My First Climbing Competition

Winter is training season for climbers in the northeast. For me, training season involves time spent climbing inside, trying hard on plastic and doing a lot of climbing practice. Pushing myself to the absolute limit mentally and physically usually does not happen until the first outdoor trip of the spring.

As any climber knows, training indoors for months on end can leave one with the desire for a change of pace. Craving a challenge and a bit of pressure, I signed up for the competition at my local gym. I enlisted my boyfriend Michael as belayer and coach and set out to do what I had not done before.

Me and my rockstar coach and belayer post-competition.

Competition Format

The competition format was not announced until minutes before the competition actually started. The overall vibe was very casual. This was ideal considering I had never competed before.

Competitors had three hours to climb and the objective was to send as many routes/boulders as you could in order to maximize your score. You could elect to compete in either the bouldering or ropes category. If you were so daring you could also compete in both categories, although there was no competitive distinction for competing in both disciplines.

For bouldering, the objective was to complete five boulders worth as many points as possible. The more difficult the routes, the more points you earned.

For the ropes portion, the objective was the same; however, only your top three routes counted for scoring.

Additionally, the format of the rope competition was a strange combination of sport and top rope. For each category (novice, intermediate, advanced) the highest scoring and most difficult route was a lead only route. Therefore, unless it was the category “lead route” there was really no point in sport climbing.

The number of attempts per route or boulder were tracked for use in the case of a tie. If two people had the same score, but one acquired the points in less attempts, they would be deemed the winner.

Non-Strategic Overachieving

Driven to really test my capacity to climb as hard as possible for three hours, I decided that I wanted to try to place top three in both bouldering and ropes. With this election, I risked spreading myself too thin to place in either category. Despite this, non-strategic overachieving is the way I chose to go.

How I Spent my Time

Before the comp I did a pretty easy warmup that did not involve any climbing–I figured I had three hours of climbing ahead of me and that the climbing specific warmup would happen during the comp.

I did 5 minutes of rowing, 10 minutes of a dynamic warmup, and I warmed up some small, potentially tweaky holds on the hangboard just before the start time.

The Boulders

During the competition I spent the first 45 minutes racking up flashable V4s and V5s on the vertical wall. After this, I headed to another section overhanging boulders and spent a few attempts on some higher-scoring V5s–with little success. The most frustrating point of the competition was almost sending this boulder, and falling while I reach my second hand to the finish hold. This was on attempt number 8.

Lauren Abernathy Gravity Vault Bouldering
Me getting started on problem #37. My almost, top-scoring route.

I wore myself out and racked up somewhat dismal resume of “top 5” boulders for the intermediate category. I decided it was time to pack it in and head to the ropes.

The Ropes

After bouldering at my limit for an hour, the routes felt nice and sustained; however fatigue set in more quickly than I had hoped.

The nerves were evident on the ropes. After 2-3 almost ascents on each of the highest scoring intermediate routes, I actually failed to qualify as a competitor in the ropes competition.

Essentially, I flashed two routes in the category and proceeded to fall off of the last moves of three different high-scoring routes for the last hour of the comp.

The risk of spreading myself too thin had materialized in full.

Overcaffeinating

At 4:00 p.m., I still felt the effects of my morning cup of coffee. I then mixed myself some Gnarly Nutrition BCAAs to drink during the comp–not considering that these also contain caffeine.

Coffee typos
Here’s a picture of an inspiring mug from a diner in PA. Unrelated to the comp, but I love a good spelling error.

By the time I started the ropes section, I was completely overstoked on caffeine and adrenaline. My hands shook, I climbed spastically, and I became more and more frustrated as I popped off the top moves of every route I tried for an hour.

My boyfriend, belayer, and coach du Jour, Michael, begged me to slow down and take deep breaths before each attempt. It was pretty hilarious actually. He literally tried to hold me still, but I could hardly close my eyes for more than 15 seconds before I got bored an started looking at the routes again. Between the nerves and the caffeine I was suffering from caffeine-induced ADHD.

Under Pressure

Frankly, after getting so close to topping a high-scoring V5 and falling, my attitude shifted from confidence to concern and then down-right panic. My ability to keep it cool and climb smoothly for the last hour completely crumbled.

The negative self-talk was rampant. My internal emotional state was way to over-stressed for someone competing in a casual local gym comp.

I placed a lot of pressure on myself to do well and I was not living up to my personal expectations.

The big question in the back of my head was “if you train this much, then why are you sucking so bad?” –Not the most encouraging thing to say to yourself.

I did not focus well and I felt pretty shut down after failing repeatedly on the ropes and the boulders.

Overall, my mental state in high-stress situations could use some work.

But was it fun?

Of course! I love a day of thrashing myself and the setting was a total blast on the boulders. Having a performance-based day of climbing was also really nice since the past few months have been “training, training, training.”

Additionally, it was pretty fun to climb with people I have never met before and to cheer everyone on. I also did the comp with a few friends and despite my distressed internals, they kept me laughing and joking for the whole competition–even though I was a little stressed out.

The Results

Before results were announced, my friend Mel and I decided that we were really tired, sick of falling, and we needed to drink some beer after all of this.

We planned to leave before the awards ceremony, but we were advised to stick around. I am definitely glad we did.

Me and my pal Mel celebrating our wins by showing off the comp swag.

Despite spending literally half of the competition on ropes (and subsequently not qualifying) I still somehow got 2nd place overall for women’s bouldering. It felt pretty good to claim a title.

Mel ended up getting first place in intermediate ropes. In short, our pity party of two actually came away with some prizes.

Of course, we headed over to the bar next door to do what climbers do after a long day of climbing: have a beer and rehash the day’s glories and failures.

The competition was a test, an architecture to bring out some “try hard”, and a good way to facilitate a high-pressure climbing situation–or at least higher pressure than the usual gym session.

Did I do as well as I wanted to? No! But I am more than ready to try again–with more strategy and less caffeine next time.

Thanks to the staff and community at the Gravity Vault in Hoboken for putting on a fun event. I am very glad I participated!

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