Climbers from the Telluride High School climbing club loaded into several cars and headed to Grand Junction to compete in the first competition of the season Saturday.
At the Grand Valley Climbing Center, the atmosphere was festive and charged with a unique energy, somewhere between an athletic competition and a neighborhood barbeque. While teenagers tested their skills on routes on a 15-foot boulder wall and ropes, parents milled in the back, chatting and calling words of encouragement to the athletes, while pop hits played from the speakers. Scores were tallied by witnesses — competitors, coaches, parents and spectators — based on the top five highest-scoring routes completed by climbers.
“I like how there are no judges,” senior Lochlan Boling said. “Everyone’s just climbing and working together. It’s an honor system. It’s really fun.”
Sophomore Kaleigh Reggiannini agreed.
“It’s super interactive with other teams, and during the comp you can work with other people, collaborate. It was my first comp. There were two super hard routes that I tried, and I got to the top of them,” she said.
The climbers spoke fondly of the many skills honed while climbing and competing together, and emphasized the communal nature of the sport, such as working together, building mental strength and celebrating everyone’s improvements. Placing high seemed much less important to the athletes than the skills they gained beyond physical strength and agility on the wall.
Speaking of the environment at the comp, senior Michael Price said, “It’s not really competitive, but it’s competitive against yourself. I think that’s really healthy. In a lot of sports, you’re trying to be the best, but here, you’re just trying to be the best of yourself.”
With 10 climbers attending the season’s first competition compared to a high of five for any competition last year, it showed the growing interest in the club among local high school students. At a Nov. 6 training session in the high school climbing gym, 26 young climbers, alongside five volunteer coaches, filled the gym with the buzz of chatter and clouds of chalk dust as climbers powdered their palms for better grip.
“It’s great to see so many students trying a new sport and coming into the climbing gym to see what it’s all about,” said Dave Nesis, a coach and local mountain guide. “It’s also free. The coaches are all volunteers and comps just ask $20 per person and aren’t mandatory. Everyone is welcome.”
“I just started,” said sophomore Ayla Kanow, a first-time competitor. “I love the outdoors, and I’ve been to lots of places that seem like they would have great climbing, so I would like to be able to do it safely and confidently.”
While the sport has been popular with Telluride’s youth, it has experienced a resurgence in the past eight years. Longtime volunteer coach Dave Chew remembers when it was less organized. While leaving the gym after teaching for the Telluride Academy after-school climbing program, Chew noticed some teenage boys who would casually saunter into the gym and try to appear like they were just going to lift weights.
“They were actually in there to climb,” he recalled. “I wanted them to have a way to climb safely.”
While the club has consisted of a small, dedicated core crew and a handful of enthusiastic coaches the past couple years, things are changing.
“It’s busier, more exciting and more interesting now,” said senior Wiley Holbrooke, a longtime participant. “It used to be all boys, and now we’ve got some diversity in the gym.”
Newcomer Beck Gilliland said, “I just like being part of a team. Half of it is mental; it’s not just physical. It’s also the mental side of being able to stick with the challenge.”
As things wound down during Monday evening’s practice, it was time for the closing ritual: a core workout. As a circle of over 20 climbers engaged their cores and moaned good-naturedly about the difficulty, a feeling of camaraderie and contentedness reigned in the sweat-suffused air. Even after the practice ended, several climbers lingered, joking with each other and attempting their projects one last time.
“It’s really hard and fun,” Reggiannini said. “It’s a good community.”