So I wandered my way up to San Francisco yesterday to watch a bouldering competition in-person for the first time. That was a hell of an experience.
Word of the comp, which was held at Dogpatch Boulders, was passed on to me by a coworker and fellow climbing enthusiast. He gave me all the details: it was going to be a massive competition; there would be serious talent there; winners were taking away big cash prizes; he even gave me the link to the actual site because of a possible opening to be a camera operator. Somehow, through all of that, I never put two and two together as to who might actually be competing on the wall. A USAC sponsored event with local, amateur competitors was making total sense in my mind.
It was quite a shock, then, when I was sitting just a few rows behind the front line of spectators and out came Alex Puccio, Margo Hayes, Sierra Blair-Coyl, Nathaniel Coleman, Carlo Traversi, the list goes on but, you know… all the people that would logically compete at a national competition. Oh damn, I thought… this is the real deal! It was definitely that surreal moment when someone you have only ever seen on a screen is suddenly standing right there in front of you.
To watch these athletes climb was incredible. The physicality of their performance is a given reason. Aside from Olympic rowers, or maybe mixed martial artists, I have a hard time thinking of a sport where
the competitors are as all-around fit and athletic as climbers. The whole sport is about defying gravity, which adds a near insurmountable challenge from the get-go, but yet they still manage to climb with total control and fluidity. Entire body-weights would be supported by just a three finger crimp on a two-inch wide nub of plastic bolted to the wall. Climbers turned themselves into contortionists as they heel-hooked and toe-jammed their way into the craziest positions to reach the next hold.
But I also admired the process. One of the first things that hooked me on climbing was the problem-solving aspect of the sport. You begin the route with an unsolved equation: what steps do I have to add together to get me from point A (the bottom of the wall) to point B (the top)? So you get on that first hold and ya give it a go! You make it two moves and then you slip off. You try again but this time that third move is approached differently; the result is obtaining the fourth and fifth move. Sweaty fingers slip on that tiny, fifth hold so you fall off, analyze what happened, and get right back on again. This incremental, trail-and-error based approached makes slapping your hand on to that top wall so damn rewarding. Even when it’s just as a beginner topping out on a V3. To see a professional following through that same progression on something like a V8 was pretty neat. Here were sixteen of the best boulderers in the country smacking the mats from a fifteen-foot drop left and right. And each time they would get up (often with an exasperated grin on their face because they were having a blast), think about what
went wrong, and then strive to fix it.
The other thing that really got me was just the vibe of the crowd. Pretty much every sporting event you go to, the crowd is going to be divided. It’s one side pitted against the other and fans boo those they don’t support. Climbing is everyone against one common enemy: the wall. I’m sure spectators had their particular climber they wanted to see up on the tallest podium at the end of the competition, but everyone was there just to cheer on the competitors. If someone was about to make a big move, the whole crowd went silent. They stuck it? The place went nuts. Missed the hold by millimeters? Nothing but encouragement to get that one last try in before the clock ran out. It was a fun energy to be a part of and I think emblematic of a core aspect of the climbing world: community.
Really grateful for the experience and I’ll definitely have an eye out for more to come. The real goal: be able to shoot photos at one :D