Once a niche sport, rock climbing is emerging as a cultural and economic force in the U.S. Award-winning documentaries and the inclusion of climbing in the 2020 Olympics have played a role but so have opportunities to bring up the next generation of climbers. The Bozeman Climbing Team stood out at the national competition this summer and is preparing for its first of the season competition in Billings this week.
At the Spire Climbing Gym in Bozeman, teenagers walk up to a wall covered in colorful plastic holds. Some of them look like giant melted gum drops. Others are little nubs, just big enough for a toe or the tips of the climber’s fingers.
Since they’re bouldering, the teens climb without ropes. Falling is part of the process, and each time it happens, a little cloud of chalk dust rises into the air.
This may leave some wondering, don’t the parents worry?
“My grandma does. More than anything, she prefers that I did ballet, but my parents don’t worry too much,” 17-year-old Elli Dicola, one of the athletes on the Bozeman Climbing Team, says.
This summer the team sent five athletes to the Sport and Speed Youth National Championships in Pennsylvania. Ten-year-old Wilson Whitley placed second in his age group, earning him a spot on the USA Nationals Team.
Spire’s head route setter and youth team coach, Taylor Fragomeni, says the sport’s popularity has exploded in the last few years.
“It used to be this weird fringe sport and now everyone knows that it’s a thing. It’s also just kind of fun community-wise and the field of play is constantly changing. It’s not the same game every time. You’re always on different routes and boulders that are challenging you in new and different ways so that adaptability factor is really unique and fun, as well,” says Fragomeni.
Nearly eight million people in the U.S. climbed at least once outside or in a gym in 2017, according to a report from the Outdoor Foundation, and the Climbing Business Journal reports the number of climbing gyms across the nation grew about 12 percent last year.
Bozeman is part of that trend. Spire opened in 2004 and built an add-on in 2015. It plans to open a second facility in 2020 to meet growing demand.
Fragomeni says summer camps for kids and competitive teams have played a role in grooming the next generation of climbers. Aubrey Johnson took home 37th at the national climbing competition this summer. Fragomeni says Johnson started her freshman year at the University of Utah and will try out for the college climbing team.
“We try to really individualize based off of what each kid needs, especially on these higher level teams, like some people need to work on technique more or some people need to work on strength more. A lot of the undertones of it are mental, too,” Fragomeni says.
She says she and the other coaches try to help the athletes learn how to stay calm under pressure and have fun.
A lot of the athletes say they enjoy both the mental and physical challenges of climbing. Some of them, like fourteen-year-old Claire Schaub, started climbing with their parents when they were kids.
“It can be frustrating at times, but then when I finally do it, I feel like a superhero. So it’s pretty fun. I like the whole process,” Schaub says.
Ben Browning, 17, says he likes climbing because it forces him to focus on that one hold or whatever challenge he’s trying to overcome. Everything else just melts away.
“Especially comps, like you don’t hear anything else around you. There are usually people cheering for you and climbing around you, and you don’t hear anything,” Browning says.
Browning says he moved from Utah to Bozeman this summer. It was the second time he moved in two years.
“It’s nice because I can find a community wherever I move to,” Browninng says.
Fourteen-year-old Klara Dumbroska also talked about the community aspect. She placed 31st in her age division at the national competition this summer.
“Climbing is a unique sport in general, but then I get to meet so many people and go to so many cool places. I guess that’s why I’ve been doing this for so long,” Dumbroska says.
The Bozeman Climbing Team will be competing in the Montana Bouldering Championships youth portion Saturday October 5 at Steepworld Climbing Gym in Billings.