“Use this foothold!” urges a girl, pointing, though she missed it herself two minutes ago.
“You’re almost there,” says someone. “You got it!”
Three kids on the mats dance to the pumping background music. Some practice flips, or whip each other around in flying dance moves.
On consecutive weekends recently I attended a youth ski race and a high-school climbing comp. I also found out this: in my state of Colorado there are now more than twice as many high-school climbing teams as high-school ski teams.
The kids at the climbing comp roam the venue; they eat, scuffle. I have lugged over two boxes of Rock and Ice magazines, and they roll them into tubes for swordfights. Two form megaphones of theirs.
“I hate you,” says one through his magazine, brightly.
“I hate you more,” his friend returns.
One kid wears a woolly Packers hat; another, Batman pajama bottoms. Girls mark chalk lines on their faces, though not, as I imagined, as war paint.
“We were just bored,” one tells me blithely. They take selfie photos.
A local boy named Sammy, in protest of his team’s requirement that everyone wear shirts, displays a sleeveless top knotted at the waist, as a girl would, above skintight short shorts.
“He’s just being a pest,” one of his teacher-coaches says, somewhat fondly.
A girl in the corner fights up a moderate-level problem, giving it everything, and the whole auditorium erupts in cheers.
A league website lists 16 different high-school ski teams in Colorado, while there are three dozen high-school climbing teams in the state. Fourteen ski teams just went or sent someone to State Championships, and 26 climbing teams attended their States. (These numbers do not count ski-club teams or climbing-gym teams.)
The obvious reason for a disparity in numbers is expense. Even for high-school ski racing, which is fun and inclusive of every skill level—drawing both top kids who ski for area clubs and also intermediates in padded pants instead of speed suits—you need skis, boots, poles, helmets, goggles. And lift tickets as well as entry fees. (For club ski racing, the cost jumps.)
Granted, youth climbing can get expensive: at the top level are gym teams, coaches, national and international travel. But to join a school team and participate you really only need access to a bouldering wall, a pair of shoes and a chalk bag; and many schools have a rack of shoes to borrow, while it’d be pretty hard to lay in a supply of loaner skis. Climbing participation fees vary, but event entry fees (nominal at $10 for regular events, $25 for States) cover venue costs. At the event I attended, some groups had team T-shirts and others didn’t.
People in any sport all learn and work together. But there is something exceptionally inclusive about climbing and working out strategies per each problem together.
For a ski race, you tune skis and drive hours, spend a weekend, and race for, oh, 40 seconds or so, either once or twice a day. My sons used to ski race, and I loved the sport, but eventually they chafed at the time and travel demands, especially versus the time on course.
At a climbing comp, you usually try various problems. At the one I watched, held in the gym at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, the kids climbed as many problems as they could during three hours, with the field of 200 divided into morning and afternoon heats. So while a fall can still break their hearts, and will dictate placement, they get a lot of mileage.
Skiers of course are friends and have fun. At the ski race I watched recently, hiking up to the start and waiting by the netting, peering around for the numbers of local kids I knew, the group hooted and called out exhortations and nicknames when a buddy was in the gate. Sometimes kids sidestepped vigorously up the hill to get a better view of a favorite on the course. Kids at ski races laugh, knock each other out of their skis, throw snowballs; when they’re little they make forts.
People in any sport all learn and work together. But there is something exceptionally inclusive about climbing and working out strategies per each problem together, with feedback every step of the way, and how kids of varied body types can climb well. In past days when I taught climbing, I noticed how often a smaller kid, who might not stand out in conventional sports, would shine in a group; and also from years ago I remember Scott Franklin, a powerhouse but short-statured, saying he’d futilely tried to play football, and in ice hockey “got slammed up against the boards.” But he was one of the country’s top climbers.
“Climbing is a great sport for kids,” he said, way before today’s era of ubiquitous youth groups.
I had intended to stay until about noon at the climbing comp, just for the first heat, watching and cheering. I ended up yelling, spotting and giving beta all day, eventually looking at my watch in surprise to see that it was after 4 p.m.
As I looked around, I probably never saw even one child complete an entire problem—four to eight moves, taking one to three minutes—in a vacuum. Someone almost always cheered, spoke, urged, was heard, from right nearby. When you are out on a ski course, for those 45 seconds you are alone. The climbers were never alone.