Ross Fulkerson of Portola Valley is at the peak of his game and he's just 12 years old. But he is also on a path to encounter peaks that are higher, much higher. Ross, who starts seventh-grade at Corte Madera Middle School in August, is a rock climber.
Ross took first place in the 11-13 age bracket in Atlanta in the 2013 Sport & Speed Youth Nationals, an annual indoor climbing-wall competition held this year over the July Fourth weekend. His team, Planet Granite, is based in Sunnyvale and Ross's specialty is sport climbing. In competitions, the roped-in sport climber tries to find a way up a synthetic wall using plastic hand- and foot-holds that "setters" arrange in challenging ways. "They try to make the climb so you can't do it," Ross said in an interview.
"This was his second U.S. Nationals invite," his mother Paige Bishop Fulkerson said in an email. In 2012, he placed sixth, she said. He has one more year in this bracket.
Ross came to rock-climbing by way of tree climbing and unicycles, all signs of an extraordinary sense of balance, his mother said. He was walking at 9 months and climbing redwood trees at 4. "He climbed incredibly high in trees since he was little," she said.
But not without supervision. He had been warned about the risk of falling, and that kids fall out of trees all the time and break their bones, and that one way to avoid falling out of a tree is to have three extremities touching the tree at all times -- and he listened, his mother said. He was not cavalier and double-checked himself before he moved, she said. "Ross has always given me so much confidence," she said. "He was just pretty smart about the way he would climb."
He rode a unicycle to school in the second grade, but only after assuring himself that he could make it there and back without spilling, his mother said. "It took him about six months," she added. His parents don't climb but they do ski.
Ms. Fulkerson recalled their first visit to a climbing wall. "Is that your kid? Has he climbed before?" observers asked about Ross, she said. "That guy's incredible. We're all sitting here trying to figure out who this kid is." Soon enough, Ross was enrolled in a climbing camp and he's been climbing regularly for three years.
"It's an individual sport, but it's team encouragement. They take turns watching each other," Ms. Fulkerson said.
His coach, Isaac Williams, "deserves a tremendous amount of credit," she said. "He spends time with the kids who have a tremendous desire to be strong and do difficult moves."
Ross has climbed in Yosemite and the Pinnacles and at Smith Rock in Oregon. Is free climbing -- the rope-free scaling of big walls like Half Dome and El Capitan -- in his future? Her son has said, "Oh, no way. That's ridiculous," in response to such questions, Ms. Fulkerson said. Free climbing is "really not admired and not endorsed by the climbing coaches and the kids," she said.