Eagle County climbers don’t mind dangling
VAIL, Colorado ” Kyle Werner is navigating a “problem” on the Vail Athletic Club’s climbing wall.
His hands are calloused and reddened and his feet ache from being shoved into curved shoes with stiff rubber toes. After a practice session, muscles scream from the strain and joints are sore from repeated falls.
So why are Werner and two other local teens so enamored with the sport of competitive bouldering?
“It’s one of those things where, when you were a little kid, your parents are always telling you not to do it,” says Werner, an Eagle Valley High School junior. “And it always gets harder. Just when you think you have it handled, someone comes up with something tougher.”
Werner, fellow junior Zach Bailey, and Battle Mountain sophomore Luke Rasmussen spend a lot of time at the Vail Athletic Club honing their bouldering skills. The trio recently went to Albuquerque, N. M. to test themselves at a regional competition.
The three young men each hope to tally enough points to earn berths at the bouldering nationals, slated in February at The Spot in Boulder.
Competitive bouldering emphasizes power, strength and critical thinking. It is a style of rock climbing undertaken without a rope and normally limited to short climbs so that falls will not result in serious injury. Climbers rarely go higher than 22 feet ” though it can be a difficult 22 feet.
For competition, specific routes ” called “problems” ” are mapped out on a climbing wall. Colored tape lays out the problem. When the climber reaches a specific point, the route has been successfully navigated.
Difficulty is rated on a scale of 1-10 in four categories ” recreational, intermediate, advanced and open. Competitors are allotted a specific amount of time to complete as many climbs as possible. The more problems a climber successfully navigates, the more points tallied.
Bouldering is also an honor sport. At most competitions, there’s no official judges to make sure climbers actually complete the routes they claim to have negotiated. Instead, there’s always other competitors watching fellow climbers. They attest to a climber’s claims of success by literally signing off on a tally sheet.
Rasmussen thrives on this mixture of competition and camaraderie.
“You can watch a person in your age division try the same climb as you, and know that if they make it, they will win and you will get second. But you are still cheering them on.”
Rasmussen got into bouldering about five years ago when a trip up the climbing wall at a local fundraiser sparked his interest. He returned home, jazzed about his climb, and started talking with his dad, John, a former climber who understood his son’s love for the sport.
Eventually, Rasmussen hooked up with local bouldering coach Larry Moore and began competing about three years ago.
“I’ve been in some pretty high-pressure competitions,” says Rasmussen. “I went to nationals last year and just got destroyed.”
But that hasn’t dimmed his enthusiasm. He loves the challenges associated with bouldering and the constantly changing nature of the sport.
To an unpracticed eye, a climbing wall is a static structure. But all the little bolt marks represent potential route changes. Likewise, there’s a seemingly infinite number of grip plates that can be mounted on the structure. Some grips reveal themselves as obvious hand holds while others present little discernible climbing advantage.
Along with the wall changes, new problems can be readily routed. Some require climbers to literally dangle like monkeys. Others present climbers with the challenge of straddling a corner and changing over to a different rock face.
Currently, according to the American Bouldering Series Web site, Rasmussen is the top-ranked Youth A ” competitors born in 1991-92 ” climber in Colorado with 3,700 points. Bailey is tied for second place with 3,000 points.
Werner tops the state’s Junior Division for competitors born in 1989-90). But those points standings don’t carry over to regionals.
When weather allows, bouldering is an outdoor sport. Climbers typically place a crash pad on the ground to break any falls.
Outdoor bouldering is not a solitary pursuit. Climbers need to bring along a spotter to follow them as they climb.
Werner says outdoor climbs add a whole new dimension to the sport. Problems aren’t marked, and it’s up to the climbers to find their own routes. Then there’s the added difficulties presented by plants and bugs.
There’s an intellectual challenge to bouldering. It’s one thing to spot a handhold to grab ” but it’s another to think past just getting there. Whether on an indoor wall or in the great outdoors, climbers must always consider positioning and how they are going to make their next move.
Climbing takes a physical toll as well. Werner had surgery recently to remove a toenail injured by clenching his feet inside climbing shoes.
But what’s a little pain? Rasmussen, Bailey and Werner are plainly willing to put up with a discomfort in pursuit of their avocation.
“Bouldering just keeps getting harder. There’s not a point where it ever gets boring,” Bailey says.