Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Future of Competition Climbing?

The first time I stepped foot in Arco, Italy three years ago for the World Championships, I could immediately sense the historic weight of the location surrounding me. There’s just something magical about it that’s tough to put to words. Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, Arco is home to the birthplace of modern competition climbing as we know it, beginning with the first Rock Master festival in 1987. At the time, competitors scaled chipped lines in the surrounding limestone cliffs, fabricated by the “setters” specifically for the event. I remember watching footage Lynn Hill and Stefan Glowacz dominating the event and coming to the realization that the sport of competition climbing has come a long ways since then, even for how relatively young the sport is. This realization resonated with me especially strongly after the most recent competition season, where I was really able to see the contrast between the technical, intricate, and very linear style of competition days gone by and the new explosive style that climbing is maturing into.

Over the past few months, I’ve transitioned from bouldering competitions to training for sport climbing competitions and outdoor projects. Having finally aged out of the youth circuit, I set my main focus on competing in as many pro-level competitions as possible, finishing out my season in May with the Dominion Riverrock Boulder Bash in Richmond, Virginia. The sheer density of events I competed in was a new personal record, as I completed 13 different competitions (even with skipping Canadian Bouldering Nationals and the Vail World Cup) in just over four months.

Looking back on my season, the biggest takeaway point I’ve noticed is how much the competitions themselves have changed over the course of my climbing career. I started competing in national and international-level competitions in 2002, where I made it to finals at my first-ever Continental Championships in Berkeley, CA. The climbs at that point in time were very technical and rarely included showy or dynamic moves. Since then, competitions have moved steadily a more dynamic style, incorporating 3-dimensional movement and an abundance of features and volumes. Additionally, the next generation of climbers has continued to push standards in ways I’d never thought possible.
Semifinals at the 2003 National Championships in Richmond, VA
Starting with ABS Youth Nationals, the amount of creativity the routesetters produced was unparalleled in a youth climbing event. One problem in the semifinal round featured a drop-down move to a huge volume, which the competitors then had to turn around and hang upside-down to match the finish hold. Only a handful of competitors managed it, but the fact that youth competition climbs are getting to be as exciting as this shows how far they’ve come in the past decade, since youth bouldering competitions only came to prominence in the United States in 2004.

Sydney Trinidad successfully completing "the move".
Photo: Just Fab Photography
Having graduated from the youth bouldering circuit last year, the next logical step for me was to test my abilities in higher-level bouldering competitions. One of the more interesting events I attended was this year’s MIT Open competition, hosted by Central Rock Gym in Watertown. The final climb in finals consisted solely of several jugs separated by a huge gap, which could only be bridged by swinging on an Atomik Bomb. The move was solved in several different ways, ranging from my personal bat-hang beta, Andrew Kim’s campusing beta, and the obvious “wrecking ball” beta that involved wrapping your legs around the rope and swinging wildly.

Another such bouldering event to include futuristic moves this year was the CCS National Championships, where I was able to top out all three climbs in finals for a 2nd-place finish. All three climbs were unique in some way, from a bat-hang finish on problem 1, to a thumbdercling traverse (Tommy Caldwell style) on problem 2, to a Dark Horse-esque double-clutch move on problem 3.

Julian Barker on problem 1
Photo: USA Climbing
Problem 3
Photo: Cole Alcock
Even World Cups have grown accustomed to this new style, with many problems on the circuit this year featuring some ridiculous double-clutches, dynos, and running-jump starts. One of the most intriguing of these was final problem 3 in Toronto for the men, which Guillaume Glairon Mondet solved by sitting on a volume in order to match the finish hold. His flash of this problem would eventually be enough to secure a World Cup victory at that stage. These displays of originality from the setters were yet another example of the progression of competition climbing.

GG Mondet topping out problem 3 in Toronto
One of my favorite events of the year is perhaps the most futuristic model of competition climbing in the world: the Dominion Riverrock Boulder Bash in Richmond, Virginia. Set on a steel cage instead of a wall, the setters suspended giant volumes (designed by master volume-builder Brent Quesenberry) at intervals up the 25-foot behemoth to create a climbing experience that has to be seen to believe. Bouldering between the volumes opens up an entirely new realm of competition climbing, where the 3-dimensional movement between the features allows for extremely dynamic and gymnastic moves between holds.

One final example of the new style that competition climbing is heading towards is this year’s Ring of Fire series. The series is based out of the Central Rock Climbing Gyms here in the Northeast with Shane Messer organizing and directing the comps. The events this year embodied the new competition style perfectly, from including some of the coolest volume sequences I’ve ever been on, dynamic yet intricate routesetting, and allowing the younger generation to display their impressive talent.

The series was broken down into three competitions: two qualifying events and the championship round. The winner of each of the first two rounds received an automatic bye into the finals of the championship round. In round 1, I was pitted head-to-head with 14-year old superstar Kai Lightner in a speed-lead superfinal on the women’s final route. Kai destroyed the route, besting my time by a staggering 25 seconds (silly me for thinking I could climb fast). In the second round I was able to squeak out a victory, ensuring my spot in the championship round finals.

Volume action in Round 1 finals
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Round 3 turned out to be the most impressive of all, with Kai and 13-year old Ashima Shiraishi both winning out over heavy favorites such as Delaney Miller, Daniel Woods, and Vasya Vorotnikov. In fact, Delaney and Ashima both topped their finals route, so they were put on the men’s route as a tiebreaker, where they effortlessly out-climbed nearly the entire men’s category. This incredible display of talent and skill from such young stars firmly cemented the next generation as the one to look out for as they continue to push the boundaries of our sport.

Looking into the future, it is difficult to discern where competition climbing will go. Sport climbing attempted (and failed) to become a sport in the 2020 Olympic Games, but is being included as a demonstration sport at the Youth Olympic Games later this year in Nanjing, China. I was fortunate to be selected by the IFSC as the sole US representative, which means I will have the unique opportunity to see and shape what direction the sport is headed.

With all of these major changes making waves in the future of competition climbing, we must ask ourselves what comes next. From what I’ve seen, climbing competitions are moving away from the static, technical climbing style to dynamic, explosive, and 3-dimensional movement that has come to define the next generation of competitions and the group of young crushers that excel at them.

What will climbing comps look like in 10 years? 15? 20? Will climbing competitions become so disjointed from the actual sport of rock climbing that athletes will never once need to set foot on outdoor rock to excel in competition? It’s certainly a real possibility. The most extreme end of the spectrum here can be looked at as NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, an extreme obstacle course that climbers have started to excel at in recent years. Many people devote their lives to training for this course, much to the same extent of dedication climbers have towards climbing. Is this a positive or negative for the climbing community at large? I can’t say I know for sure.

One thing does remain certain: no matter where the sport of competition climbing goes, we still will have our ancestry deeply rooted in the mountains. Beginning with the very first days of competition in Arco, the sport of competition climbing has evolved over time, bringing with it an explosive new style that utilizes 3-dimensional movement to challenge the next generation of climbers. However, climbing still holds the same intrinsic appeal from one generation to the next. Whether it be Lynn Hill gracefully ascending the limestone cliffs of Italy or 13-year old Ashima Shiraishi taking down male competitors twice her age at the Ring of Fire Championships, the spirit of climbing endures, one move at a time.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Comp Season: Understanding the Importance of Failure

With ABS Nationals just having come to a close, I want to address a subject most people are keen to avoid: failure. Failure is something that we avoid at all costs in all aspects of life, let alone competition climbing. However, I believe there are many important lessons to be learned from failure, especially when it comes to dealing with high-pressure situations such as in climbing competitions.

This past month and a half, I have had the opportunity to compete in a major pro-level bouldering competition on east coast 6 weekends out of 7. So far, almost every one of these comps have been in a different state, (and sometimes country) and it has been a ton of fun to travel to these different locations to climb. Looking back on it, the process was mentally and physically taxing, but overall a great chance to test myself before competing at Nationals.

Dark Horse Finals!
Photo: Vince Schaefer
However, instead of doing well under pressure like I have been able to do in the past, I did extremely poorly at most of the events, placing near the bottom in finals for multiple comps in a row. This came as a combination of preparing poorly, screwing up sequences, and letting mistakes get to my head. I felt dejected, frustrated, and largely dissatisfied with my performances. I experienced what no athlete wants to experience: Failure.

Coming into the season, I’d just come off a successful trip to Hueco Tanks, so I felt physically strong and was psyched to start training for comps. I also started an engineering internship in Boston instead of taking classes, so rather than the regular college problem sets, midterms, and labs to prepare for, I found myself heading straight to the gym right after work, stress-free. I immediately jumped into a training program I devised for myself, five days per week with a comp every Saturday. It was great to focus primarily on fine-tuning my climbing and not have to worry about school for a change.

Sending Rumble in the Jungle (V12), Hueco Tanks
Photo: Colin Barnes
One of the best things about living on the east coast is that there are comps. A lot of them. ALL. THE. TIME. It got to a point where I had to decide which comp out of several to go to on the same weekend for multiple weekends in a row. The final schedule I decided upon was:

January 11th: Power Struggle (Connecticut)
January 18th: Winter Burn (Phildelphia)
January 25th: Tour de Bloc (Montreal, Canada)
February 1st: Dark Horse (Boston)
February 15th: Heart Burn (Philadelphia)
February 21st: ABS Nationals (Colorado Springs)

Competing at Tour de Bloc in Montreal
Photo: Guy Pomerleau
The season started off decently well with a second-place finish at Power Struggle, but Winter Burn and Tour de Bloc went extremely poorly. I decided to try to prepare differently for Dark Horse, and even though I felt I did better, it didn’t stop me from bombing the last climb in finals and placing last. After three disappointing results in a row, I decided to take a break for a weekend and came back with a solid fourth-place finish at Heart Burn. Now that I finally have the chance to reflect on the past month, I came to a couple different conclusions on what I learned. These were all pretty obvious once I thought of them, but it helped thinking each one through and attempting to understand how they affected my climbing.

1: Don’t base your success (or failure) on how other people do.

As hard as it may be, trying not to base your own performance on how other people do is absolutely key in order to succeed. If you lay down the absolute best performance of your life, but still do not come out on top, those people deserved to beat you that day. The results may not reflect your personal desire to do well, but it is important that you realize the true value of your efforts. Conversely, if you win a comp but you know didn't perform at your absolute best, you should still be openly happy with your performance, but reflect on what you could've done better for future events. I've found that the true victories are the ones that don't come easy. I experienced both sides of this scenario recently, as I felt I could have climbed better at Power Struggle, but I know that my absolute best effort at Dark Horse Round 3 still wasn't enough to see me through to the finals.

Qualifiers at Dark Horse Round 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
2: Always give yourself every possible opportunity to succeed.

Competitions can be broken down into three parts: training, competing, and performing. The critical part of these three things is that you do everything within your power to physically and mentally prepare for each one. In training for climbing comps, it's crucial to train for any scenario (slabs, overhangs, pinches, dynos, crimps, dropdowns, etc). Avoiding one of these simply because you don't like it or believe you don't need to train it is a recipe for disaster in the heat of competition. The best climber is the most well-rounded climber. While competing, only focus on the aspects you can control: getting a good amount of sleep, warming up properly, making sure you have enough water, and so on. If you find yourself differing this process between competitions, create a routine and stick with it. Everything else, such as where you fall in the running order, the style of climbs, and how other people do on them is beyond your control and therefore you should try to put them out of your mind. As for the performing aspect, letting go of mistakes between climbs, rounds, or competitions is easily the hardest and most valuable thing you can do. At recent comps, I found myself criticizing myself for mistakes I had made on previous climbs, so I was unable to progress much further on the next one without doubting my abilities. Perceiving failure as but a dip in forward progression is essential for success in the long run.

Figuring out the beta at Winter Burn
Photo: Sean Aronow
The final and by far most important thing I learned was:

3: Have fun!

This one should totally be a no-brainer, but it's often difficult to focus on having fun when the heat of the competition is turned up. I realized at one of the earlier comps this season that I was so focused on doing well during the event that I legitimately forgot to have fun. This is the one true failure you can have as an athlete. If you don't love what you're doing, why do it? Luckily, I came to my senses and realized that even if I climb badly, I still am having fun by pursuing my true passion in life. And isn't that what life's all about?

Having fun while finishing last at Dark Horse.
Photo: Garrick Kwan
To conclude, I thought it would be appropriate to include a quote I found from one of the greatest basketball players in history, Michael Jordan. He sums up the point of overcoming failure much better than I ever could, and it has definitely helped me define my perception of failure and success.

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Changing Seasons: Dark Horse & Livin' Astro

Fall is officially here in New England! Over the past couple months, I’ve transitioned from the summer life of competing and traveling back into my sophomore year classes here at Northeastern. As much as I love traveling and climbing during the summer, there’s something special about coming back to Boston for this time of year. You really can’t beat the crisp apples and amazing colors display from tree leaves, but most importantly, prime climbing temps and the beginning of a new season of the Dark Horse Bouldering Series.

Last year, I competed in Dark Horse for the first time. I’d watched videos of the events before, but competing in the competitions blew my expectations away. The energy is insane, pro athletes fly in from all over the country, and the finals problems are some of the most innovative and ridiculous climbs EVER. I guess you could say I had a good time.

Coming into the first event of the season, I really wanted to train as hard as possible in order to have the chance of winning the first event, since the winners of each of the first three competitions get an automatic bye into the Dark Horse Championships. To prepare, I really focused on doing a lot of power-endurance workouts and campus board drills to get my contact strength up as high as possible. It was hard scheduling enough time in the gym to train given my workload this semester, since I am currently taking 20 credits of mechanical engineering courses. However, having less free time really changed my perspective on training, as I was able to really focus on getting a lot done during the short period of time available to me.

The morning of the comp arrived quickly, and I couldn’t wait to get to Metrorock to begin climbing. Qualifiers went well, and I was able to complete most of the harder problems in relatively few attempts, securing me a 3rd-place spot in the finals after Vasya and Mike Foley. The top eight men were only separated by falls, so it was decided that everyone would advance rather than just the top six.

Photo: Garrick Kwan
After the “Young Guns” finals (kids 15 and under) were finished, myself and the other finalists headed into isolation to begin warming up and get a quick run-down of the rules for finals. As is Dark Horse tradition, the rules meeting wasn’t complete without several ambiguous hints about the problem, including the fact that problem 1 for the men would not have an actual finish hold, and that several footholds would be scored as well as handholds.

Expecting a balancy slab traverse, we each headed out of iso one at a time to tackle the finals problems. When I turned around to face problem 1, I was reminded why Dark Horse is as exciting as I remembered it by the overwhelming noise from the crowd, who was taking their cues from the announcer (dressed this time around as Wilfred). At first glance, problem 1 did appear to be a balance-intensive traverse on slopers at ground height, but after several botched attempts to work my way across, I realized that a running start was actually required. After I figured this out, I was able to complete it in only a couple more attempts. Problem 2 was a powerfest on lots of pinches and slopers with huge dynos in between, which fit my style of climbing excellently and I was able to complete it on my second try. Unfortunately, problem 3 shut everyone down at the same move, which was a huge throw to a dish, but it had a cool opening dyno that required a mandatory double clutch off of a sloper.

Problem 2
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 2
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
In the end, the comp came down to whether Vasya or I had less falls. Since I took less tries on problem 1 and only two tries on problem 2, I came out in first! There was some questionable scoring on problem 3 because Vasya controlled a hold that was further ahead than the dish with his left hand, but Charlie Schrieber and I both controlled it with our right hands so it didn’t matter too much in the end.

Psyched to have come out on top, I could now shift my focus entirely to outdoor climbing. As SENDtember transitioned into ROCKtober, the temperatures around the Northeast dropped, and conditions became ideal for some crushing.

One project that I’d been looking at from last season was China Beach (5.14b), in Rumney, New Hampshire. After sussing out the moves and trying to avoid a swarm of wasps and ladybugs on a particularly muggy day, my friend Kai Mu convinced me to try Livin’ Astro (5.14c), the line just to the right of China Beach. After a try or two on it, I was hooked. Livin’ Astro fit my style of climbing much better than China Beach and was clearly the most prominent and natural line on the cliff.

In addition to the style of climbing, the history behind Livin’ Astro was very appealing to me. It was first climbed by Dave Graham in early 2000, who established it as the hardest sport climb in New England at the time. After getting back to my dorm and watching footage of Dave making the first ascent in Dosage II, Livin’ Astro became the only thing on my mind.

Dave Graham making the first ascent of Livin' Astro (4:42)
Video: Big Up Productions

I made the trip up to Rumney every weekend from then on, recruiting rides up from friends all over the Boston area. As several weeks passed by, I found myself making significant progress and began linking sections together. However, I kept getting shut down by a single hard move at the top.

The climb can be broken down into three distinct cruxes: the bottom (sustained V8 up to a sloper rest), the middle (v9/10 core-intensive/shouldery boulder problem to a jug) and the top (four-move V10 for me, V9 if you’re just a little taller). I was able to individually figure out both the bottom and middle cruxes fairly quickly, but the top crux proved to be my nemesis. The entire sequence revolves around a single vertical slot which is the only hold between an undercling just above the rest and the arete. I must have tried the move going to the slot and the move out of the slot at least 50 times, each try seeming no closer than the next. Over time, I finally was able to figure out the perfect body positioning to stick the hold and move off of it, but it was still extremely low-percentage.

The crux hold! Dave Graham demonstrating proper technique.
Working Livin’ Astro was a unique process for me since I was able to come back every weekend to try the climb and train for individual moves in the gym in the weeks between. The majority of my hardest sport climbing in the past was done on summer trips, and the ability to really dial in a training regimen for a project like this was something I’d never experienced before. It also helped that my friend Andrew Palmer was working (and sent!) Jaws II, a 5.15 two lines to the left of Livin’ Astro, as we were able to motivate each other to try to get our projects done.

The weekend after Palmer sent Jaws, I headed up with my friends Alex Coda and Sean O’Donnell, accompanied by filmmaker Ian MacLellan. The temps were well into the 40’s that day, which made for a particularly uncomfortable warm-up, but it was crisp enough to compensate for the high humidity levels. When I felt ready, I laced my shoes and began up the headwall. After fighting through the first two cruxes, I found myself staring down the last boulder problem for the first time on a redpoint burn. I shook out for a long time, allowed my nerves and breathing to settle, and fired the final moves to the top! As I lowered down, I could barely believe I’d finally sent my first 5.14. To see one of my biggest goals in climbing finally realized meant more to me than words can describe.

By the time we all packed up our gear, it was still only around 2pm, so we decided to head over to the Blackout Boulder Brawl at Metrorock Newburyport afterwards. All of us had a great time, and I was able to flash all five finals problems to win the comp! All in all, that day was probably one of the best days of climbing I’ve ever had. However, Sean certainly took home some of his own personal glory by flashing two V5’s and a V6 and placing 11th in advanced! This was super impressive given he’s been climbing for barely a year. Solid, bro!

Now that everything’s mostly settled down now, I can finally get back to schoolwork and training for Dark Horse Round 2. I’m excited to see where the next couple months take me, and am looking forward to getting back out to Rumney in the spring. Jaws is up next!