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Why You Should Enter a Climbing Competition, Even if You Suck

Competitions, even the ones that go horribly, can teach you more about climbing than outdoor projects ever could.

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Things started to go wrong as soon as I walked into the gym. I had none of the right gear the competition, I was totally flustered—and I was up first. Oh yeah, and all my new boyfriend’s sponsored-climber friends were watching.

It wasn’t until my name was called that I realized I’d forgotten my gloves. I needed them because this thing I was about to compete in, CityROCK Ice Night, was a drytooling competition. Thin, grippy gloves, I would soon learn, are the best antidote to sweating right off your ice-tool handles mid-route.

No problem, I said to myself. I’ve got chalk. It would be an unorthodox technique, sure, but I was certain I’d be able to shoulder a tool and chalk up at rests. So, on my way to the gym floor, I strapped on a chalk bag filled to the brim with loose powder. 

That was the first mistake I made. (Or the second, if you count agreeing to this thing in the first place.)

I hurried down to the floor and greeted the official belayers. 

“Do you want to toprope or lead?” one of them asked.  

I considered my cumbersome chalking strategy.

“Oh, I’ll toprope,” I said.

Mistake number three.

I had registered for Ice Night, my first real climbing competition, in December 2017 mainly because my new boyfriend had told me it would be fun. Plus, he said, all his friends would be there; we had to go. But at the last minute, a work commitment popped up and he had to back out. No problem, I’d thought. I’m a strong, independent woman. I’ll go by myself.  

So I drove from my home in Boulder, Colorado, to CityROCK in Colorado Springs, which was the only climbing gym in the area that set designated routes for ice climbers and allowed real ice tools. Ice Night was a local community highlight. Pretty much every mixed climber I’d ever met would be there. 

I’d climbed ice plenty of times, and I’d even led some drytooling routes outdoors. Climbing rock with ice tools and crampons made sense to me. Surely plastic can only be easier, I thought on the drive. I’m going to be awesome at this.

The author dry tooling outdoors, which would lead to a false sense of confidence going into her first competition. Photo: Karsten Delap

But as soon as I walked into the gym, I started spotting the differences. Everyone else had hyper-aggressive tools, serrated competition drytooling picks, golf gloves instead of thick insulated ice-climbing gloves, fancy grip tape … the list went on. I was clearly new here.

As soon as I pulled onto the warmup wall, it showed. Plastic holds, as it turns out, are designed to trick you. It felt like they were all facing the wrong direction. People were hooking them in ways I’d never even thought to try outside.

Then, to seal my fate, the guy with the clipboard called: “Buhay! You’re up first!”

The competition was redpoint style, so I had 10 minutes to try the route as many times as I wanted. Totally chill, I told myself. No pressure. But by now I could call my own bluff. I walked onto the gym floor—past a gathering crowd of hyper-talented local climbers who were sort of a big deal and sort of knew me. They cheered.

I tied in, tried to breathe, and started up. By the third move, my hands were slick with sweat and there were no rests in sight. By the fourth, I was pumped. By the fifth—BAM! My tool tip exploded off the hold, and 35 feet of rope stretch sent me winging into the ground, butt first, chalk exploding everywhere. My tools flew from my sweat-soaked hands. The crowd mumbled weak encouragement.

I grabbed my tools and tried again. BAM! Same spot, same fall. 

Again. BAM! 

The crowd was silent. I was trying not to cry, trying to keep my full-body shakes to a tasteful minimum, and trying to ignore what I could only imagine were thick waves of judgment pouring off the stands.

I tried the route 12 times in 10 minutes. I never made it more than 10 feet off the ground.

When the buzzer rang, someone had to help me untie. I nearly ran from the room as the announcer cleared his throat and tried to get the crowd pumped up for the next competitor. I spent the next few hours crying in the bathroom, certain I had failed miserably in front of everyone had mattered, kicking myself for thinking I would ever have a shot.

A few hours later, I heard a first call for the award ceremony, dried my eyes, and slunk back into the gym proper to support the winners and accept my last-place finish.

“First place: Hannah Langford! Second place: Heather Mobley! Third place—”  

He said my name.

I looked around in surprise. Was this a joke? But it wasn’t—the moves that had stumped me had also stumped pretty much everyone else; I just hadn’t had the guts to shake off my defeat long enough to find out.

I won pats on the back from people I admired (who, it turned out, weren’t judging me at all) and a gift card: $50 to the local mountain shop. I went home with a new pair of gloves.

The author taking the third place spot on the podium. Photo: Marcus Garcia

Competing that first year at Ice Night was one of the most humiliating experiences I’d ever had, even though it didn’t need to be. All you can do, I realized, is try hard, accept the results of that effort, and move on without letting yourself get absorbed in a future that hasn’t even happened yet. Today, that’s still one of the most vital lessons about climbing—and about life—that I’ve ever learned.

In my third-ever climbing competition, the Ouray Elite Mixed Climbing Competition in 2019, I had ten minutes to onsight a route. About halfway up, I found myself stuck at a move, run out over a bolt, pumped out of my mind—and with minutes left on the clock. Outdoors, I would have downclimbed, yelled “Take!”, and rested. But with a ticking clock, a roaring crowd, and a dozen photographers, what else can you do but try?

That day, I learned that I could hold on way past the point of maximum pump—and still make a hard clip with jellied forearms. That day, I learned a limit I never would have pushed myself to outside. It’s served me well ever since. 

Today, I’m still competing, still getting Chihuahua-at-the-vet’s-office kinds of nervous, and still letting friends coerce me into trying new things way out of my comfort zone.

But now, at least, I know that saying yes is never a mistake.

Related: This winter, roughly three years after Ice Night, Corey Buhay went on to win the Ouray Elite Mixed Climbing Competition. Read about her experience here.