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Climbing the walls in Gypsum

Derek Franz
dfranz@eaglevalleyenterprise.com
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyLucas Rivera, left, encourages Aiden Branch, 10, as he participates in the first bouldering competition at the Gypsum Recreation Center on March 27
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GYPSUM –Watching the kids division at the Gypsum Recreation Center’s bouldering competition March 27 took me back in time, to when I was a wide-eyed 11-year-old in a rock gym for the first time. Now, as a 27-year-old climbing veteran, I would soon be experiencing another first – my first competition.

The kids in the 6- to 15-year-old division were all pretty much new to rock climbing. The organizer, Casey Shilling, tried to explain the format, but some of that stuff hardly matters to a child who’s simply learning balance and technique.

“Bouldering” generally tests a rock climber’s power and technical skill on a route that is usually low to the ground and only a few moves long, though each move is relatively difficult.



Each competitor had an hour to complete as many routes as he or she could. Points were awarded according to each route’s difficulty and how many tries it took a climber to do that particular route. In a competition such as this, one climber might only do a few routes that are very difficult, while another might not do the hardest routes but succeed on a large number of easier ones. Either climber could win.

The kids mostly got it. Many of them didn’t seem to care about how many points they’d earned. They just tried hard and smiled a lot.



Dan Nielson, of Eagle, brought his 6-year-old son, Brody.

Nielson said he’d built a climbing wall in at home for entertainment on rainy days. It seemed to help, as Brody took second in the 6- to 8-year-old division and in the overall youth standings.

“We’re probably going to get him into Tree Frogs,” Nielson said, referring to the Gypsum Rec Youth Climbing Club.



Even more impressive, young Emery Glockner won her 6-to-8 division and also earned more points than anyone in the 9-to-11 and 12-to-15 divisions. Her 3,450 points towered over the overall runners-up.

Glockner’s dad, Chris, said she’s only been climbing three or four times in her life.

Prizes were donated by local businesses and the Western Eagle County Metropolitan Recreation District. Shilling aims to use the entry fees to buy climbing shoes for the Youth Climbing Club. A climbing shoe fits as snugly as possible. It’s designed to focus balance onto the big toe, like a ballet slipper, and has soft, “sticky” rubber to help grip the rock. Cost for a pair of such specialized shoes ranges from about $50 to $160.

Most of the youth competitors climbed in street shoes.

At last, it was my turn to compete with four others in the adult division.

I stretched and put on my shoes. I felt the 11-year-old inside me thump on my heart. When I was a kid growing up in Boulder, I wanted nothing more than to learn to rock climb. My mom bought me some lessons for a Christmas present.

Intimidation mixed with excitement when I walked into that climbing gym for my first time. The grown-up tough guys grunted and climbed out burly overhangs. They took falls – big falls. A dark-haired guy with a beard slapped for a hold at the top of the wall and fell 20 feet. The rope caught him with a loud THWACK.

“That was a whipper,” said my adult climber chaperone.

I hated to imagine I would take whippers some day, though I knew I would. Falling is a big reason climbing is fun.

As soon as an instructor taught me how to tie my knot and belay, I threw myself at every hold on every wall. I had no idea to follow routes marked by tape. I just wanted to be like the big guys, so I grunted and tried hard, too, until my skin blistered from sliding off the holds.

Sixteen years later, I found myself in a similar environment. The thrill of a new experience hung in the chalky air.

As a kid, that excitement made me climb too fast. I hurried so much I made mistakes I probably wouldn’t have if I’d slowed down and paid more attention.

After climbing so long, I learned to control that adrenaline. I took a deep breath. Relaxed. My muscles would hang on longer as well by doing so. Plus, I’d have only three tries on each problem – I had to be observant in case of trick sequences.

One of my competitors was close to me in ability. I started to get distracted by what he was doing, even as I climbed. Then I remembered nothing else mattered except for what I was grabbing at that exact moment.

The “zone” is the place to be on a climb. The brain is tuned to everything the body is doing and nothing else. The ground falls away along with any thoughts that might distract success. The zone is where competitions are won.

Some of the best competitive climbers in the world are the ones who execute every move as though no one is watching. They’re at ease with their surroundings.

At the Gypsum bouldering competition, I simply had fun and ended up winning.

The rec center hopes to put on more climbing competitions in the future as future young guns learn to climb. One day, I’ll bet some of those kids will show me a thing or two about climbing. For now, I like to think I can help inspire them as I grunt my way up a wall.

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