A couple of years ago, I started to lead climb at my rock gym (climb up a wall, clipping the rope as you go), and in a sheer bout of frustration at my failure to get a few moves right, I looked it up on YouTube to see if anyone had posted tips or tricks. Down the YouTube rabbit hole I went, and discovered that rock climbing has international competitions and world cups. Lead climbing and bouldering have their own yearly series, traveling around the world to different locations and competing in front of huge crowds...
...wait, WHAT? Really? This is a thing?
It's definitely a thing. Turns out, it's totally my thing.
I've never really been an especially sportsy kind of girl. I do love watching live basketball, and I went to a Green Bay Packers game that one time in DECEMBER in their home stadium (the word "blistering" doesn't even begin to describe how cold it was, and the locals were actually tailgating in 10 below zero, bless them), but I don't tend to follow things unless my Blazers are doing really well. I like watching the Olympics, but mostly for ice skating and downhill skiing.
Here was this new sport that totally spoke to me. Challenging, unpredictable, hard as hell, and amazing to watch, I immediately fell in love with the athletes and routes and crowds at these IFSC competitions. Rock climbing is somewhat like playing chess against yourself--your body with and against your brain, with and against the wall.
Last year, I decided that I'd go to the 2016 bouldering competition in Vail, Colorado, the only US stop on the tour, so I could see it in person and photograph it. I requested and received Media credentials, allowing me into the "mix zone" in front of the main audience, where the climbing teams and non-officially-IFSC media stand.
Last week, I hopped on a plane to Denver, took a shuttle up to Vail, and began two days of utterly-exhilarating, totally-nerdy photography as I finally got to watch world champions on a bouldering wall, maybe 20 feet in front of me. The competition was hosted at the GoPro Mountain Games, full of amazing outdoor athletic events and competitions like kayaking and slacklining and running, and best of all, Dock Dogs. If you've never seen dog after dog jumping into a big pool, being judged on height and distance, you're missing out. That is a LOT of happiness.
Competition is just... different in climbing. It's fierce, but it's also very personal--doing your best on that day in those conditions on those holds. There are days when you're just "off", when you can't climb at your best--and when someone else is having a perfect "on" day, you don't win. I have never seen such a supportive community of athletes, across countries, sexes, ages, and abilities. The climbers watching, because they missed out on semi-finals or finals, cheer and shout and clap loudly for those who made it. The unceasing, violent support is goosebump-causing, and you can't help but feel the energy pouring out from the audience.
I had a BLAST. I met and stood next to climbers I'd watched take medal after medal, I got autographs from Shauna Coxsey and Anna Stöhr and Jan Hojer and Sean McColl, I photographed wild swings and emotional tops and weird body positions, I stood in the backstage areas and photographed the climbers as they prepared to come out and do their routes, I overheard climbing teams discussing the routes and climbers. I ended up covered in chalk dust and pollen from the trees. Every moment was so vivid and exciting--I felt like a little girl, having the time of my life.
Here are some postcards from my adventures in Vail. Enjoy! And hey, if you want to try watching my favorite nerdy sport, check out the video coverage from that day.