The Rise of Climbing Prodigies1

A boul­der prob­lem at my local climb­ing gym had me stymied last week. No sequence for my hands and feet seemed to work. I con­tort­ed my body in weird ways, but the wall reject­ed my pathet­ic attempts at creativity.

Obvi­ous­ly, this prob­lem is impos­si­ble, I thought. Only a steel-fin­gered rock god could stick these moves, and such deities exist only in the climb­ing mags.

Just then, a small, shy voice asked my per­mis­sion to attempt the prob­lem. My eyes, which were glazed over with con­fu­sion while look­ing at this impos­si­ble prob­lem, turned toward her: a pre­pu­bes­cent girl who was as tall as my waist. I gave her a look that com­mu­ni­cat­ed, ‘Well kid, if you want to embar­rass your­self and pos­si­bly dam­age your psy­che try­ing to start this prob­lem, then be my guest. This is grown-up stuff.’

She calm­ly and grace­ful­ly pulled her­self up through the first cou­ple of moves using her frail-look­ing, pipe clean­er arms. At the crux, the part that had me stumped, she paused to col­lect her­self. Her body just was­n’t long enough to reach for the next hold — she would have to jump for it. With impec­ca­ble body con­trol, she defied grav­i­ty as though her bones were hol­low and feath­ers were attached to her skin. (Seri­ous­ly, how much did she weigh?) She reached the top, hopped down and walked away, like it was nothing.

Schooled by a grade schooler.

She avoid­ed my incred­u­lous gaze, and had the tact not to give me advice or encour­age­ment. My bruised ego could­n’t take any more humbling.

The Rise of the Super Climber
A race of super­hu­mans is tak­ing over the climb­ing world. Like Spi­der­man or Dare­dev­il, they are not bound­ed by restric­tions of grav­i­ty and fear; their strength appears limitless.

They are chil­dren, and they are mak­ing old peo­ple like me, in his 20’s, obso­lete. They are the up-to-date mod­els — climber 2.0 — which are faster, more pow­er­ful, and ruth­less­ly efficient.

The climb­ing abil­i­ty of these kids is like a par­tic­u­lar­ly hot day in April, when peo­ple say, If it’s this hot now, what will it be like in August? If these kids are climb­ing V10s when they’re ten years old, they’ll be climb­ing V30 by the time they’re my age.

Why are there so many kids who are good at rock climb­ing now? Nobody knows. Per­haps radioac­tive air has infil­trat­ed our atmos­phere, suf­fus­ing these young peo­ple with superpowers.

Climb­ing Prodi­gies
It seems like a new Mozart of climb­ing comes along every­day. First it was Ashima Shi­raishi, who was pro­filed in last year’s Reel Rock Film fes­ti­val. An adorable 11-year-old, Shi­raishi is a fear­some sight to behold on rock, crush­ing V13s with appar­ent ease.

Now there’s Brooke Raboutou, who has been blow­ing up the climb­ing blogs. She’s been destroy­ing 5.14s late­ly. No big deal for an 11-year-old.

Or what about Tito Tra­vers, the 10-year-old climb­ing wunderkind?

And who can for­get Adam Ondra, who at 19 years old is on the short­list for strongest climber in the world. He’s prac­ti­cal­ly an old man com­pared to when he won the world lead climb­ing cham­pi­onship at the age of 16. The pre­vi­ous year, the female cham­pi­on was Johan­na Ernst, also 16.

A 13-Year-Old on Ever­est
Rocks aren’t the only thing that kids are tak­ing over in the climb­ing world. Now moun­tains are yield­ing to these puerile climb­ing freaks.

13 years was the time it took for Jor­dan Romero to exit his moth­er’s uterus and make it to the top of the world. When I was 13, climb­ing small trees fright­ened me; I once saw a pic­ture of Ever­est in a book and thought it looked pret­ty cool.

What does a 13-year-old do on the sum­mit of Ever­est? Call his mom of course! “Mom, I’m call­ing you from the top of the world,” he said, accord­ing to a Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor report. What a nice young man, let­ting his con­cerned moth­er know that he was doing all right. I mean she was prob­a­bly wor­ried sick with her young boy on top of a moun­tain that kills peo­ple every year.

Romero’s accom­plish­ment imme­di­ate­ly set off a con­tro­ver­sy over the ethics of allow­ing a boy to climb a dan­ger­ous moun­tain. The New York Times’ con­clu­sion: Phys­i­cal­ly a 13 year might be capa­ble of it, but psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, a 13-year-old can’t be trust­ed to make the life or death deci­sions required of high alti­tude climbing.

Would Some­body Please Think of the Chil­dren!
To most non-climber bystanders, the ques­tions that comes to mind is, Where the hell are the par­ents? Why would any­one let their chil­dren par­tic­i­pate in this sport? Climb­ing in a gym leads to climb­ing out­side, which can lead to death and seri­ous injury. And yet many par­ents not only allow, but active­ly encour­age their kids down this slip­pery slope that could lead to an ear­ly death.

It’s as if some par­ents gave their son a motor­cy­cle and a gun and told him to join the Hell’s Angels.

But many of these par­ents are avid climbers them­selves. Their lives revolve around climb­ing, so why would­n’t they have their kids take part in this activ­i­ty? For these par­ents, it’s not as if they were forc­ing this kid into the sport; it’s that climb­ing is woven into their lifestyle, and they’re con­tin­u­ing to live their lives with their kid there.

As the par­ents of Brooke Raboutou say, “[Climbing’s] just some­thing that’s always been in our lives. Just like, you know, the refrig­er­a­tor or the bathtub.”

Con­clu­sion: You’re Prob­a­bly Too Old to Be Climb­ing
If you’re old enough to drink in Amer­i­ca, you were prob­a­bly too old to climb by sev­er­al years. Let’s face facts: climb­ing’s a young per­son­’s game. Kids are small­er, lighter and stronger, pound for pound, than fat old peo­ple like us. They haven’t yet been weighed down by the Alba­tross of mature respon­si­bil­i­ty. They haven’t learned to be lim­it­ed by their fears or resign in the face of life’s disappointments.

I, for one, wel­come our new climb­ing overlords.