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RUTLAND — The Vermont state championships for high school rock climbing were held Saturday at Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center in Rutland. It was Green Mountain Union High School that claimed the first-place trophy, but as appears to be the sentiment at all rock climbing events, everyone carried something away from it.

Though rock climbing in the state has come a long way from its humble beginnings – growing from just two teams in the late ‘90s to eight today – it is not a varsity sport in Vermont. After recent ugly events in other sports in the state, the sportsmanship, collaboration and unity – not only between teammates, but all athletes present – was a breath of fresh air.

“These kids and coaches are cheering for each other,” said Tom Klein, Burr and Burton Academy’s assistant coach. “They’re not looking at a person that climbs something they can’t climb and saying, ‘Oh that person’s a jerk, that person’s a cheater.’

“They’re thinking, ‘My goodness, that person from this other school is really strong. I want to celebrate that. I want to be that strong.’ And I think that’s one of the many reasons this is a uniquely great sport.”

There may be no better illustration of the spirit of cooperation the sport fosters than climbers putting their safety in the hands of an athlete from another school. For the uninitiated, climbers work together in teams, a “climber” and a “belayer.” The belayer is the climber’s anchor and puts tension on the safety rope in the event the climber is about to fall. In Vermont, athletes from opposing teams are paired together.

“We’re here to compete, but we’re not actually competing. We’re here to get up the wall,” said Josh Vann, coach at Long Trail School. “We’re helping each other best our scores. Whoever wins at the end is going to be happy for everybody.”

The prevailing attitude displayed by the athletes was similar to that seen in other individual sports like cross country or powerlifting. Each athlete present helping their counterparts push their limits and set personal records. Ultimately, everyone wants to see everyone reach the top of the wall.

Jack Waller is a three-year captain for BBA’s rock climbing team who also played football for the Bulldogs. The senior enjoyed the team element of football, but also getting to counter that in the winter with the individual effort of rock climbing.

“I like competing against myself. I like to set my own record and break it,” said Waller. “I like to see my friends get really hyped that I’m making myself better, then hype up my friends and see them make themselves better.

“Being able to spread some knowledge to everybody in here,” he continued. “I know I’m climbing against Green Mountain and Otter Valley, but I’m kind of friends with all of them.”

Long Trail sophomore John Smith, who has plenty of experience playing team sports like soccer and basketball, also spoke to the sense of community, regardless of school colors.

“I’ve done everything, but this is my main thing, and it’s just such a nice environment,” Smith said. “It’s a lot more personal. You don’t really have to worry about letting the team down as much. It’s a lot more personal goals and getting better as an individual, but it’s still a team sport and trying to lift your team up.”

Smith also spoke glowingly of the freedom rock climbing offers.

“It’s nice because there’s no right way to do it. You just develop your own style and your own way… everyone’s built different.”

Another unique element to rock climbing in Vermont, as it stands now, is that females compete against the males. By several accounts from coaches and parents, the disadvantage for the females isn’t as large as one might think. In some cases, there isn’t one at all.

“It’s really great to see the amount of girls that are here and climbing hard,” said Halyn McIntyre, another three-year captain for BBA. McIntyre was one of three females representing BBA on Saturday, and one of about a dozen in the field of 60-plus climbers.

“Everyone’s really great at empowering each other and just cheering each other on,” she said. “It’s been really great. Everyone’s super supportive. Everyone loves to help each other out with climbs. Especially the girls, I think, mainly because we know we’re the minority climbers here. We want to show we’re climbing just as hard as the guys.”

McIntyre was proud to say she had seen the total number of females, including those that didn’t qualify for Saturday’s state competition, has doubled since her freshman year.

The format of rock climbing competitions varies depending on where they take place or who their governing body is. This event, organized by the gym’s owner, Steve Lulek, gives a score roughly based on the “Yosemite” system for each possible route to the top of the wall, with more challenging climbs receiving a higher score.

The athletes are given time before the competition to examine all 68 of the possible routes, which were given colorful names like “Grumpy Octopus” and “Chicken Tendies.” Then, the madness begins, and the cross-school climbing teams have 90 minutes to do as many climbs as they can.

Climbers must show complete control of their bodies both at the start of their climb, and the top of their climb, where their heads must touch the ceiling for a three-count to be counted. Because the routes intersect, they must follow a color-coded system so that they only use the holds and grips for their chosen route. Touching a hold not on their route, or letting the rope become “weighted” at any time results in an unsuccessful climb.

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A completed climb is awarded the full point value for that route, and an incomplete climb is awarded none. At this particular meet, each climber picked their best three climbs to submit to their teams’ total scores.

Lulek, who has been climbing for the better part of his life, joined the Army in 1988. He started the Vermont National Guard’s mountaineering school and is a former U.S. Army Mountain Warfare instructor. He bought the facility he is operating now in 2001 in hopes of legitimizing and growing the sport he loves. He hopes to see it be sanctioned by the Vermont Principals Association someday.

“This is a creative, artistic, mind-and-body experience,” he said. “You can totally trust that rope. And it gives you that freedom to make that move that you’ve been trying to think through.”

Lulek also takes pride in rock climbing being such an inclusive sport. He commented on some discussion of making a delineation between males and females in the sports.

“I’m hoping that doesn’t take shape. This is the one sport that it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “Yeah, guys can be stronger, but that usually means their technique isn’t good. Women, if they’re not as strong, they’re more flexible and their technique is better. I don’t want it to be gender-situated, I want it to be athletically-situated.”

Lulek says female participation in the sport is still growing, and as the numbers approach those of the men, his assertion that gender isn’t important will be better supported.

“I think as women continue to come out, you’re going to see women flourish in this sport and be at the same level,” he said.

Lauren Thomas, assistant executive director of the VPA said that club sports are eligible to go through the sanctioning process to be varsity sports after three years.

“If someone wanted to be a driving force for it, they can look through our policies for sanctioning a new sport,” she said. “We always want to have activities that reflect our students’ interests.”

Thomas co-authored an op-ed on the importance of sportsmanship and positive atmosphere from fans last week with Dr. Karissa Niehoff, CEO of the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS). Though rock climbing is not a VPA-sanctioned sport, she spoke positively of the environment it takes place in.

“Building and finding a community is so important to athletics,” she said via email. “Climbing takes that sense of community to a higher level because there’s a safety element embedded, as well. All are looking out for one another so that they can have fun, be safe and hit personal bests.”

Final team results (and points):

1. Green Mountain — 18,000

2. Burr and Burton — 17,875

3. Rutland- 17, 225

4. Otter Valley — 17, 175

5. Woodstock — 16,400

(Final three teams only allowed two climbers each)

6. Proctor- 6,425

7. Long Trail- 6,650

8. Mill River- 3,250

Tory Rich can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @ToryRich6


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