This excerpt of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, by John Burgman, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy please visit www.triumphbooks.com/highdrama.
ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING MOMENTS in the history of American competition climbing took place on February 3, 2018. The Bouldering National Championship, played out over multiple days and multiple rounds at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, had culminated in a final boulder. The result of the men’s division had already been confirmed, with Nathaniel Coleman besting all other competitors in a star-making performance in his home state. It was a historic moment in its own right, but more thrilling was the result of the women’s division, which remained far more open-ended. In fact, four of the United States’ greatest competitors—Brooke Raboutou, Claire Buhrfeind, Ashima Shiraishi, and Alex Puccio—were in contention to become the women’s national champion. Their respective attempts to climb the last boulder would determine the outcome.
However, there was more than just a revered championship on the line. An announcement that climbing was to be included in the 2020 Olympics had recently provided the whole sport with a jolt of energy, and this championship’s exhilarating conclusion would give direct insight about the United States’ Olympic prospects; indeed, whichever woman won this Bouldering National Championship would be considered one of the early American favorites for a possible invitation to the impending Olympic Games.
On top of that newfound Olympic sheen, indoor climbing was in the midst of a popularity boom in the United States. There were more than 400 climbing gyms around the country, and that number was increasing each year. In congested urban areas, old factories and abandoned warehouses were being purchased by developers and repurposed as climbing gyms. Brooklyn Boulders, First Ascent, Earth Treks, Planet Granite, Momentum Climbing, Mesa Rim, Hangar 18, Hoosier Heights, and other gyms seemed to be constantly expanding with new facilities. With them, new life was being breathed into forsaken real estate, and the sport of climbing was being offered more and more in the American recreational milieu. Students at colleges could now take climbing classes, and children as young as three years old could enroll in climbing gyms’ youth clubs. Some American climbers had become veritable celebrities, with lucrative sponsorship arrangements and financial support from companies ranging from Patagonia and The North Face to Polo and Coca-Cola.
Underlying all these extraneous elements at the Salt Palace Convention Center that afternoon was a palpable competitive tension. The event was offering spectators—both inside the facility and watching a livestream online—athletic theater that had long characterized other sports like baseball, football, basketball, and tennis. Specifically, the women’s bouldering division was herein presenting a nail-biting finish and proving competition climbing to be exciting, engaging, and unpredictable.
And with that, the first few women competitors—Margo Hayes, Meagan Martin, and Brooke Raboutou—made their respective attempts at climbing the final boulder. It was not an easy task. The boulder’s climbing route began beneath a long roof section. Successfully reaching the top for any competitor would entail first crouching below the roof, then moving horizontally over its crowd-facing ledge, and returning to a vertical position to reach the last handhold. Every sequence would require a mix of strength and coordination, as well as a compartmentalization of the fatigue that was reaching its weekend peak.
Hayes, Martin, and Raboutou were undoubtedly three of the best climbers in the entire world; Hayes had successfully climbed famed outdoor routes in countries around the world, such as La Rambla and Biographie in Spain and France, respectively. The ascents, each among the most challenging of all the established climbs, had justifiably made Hayes a climbing icon of her generation. Martin, iconic in her own right, had coupled her decorated competitive climbing career with much-admired appearances on the sports-entertainment television program American Ninja Warrior. And Raboutou, whose parents are legendary competitors Didier and Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, had become the youngest person ever to climb a route at a difficulty grade of 5.14b when she climbed Spain’s Welcome to Tijuana at age 11.
Yet, as Hayes, Martin, and Raboutou attempted to ascend the boulder at the national championship, they each became bested by the climbing route’s steep roof section. When it was clear that none of them would be able to successfully climb to the top of the boulder in the allotted time, the crowd began to murmur. The tension continued to mount as the championship’s result was undetermined.
The next competitor to make an attempt on the boulder was Buhrfeind. She was noted for being possibly the best American all-around climber; she had dabbled in multiple competitive disciplines over the years and was certainly capable of reaching the top of the boulder’s burly sequence. To provide support, the crowd cheered as Buhrfeind began her attempt and worked through the boulder’s balance-centric lower section. Reaching the top on this final boulder would be somewhat redemptive for Buhrfeind since she had not reached the top of the previous two boulders in the competition; it was another plotline in the ongoing drama.
Buhrfeind continued to try hard on the boulder. She contorted her body into the requisite sequencing puzzle as her allotted time of four minutes expired. But she, too, was unable to reach the top. The result of the competition was still undecided.
The final two competitors were Puccio and Shiraishi. They epitomized climbing’s growth in popularity, with Puccio being a Coloradan who had ruled the national competition scene for more than a decade and Shiraishi being a New Yorker who had only recently entered the adult competition scene.
Puccio climbed first, nudging herself into a nook below the boulder’s roof before lunging for an overhanging handhold. Her hands grabbed the correct handhold as her feet swung freely, dangling above the ground. The crowd gasped. As Puccio took a moment to rest in a hanging position on the wall, the clock ticked down— only two minutes remained for her attempt to reach the top of the boulder. She readied herself for a big, methodical reach over the lip section of the roof but fell to the ground amid the movement. The crowd sighed. Puccio was clearly exhausted and there was not much time remaining on the clock; another quick attempt soon proved futile. She did not reach the top either, and now all she could do was wait for Shiraishi’s attempt.
Rather than blitz through a series of multiple attempts, Shiraishi’s strategy was to assess the boulder’s sequencing from the ground and then give a singular effort—an all-or-nothing approach with a calmness that seemed to contradict her teenage years. Like Puccio, Shiraishi began her attempt with a steady climb through the boulder’s lower section. Then she advanced to the lip of the boulder’s steep roof. But Shiraishi had thus far climbed slower than the previous competitors. The clock had ticked down and she now had only one minute to progress through the boulder’s last three handholds.
Shiraishi’s pace on the wall quickened. She tried doggedly to lunge for one of the handholds above the lip. When she wasn’t successful, rather than fall to the ground, she hung in a horizontal position to recompose herself. The clock ticked down even more—into the final 30 seconds of her attempt. The crowd shouted encouragement. Then Shiraishi sprang once more for the handhold. If she grasped it, she would be on her way to her first national championship.
Shiraishi fell to the ground as the crowd collectively exhaled. It was a valiant effort—worthy of replay and analysis, despite the outcome. And Shiraishi was so talented that a feeling pervaded her performance: she would have many more national championships in her future. Her time would come, someday.
The failed attempt solidified the competition’s result: Puccio was once again deemed the national champion. Her performance throughout, particularly on the four boulders in the finals, had been remarkable. She had shown great fortitude as she climbed despite multiple finger injuries. She had also exhibited great veteran savvy, deciphering boulders’ routesetting that had been rife with awkward movements and complex handhold series.
As the result was announced, the crowd cheered and gave Puccio a standing ovation. The applause was not only for the winner, but for all the competitors and for the drama of the event itself. Climbing had finally secured its footing as both a participant and spectator sport.
But in the result—in its coupling of athletics and narrative—was a curiosity. As an activity, climbing had its ancestry first in mountaineering and then in outdoor leisure. It had long been a sport of rock and risk. Particularly in the United States, it had been fashioned by grizzled outsiders who derided most activities of the mainstream. Puccio’s victory at the 2018 Bouldering National Championship bore little resemblance to such bohemian outdoor recreation. For starters, her victory had taken place indoors, and the entire national champion ship concept had been nourished by a vast network of gyms in all corners of the country that offered climbing indoors. Also, any championship was the pinnacle of a season-long competitive arc, and although a competitive spirit had presumably been present in rock climbing since its inception, organized competitions were not undertakings that had always been embraced and promoted by the climbing community at large.
In other words, Puccio’s victory, and the conclusion of the championship, presented a host of intriguing questions: How did American rock climbing evolve so drastically and imaginatively as to no longer include rocks at all? How did it go from being an outdoor niche of insubordinates to the prevalent pastime of people of all ages and backgrounds? And, perhaps most compelling, how did the carefree recreation of climbing become a competitive sport loved by the American masses?
This book is an attempt to answer those questions and tell the fascinating story of American competition climbing. It is a collective story mostly of determined people who were willing to embrace something new, as climbing has long been an activity steeped in tradition and ritual. The history of the United States competition scene is a chronicle of change. Undoubtedly, the advancing competition story will continue to be fashioned in years to come with new people, new circumstances, and fresh ideas. In the meantime, it is worth identifying just how we got to where we are now.
Perhaps the best place to begin is with a couple of buddies who simply wanted to go climbing.
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