Meet the new class of climbers crimping their way to the top
Does the proliferation of gyms mean a shift in what it means to be a rock climber?
October 13, 2017
Climbing has come a long way from its mountaineering roots. The sport is leagues from the grizzled forefathers of rock climbing that inched their way up the sheer face of El Capitan in the 1960s. They are getting younger, finding less drastic ways of committing to the sport, and, these days, gripping a lot of plastic.
On Saturday morning a crowd of children gathered around an employee of The Mine Bouldering Gym in Park City to listen to him announce the winners of that morning's bouldering competition.
After each name was called, the contestants let out a cheer as a little climber walked up to collect his or her ribbon.
Nearby, Jana Peterson, the mother of Annie, an eleven-year-old contestant, stood and watched. As someone who grew up in a house of traditional sports, Jana said climbing is a totally different kind of sport, and it's growing each year.
"Most of the people we tell about her climbing, people say, 'they have teams for that?'" she said. "In the time that Annie has been doing it, every year it has just grown so much. Even their team. This year their team took on a bunch of new kids and so it's just growing. I honestly could not put a number on it."
Annie climbs for a team from Momentum Indoor Climbing, a chain of gyms in Salt Lake City. On Saturday, the club brought 51 competitors to the meet, an officially sanctioned local competition with USA Climbing, the national sanctioning body for climbing sports.
USA Climbing structures its competitions, which are all in gyms or on man-made walls, similarly to ski federation competitions. Climbers must compete in two local competitions to go to regionals, then the top regional athletes travel to nationals where they have a chance to earn a spot on the national team and compete internationally. In the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles this team will compete in Olympic sport climbing for the first time. The same structure applies for bouldering (short, unroped climbing), speed and sport climbing (roped climbing).
Luke Turkington, manager of The Mine, said each year the local competition has been getting bigger.
"There was probably only 60, 70 people (the first year), then last year we had 97, then this year we had 137, so it seems to be growing pretty substantially every year," he said.
And that's all youth competitors, which Turkington said was perhaps the most surprising part of running The Mine. While adult participation is also growing, youth competitive teams and programming have been a significant part of The Mine's business.
"I don't think when we started off we had any idea how big the youth programs and the youth competitive scene would be for us, but it's been huge," he said. "Way more popular than we ever thought it would be. We thought it would be kind of an adult gym, but it's almost just the opposite."
Turkington speculates that because of increased exposure in the news and on TV, more people have been exposed to the sport, slowly pulling it into the mainstream.
"Climbing's kind of been this obscure sport," he said. "And just in the last five to ten years it's really taken off."
Not only are more people seeing it, but because of the advent of climbing gyms, more people have the opportunity to climb.
"When I look at the types of risks that are involved in things like football, which my son plays, I don't even consider her sport a risk. Even with the sport climbing they're harnessed in, so I feel like they are safer doing that then a lot of other things that athletes are involved in." — Jana Peterson, mother of climber
According to Climbing Business Journal, 201 climbing gyms were built in the U.S. between 2009 and 2016, with 27 added last year.
Turkington said people see the appeal in the sport because of its challenge and almost non-competitive nature.
"It's not about you versus anybody else," he said. "It's about you pushing yourself."
Parents at Saturday's competition agreed about the competitive aspect of the sport, and the community.
"From the get-go, even from the first time when she climbed at (age) nine, she had the support of kids that were 15 and 16 rally around her and they were all interacting in a great, supportive way," said Colette Singleton, whose daughter, Sami, won the Female Youth A group on Saturday.
Furthermore, Singleton and Peterson both said despite the risk of certain types of climbing, competing in sport climbing and bouldering is relatively safe.
"When I look at the types of risks that are involved in things like football, which my son plays, I don't even consider her sport a risk," Peterson said. "Even with the sport climbing they're harnessed in, so I feel like they are safer doing that then a lot of other things that athletes are involved in."
Because of these factors, the sport is growing so quickly that USA Climbing has had to redraw its regional and divisional lines, Hansel said. He said now USA Climbing revisits these boundaries every four years to keep competition across the U.S. balanced as new gyms pop up.
Park City falls in region three, which includes Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and western Colorado.
As participation in competition climbing picks up, the idea of a climber may start to change from big-wall climbers to fresh-faced suburbanites being dropped off in minivans for their daily practice.
"There are a lot of famous or somewhat famous climbers now that people have heard of," Turkington said. "Like Alex Honnold on (60 Minutes). People like that would be what I think of as the face of climbing, but that might change with climbing being in the Olympics. It might be more of these competitive climbers that take that."
But that doesn't mean climbing real rock is over. Despite the proliferation of gyms, Hansel said the best competitive climbers in the U.S., many of whom reside in Utah and Colorado, still represent areas with good crags.
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"You have kids that come here and pull on plastic, but most of them, their passion is to get outdoors," he said. "I really think that's why the Mountain West and the Front Range are so strong, they just have such fantastic outdoor climbing."
Turkington said he's excited for the new generation of climbers, who are learning the sport at younger ages.
"I'm psyched on it," he said. "I think most of the older generation is as well. They are just going to keep pushing the sport further and further, which is awesome."