Competitive indoor climbing leagues are driving members up the wall in the Twin Cities.
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.”
That philosophy is what led her to pair Doug Gordon of Maple Grove with Windy Torgerud of Blaine. Having given birth to her second child 18 months ago, Torgerud is just getting into climbing, while Gordon has been doing it for 21 years.
“I have sort of a coaching addiction and she’s new at this, so this should be perfect,” he said.
Indeed, it wasn’t long into one of Torgerud’s climbs that Gordon started thinking of tips he could share with her.
“She’s trying to lift herself up with her hands too much,” he said as she clung to a wall about two-thirds of the way up a 60-foot climb. “Most climbing is done with your feet. Instinctively, you think you should be using your hands, but it’s much easier to lift your body weight with your feet.”
When she got back down, Torgerud nodded as she listened to Gordon’s advice. “My fingers turned to jelly up there,” she admitted.
A league of their own
Fatigue is an issue even for veteran climbers. League rules allow participants to make as many climbs as they want over a four-hour period, with the three best scores counting. As the evening goes on, the time that climbers spend between ascents lengthens.
The breaks give people time to network, which is one of the league’s goals, too.
“I’ve gotten to know people that I wouldn’t normally meet,” acknowledged Dan Zoslavsky of Minneapolis.
There’s a practical aspect to meeting other climbers, Gordon said. Climbers need a belayer, the person on the ground who secures the safety rope and adjusts its length as the climber scales the wall. When he goes to the gym to practice, he needs to recruit other climbers to help.
“You can ask a stranger, but I’d rather look around for a friendly face,” Gordon said.
The notion of trying to perform better each week is a challenge that most of the climbers relish.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Mitch Buzzo said. “I like running around here competing with myself. And so far, I’m winning.”
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392