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Up he goes

Rock climbing is giving Portola Valley's Ross Fulkerson a route to the top

Rock climbing, a new category in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, is a competitive sport in which competitors often talk strategy with each other. It's a team sport in which individuals perform more or less by themselves. And it's a gravity-defying sport that demands balance, strength, agility, mental acuity and judgment, and has practitioners from ages 3 to 83.

One notable practitioner is Portola Valley resident Ross Fulkerson, a 16-year-old a junior at Design Tech High School in Redwood Shores and a rising star in the climbing community and a potential climber for the United States in Tokyo.

Ross recently took first place for his age group in the 2018 Bouldering Youth National Championship held Feb. 9 in Salt Lake City. He's been climbing competitively since 2011 and finished in the top 10 – including seven first-place finishes – in 14 of 18 contests during the 2016-17 and current U.S. climbing seasons.

Bouldering is what it sounds like: climbing boulders. It's an indoor sport done on climbing walls fitted with strategically placed gripping points for hands and feet and it's an outdoor sport done on actual boulders (and at the feet of some vertical rock faces).

Boulderers exploit crevices, ledges and other natural features of a rock to reach the top, 15 or 20 feet up, without ropes or harnesses. As with vertical rock formations such as El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite, popular boulders have had routes established to get to the top. Experienced climbers assign numbers to the routes to indicate the level of difficulty, thereby presenting intriguing climbing challenges.

Bouldering is a low-altitude activity that can offer daunting experiences a climber might find at high altitudes, but without the long climb up and the risk of a long fall down. Some of the most visited bouldering spots in California are in Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks and in Bishop at the Buttermilk Boulders.

Boulderers do fall, but they don't fall far and the landings are cushioned by thick "crash pads" hauled in by backpack and placed at the foot of the boulder. It's a group activity; climbing companions station themselves around the crash pads to prevent a falling climber's head or shoulders from hitting the ground.

Young Gun

Ross was named a 2018 recipient of the Young Gun award by The North Face outfitting company, according to Bruce Mitchell, vice president of the board of USA Climbing, which governs competitive climbing in the United States.

The award recognizes athletes who exemplify the sport, including efforts to give back to communities. In recent years, Ross said in an email, he has made himself available as a mentor to new climbers, introduced and taught a climbing class at his high school, and participated in climbs that benefit good causes. "Events of these sorts are a tremendous source of satisfaction," he said.

Asked about sportsmanship and climbing, Mr. Mitchell said that climbers as a group tend to be good sports.

For competitive climbs that allow climbers to preview the routes up a wall, the competitors tend to gather and talk about what's ahead in the contest, he said. Such conversation is innocuous in that talking about a climbing problem and solving it on the wall are two quite different things, Mr Mitchell said. Without the moves and the judgment, talking won't help, he said.

When asked why humans climb, Mr. Mitchell called the activity "incredibly natural and kind of our nature." To do it well requires core-muscle strength and familiarity with body mechanics, he said.

As for who should and should not climb, Mr. Mitchell recalled watching climbers with amputated limbs and blind climbers ascend a wall. When the climber is blind, the audience is asked for silence so the climber can hear commands from below. "It's pretty amazing," he said, "to see 20,000 people dead silent while these competitors are going up the wall."

Anyone can climb, he added. "That's one of the amazing thing about climbing ... .There are 90-year-olds still out there doing it." Older adults should clear it with a physician, he said.

An Olympic sport

In the 2020 summer Olympics, rock climbing (on a climbing wall) will join baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding and surfing as new categories, according to tokyo2020.org. Climbing medals will go to the top three climbers with the best combined scores from three activities:

• Bouldering: climbing fixed routes on a wall that is no more than 5 meters high, with the competitors climbing as many individual routes as possible within the designated time.

• Lead climbing: ascending a wall at least 12 meters high using a fixed course and attached to a safety rope.

• Speed climbing: racing up a familiar course of grips on a 15-meter wall in less than six seconds (for men) or eight seconds (for women).

A "vertical triathlon" as Climbing magazine put it.

Ross said he hasn't yet decided on whether to undertake the two years of training needed to join the U.S. team. "There's not a big downside to trying," he added.

One complication: the nearest speed wall is in Reno, Nevada. In speed climbing, "you have to be ridiculously accurate," he said. One misplaced foot will cost you two seconds and you're out of the race, he said.

Learning to climb

You can learn the basics of climbing rocks in a day at a climbing gym, and then take a couple introductory classes on rope climbing, Ross said. The key to advancing is finding a good coach and a supportive community – not hard to find among rock climbers, he said.

Climbing has evolved from the scene at Yosemite in decades past, "a dirt-bag sport for people living out of their vans," Ross said. He said he began climbing when he turned 8 and was told by a coach at a climbing gym that he showed promise. In training, Ross said, he may spend four or five hours every weekday at the gym. "I think it shaped who I am as a person," he said. "It taught me to work hard and persevere."

Asked about his workouts, Ross said he didn't have any for his first four years. These days, his after-climbing workout might include six core-muscle exercises for six minutes each with no rest in between. "Besides being on the wall, most of the training is calisthenics," he said, noting that he recently began doing pullups with 30 pounds of weight on his legs.

As for being a young man and dealing with urges to take risks that many young men experience, and whether rock climbing moderates those urges, Ross said climbing may be a factor, but added, "I don't think many rock climbers are adrenaline seekers."

Under experienced guidance, Ross scaled the 2,200-foot face of Half Dome at Yosemite in 14 hours in June 2017, his mother Paige Fulkerson said in an email, adding that though the climb was not a record, it was a big deal for a 16-year-old.

Being on a wall 2,000 feet in the air with nothing but a 9-millimeter rope for safety brings with it a heightened level of adventure, Ross said. "That feeling is really cool," he said.

"You feel very free, but at the same time you're so in tune with nature and the rock and your surroundings. Everything is one."

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