Thursday, August 8, 2013

Future of Climbing II: Psicobloc Masters Series

It's been a long time coming, it's the next big thing, and it's here!  Ten years ago, the climbing world changed when Chris Sharma demonstrated the purity of climbing over water in the artistic work of the Big UP Productions. Since then, we all had daydreams about sticking the “Loskot dyno”, performing a heroic cliff jump, or just hanging onto the wall with nothing to worry about except keeping your shoes and chalk dry. Some of us even booked tickets to Palma to gain that first-hand experience…

And today, a new kind of climbing competition is born, where boulderers can show off their power, lead climbers can display their endurance, and speed may ultimately decide the best climber! But that is just a small part of it. The spectators get what they come for: the easier-to-follow competition format, the beer, and the athletes taking entertaining falls. If people leave such an event happy and impressed, you know it was done right.

In my opinion, this was the biggest step for competitive climbing since the UBC competition in NYC’s Central Park and it is clear that there are people who care where this side of the industry (competition climbing) is headed. Despite some organizational issues, it was a hell of a job done in a short period of time (~2 months?) by the event organizers, - Mike Beck, Chris Sharma, Kevin Bradburn, and their Spanish connections. Needless to say, I had an incredible time hanging out with some of the best climbers in the world and furthermore got some great perspectives on what it takes to put something like this together directly from the event organizers. Here is my recap and here are some thoughts on what the first Deep Water Soloing competition meant to me and what could be improved for future events of this caliber.

The Invitation

In order to put on a big comp, you need big names. Chris Sharma is a good way to start the list, but he typically needs some competition. That is why the organizers invited a talented group of climbers from all over the world to secure their spots in the finals round. The time constraints meant that most international climbers could not make it to the competition, so they resorted to the other invitees. Ian Dory and I barely made the “cut”, but were still psyched to have made it. Unfortunately, this also meant that many other talented climbers did not make the invite list. This goes against some things that the United States typically stands for, but George Orwell has once written “some animals are more equal than others”… What I’m getting at is: how do you make the competition fair if some of the strongest climbers go straight into the finals while the other strong guys and gals have to earn their spot in the finals? In the end, it didn’t matter too much because we all ended up sessioning on the Walltopia wall, but I’m still giving props to Nicholas Milburn and Ryan Sewall for their qualifier performances.


The Format

I’ll just throw it out there that before the finals on Friday, Aug 2nd, no one knew exactly what was going to happen. Chris and Mike simply emphasized that we want to make this competition a big show, and that the head-to-head elimination style was the way to go. The scoring per round was simple: the guy or gal who got the farthest moved on to the next round and the time was used as a tiebreak. However, pairing us up was an issue that hasn’t been clarified until the day of the finals. Behind the scene, semifinals (or finals practice round) took place on Thursday, Aug 1st, and each of the finalists gave the finals route a few attempts. While the round didn’t matter in terms of making it to the finals, we still had to climb well to make sure we are well-seeded for the bracket. Similar to the tennis bracket format, we had match-ups. In tennis, there is just no way that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer or Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will face each other in the prelims. Similarly, they didn’t want to match Chris Sharma with Carlo Traversi or Sasha DiGiulian with Delaney Miller in the first round. So a bracket was put together based on the practice round.

The Results

One of those things about this comp is we know who won, but if you wanted to know who went against who in the match-ups, then here you go!  Enjoy my awesome fill-in-the-blanks skillz!



The Excitement

Climbing in this comp was pretty f**ing great! Most athletes were afraid of taking uncontrolled falls, so the practice rounds were crucial in making sure we all have the balls to go for it when it counts. The girls demonstrated that they won’t back off the challenge, and really showed that their balls are really quite large. In some instances I was only going for it because I knew that Delaney would commit to a heel-hook at 40 feet over the water...


photo by Giovanni Traversi

Everyone who was there seemed psyched to watch the finals. The atmosphere was typical of some of the biggest bouldering finals that I have been to, and people cheered when it came down to the wire. I like watching my buddies in the finals, but normally find climbing boring to watch, especially the rope comps. In that sense, this comp was definitely different. It was hard to look away when some good action was happening on the wall. Plus I was amped after watching Daniel Woods splash in a completely uncontrolled fall off the dyno the previous day and come out of the water with a black leg. That same Thursday evening, Jimmy Webb took a nose-digger on that same dyno and Nalle Hukkataival spun to his back. Since then, Dani Andrada changed the route to make the dyno a bit easier for the guys to avoid ties and time-based wins. Unfortunately, this meant that the falls wouldn’t be as uncontrolled and hence not as fun as on Thursday.

But we still got to see some great sports action, from Sasha speed-climbing against Delaney to Chris being the only one to top out the men’s route to Jon and Carlo racing side-by-side until the very last move. For the guys, it ended up coming down to strategy because of the high-paced running-late comp. Jimmy Webb may not have gotten as high as Chris, me, Jon, Carlo, or Ian (last move), but he got just high enough to win against his opponents. He took the deserved 1st place as the smartest climber in the comp. In the end, the organizers did a great job in terms of putting together this match-up bracket-style competition and it may very well be the format of the future.

Safety Last?

People who weren’t even there, those that haven’t even tried climbing over water, have been discussing the safety of climbing over water. Even if they might not have experienced it first-hand, they have a point. Safety is a major issue to address if we, as a climbing community, want to stick with this competition style and a challenge for the organizers to deal with.

Danger #1: The first day of the comp (Wednesday), I tweaked the previously-sprained ankle after jumping too far off the top and hitting one of the PVC pipes at ~8-9 feet under the water, used to create bubbles to break the surface tension for the ski jumpers. The second time I jumped off the top was straight under the wall and I hit the bottom at ~10-11 feet even though we were assured that only a professional diver was able to touch the bottom from 50 feet. The next time, I expect no PVC pipes. As far as hitting the bottom of the pool, the impact was never greater than hitting a crashpad at a bouldering comp and can be easily managed, yet has to be communicated properly to all of the athletes!

Danger #2: The wall was also set up in such a way that if someone were to do a crazy move out left, there was a possibility of hitting the poolside. While the possibility was there, it was really down to the setters to make sure that nobody does a move like that on the wall. This was just a possibility, not a probability based on the setting I saw, but something that must be considered in future events without a doubt.

Danger #3: The wall was simply too narrow to have a duel-style competition. Any awkward turnout of performing the sideways moves could have resulted in us acting as American Gladiators at mid-35-feet or worse, one person in the water and the other person falling on top. This didn’t happen, but there were a couple really close calls. In the 2nd round, I had to maneuver away from the path of Jimmy Webb as he accelerated towards me with a stunned look on his face. I’m just glad he didn’t go down head first as his shaggy Vikings’ helmet was already intimidating the s**t out of me. The solution to this danger is pretty simple: just make the wall wider.

Danger #4: There are, of course, inherent dangers of falling awkwardly into the water. I left this one for last as I believe it to be an attractive danger of this competition. The organizers actually planned on testing our balls in this new comp and wanted us to go big. This is the next step, people! If you’re not willing to sign that waiver, grow a couple and take a big fall, you likely don’t belong climbing 50 feet over the water. On the other hand, we all had a chance to practice falling into the water, and each fall we took was more and more controlled. In other words, it’s like learning how to land on a crashpad. A 15-foot awkward fall onto a crashpad is probably comparable to a 30-40 foot sideways fall into the water. In fact, most falls into the water will result in some bruising, but not much serious damage otherwise. Bouldering can be and has been less forgiving in the past. Either way, deep water soloing is still a dangerous thing, but that’s what the organizers envision! As I have said before, CBS proved to us that nobody cares what you do at 10 feet off the ground, they care about Chris Sharma doing a dyno on Es Pontas at 30 feet and Alex Honnold doing his sh********t 1000 feet off the ground. If we want our sport to rank up among board and roller sports, we’ll have to be more extreme than our current disciplines of bouldering, lead, and speed.

The Future

After all this, I am certain we will have another deep water soloing competition. The athletes were willing to climb. The spectators were eager to watch with record-beating 19,739 tuning in for the live broadcast, more than your typical World Cup event!  The only question is who will keep the ball rolling?

Finally, I’d like to thank the folks who helped me get to this comp, Mammut USA and Delaware Rock Gym!  Thanks, guys!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Future of Climbing I: Cages and Volumes

Most people are interested, excited, and even anxious to see where the sport of climbing is headed.  I am one of those people, and I’d like to share my perspective on the progression of our sport.  There are many aspects I’d like to address, so just one blog post simply won’t do.  As good a place to start as any are the “cages and volumes”!


The wall is ready for finals (photo by Jesse Gagnon)

A bit over a week ago, Jesse, Rob D. and I drove down to the third annual Boulder Bash at the Dominion Riverrock in Richmond, VA.  As part of a sports and music festival, such an event brings in the biggest crowds and gives us a chance to show the world what climbing is all about.  Well, Brent Quesenberry with a team of professional setters took the opportunity one step further, put up a couple of oversized overhanging steel cages and pasted enough volumes on these things to make IFSC jealous!

The crowd loves this event with all the music, the lights, the crazy looking walls that resemble Ninja Warrior structures.  In turn, the event sponsors are happy and this helps our growing sport.  Does this really show off the basics of our sport to general public, though?  Don’t we sometimes climb slabs?  Don’t we scale smaller boulders with a tiny pad underneath us?  And don’t we also climb much taller walls with a rope to show off our fitness levels?  Sure we do, and we are used to those standards: bouldering and sport climbing.

Well, this event is something new and fresh to our sport.  It is more exciting for the spectators as these structures were never seen before.  It is fun for us athletes, and it is definitely still a climbing competition, with a twist...  Sitting in isolation, we had no idea whether our next round was going to be mainly to test our strength, our endurance, or maybe the ability to figure out all the toehooks and heelhooks on the wall.  In other words, one had to be good in all aspects of climbing to come out on top in the end.

To me, this event clearly demonstrates the potential for growth of climbing as a sport.  For instance, we have known for ages that we can make climbing look cool for climbers, but what about the general population?  This is still an uncharted territory for climbing that can be reached through music and outdoor festivals like the Dominion Riverrock and the Nor’easter.  It took a lot of ingenuity, dedication, time, and money to put together the Boulder Bash and should be viewed as a major accomplishment.  The athletes enjoyed competing and the spectators were thrilled to see something new, and it is this kind of symbiosis that is necessary for the progression of competitive rock climbing.

Check out this gallery by Jesse Gagnon:

I ended up in 3rd place just after Jimmy Webb and Rob D’Anastasio, while Sasha Digiulian proved dominant in the women’s category.  The 3-day event ended with speed bouldering, in which Meagan Martin took the title and in which I battled Josh Levin (or simply McLevin’) for 1st, but he took it with time to spare.


Josh (left) and I (right) in the final showdown.  Photo by Mark Pownall.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Road to ABS Nationals 2013

Hells yeah, I got 3rd place at Nationals!  Just being in the finals is already a win in my book, but standing on a national podium next to Daniel Woods and Ian Dory is… pretty fucking awesome!  Aside from give-or-take 16 years of climbing, here’s what got me here, I think…

Having recovered from my shoulder injury about a year ago, I’ve been looking forward to 2013 ABS Nationals.  After trying out a couple of sport climbing events on the World Cup circuit, I jumped straight into bouldering.

1. Win some, lose some

Starting in October, I did a bunch of comps on the East Coast to gain more experience and keep the motivation high.  I took 1st at the first of the Dark Horse Series in Boston, then the Midnight Burn in Philadelphia, then the Rock Wars down in Rockville, MD…  Then, Mike Feinberg showed me how to actually squeeze the juice out of pinches at the Winter Burn in Philly, putting on a commanding winning performance (I got 3rd).  Then, Jimmy Webb and I battled in the third Dark Horse. Jimmy took the win by topping out the last problem, all during his jaw-dropping annihilation of the Northeast classic boulders.

2. Rethinking my strategy


Going over why we all fell, fall, and will fall… (Emily Varisco)


Getting tested on some techy yet powerful moves. (Emily Varisco)

With a few losses behind me, I needed something to change up my training routine, and Chris Danielson with Tonde Katiyo helped make this happen.  These names are generally associated with setting, but these guys want to push the envelope in multiple aspects of climbing, and creating a generation of professional athletes out of climbers is on their to-do list.

They put together a 2-day training camp at EarthTreks in Rockville for some of the US top boulderers. You may recognize some of these names simply by looking at the final results at ABS Nationals 2013: Ian Dory, Carlo Traversi, Paul Robinson, and Austin Geiman all placed in top 10 among men while Isabelle Faus, Angie Payne, Meagan Martin, Michaela Kiersch made the same list for women.

With a comp-like feel the entire 2 days, we pushed each other as we obeyed our masters and pulled hard on anything they prepared for us.  Long story short, they made us fall (how dare they?), they made us bleed (nobody makes me bleed my own blood… nobody!), they made us rethink our competitive strategy…  I found out that climbers with 10+ years of experience, including myself, still do not know how to properly warm up.  I learned the importance of that flash attempt and how to move on to whatever is next…


Feeling stronger after the training camp.

3. Another injury

Dark Horse Series Finale was up and it seemed like a perfect chance to try out the new skill set.  But, as can happen to anyone, I fell and unfortunately spraining my ankle.  Instant pain got me worried I may have broken it, but another minute and a competitive adrenaline rush later, I pulled my shoe back on and finished the comp.  It was a stupid thing to do as I’m sure trying to toe down with a sprained ankle didn’t help the healing process and in fact likely did the opposite.


On adrenaline, on #4 (Vince Schaefer)


On #4, I just had to campus, so foot was good (Nick Milburn)

4. Training with a sprained ankle

I was able to walk, almost without a limp, within less than a week.  Excited about such an improvement, I figured signing up for ABS Nationals was practically a necessity.  Then, all I had to do was train…  It’s actually pretty straightforward to train with a sprained ankle: you can’t run, can’t jump, can’t bike, can barely walk, obviously can’t climb…

BUT, you can do pullups, pushups, deadhangs, campus, pullups, situps, pullups, campus.  So, I taped up, put my sneakers on, and got on the campus board at Delaware Rock Gym.  About 50 campuses an hour, 3 days a week for 4 weeks gets you so bored that the psyche to get on the wall goes up exponentially, even if painful.

Finally, 30 days after the injury, I put my shoes on and attempted to climb.  Aside from jumping off the wall or toeing down on the injured ankle, there was no pain.  While not 100%, I had to start climbing because I wouldn’t be able to do anything at ABS.  Another 3 days of climbing with the taped-up ankle (props to TJ’s taping technique) and another 4 days of rest before the comp and… Boom, I was on the plane to Denver to meet up with Josh Larson.

5. The comp: strategy and luck

At the comp, my strategy was pretty simple:  no expectations, try to flash (falling hurts + it’s kind of a winning strategy to begin with), and just enjoy the boulder problems.  This is also when an injury can be a blessing in disguise: the personal expectations may be significantly lower and the mental state no longer requires much preparation.

So, with some strategy, some luck, and a whole lot of friends cheering for me, I tried the best I could.  I was first pleasantly surprised with my qualifier results, finishing in top 3 with Dylan Barks and Daniel Woods.  In the semifinals, I flashed 3 of 4 problems, but got stuck on one where I had to use my sprained ankle the most.  This barely gave me enough to move on to finals.  Going first in the finals allowed me to fully focus on my own climbing and the rest was enjoying the boulders!


Ian and I scoping out the finals (Beau Kahler Photography)


Finishing up # 1 (Beau Kahler Photography)


Working through # 2 (Beau Kahler Photography)


Finishing # 2 (Beau Kahler Photography)


Working through # 3 (Beau Kahler Photography)


Dyno on # 4 (Julian Boyd)

6. Summary of an awesome weekend in Colorado

The best way to summarize my trip:


Josh Larson and I en route to Colorado Springs, through the snowy neighborhood of friends from LT11.


Joe Pill was able to come up with this artsy ensemble by, believe it or not, simply adjusting levels in Photoshop!