While the eyes of most sports fans in the valley were on the Northwest divisional basketball tournament, at the Summit Fitness Center in Kalispell, a very different – more vertically oriented – competition was taking place. Thirty-seven rock climbers from around the valley gathered to test their skills ascending the wall, the only indoor climbing facility in the Flathead.
By its nature, climbing tends to attract a different crowd than, say, basketball. Tattoos were in abundance on knuckles, calves and necks. Nor was there any shortage of body piercings or shaved heads. As a sport, climbing often appeals to people who want to do something deliberately noncompetitive, to spend a day maneuvering up a geologic feature, at odds with nothing but the limits of your own strength and technique.
“I’d much rather just climb to be on the rock and be with my friends,” said Camille Howell, who finished second in the women’s competition for above age 18. After several climbs, Howell would tell friends, while massaging her forearms, how nervous it made her to add competition to climbing. “This makes all my muscles shake,” she added. “It’s a little more nerve-wracking.”
Yet the competition was far more about camaraderie, learning and mutual support than it was about winning. Since setting up a system where non-club members could use the Summit’s climbing wall by purchasing a punch card, the small but dedicated group of people who show up most evenings to climb together has grown. At last week’s competition, it was clear everyone knew each other.
To win, climbers in divisions separated by age and gender could choose three climbs among several routes that rewarded points based on their difficulty. Extra points were awarded for climbing a route using footholds but no handholds, or by “on-sighting” a climb, which means a clean, flawless ascent on the first try. The challenge for organizers was to set a range of difficulty that was fun for climbers from beginners to “stone masters.”
“My goal would be for everybody to climb something so they can feel good about that,” said Virginia Pfau, a volunteer who helped set some of the routes. “I didn’t want it to be too too easy – I’m a little happy when people fall, that means it’s just hard enough.”
As the afternoon wore on, the aroma of sweaty feet was on the air, and some scraped ankles and knuckles were taped up. The men’s competition had ended in a three-way tie for first, so the top three were banished to a back room while a new, difficult route was hastily set up. Whoever got the highest would take first.
The holds were few and far between, and Dan Steuben and Connor Foley made it nearly all the way before peeling off at a chimney section that required an awkward balance and friction maneuver. The third climber, Ryan Nelson, emerged, and studied the route while he crammed his feet into tiny rubber shoes.
Nelson made his way delicately up the route, following the moves of the previous climbers. Below the chimney section, he paused, breathing and studying it. Everyone on the ground watched him silently as he gripped a small fin of rock and, leaning hard to the left, began to inch his way up. He moved past the high marks of the other climbers until he was pushing down on the holds, then he reached easily for the top. Applause broke out.
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