One year ago at the USA Climbing Sport and Speed Youth Nationals, teammates Sophia H. ’22 and Alex P. ’21 cheered each other on from the sidelines. Even when Sophia did not make it past the qualifying rounds, she returned the following day to cheer Alex on in the semi-finals. She was there to offer comfort to her friend after a difficult climb, and the next day they went bouldering together to shake it off. The two have called themselves “on the same team” for as long as they’ve been climbing even though both were not part of an official team until this school year. They began carpooling to practice and during the drive, the two talk about anything and everything. They are both used to being mistaken for one another at school.

Sophia and Alex are both members of a competitive climbing team at Planet Granite, a rock climbing gym in Belmont. They’ve been climbing for as long as they can remember, and competing since they were each 7. Aside from competing regularly, they practice three to four days a week in the gym with the team, participating in workouts that focus on specific skills such as power or endurance.

Photo provided by Alex P.

Rock climbing consists of three disciplines: bouldering (performed on shorter walls without the use of ropes or harnesses, reliant on dynamic movements), sport climbing (longer climbs, more endurance required, secured by a rope), and speed climbing (speed is the main goal). These disciplines are also assessed differently in competition: the goal of a bouldering climb is to reach the top of the “problem,” where different zones correspond to different point values. For rope competitions, each hold is a point, and the higher one climbs, the more points they receive. In speed climbing, competitors climb the same route side by side, and whoever completes it first wins.

Historically, rock climbing has been less of a mainstream sport, but it is practiced by a community that is quickly growing in popularity. This summer, before the Tokyo Olympics was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, climbing was set to be a part of the Olympics competition for the first time in history. Sophia and Alex appreciate that climbing is now being recognized in bigger events like the Olympics, and is broadcasted to more mainstream channels, such as ESPN.

Climbing would have been shown through a combined format in the Olympics, where competitors would demonstrate their abilities in all disciplines of climbing, which include bouldering, sport climbing, and speed climbing. Most athletes do not specialize in all three disciplines, as they require specific training.

Although they are on the same team, Sophia prefers bouldering, while Alex specializes in sport climbing.

Sophia H.

In late December, Sophia successfully climbed Beefcake in Bishop, California, her first v10 climb (the V scale is a system that assesses the difficulty of bouldering problems; 17 is the hardest problem).

“It’s basically an arbitrary grading system, but it’s a double-digit, which is an accomplishment for me,” she said.

Sophia had attempted the 14-feet outdoor boulder a couple of years ago but struggled. At the time, she thought the climb was impossible to achieve. Two years later, she returned to conquer Beefcake, only to fall on the second to last move. A day later, wearing striped Adidas pants and a bright turquoise long sleeve shirt, Sophia advanced up the wall with dynamic movements and extreme focus, as her fellow climbers cheered her on with words of encouragement, shouting “Yeah, Sophia, you got this!” On her first try, she completed it.

“I hadn’t warmed up, and it was just awesome,” Sophia said. “I was really excited for myself because I hadn’t done anything that hard outside until then.”

Beefcake is just one of the countless challenges Sophia has overcome in her 13 years of climbing. When she was 3, her dad introduced the sport to her and her three siblings, as he had climbed in college. For a while, Sophia climbed and competed alone, and was coached by her dad. Two years ago, she joined the Planet Granite team in Belmont and has made many friends. Joining the team has helped her shift her main focus from winning, “as most of climbing is failure and falling.”

“The best way to motivate yourself to get back on the wall and try harder is to have people there cheering you on, helping you, and coaching you,” Sophia said.

Although she competes in both the bouldering and sport climbing seasons, her preference is bouldering. 

“Creative movement is more apparent in bouldering. For me, since the walls are shorter and the climbs are usually shorter, I find it easier to get to a place where I can try hard and can give it my all,” Sophia said.

Photo provided by Sophia H.

Not only does Sophia love the dynamics of bouldering, but she also enjoys coming up with route settings and experimenting with new, innovative coordination type movements. 

“I used to say my favorite part of climbing is the puzzle of it,” she said.

This year, Sophia is building a climbing wall at her house for her Quest, which has thus far entailed buying holds, designing moves, and collaborating with her climbing friends who are helping her install the wall.

Sophia was on track to attend the Open National Championships for sport climbing in Utah on March 13 and 14. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was postponed to October. She was in Utah when she received word of the event’s postponement. It was disappointing, but she and her friends rallied to visit some of the state’s outdoor climbing areas like Joe’s Valley.

Outdoor climbing is a special occasion for Sophia, and she appreciates the connection she has to nature and the diverse rock formations, which are absent in indoor climbing.

“Doing climbs outdoors is more satisfying a lot of the time because they take more work, blood, sweat, and tears than indoor climbing,” she said.

Sophia has been climbing for so long that competitions come naturally to her, but “the nerves come and crash” onto her the day before. Like many other climbers, she has a ritual she completes right before being called for a climb, which acts as “the signal to the brain and body” to put in maximum effort.

Photo provided by Sophia H.

“What I do every time I compete is I stand up and swing my arms around,” she said. “I breathe, get into my zone, and do some stretching.”

In practice, Sophia places just as much importance on her mindset as on how she is performing physically that day. Her coaches place a big focus on one’s mental game, and teach the team the strategy of flipping switches, which is being able to immediately try hard when facing a challenging move, “instead of having to ramp up in that mentality.” 

Even when she has had a satisfying climb, Sophia has burst into tears after a round, as competitions are incredibly taxing, physically and emotionally. 

Some practice days, Sophia inevitably does not fully “feel like herself,” and journals outside of the gym to reflect on her mental game. She also has a close relationship with her coaches and seeks advice from them.

“It’s frustrating and hard to gain anything from those types of days, but it is important to figure out what made you not feel like yourself and how you can get out of it,” she said.

Balancing school and climbing can be a challenge, as she devotes the majority of her weeks and weekends to climbing. Despite her heavy workload, Sophia copes with stress by focusing solely on climbing at the gym instead of thinking of homework or projects she has to finish later that night.

“I look forward to practice every single day,” she said. “Climbing is my entire life, so when I can’t climb and I am forced to take breaks, I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Climbing has evolved to become a key part of life that has shaped her broader perspective and mindset.

“It’s only you and the route, there’s nothing else that can affect what is happening,” Sophia said. “Time slows down, which is a freeing and cool experience.”

Alex P.

Alex’s love for climbing not only stems from the sport itself but the people and community surrounding it.

“We have a great community because the sport is so small, so everyone bonds over climbing itself,” Alex explained.

Like Sophia, Alex has been climbing for the majority of her life; she joined an afterschool program at Planet Granite when she was 5. She started competing two years later and joined Planet Granite’s competition team this past school year. Alex enjoys the individuality of the sport in competition but relies on the support of her team.

“I never played on a team sport before, but in rock climbing, there’s a tight community,” she said. “It being an individual sport allows for connections between teams.”

Through her years of climbing, Alex has become more of a sport climber and has only recently begun competing in bouldering. As sport climbing relies on greater endurance and two points of contact on the wall at all times, she “is naturally better” at it and enjoys it more than bouldering.

Photo provided by Alex P.

“For me, the moves are much harder in bouldering, like the dynamics and jumping,” Alex said.

She trains intensively with her team three times a week on various techniques and skills, depending on whether they are in the bouldering or sport climbing season. Practices not only consist of physical strengthening but also mental preparation. Alex attributes her success in the sport to her confidence and ability to push through obstacles.

“Something that I’ve been working on is getting myself to commit to big dynamics movements that are scary, and I can’t back out of,” she said.

Since joining the team, she has taken some time to get used to her new, more rigorous schedule, while also managing her school work. When competing independently, she was able to structure her practice times, but now she follows the team’s practice schedule.

Though Alex climbs indoors during practice and competitions, outdoor climbing is a chance for her to spend time with family and friends, and vary her usual style of climbing. Some of her favorite climbing regions include Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas and areas around Mammoth Lakes.

Photo provided by Alex P.

Now competing in category A (ages 15-16), Alex looks forward to reuniting with other climbers who live in areas such as Colorado or Texas during competition season, who have now become some of her closest friends.

“People in climbing are the nicest people ever. It is an anomaly to see people being mean or competitively spirited,” she said.

At her first national competition where she competed alone, Alex was only 10 and had never been to such a large competition before. Before her turn to climb, Alex was waiting in the isolation area, as climbers are not allowed to see the climbs beforehand. As she was waiting, one of the other competitors got to know her, and her coach trained and gave Alex some last-minute tips.

“It was comforting as I didn’t have anyone else, so she took me under the wing,” she said.

As she continues through high school, Alex hopes to stay in the community, whether through joining a collegiate climbing team or participating in national competitions. 

“Sometimes the best part isn’t the climbs, but the people,” Alex said.