Kai Lightner of Fayetteville, North Carolina, is one of America’s most promising sport climbers. Eight-time youth national champion, the sixteen-year-old competed in his first adult national championship this year in Watertown, Massachusetts. He took first place as the competition’s youngest athlete.
Lightner climbed his first 5.14d in April—Era Vella in Margalef, Spain—after only a few years of outdoor sport climbing. He also redpointed Southern Smoke (5.14c), in 2013, and Lucifer (5.14c), in 2014, at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
Rock and Ice chatted with Lightner about his plans for the future, bouldering and “college talk”:
I’m kind of stubborn. Sometimes I need to walk away from certain things and I just won’t let it go. I’ve developed different methods of handling it. When I was younger, I’d be in the gym hanging there for an hour and refuse to come down. My mom would say, “Kai, it’s okay to come down,” and I’d be like, “No, it’s not! I haven’t done the problem yet!”
I grew up in an area where climbing wasn’t even thought of as an activity. Mountain climbing wasn’t even thought of. As I’ve developed in climbing, I’ve sort of opened to a broader perspective… [but] I don’t really have interest in multi-pitch or trad. I’m clumsy and I don’t really trust myself. I’m kind of scared of it!
I‘m going to Bishop, [California] at the end of this month. Alex Johnson is going to show me some problems to try. She’s like my climbing mom. She’s always giving me advice on how to handle certain things, like social media. I’ve never been bouldering outside, so I just want to find the limit of my climbing there. I’m kind of in the dark. My mom was scared of me bouldering when I was younger because she thought it was dangerous. My mom wasn’t really exposed to climbing before I started.
My mom is a statistics professor at Fayetteville State University, so academics are held at a really high standard in my house. I wouldn’t be able to go half the places I go if I didn’t have good grades. Low grades are kind of unacceptable for myself, so my mom doesn’t even ask for my report cards anymore. She knows that if there’s something wrong with my grades, I’ll be the one to take care of it. It’s college talk everyday. Resumes, scholarships. I want to stay on the East Coast, ’cause I don’t want to be too far from my mom. I find climbing a relief from academics. When I get off school I can go to the gym for two or so hours.
I don’t really have time for anything else besides climbing. I don’t participate in extracurriculars, really. I try to make social time, but it’s definitely a lot more limited than it would be if I didn’t climb. I also try to put my social life into climbing. I’ve met a lot of friends that way.
I value both competitions and outdoor climbing. They’re both really important to me. Comp climbing gives me a thrill and focus, but outdoor is a little more relaxing.
There’s less pressure in the adult circuit. In youth climbing, there’s a bit more pressure. More competitive, maybe. In open climbing, it’s more relaxed and fun. In the adult sector, I’m usually the youngest one there, so the expectations are different.
When I’m 26, I’d like to have a lot of hard climbs behind me. Climbing will always be a big part of my life, but maybe it’ll be a bit more recreational then. I probably want to mix business with climbing. I’m interested in marketing, so I might like to fuse the two together. There are a lot of people to look up to.
I loved my time with prAna, but I’m also super excited to go over to adidas. There are a lot of doors they can open for me. They’re good at getting your face out there. They support me in terms of traveling, too—they give me complete freedom to do what I want to do. I think I push myself hard enough so they don’t have to do it for me.
I’d really like to push myself physically and mentally. I’ll probably try some 5.15a’s, or something. After I finish my junior year, I’m going take the fall off and just climb outside.