There was a bigger surprise at September's Unified Bouldering Championships in Lincoln, New Hampshire, than victory by Ethan Pringle. A mere one fall behind Pringle and second on the podium, ahead of the favorite, Daniel Woods was Brian Kim, 24, a quiet architecture student from Edison, New Jersey. The place where the light bulb was invented.
Only two weeks later, the still relatively unknown Kim succeeded in the third ascent of Iron Monkey, trad 5.14a, in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. He sent it the day after a cable on a fixed nut exploded, and, by freak happenstance, his rope also unclipped from a cam, nearly causing him to smack the deck. A fixed wired nut also snapped on Kim last year, on the Cybernetic Wall (5.13d), in the Shawangunks, New York.
I'm pretty good at breaking them, he jokes.
Kim was the first person in 20 years to lead that historic route. This past summer he also established Monumantle (5.13d), a yet unrepeated face and arete climb on spaced-out pro up a steep 20-degree wall in the Gunks.
The worlds of plastic bouldering comps versus hard trad climbing may seem disparate, but for Kim the two intersect.
Competitions keep me on edge, he says. I don't have a lot of time to really focus on getting out climbing and going on big trips and sending.
If travel seems limited, transportation fills his days. Several times a week Kim drives or takes trains over an hour to Manhattan to climb at Chelsea Piers or Brooklyn Boulders, and twice a week, sometimes more, he heads 90 minutes in the opposite direction, attending a part-time, six-year architecture program at Drexel University, Philadelphia.
Brian learned to climb at age 10 at his hometown gym, where he was nicknamed Gearboy by older friends for wearing his clanking gear rack and figure 8. He also grew up playing tennis and the trumpet, at one point being shuttled by his mother to play weekly in both the Long Island Symphony Music Association, in New York, and the New Jersey Youth Symphony: So that was a lot of driving. For her.
Among top competitors, only Pringle also appears to trad climb consistently. Kim considers the practice an asset: At least for me, there's no way I'm getting to the top of a hard trad route if I don't have total control of my mind. You have to stay extremely focused so that fear or doubt doesn't flood your mind. This is great practice for competition climbing. Hopefully more people will start.
Said by others to define cool-headedness and focus, Kim doesn't talk, yell or complain on routes; he just climbs. An outstanding all-arounder, he has also done three sport 5.14b's (Sick Dimension, Potrero Chico; Still Life, Summersville Lake; and China Beach, Rumney), and bouldered up to V12 in Font and in the Gunks.
What made you choose Iron Monkey?
In May there was a comp in Boulder, the Battle of the Bubble. I had an extra day. I saw that climb in a film, it looked really cool, so I figured I'd go find it. It was short so I thought it'd be a good one to try for a short trip. I maybe did like two moves and then had to leave. I didn't even think it was doable.
A few months later my friend moved to Boulder so I visited and somehow found myself back on it. I spent like two days on it and again had to go back home. I got motivated and came back a third time, between classes. I thought I was crazy, too, because it's such a short climb and I was traveling like crazy for it.
And why the Cybernetic Wall?
That wall sticks out like a sore thumb. I always go for something like that. I did it ground up [laughs] because it's pretty short. It is kind of cool when a climb has some baggage. A lot of the Gunks climbs have history.
How would you describe yourself?
Really quiet, pretty shy, except with the people I know. Hardworking. A calm person who gets things done. I'm never too frantic about things.
Do people ever try to get a reaction out of you?
[laughs] Everybody that climbs with me does. [They] ask a lot of questions, they'll do anything.
You commute a lot. How late do you study?
Usually until 5 in the morning.
I sleep in, though. I sleep a lot on trains. I rely a lot on alarm clocks.
You are such a smooth climber, everything looks easy.
I hear the smooth comment a lot. It surprises me because I swear Im always battling on these climbs.
Do you do any other sport?
When the weather is nice I'm playing tennis with my sisters [Diane, 29, a tax auditor, and Grace, 27, an optometrist]. They're really good. I need some extra cardio but I hate running.
Who are your main climbing partners?
It's kind of random. Vadim [Vinokur], he's always around. Kevin Wright. Cody Sims.
Not anymore. Well, maybe there is one.
When I first started climbing, I saw this film with Alex Lowe in it. He was a big figure for me. He looked so cool. He just had the all-around good climber image, and I wanted to be like that.
Is this more than you usually talk?
Omigosh, this is more than I talk in a day. Mostly I'm just on my computer or setting routes. I'm actually in Chelsea Piers right now doing some routesetting. Routesetting transfers pretty well from architecture. Architecture is all about designing how people move through spaces. Setting routes is just doing that vertically.