The parking lot is teeming with climbers and the doors aren't even open yet. Blinking in the morning Los Angeles sunlight, I survey the scene and wait for my coffee to kick in. Though I just drove over 400 miles to get here, there is no shortage of familiar faces. As I mingle with the crowd, I exchange greetings with climbers I know from The Studio, from Ironworks, from Bishop. Juxtaposed onto these old acquaintances are a contingent of local gym climbers, swathed in swag from Hangar 18, Rockreation and Sender One. Seasoned competition climbers stand shoulder to shoulder with weekend warriors, and eight-year-old future-crushers. Local college kids intermix with out-of-state climbers who stopped by on their way to Bishop or Joshua Tree. Youth climbing teams, dressed in matching apparel, share the space with unofficial amalgamates of road-trip buddies and training partners. The crowd, diverse as it is lively, bubbles with conversation about the competition. Suddenly, the conversations cease and everyone's attention is on the front doors. They're open, and an outfit of Touchstone staff is waiting to usher the crowd into the gym. As a single entity, this microcosm of the California climbing community starts to flow up the steps and diffuse into Touchstone's newest 12,000 square-foot playground.
Photo Credit: Freeman McFadden
To say that it's a full house would be an understatement. To say climbers are packed into the gym like sardines would be inaccurate, because sardines don't have this much fun. Competitors fill every inch of the new Flashed flooring, and the walls are barely visible behind the swarms of eager participants. Half an hour into the competition, any semblance of a warm-up period is long gone, and the projecting mindset has taken over. Whether climbers showed up for the social aspect of the event or with the intention of taking home the prize money seems to have no bearing on how hard people are climbing. The casual folks from the parking lot who insisted they were “just here to check it out” have dropped the facade of nonchalance and are crushing their way through the ranks on their scorecards. Through some unofficial consensus, climbers have quickly discovered instant classics at every grade, and formed giant, amorphous blobs of spotters/judges/projecters at the bases of these climbs.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Pangilinan
Comp-style routesetting has an aesthetic and quality all its own. The routesetters spared no expense of effort or creativity in crafting the boulders for the LA.B comp. Minty-fresh grips from top manufacturers fill the Walltopia terrain, offering a variety of movement to satiate even the most seasoned gym-junkies. The climbs, which feature color coordinated holds and follow the proudest lines in the gym, are not the only thing that looks good; the moves they demand are true crowd pleasers. Double-clutch dynos? We got 'em. Kneebars and double toe-hooks in a horizontal roof? There's a climb for that. A sketchy slab-fest on blank volumes, obtuse features and non-existent feet? There's a few of those. The climbs favor no one and everyone: tech masters can find slab testpieces and power junkies can treat themselves to a thuggish burl-fest on the steep terrain. One-move-wonders reside next to flowing pump-fests, giving anyone and everyone a chance to climb their style, or their anti-style.
Photo Credit: Freeman McFadden
Surrounding the excitement on the floor is the party atmosphere that is to be expected at a Touchstone competition. The DJ has been going strong all day, delivering high-energy beats to keep the crowd psyched. Some of the biggest brands in climbing have set up product displays featuring their latest product offerings, forming a mini retail show in the lounge area. Food trucks are stationed outside, ready to provide hip L.A. food fare to fuel the calorie-incinerating action inside. As the clock winds down on the five hours of free-for-all climbing, jumbo-sized pizzas and kegs of beer materialize to reward climbers for their efforts. At the conclusion of the first phase of climbing, the gym seems to exhale climbers off the floor and into the parking lot for a brief reprieve before onsight finals. As the routesetters make their way onto the floor to set the final climbs, the rest of climbers find themselves drawn outside by the promise of free food, beer, and raffle prizes.
Do you love swag? Touchstone does. And apparently, so do the members. Facing a sea of climbers, I am given the weighty task of distributing seemingly bottomless boxes of free stickers, bandanas, chalk bags, hats, shirts and other goodies in a product toss of epic proportions. Cheers rise from the crowd as freebies rain down in its midst and people scramble to fill their arms with as much swag as they can hold. And this is just the warm-up; we haven't even gotten to the real raffle yet. As soon as we have exhausted the supply of freebies, more boxes are lugged out of the gym, the contents of which will be raffled off. Here lies the benefit of turning in your scorecard: if you show up and do just one climb per hour for five hours, you stand a chance of winning some sweet swag in the raffle. Scorecards are pulled and their respective owners walk away with some of the best prizes I've seen at a Touchstone comp: Prana yoga mats and chalk pots, Petzl headlamps, free shoes from Evolv and La Sportiva, gift cards to local gear shops. What's more, we even gave away two Retrospec bikes to some lucky people in the crowd! As much fun as I'm having doling out these awesome prizes, I can't deny that there's a part of me that wishes I was out in the crowd, hoping my name will be called.
Now that people have eaten their fill of pizza, made a few trips to the keg and scored some prizes in the raffle, attention turns back to climbing. Climbers ditch the parking lot to perch atop the boulders in the gym, where they will have a 360-degree view of the onsight finals. We return to the gym to find that, in our absence, the routesetters have repopulated the walls with six new testpieces that will determine the results of finals. The men's and women's categories have each received three climbs, spread across the slab, some vertical terrain, and the monstrously overhung barrel wall. Whoever wins this thing will have to work for their money.
With hundreds of people looking on in anticipation, a professional film crew ready to document the event, and yours truly as emcee, we invite the finalists out of isolation to preview the boulders. To a collective cheer, they make their way out onto the floor and begin decrypting the climbs.
Photo Credit: Ally Learned
The slab seems to mix power with balance, challenging climbers of both categories to traverse a line of painfully sloping holds on pitifully inadequate feet.
The vert wall once again epitomizes what I love about competition routesetting: the women's climb consists solely of a series of blank volumes (color-coordinated, of course) that terminate at the top of a steep section of wall. The men's boulder is a thuggy squeeze-fest of opposing slopers placed as far apart as possible on an overhung wall.
The final climb for each category comes out the belly of the barrel, testing power and contact strength on every move.We send the climbers back to isolation to ponder their beta and agonize over the eventual result of the comp. We'll all know soon enough if their beta is good and who will take home the prize money. Finals are starting.
Take 12 insanely psyched, crazy strong boulderers, and throw them each at three hard climbs in the space of 25 minutes. The result is a flurry of forearms, a tendon-testing onslaught of people vs. plastic, where finalists pull down so hard that it makes the spectators sore the next day. That's what onsight finals are in a nutshell.
Dan Beall, who is competing with an injured finger, sets the bar high with a flash of the first problem. Rhianna Orton, who competes on the USA Climbing youth circuit, matches this feat on her first finals climb. While Beall made the first problem seem trivial, the next competitors put its difficulty in perspective: the slab traverse spits off the likes of Cody Shutt and Ben Parkin, both of whom made a strong showing earlier in the competition. The women's climb is not seeing ascents, but not for lack of attempts. It looks as though flashing the first climb will be key in securing the podium in the women's category.
As climbers start to filter over to the second problem, we get to see their power come into play: the lines of holds demand dynamic moves and copious amounts of body tension. While the women's problem looks straightforward enough, it becomes obvious that the blank volumes are not very forgiving, not allowing for a moment of relaxation as podium contenders Aubrey Lim, Sarah Griffith and Sarah Pierce gun for the top. Increasing the difficulty is the fact that the boulder has all of two designated footholds; everything else is either a hand/foot match or powerful moves off the previous handhold. The men's problem demands constant compression on poor slopers, forcing desperate deadpoints between distant holds. This climb, the grade of which hovers somewhere in the V-double-digit range, thwarts all but Julian Bautista, who qualified for finals in first place. He hucks for the final hold and controls it, putting himself in the first-place position to a roar of approval from the crowd.
The last climb for each category is objectively the hardest of finals, combining steep, physical climbing with the fact that the finalists are completely gassed from hours of competing and the associated nerves. The women's climb sequence demands powerful, body-length moves between volumes adorned with crimps, which results in crowd-pleasing foot-cuts and exhibitions of upper-body strength. Sarah Griffith climbs all the way until the end of her allotted time, attaining a high-point on the final climb. Since none of the women were able to complete the climb, each competitor’s high point will determine their ranking.
The standard climbing vernacular falls short in trying to define how hard the men's climb looks. “Burly” might be a good choice, but that doesn't quite say it. “Heinous” comes a little closer, but fails to convey the sheer implausibility of this boulder. Nevertheless, the strongmen of the competition throw themselves at the line of holds and convince us all that these moves are possible, after all. Michael O'Rourke, who won the Dogpatch grand-opening competition, shows his commitment when he initially catches a crimp with two fingers, then manages to close his hand around the hold before executing the next move. Julian Bautista, a seasoned competition climber, was the only one to discover a hidden kneebar early in the climb, allowing him to save some energy and make an impressive high point on the climb. As Julian and the last female finalist of the night, Kristen Ubaldi, finish their climbs and onsight finals ends, the crowd buzzes with discussion of what we all just witnessed. After the scores are carefully tabulated by the judges, and the crowd has restocked on beer, we proceed with the much anticipated project of crowning the winners of the competition. The results are as follows:
2nd: Aubrey Lim
3rd: Sarah Pierce
1st: Julian Bautista
2nd: Michael O'Rourke
3rd: Dan Beall
After the applause die down, the crowd disperses and the chalk starts to settle, we're left looking at an empty gym. Save for some chalk spills and a few hundred scorecards, there is remarkably little evidence of the magnitude of the event that just took place. Now that everyone is gone, we're left with a warehouse full of walls adorned with funny looking pieces of plastic. To be sure, L.A. Boulders is just another climbing gym. What sets it apart is the people. They turned this competition into a party; a day at the gym into a community reunion, a climbing gym into a climbing destination. For sure, this competition is one to remember, and LA.B is officially the coolest new gym on the block. What's even better, though, is that the climbing community has found a new base in SoCal, and the Touchstone family just got a little bigger.
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Stay tuned for the video!
Words by Zach Wright
Images by Ally Learned, Jeremy Pangilinan and Freeman McFadden.