of Kalymnos, Sonja Johanson, 17, twists her right hip into the wall for a drop-knee and alternates hands on a jug. She always falls at the next sequence: a big right-hand reach to a sloper, then left-hand match, and then bump right hand back to where the sloper turns into a jug. Coming atop 75 feet of pumpy tufa climbing, this crux has been stopping her for the seven days she’s spent trying the route.

After seven days, most climbers would probably move on to one of the hundreds of other routes on this idyllic chunk of limestone in the Aegean Sea. But this isn’t your standard Kalymnos climbing holiday. Johanson is here as a student of The Climbing Academy (TCA), a traveling high school for climbers, and focused projecting is a core part of the curriculum. Every other day, the 12 students and 4 teachers, who also double as climbing coaches, must try their respective projects until they either send or it’s time to move to the next crag. This approach to climbing, or so the educational theory behind it holds, will teach the kids several lessons: how to set and work toward goals, how to concentrate on one big objective, how to deal with failure, and how perseverance can pay off (or not).

Blending the vagabond-climber lifestyle with a standard high school curriculum, TCA is a nonprofit private school based in White Salmon, Washington. It’s one of three schools under the umbrella of The World Class Academy: The Kayak Academy started in 2001; The Kiteboard Academy was added in 2014; and The Climbing Academy started with the fall 2016 semester.

“The communities of the three sports are so different, but the core is the same,” says Capo Rettig, the principal and executive director of The World Class Academy. Rettig graduated from The Kayak Academy’s inaugural class in 2002. After college, he joined the board of directors and eventually came back as a teacher. “The magic here isn’t the climbing or the kiting or the kayaking. It’s talented kids who get tapped into their passions. You set them up to succeed, and they will succeed,” he says.

World History class on the porch with teacher and TCA head climbing coach, Brandon Smith.Julie Ellison

The idea to add climbing to the roster came about a few years before it came to fruition. Because the administration, including Rettig, weren’t climbers, they needed someone who understood the sport. They found that in Touch the Sky, a Montana nonprofit that introduces kids and teens to rock climbing through multi-day camps. Touch the Sky connected all the dots, and The Climbing Academy started advertising the new program at Bouldering Nationals in Wisconsin in February 2016. Seven months later, TCA visited its first destination ever, Ten Sleep, Wyoming, with a class of 12 students.

While it’s common for gym- and school-affiliated climbing teams to travel and climb together, there’s no other program in existence that combines outdoor climbing with formal academics like TCA. Each semester, a small band of students—usually 12 to 15—travels the globe with 4 or 5 instructors, hitting up venues like Kalymnos; Yangshuo, China; Siurana, Spain; Bishop, California; and Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. The itinerary is typically two to three weeks in domestic locales, with four to seven weeks in each international destination. Often, kids sign up for only one semester, similar to a standard study-abroad program you might find in college, but many stick around. Since TCA’s inception, eight students have graduated as seniors (with five on track to graduate from the current, 2018–19 school year). The school’s goal is to create high-performing scholars and athletes who are also thoughtful citizens of the world.

Conditions in late April on Kalymnos are far from prime—it’s in the 80s and humid—but the students climb every other day, except on Sunday and Monday, which are back-to-back school days. Johanson, a senior from Portland, Oregon, joined the school in January 2018 and only intended to stay for one quarter. The students would spend the first half of the spring semester in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Red. On the plane home from the Red, however, Johanson realized how much she would miss the friendships, mentors, and small class setting, so she convinced her parents to let her finish out the semester in Greece.

Program director Robin Hill lowers off a project at the Odyssey Wall, Kalymnos.Julie Ellison

Johanson began climbing six years ago, focusing on competitions in Canada and the States. As a dual citizen, she qualified for both national speed climbing teams in 2015 and attended Youth World Championships for three consecutive years. In 2015, 2017, and 2018, she was the Canadian speed-climbing national champion for her category, but she had barely climbed outside. Before Greece, she had never tried anything harder than 5.11d on rock. Her first day in Kalymnos, she sent 5.12a, and the head climbing coach, Brandon Smith, encouraged her to bump her climbing goal from 5.12d to 5.13a. With 16 years of climbing-coaching experience, Smith had come to TCA for the inaugural year after two years teaching middle school in South Korea. Before that, he’d spent summers working at Touch the Sky.

As a benchmark 5.13a characteristic of the overhanging, morphic style of Kalymnos, Marci Marc begins with a techy, powerful intro and then a no-hands rest, followed by a steep belly filled with jugs and tufa blobs. The final crux marks the end of the headwall before easier climbing to the chains. Now on her eleventh attempt, Johanson takes a few deep breaths, shakes out some more, and fires the top crux. She clips the chains and lowers with a subtle smile, having sent her first 5.13.

For her, like many students at TCA, success is usually just a matter of time. Some students excel at climbing or school; some excel at both. As part of Oregon’s Summit Learning Charter School, Johanson began taking college classes at age 14. The charter school counted the college credits toward her high school diploma, and she became a full-time community-college student in 2016, the second semester of her sophomore year.

Senior Sonja Johanson mid-send on the Odyssey Wall’s Marci Marc (5.13a), her first 5.13.Julie Ellison

Johanson’s assigned mentor—something all the TCA students have—is Tom Ryan, a 30-year-old teacher from Jackson, Wyoming. Ryan’s project is also Marci Marc, which he hopes will likewise be his first 5.13. Ryan has been an outdoor educator for six years, coming to TCA in January 2018 from an outdoor therapy program for adolescent boys in Wyoming. Now he teaches Algebra II, Comparative Literature, and Spanish. Like all the teachers at TCA, Ryan is thoughtful, patient, and passionate—necessary traits for dealing with the low pay, logistical hassles, and rootless existence.

The teachers work 24/7, acting as climbing partners, coaches, counselors, chaperones, and ersatz parents. For Ryan, it’s an exhausting job, but also a rewarding one that allows him to combine his two passions of education and climbing. He’s spent the last four weeks battling this route, including falling at the high crux earlier that day. Now, Ryan climbs smoothly through the entrance boulder problem, cops the hands-free rest, and moves up through the roof. He can’t get the drop-knee rest Johanson uses—the feet are too high—so he keeps moving and comes up short at the crux, taking a 20-foot fall. He lets out a quick yelp of frustration before pulling back on, finishing the route, and lowering. He ends the day on a 5.12 to hit the school’s mandatory five-pitch-per-day minimum.

According to the list of what matters at TCA, Ryan’s sending is at the bottom. What’s important is that he shows up every day, focuses on his project, and tries hard until he sends—just the same as the students. There’s no complaining about conditions, no excuses, and no negativity. Put in the time, do the work, and stay positive until you succeed. This simple but effective tenet is the foundation of all The World Class Academy programs, and it’s how TCA specifically teaches its students to handle school, climbing, and life.

Later that night, the kids are scattered across three rented houses in Masouri, heads bent over glowing laptops. Graduation is one week away, and a few days from now friends and family will start showing up in Kalymnos to see what their money—$18,750 per semester—is paying for. Living away from home for 3.5 months at a time, the kids have been mostly on their own in a pseudo-collegiate atmosphere. The daily routines, intense, close-knit friendships, climbing schedule, and independence from family will soon give way to life back home.

School days also mean tough workouts, with TRX, core, and shoulder-stability exercises. Here, Brandon Smith (standing) times the group.Julie Ellison

Despite these building pressures, the students remain lighthearted. They’ve had a good day out climbing followed by a delicious, family-style meal of barbeque chicken, Greek salad, mushrooms, onions, and a quinoa-couscous mix. The living room of the main house is quiet, save for the hum of quiet conversations and keyboards tapping during the mandatory two-hour study hall.

Suddenly, the idyll is interrupted by a flurry of loud sighs, books dropped, and a slammed door.

“I just spent two days editing a video I don’t care about,” Emil Heydari, 17, announces as he walks in. Tall and lanky, Heydari is a junior from England, and as one of two international students attending this semester, he offers a global perspective that TCA wants. While he was editing a final project for media class, a file corrupted and he lost two days’ worth of work. His partner for the project—a video that answers the question “What is TCA?”—is Riley Ogier, a 17-year-old junior from Atlanta. Riley and her identical twin, Liv, also a junior, were successful competition climbers before TCA. Deep in the throes of her own end-of-year stress, Riley hears this and walks out of the room, frustrated.

“I really have no sympathy for you at this point,” Smith, 38, who teaches the media class, says. Backing up data has been a popular topic of conversation at TCA as of late. The week before, Tanner Mack, a friendly, good-natured kid, was also working on the video project when he lost a hard drive to corruption. A few days later, he lost his drone and all its footage when it crash-landed in the Aegean. Mack took the losses in stride, and now cracks self-deprecating jokes about it.

Nat Baird, a sophomore at TCA, on his project Andromeda (5.13a), Odyssey Wall; Baird plans to attend all four years of high school with TCA.Julie Ellison

“I just don’t care about this video,” Heydari says, incautiously, within earshot of his teacher.

“That’s the thing about this place,” Smith calls after Heydari as he stalks off the porch. “You can’t run away from your teachers.”

A somber tension has replaced the contented buzz that vibrated through the room before Heydari’s outburst. These close quarters elongate the peaks and valleys of TCA’s emotional wavelength, compounding any joy, stress, frustration, or elation. Throw in the hormones and angsty whims of teenagerhood, and the scene can feel like climbing a desperate slab. You’re not really holding on to anything solid, and you feel like you’re constantly sliding toward the abyss.

The next morning, Smith and Robin Hill, a 30-year-old teacher who also acts as the program director, have replaced the regularly scheduled cook crew as they rejigger the schedule. (There are four cook crews, made up of one teacher and three to four students, typically responsible for each day’s meal planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning.) While the hungry adolescents pile their plates high with eggs, bacon, fruit, and French toast, Hill and Smith explain the day’s plan, which is written on a dry-erase board posted up in the main house. Instead of the normal school-day schedule, which includes a one-hour study hall, two classes, lunch, two more classes, a workout (a combination of intense core, TRX training, shoulder-stability exercises, pushups, and some flexibility work), and then dinner, they’re bumping morning study hall up to two hours.

Sundays–Mondays are double school days, with Sunday’s workout being a self-directed recovery session during which students can stretch, practice yoga, meditate, etc.Julie Ellison

“We are sensing the stress and fall-apart that have happened with past groups, and we want to adapt,” Hill tells the students. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel.” With 12 students and four teachers traveling to four or more destinations per semester and trying to maintain a rigorous academic schedule, things don’t always go according to plan. This ability to adapt keeps TCA functional. In the first year, the daily schedule consisted of a half day of climbing and a half day of school. However, this didn’t offer enough time for students to project climbs properly, so the administration shifted it to the current format. The kids do school one day and climbing the next, with Sunday and Monday as consecutive school days. So far, this newer structure has done a better job of staving off “fall-apart.” Soon, the teachers open the floor for student concerns.

“Respect other people’s time. Everybody is busy, so don’t be a distraction,” Mack says. “Try hard in your classes, even if you don’t care; you still have to do it.”

“Be patient and forgiving with yourself,” Heydari says. “If I’m not up to speed, I get mad at myself, which makes me struggle even more.”

“Go hard on the rock—or whatever you’re doing at the time—then you won’t be fidgety,” Liv says.

This last piece of advice is at the foundation of TCA. Life is a series of deadlines, commitments, and obligations that will fracture your focus, but half-assing multiple things at once will yield subpar results. At TCA, the goal is to partition out the million things each person has to do and concentrate on one at a time. The schedule encourages this.

TCA instructor Cheyenne Stirling, from Montana, gives it her all on Arugliopoulos (5.13a), Odyssey Wall.Julie Ellison

On climbing days, the students wake early, eat breakfast, and head to the crag. After dinner, they study and do homework. On school days, classes are held wherever there’s WiFi: rented Airbnbs, coffee shops, city parks, campgrounds, and laundromats. Most of the classes, like economics, math, English, media, and world history, only need laptops and a decent Internet connection. Some of the teachers have degrees in education, and all must teach a wide variety of subjects. The administration back in White Salmon designs the curriculum, but the teachers come up with daily lesson plans, tests, and assignments. In the fall, Cheyenne Stirling, a 25-year-old teacher with a degree in biological sciences and environmental horticulture from Montana State University, had her physics class build a catapult when they were in Spain; in Las Vegas later that semester, they used pulley systems to construct a makeshift hauling system. In Greece, Stirling draws cartoons of the greenhouse gases, called “Da Greenhouse Gang,” on homemade flash cards for her environmental science class.

Sometimes the destinations guide the curriculum. While in Kalymnos, the kids toured the ruins of a Byzantine church and then wrote a world-history paper on how religion has influenced civilization. Now, the same class meets on the white marble front porch of the main house. With the small island of Telendos jutting out of the blue-green sea in the background, four students gather around a glass-topped table with Smith, who’s teaching.

“Compare the principles of classic Greek and Roman art with Italian Renaissance art,” Smith reads off his laptop screen. A free-flowing conversation ensues, touching on everything from Martin Luther and the Nobel Peace Prize to the Catholic Church and televangelist Joel Osteen. The scene resembles the intimate learning experience of a college class more than that of a traditional high school. Academics take top billing at TCA, which works with each student’s previous school to customize an academic plan. While students here are labeled freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, each academic class is a mix of grades and ages.

Junior Olivia (Liv) Ogier on her project Rocomelo (5.13d) at Kalydna.Julie Ellison

“Our goal is to broaden the kids’ global experience through rock climbing, and we deliver a unique, world-class education,” says Rettig. “But kids come back to the program because their parents see what the academics do. This will propel your kid to the top of the list for college admissions, where everyone has a 4.0 and everyone plays saxophone. TCA gives your kid a different story.” Graduates have gone on to attend universities like Dartmouth, University of Vermont, and UC Santa Cruz. The $18,750-per-semester price tag includes room and board. Meals, housing, ground transportation, and incidentals are covered; airfare and baggage fees are not. Rettig says most of the students at The World Class Academy receive financial aid. “Yes, some of the kids are wealthy, but there are plenty of kids from households who make $30,000 per year or less,” he says. “Families bend over backwards to send their kids here. We have great scholarship and financial-aid opportunities. If you don’t think you can afford the school, let us decide that.”

One semester with TCA reads like a life list for most climbers. This particular group has spent autumn in Spain (Rodellar, Siurana, and Margalef), Las Vegas (Red Rock and Mt. Charleston), and Bishop, then spring in Chattanooga, the Red River Gorge, and finally Greece. On the docket for the next year are Maple Canyon, Rifle, and China during the first semester, then Spain, Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia for the second. These kids are lucky to tick all these spots, and they seem to know it—they recognize the privilege they’ve been given, and don’t take it for granted. Each semester, the students must design and implement a Service Learning Project, piggybacking with local organizations. In El Salto, Mexico, they did a major crag cleanup, and in Spain they helped with a grape harvest.

Most students come from a competition or indoor-climbing background, so the school focuses on bouldering and sport climbing. (Rettig says trad and multi-pitch are too logistically complicated at the moment, but they’re not ruling it out for future years.) Initially, TCA designed their itinerary around the USA Climbing event schedule so the kids could compete during the school year. With dozens of annual comps, this quickly devolved into a Gordian knot of trying to sync up schedules and locations. Then the kids started losing interest in comps altogether. Once they started climbing on rock, the indoor training time and parkour-style setting of comps held less appeal. Many of the successful comp climbers at TCA decided to give up competitions completely.

Junior Emil Heydari puts his shoes on for the second-to-last climbing day at Odyssey Wall.Julie Ellison

“We want to work with USA Climbing because they produce top athletes,” Rettig says. “Those kids can be coached, and they have the motivation. They’re used to structured training, but the comp scene can [also] be negative on junior climbers. Our project-based approach translates far beyond climbing to school, work, and life.”

If redpointing can offer any sort of life lesson, it’s how to deal with failure. Four days before graduation, the kids hike up to their respective crags, Odyssey Wall and Kalydna, for the seventh week in a row. A general sense of fatigue is obvious in their silent plodding. Some will be getting on routes they’ve been working for weeks while others will be trying new routes, having recently sent.

Part of the detailed training log that each student keeps is a route pyramid she must complete before moving on to her next project. For example, if 5.12d is her hardest send, then starting from the top of the pyramid, she should have one 5.12d, two 5.12c’s, three 5.12b’s, four 5.12a’s, and five 5.11d’s—filling out the base of her pyramid by sending additional easier climbs, starting from the bottom and moving up.

“You’re not just going to the crag and climbing with friends,” says Stirling, who coached youth climbers at a Montana gym and worked with Touch the Sky in the summers. “We have goals. It’s a pass/fail class, like PE with weekly meetings about performance and training.” These meetings focus on everything related to their climbing and training, how they felt on certain days, mental state after falling, finding the flow state, etc. The regimented projecting structure drives home the principles of hard work and commitment. Smith describes TCA’s take on climbing as “giving the kids an opportunity to reach their personal best.”

Benoit Lavigeuer, from Montreal, mentions fellow seniors (seated in the front row) in his final speech during graduation on Kalymnos.Julie Ellison

This morning, the kids and teachers put in the requisite two warm-up laps before moving on to their projects. They will climb with the same partner all day, and each person must climb a minimum of five pitches. Frustrated screams bounce off the concave curve of the Odyssey Wall’s yellow- and blue-streaked limestone, each shriek signifying yet another fall.

Ena Izawa, a freshman from Los Angeles, has put three weeks into Elies (5.12a). Prior to coming to TCA, she’d only been climbing for nine months, and her goal this semester is her first 5.12a. She’s made quick work of most of the route, but the final move—a huge, precise deadpoint to a sidepull jug—has thwarted her day after day. After her fourth attempt for the day, she lowers and lies on her back, exhausted.

“I’m tired,” she says repeatedly. It’s all she can muster. On the walk out, another student, Nat Baird, a 15-year-old sophomore from Boise, Idaho, says the workout the day before wore him out and he just wasn’t feeling up to his project, Andromeda (5.13a). While everyone is still grateful to be in climber paradise, it’s clear that seven weeks of intense climbing, training, and studying have worn them out.

Still, everyone must keep moving forward, on the rock and in the classroom. At TCA, climbing is a privilege. If a student’s grade drops below a C, if they fail an assignment or test, or if they show up late to anything, they “get pulled off the rock.” They aren’t allowed to climb, but they still have to come out and belay.

The tests at TCA extend beyond the classroom. Having spent almost two months in tiny Masouri, the kids have seen many of the same visiting climbers at the crags. After the group befriended two older male British climbers, the men offered a few of the underage male students alcohol, in addition to making inappropriate comments about the female students. The teachers used this as a learning opportunity, sparking multiple discussions over the following weeks about how to respond to such behavior, the implications of underage drinking, peer pressure, gender politics, and how to be an ally. (The students have to sign an honor contract before coming to TCA, pledging to generally treat other people with respect and not to use drugs or alcohol.)

A similar situation unfolds on graduation morning, when everyone wakes up to news of Joe Kinder getting dropped by his sponsors over a bullying incident on social media. While virtual comments fly back and forth over the Web, a real-life discussion unfolds on this 43-square-mile chunk of limestone.

“This is a perfect example of what this program is all about. We’re not bystanders—we act when we see things and call people out,” Hill says to a group of kids he expects to be the leaders of the next generation. “How do sexism and bullying exist in our culture and in climbing? How can we do better?”

Lavigeuer warming up on classic Kalymnos tufas at the Odyssey Wall.Julie Ellison

“I love you!” Mack calls to Baird as the latter heads home after dinner one night. “Nat’s the closest person I’ve ever had to a little brother,” Mack says later. Mack and Baird were both students at TCA the previous year, and they’ve developed a close bond. Mack sent his hardest route ever the week before, a 5.14b called Lucky Luca Extension, after six weeks of falling off the same move. This year, Mack has become a leader at TCA, upbeat and encouraging at the crag, honest and kind everywhere else. Last semester, he was seen as a troublemaker with a bad attitude. He took the summer to reflect on his behavior and came into his senior year a changed person. At graduation, with tears in his eyes, Mack will say, “I’m sorry for who I was last year. I’m sorry for how I treated you, my friends. I didn’t deserve you. I hope I deserve you now.”

Relationships between students range from platonic to familial to romantic. Two of the students are dating, which isn’t uncommon, but Stirling says there’s less romance this year than last. Since the students are more or less living together (boys share rooms with boys, girls with girls), there are strict boundaries: Kissing is allowed, but that’s it. The couple can take a walk together, but they must act appropriately in public, which at TCA is basically all the time. One thing’s for sure: Relationship drama doesn’t dominate the conversation like it does in a typical high school. Instead, conversations bounce from the most hated exercise in the day’s workout to taping a carabiner in place on a shared project to a specific class assignment. And there’s one thing the kids never talk about: life back home.

“I don’t miss much from regular school,” says Baird, who plans to attend TCA for his entire high school education. “I love sports, so I miss that a little, but there are sacrifices you have to make with everything.” Kids who are more connected to friends and family back home are less happy here. To be successful, the students must stay fully engaged in the TCA lifestyle. The same goes for teachers. Maintaining relationships and lives back home is all but impossible thanks to the engrossing, peripatetic nature of the job. During their time in Greece, three of the four teachers are single, and one is in a long-term relationship.

“Teachers in a normal school go home at the end of the day,” Ryan says, “but we’re doing the job of a dozen people in the public school system.” Before coming to work for TCA in spring 2018, Ryan taught at Red Top Meadows, a residential treatment and therapeutic wilderness program in Wilson, Wyoming, that serves adolescent males. “It’s the same issues here as in Red Top—low self-esteem, depression, anxiety—all the things teenagers face. There it was a constant crisis, but these kids come from healthier backgrounds, so they’re better equipped to deal with stuff,” he says. And if the kids can’t handle something, they can turn to their mentor, who’s assigned at the beginning of the semester. The mentor might help the mentee figure out better time-management strategies one day and then deal with family troubles the next.

Liv Ogier gives her teacher Stirling a haircut on the porch of one of the houses while Soma Smith, Heydari, and Riley Ogier look on.Julie Ellison

In TCA’s two years, a handful of teachers have come and gone. Some left to pursue other careers, while others weren’t a good fit. While the teacher-student relationship can be trying at times—“One minute they hate you, and the next you’re their best friend,” Stirling says—it runs much deeper than taking notes during a lecture or greeting each other in the hallways. Hill, Ryan, Smith, and Stirling all say the students are why they keep coming back to TCA.

With technology and myriad other influences shaping the lives of today’s youth, it’s easy to get jaded on the younger climbing generation, especially high school kids lucky enough to travel the world to climb. But the students at TCA are smart, thoughtful, and engaged, which is more than can be said for many teenagers—or adults, for that matter.

“That’s what TCA is all about—we have this community forever,” Mack says. That feeling of community reverberates through every interaction at TCA. Each morning, the question “How did you sleep?” is heard echoing in the shared living spaces. When one student struggles with figuring out some computer software, two other students immediately offer help at the sacrifice of their own study time. And when news of Izawa sending Elies and Mack passing his math final spreads through the group, both accomplishments are met with excited hugs and congratulations from the entire group.

It’s a special kindness and generosity in actions both big and small that offers hope for the future—not only for our climbing community, but also for our world.

Julie Ellison is the Editor at Large for Climbing Magazine.