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The clock was ticking in the last round of finals. In the lead post-qualifiers, Tristan Chen lagged behind second place Joshua Muehring by over 200 points. He was trying to catch up, but not by crushing boulder problems. Chen was chowing down on chicken tenders. For each tender he ate, his score was doubled, tripled, quadrupled. But these weren’t ordinary tenders, they were Hattie B’s hot tenders (and we aren’t talking Siracha-level hot, we’re talking grown men and women crying fat tears and vomiting hot). Chen scarfed down another tender, his sixth in four minutes. He probably felt like throwing up, but to do so would cut his multiplier back to nil. Nearby, gym staff dressed in chicken suits were holding buckets filled with vomit from another competitor. Chen soldiered on.
Nashville, Tennessee. Home of country music, the honky-tonk, the “other” Parthenon and… the annual Hotter Than Chicken (HTC) bouldering competition. An annual event four years running at the city’s Climb Nashville gym, HTC is now so big that Nashville’s mayor, David Briley, proclaimed the first Saturday in August “Hotter Than Chicken Day,” in honor of the competition. Text from the official proclamation: Joe Shmoe finally has the chance to beat Joe Pro. Hot Chicken has evened the playing field in a way nothing else could.
This is one of the key ideas behind HTC, said Route Setting Director Jonathan Brandt. It’s not just the crushers who have a shot at the podium. “A V4 climber can potentially win the whole thing,” he said, if they possess an iron stomach. And the chicken at Hotter Than Chicken, provided by local staple Hattie B’s, isn’t just Siracha hot. It’s utterly damning. A look at the tenders, covered in a sinister black dusting, is enough to let you know how hot they are. “The guy who delivered the stuff last year was deadly serious,” said Brandt. “He said, ‘You need to warn the competitors. These are dangerous.’” U.S. National’s team member Zach Galla, last year’s men’s champion, “filled half a five gallon bucket with vomit afterwards,” Brandt added.
I spoke with a few Hotter Than Chicken veterans, including Climb Nashville’s co-owner Drew Sloss, who uses a strategy of tearing up the chicken into tiny pieces. “This way you don’t get it on the outside of your face, that makes it way worse,” he said. In the citizens comp, climbers of all stripes eat as much hot chicken (or a vegetarian-friendly equivalent, BE-Hive Seitan) as possible within a 15 minute window, without aid. No water, milk, beer, or back rubs from Mommy. Just hot, hot chicken. They then have two and a half hours immediately following to send as many problems as possible, counting top five ascents. 32-year-old Alexander Wallis, one of the two men who managed to eat the most tenders in the citizens comp (seven), went to Hattie B’s once a week for the three weeks prior to the comp to “max out on as many tenders as I could,” in training. Michael Esparza, 28, also managed seven tenders. His trick was Pepto and Tums before, and heavy cream after. “It tastes like bee stingers,” yelled one man during the challenge. “I can’t feel my face,” mumbled another, in tears.
The real show, however, is the open competition. The top six men and six women (V8+ men V6+ women) based on qualifying score, compete in the “Fire Finals” for a grand prize of $2,000 and a handmade ClimbAxe, which has a head forged from mid-century steel, a handle crafted with Tennessee Hickory and a wedge made from 3,000 year-old fossilized Irish-bog wood. Climbers have 4 minute slots to solve each of the three finals problems, with four minutes in between each problem to eat as many hot tenders as possible, to multiply their score on the previous problem.
Hotter Than Chicken 2019 saw Tristan Chen, Joshua Muehring, David Eisenstadt, Brandon Travis, Austin Purdy, and Brian Huang competing in men’s finals. Arabella Jariel, Katie Lamb, Sarah Grainger, Brianna Havics, Flannery Shay-Nemirow, and Maya Fields rounded out the women’s finals list.
Though Lamb crushed all three of the women’s problems (including the third, where climbers must high-five the DJ standing on the finishing volume to score full points), she was bested by Nemirow, who managed two tops for 65 climbing points, but devoured eight tenders, bringing her score to 520. The 21-year-old Purdy, who clocked in with 35 climbing points to second place Muehring’s 50, ate a stunning 15 total chicken tenders, bringing his total score to 525 and netting him victory. In a blitz, Chen managed to eat seven tenders in the last round alone, for a total of 13 tenders (second only to Austin), but it wasn’t enough to bring his lower climbing score ahead of Muehring, and he finished third.
Purdy travelled from Colorado for Hotter Than Chicken, and it was his first time in the competition. He credited his success to training sessions with Chen, where the pair “ate habanero peppers and then tried to get on the wall.” Nemirow, a 27-year-old routesetter from Arizona, said, “everything about this comp is more wild than other comps,” but she wasn’t as fazed by the heat. “The tenders add a different level of difficulty, but the quantity of food was harder than the spice for me,” she said. When setting problems for Hotter Than Chicken, “if anything, we err on the side of letting the chicken be the deciding factor,” said Brandt. In both the men’s and women’s comps, the winner wasn’t the one who climbed the best, but the one who ate the most chicken (and kept it down). David Eisenstadt, who had as many climbing points as third place Chen, vomited mid-comp, so his total score sat at 25 (last place) to Chen’s 325.
As fun as watching the chaos is, it’s all backed by a good cause. Hotter Than Chicken partnered with local nonprofit Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee, and for each tender eaten, the gym donated four meals to the hungry. Over 2300 meals were donated as a result of the chicken eating this year.
For many of the competitors, like Nemirow, this is the only competition they’ll attend all year. The added element of the chicken lends it a unique variant, and evens the playing fields in a scene where often the same few names top the rankings. “The chicken is the boss!” as one climber put it, tears running down his cheeks.
When asked if the hot tenders had ever improved a competitor’s climbing, however, Brandt responded with a firm, “No.”
All photos by Olivia Gates.