Climbing league drives Twin Cities members up the wall

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2014 - 4:27 PM

Competitive indoor climbing leagues are driving members up the wall in the Twin Cities.

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Frances Gerde, who started climbing at the urging of her fiancé, joined a weekly rock climbing league to be part of a team he put together. The team’s name is Vertically Challenged.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii , Star Tribune

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In terms of the intensity level, it’s a far cry from a bowling league.

But when it comes to things like camaraderie, conviviality and competition, the adult rock climbing league at Vertical Endeavors isn’t all that different.

“It’s really fun to challenge myself,” said Rick Brauer of New Brighton after successfully navigating a tricky climb. He had crammed himself into a corner between two 30-foot walls before edging his way to the top.

Back on the ground, Brauer’s hands were still caked with white chalk — as opposed to the grease one might find on the fingers of a bowler snacking between frames. He shook his arms out to relax the muscles in his forearms as he surveyed the climbing wall he had conquered, pondering which one to tackle next.

His teammate, Selima Shafi of Minneapolis, kept her eyes on the wall, too, studying the other competitors working their way up. “I learn a lot by watching other people climb,” she said.

Rock climbing is gaining popularity in leaps and bounds — or, at least, in chicken-wingings and heel-jammings. In 2012, 6.9 million Americans participated in climbing, up from 5.7 million — a 21 percent jump — the year before.

While the Climbing Wall Association trade group extols the virtues of the sport’s total body workout, it hasn’t taken rank-and-file climbers long to discover the competitive possibilities. In fact, a movement is afoot to add it to the Olympics, where last year climbing made it on the short list of sports being considered for the 2020 games.

“Gym comps — we call it ‘comp’ climbing for ‘competition’ — are becoming very popular,” said Michelle Emmel, who oversees the leagues at the Vertical Endeavors facility in Minneapolis.

Although rock wall gyms originally were conceived as places for climbers to train during the winter, they have become a favored venue in their own right, especially for leagues. Vertical Endeavors has locations in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

“We hold leagues year-round now,” Emmel said. “People train in the gym, so they want to compete in the gym.”

Climbing in a league gives Mitch Buzzo of Bloomington an adrenaline boost.

“I’m better when there’s competition,” he said. “It’s motivating for me. I’m able to do climbs that have been difficult for me.”

Trying to beat themselves

In competitive climbing, scoring can be complicated. Climbs are graded in terms of difficulty according to a set of standards involving the terrain as well as the positioning and size of the hand and foot holds, explained route-setter Greg Tambornino.

Based on a climber’s typical difficulty level — think of a bowling average — they score points based on the difference between their “average” and the grade of the walls they climb. Speed has no consequence. The grades are listed in decimal points: 5.6, 5.7 and so on. Climbers can score 25 points by climbing a wall rated two-tenths of a decimal point higher than their average, but they would get only 1 point if they have to drop down by two-tenths.

“The goal of keeping score is to get the climbers to improve,” Emmel said. “Everybody is being graded against themselves, so they want to do better each time.”

There are four people per team. Climbers can sign up as a group or individually, in which case Emmel sets up the teams. Because every climber competes individually, mixing ability levels isn’t an issue. On the contrary, in climbing there is a tradition of veterans passing on their expertise to newcomers.

“I like to put two more experienced climbers with two newer ones,” she said. “The better climbers can encourage and coach and teach the newer ones.”

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