Abigail York recalls that she was age 9 when she got roped into the sport of rock climbing. In the same way a lot of others experience the vertical world for the first time, it happened at a birthday party.
A year later, the young Minnesotan was climbing walls at a national competition.
Today, on freezing winter nights, the sophomore at North High School can be found putting in methodical six-hour workouts at Vertical Endeavors’ Twin Cities Bouldering facility in St. Paul, sometimes several in a week. She just turned 17, but climbing in national competitions has become the rule.
“I am kind of a showoff. I absolutely love showing people how driven I am and how hard I work. That brings me so much joy,” York said. “Especially being a girl and doing things that guys can’t do — that makes me so happy. I just really like to win.”
Apparently so. Her steady ascent locally and nationally is undeniable.
Bouldering is climbing without the ropes and harnesses. Indoors, at places such as Vertical Endeavors, people scale hand and foot holds on shorter climbing walls, relying on special pads and spotters for safety.
USA Climbing sanctions competitive climbing competitions; bouldering is one of the disciplines. York is excelling beyond her age group, too, having just made the women’s finals in the open national championships earlier this month in Redmond, Ore. She placed 32nd (two 13th-place finishes at national events last season helped get her there). Overall, she is ranked No. 20 among women nationally. York also has three top-10 finishes in national competitions for the top youth climbers.
“Abigail is a very dedicated and motivated athlete and an incredibly hard worker. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to try to reach her goals,” said Alex Johnson, who coaches York’s Vertical Endeavors team — and competes against York.
Johnson, 29, is ranked No. 16 among U.S. women in bouldering. Earlier this month, she finished second in the open national championships in Oregon.
“It’s been really cool . (Johnson) shows me that my dreams can come true if I work hard enough — which is always a good thing,” York said.
Besides Johnson, York has an example in another climbing star from Minnesota. Kyra Condie, 22, of Shoreview, is among the favorites for a spot on Team USA’s climbing squad at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Climbing will make its Olympic debut. In January, Condie won the women’s overall title in the combined invitational (speed, bouldering and sport climbing) in Salt Lake City.
But York has showed she can hang with anyone. Then 16, she beat Condie and Johnson last November in their division at Boulderfest North, a competition at the Minneapolis Bouldering Project.
York’s mother saw a drive in their daughter from an early age.
“When she was 4, one summer she dressed as Wonder Woman and told everyone she was going to the Olympics, and throughout her life she’s always said she’s going to make it,” Leslie York said. “I believe she can do it, too. She wants an Olympic medal.”
That drive plays out in other fields, too: York is an all-conference high school pole-vaulter, and has twice competed in the Junior Olympics.
For her father, York’s climbing has given the two an opportunity to bond. The father-daughter duo climbs together for fun. “Abigail has belayed me outdoors,” James York said. “Having your life in your daughter’s hands, when you know you weigh at least twice as much as her, is kind of an interesting experience.”
Work, and work some more
Success stories such as Johnson, Condie and York’s aren’t widely known outside climbing’s close-knit community, but their rise mirrors the activity’s popularity across Minnesota, indoors and out.
Vertical Endeavors’ Twin Cities Bouldering, which is one of several climbing gyms in the metro, said it gets an average of 2,500 climbers per week.
At the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, the daily average of climbers hitting its wall is up 22 percent over the last five years.
“It’s kind of interesting being from here,” York said. “I remember my first qualifiers when I was 10 ... when I overheard two climbers from Colorado say, ‘Abigail York from Minnesota? What’s there to climb in Minnesota? There are rocks there?’ It was funny. ”
York keeps a rigorous schedule between school and sports to keep her name up there. From chalkboard almost directly to chalk bag, York said she is usually doing homework in classes to give her more training time at the wall.
“When it gets to be 5:30 at night I don’t care about school at all,” York said. “I get in the car and focus on climbing — no matter how much work I have.” Still, York’s dedication extends to academics: She has racked up a weighted grade-point average of 4.16, honor roll status, and student-of-the month accolades.
As for what’s on the other side of post-high school wall, York will continue chasing gold.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about where my life should go,” York said. “I’ve decided that if I don’t try to be a professional climber for at least a little bit, I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had.”
Samir Ferdowsi is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.