They’re congregating in the parking lot by , even though registration doesn’t start until . It’s a bit chilly, the earliest of spring days. There’s a hint of late-season snow in the air, like a temptation, but if it’s falling, then it’s falling at elevation, in the clouds that hide the mountains on either side of the valley.
The climbers – of all sizes, all experience levels – are gathering, talking, bullshitting, laughing, getting their caffeine on, reconnecting. Some – the more serious ones – are stretching where there’s room. Once the line starts moving, some move inside right away, scoping the routes. Even the locals are seeing the qualifier climbs for the first time. The gym’s been closed for two days now, everything stripped off the walls and forty new routes put up, fresh for the competition.
Gym routes are designated with colored tape, each hand or foot hold marked to show the path, the one appropriate way to get from ‘A’ at the bottom to ‘B’ somewhere higher up. For a comp, the tape is more than just a guide – it’s the law. Judges will watch as climbers try to complete the routes to make sure that the narrow path is followed, full points accumulated for ‘flashes’ if they complete a climb on the first try, percentages granted for ‘red points’ if they need more than one shot at it, no points if the last hold can’t be reached legally. Each of the climbs is worth a different total score, the higher the climb’s number, the harder the climb, the more points it is worth.
For four hours they climb, each waiting their turn, one climber per wall at a time, queuing for flash attempts and, if required, getting at the back of the line for red point efforts. Each attempt gets marked on their card by the judge, each completed climb noted.
There’s strategy too. Four hours is a long time to climb, and for those who do well there will be finals in the evening, so energy conservation is crucial. Even for the orangutans among us. A higher-valued climb is worth more points, but flashes are rarer at that difficulty, and red points result in percentage deductions. Like a diving competition or freestyle skiing, the higher the difficulty, the greater the risk, the higher the reward.
A climber's five best scores during the qualifying round will count towards a place in the finals, so smart climbers pick and chose. They look for climbs that suit their style and strengths, reaching for the flash and maximum points. The smart ones pick off five climbs comfortably within their flash ability and get points locked up. Then, fully warmed up, they rest.
Assaults on the really hard climbs begin after around an hour. While climbers rest, they watch, gaining ‘beta’ from other climbers, watching others try to string moves together and fail, learning from every other climber’s attempts. When they finally step to the route they have imagined the climb a hundred times already, visualized the bend of a body, the twist of a knee, the jump for a hold, picking and choosing good moves from the people they’ve watched, filling the gaps with their imagination and experience.
There is sweating in spite of the open doors and chill air. There are shouts and gasps, of pleasure, and pain, and surprise. Everyone tries hard to be good (there are kids competing too), but there’s an occasional choice word of frustration.
And there is cheering. Everyone, aside from those of us volunteering, is a competitor, and yet there is cheering; a preponderance of encouragement. A wave of it fills the room, over the live DJ, filling that space the way the rising chalk dust does. It’s hard to see the other end of the room for all the chalk and cheering.
These are climbers after all. There might a desire to do well, even to win, but that’s not what it’s about. Even for the few that really have a shot, they take time to shout encouragement and cheer for the ones that pose the biggest threat and for the ones struggling on the easiest routes. That’s what climbers do.
We don’t measure success by the failures of our competitors, but on our ability to perform; to be better than another climber doesn’t prove a thing.
To be better than ourselves though, to be our best – that’s everything.
For four hours on a Saturday afternoon in March, ninety climbers crowd into 1400square feet of space, most of which is taken up by landing pads, forcing them even closer together, and they strain and praise and scream and slap backs and smile and smile and smile.
Later, in the evening, it might get a little more serious. The finalists will be sequestered and brought out in front of the assembled spectators (the ‘losers’, as if getting front row seats to the finals isn’t a prize in itself) one at a time to tackle new, unseen problems set during the dinner break. But even then, when one finalist is done, they’ll join the crowds and cheer, even when they’re cheering the climber that surpasses their best effort.
In climbing, you see, it’s all about reaching for the top. Getting there is grand, no doubt, but it’s not the reason. There will always be a climb that’s too tough, too high, too exposed. The best climbers in the world prove it every year, raising the bar one more microscopic increment, doing things that were considered impossible last year. They’ll do it again this year. There is no finish line.
Anyone that thinks so is missing the point.
Last Saturday, at the little gym I hang out at – just to be perfectly clear – nobody was missing the point.