Like most climbers of my generation, I got into the sport after I left home and went off to college. There I fell in with the mountain-club crowd and soon found myself dangling from cliffs and bashing my knuckles on frozen waterfalls. In those days climbing still retained its rebellious underpinnings. To get there, we crossed a half-mile-long bridge at the southern tip of the lake, where it pinches down before emptying into the Hudson River.
GoPro Video How to Guide: Climbing with Kids
One day we stopped at the bridge and did something that had always tempted us. We walked out to the midpoint, lowered a climbing rope down to the water, pulled it up about 20 feet to give ourselves a suitable margin, and fixed it to the bridge. That left a good plus feet of rope dangling. We pulled it up and one of us tied into the end. He clipped some ascenders to his harness, traversed sideways about 50 feet, and jumped. He jugged up as quickly as possible so the next guy could have a turn before the inevitable happened, which it did while this one pendulumed over the water cutting loose whoops of exaltation.
A New York state trooper pulled up and ordered us off the bridge. The statey looked at the plaque. Then, quite astonishingly, he turned back to us, shrugged, got back in his cruiser, and drove off.
We finished our jumps and hustled off the bridge before a Vermont trooper showed up. And so with climbing cliffs: there was the visceral rush to be had from the exposure and adrenalin, but also an equally thrilling, if less palpable, sense that we were pulling off some sort of intrigue. Climbing has come a long way since I first laced up rock shoes and tied into a rope in El Capitan has seen its first free-solo, which back then seemed about as likely as traveling to another solar system—conceivable, but in no way realistic.
As with other seminal feats in recent years like the Dawn Wall , it was headline news throughout the western world, a sensation among climbers and non-climbers alike. And climbing is now an Olympic sport, debuting in the Tokyo Games. She insisted on vetting anything I write mentioning ABC as a condition of granting me access to her program.
I remember now only that she always appeared earnest and intensely driven in photographs. Her words drop in a measured and practiced meter. I probe some more, trying to get beyond what sound like prepared talking points. I ask what are the common misconceptions about her program. She tells me one might be that the coaches push the kids beyond the point of having fun. Among other things, she tells me how she starts kids climbing as young as two-and-a-half years old and how, because she trains them methodically from such a young age, she can get a level of performance out of them that she would not recommend other coaches, without specific and extensive experience working with kids, attempt to replicate.
She has kids as young as 12 who are sponsored by outdoor companies with free gear, and at least one kid a few years older who receives a cash salary from sponsors. I ask about how the Olympics will influence what she does going forward. She replies matter-of-factly only that she expects to be training kids for the Olympics. When I ask Max about his plans for the future he talks vaguely about maybe going to CU Boulder at some point.
Then she turns to Max. I played in the alumni vs. He asked what I was doing and I happily told him I lived out West, climbing, skiing, and pounding nails to pay the rent. He looked at me disgustedly for a moment.
Then, without saying anything, turned and walked away. I never saw or spoke to him again. To be a climber—one squeezing all the juice you could out of that lemon—you had to take a detour off the traditional path to success.
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Climbing defined your sense of self as existing outside of the prevailing mores, and you necessarily cultivated a certain defiance, which you shared with other climbers, toward the social pressures funneling you into a more conventional life. It made for an informal brotherhood: nothing could be more important than climbing, and you were willing to stigmatize yourself in the eyes of others, sacrifice some respectability, to live that life.
I wonder whether that pointlessness conferred some deeper meaning to climbing that might be lost on this new generation—something I now feel compelled to get to the bottom of. Max gets up and heads back out into the gym. The younger kids in the after-school recreational programs have mostly cleared out, replaced by a dozen or so lithe and sinewy teenagers. She started it 15 years ago in a spare room at the Boulder Rock Club when her own children, Shawn and Brooke—both now world-class climbers who compete on the international stage—were just toddlers.
Then she ends our interview, telling me she needs to attend to practice. I mill about on my own for a few minutes, taking in the place. The tallest walls stand only 15 or 20 feet high. Only a few have fixed quickdraws and anchors, which appear more for practice clipping than actual leading.
I notice more banners. ABC has evidently won the team national bouldering championship several years running. Then a guy pops up in front of me. He has shaggy, unruly hair, like he just got zapped with volts, and true to his appearance, he crackles with energy. He gets himself up to Boulder three days a week to train, leaving immediately after school to avoid the worst of rush-hour traffic. He sits in the parking lot waiting for practice to begin, cranking out homework for a couple hours before coming inside to crank on the walls.
Competition I just do for fun mostly. Zach Arenberg takes a brief moment away from the climbing wall. He pauses momentarily for the first time before answering. Sure, I had bonding experiences with partners—some of the most intense in my life—and the sense of membership in a nebulous tribe of sorts, but the ritual of gathering in a group with a strong collective identity day-in, day-out, like my high-school football and lacrosse teams, never played a part in my own climbing.
Drum and bass plays over the PA system unobtrusively, like mood music in an upscale restaurant. Practice is in full swing now, but the vibe is surprisingly relaxed. It looks desperately hard.
I also notice very little in the way of formal coaching. But she just stands back joining in the chorus of encouragement—the same stuff climbers egg each other on with at the crag: Come on! I ask Gregor about the lack of direction being given to the climbers. Then he explains that this is a free-flowing bouldering session wherein the kids just attempt whatever problems that want. Modern climbers are much more dynamic and fluid compared with those of yesteryear.
I mean, they just go. She sees me and gives me a look that halts my approach. Despite her rather insistent and business-like demeanor on the phone, she has been nothing but warm and welcoming toward me ever since I arrived at ABC earlier this evening. The girls run timed laps on a steeply overhanging panel roughly eight feet by eight feet and peppered with holds on a three- or four-inch grid. The mood is quiet and respectful, reverent almost. As time goes on, my presence feels more and more intrusive.
It reminds me of a trip, more than 20 years ago, up to Baffin Island. Our team hired Inuit guides to haul us and our gear some 70 miles deep into the Fjords with their snowmobiles. One day I awoke and looked out of our tent to see them all huddled around a small fire yards or so away from camp. I walked over to see what they were up to, and got close enough to realize that they were roasting meat from a freshly-killed baby seal.
But as I approached, they gave me furtive and unwelcoming glances. We had established an open sharing of food and stores between our team and them, so I expected to be waved over to taste a morsel of their most prized quarry. But no; I suddenly realized I had intruded on a moment of sacramental importance. I beat a hasty retreat back to the tent. The ledge petered out and he had to make a big move, stepping across a blank gap in the rock to the next set of holds. His rope drooped across the gap and then snaked up and around a corner out of sight.
The tug at his waist pulled him off balance and he nearly fell. He looked down feet of sheer vertical cliff to the ground. Like has happened to most novice climbers once or twice in similar situations, Scott Davies felt himself starting to wig out. Scott, his wife Rhonda, and their son Quinn, age 12, sit around a table on the back patio of their north Boulder home as Scott recounts the story.
He managed to real in his panic with a few deep, calming breaths. Quinn Davie found climbing the way many kids do these days: When he was five or six, his parents took him to a gym. He gravitated more toward building stuff—rockets, cardboard boats, ramps for his bike. When he came inside Quinn mentioned that he might like to try climbing some of the rocks he could see in the foothills just beyond his neighborhood. So Scott bought a book on top-roping, learned the basics of anchor building, and the two started climbing outside.
GoPro Video How to Guide: Climbing with Kids – Filming Family
It was then, when Quinn learned about gear, knots, and rope systems, that he fell in love with the sport. Team ABC members gather in the gym's training area. Soon after Quinn got bit by the climbing bug, he joined the team at the Boulder Rock Club, began training, honing his technique, and competing. Now he could climb circles around his father, so Scott and Rhonda hired guides from Colorado Mountain School to take Quinn on bigger climbs outside. Now Quinn regularly hauls his dad up routes around Boulder and Lumpy Ridge. Other climbers often do a double take when they realize this little kid is basically guiding his dad up climbs.
The two recently did a route at Castle Rock and when they got down some people started asking Scott for beta about the climb. I look over at Quinn who, with just a hint of a smile, nods in agreement. He wears eyeglasses, is soft-spoken and still carries some baby fat on his small year-old frame.
Thick sausage-like fingers lay preternaturally curled in his lap, sporting a few cuts and gobies. What about his goals and aspirations? I ask. Quinn tells me he hopes to climb the Casual Route on the Diamond this summer with one of his guides, but other than that he has no grand aspirations for future climbs. I look down at his little paws. In local comps, the kids have three hours to tick as many routes—which are ranked according to their difficulty—as they can. They mill about the gym, trying this route or that, giving belays to their friends, lounging on the pads between burns.
I ask Wall how he helps his climbers cope with the pressure. I recall to him how, back in our heyday, loudly cursing at the injustice of a thwarted send was de rigueur behavior at the crags. And then once I really understood just how lame that is [laughs], I kind of revised my behavior.
Wall says he absolutely expects kids to keep from coming unglued. It brings everybody down. It occurs to me that when young people rebel against convention and authority, they often throw the baby out with the bathwater. Wall heads off to attend to his kids, and I go in the other direction to check in on one of the ABC girls. I find her tying in at the base of climb There are 27 routes in all, ranging in difficulty from 5. The majority of the routes are skewed toward the harder end of the spectrum, so 25 is a stout proposition.
A Team ABC climber observes the coach during a training session. I hop up to the mezzanine for a better view. Natalia climbs with a fluid power, moving fast and maintaining momentum through the blobby holds. The climb seems to consist only of slopers and crimps, in roughly equal measure—a pump fest to be sure. About halfway up the route, I notice her becoming just a bit erratic, but she keeps moving, keeps sticking each dyno.
She spins slowly through the air toward the mezzanine, smiling with a look that says, Wow, that was hard! I catch up with her a few minutes later resting on the sprawling pads beneath the bouldering wall. Then I comment on her composure and ask about performing under pressure. Climbers are rarely fat or chain smokers. Despite some of my friends being individualists and of course roll their own cigarettes when outside, most climbers i know are actually quite healthy. When you climb, your body transforms, you become lean, flexible and muscular.
And not the type of bloated mess you get from working out too much, but efficient, enduring muscles which will help you to stay active and agile in your daily life. I know zero climbers who are obese, lazy or weak. In fact, most older climbers i know are way beyond their age cut in terms of mental alertness, fitness, and agility.
And most of them are actively pursuing other sports such as hiking, mountain biking, surfing or yoga, and dancing. Eat well, eat fresh, drink a ton of water and get ripped and strong. It will help you become better at climbing too, and when your kids are following these choices they have a solid foundation when they grow up. And it will help your kids to grow up into confident adults.
Bouldering - No Ropes Required
Watch Alex Honnold climb free solo and you will get sweaty palms just from sitting in front of your TV. Climbing is a safe sport — despite its bad reputation. Beginners climb top rope, meaning the rope is running through the anchor first. And in a bouldering gym, you have thick shock absorbing mats to minimize the risk of injury.
And it happens more often too. When you become an advanced climber, leading routes etc, falls are longer but then you have some experience too. In a world where media, apps etc. Great minds usually have discipline and focus and climbing is a perfect sport to learn the basics of discipline and focus. You will be all in the present, focusing on your task. I love this aspect of climbing especially because I have a hard time shutting out stuff in other sports.
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