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Racing to the top of the wall can be fun and rewarding, but it also has its share of stress.

Crouched low into my starting position, I look at an artificial climbing wall that is dotted with colorful blobs of polyurethane. These little knobs of plastic, called holds, are what I will grab as I scale to the top of the wall.

I listen as the official starter rattles off the familiar phrase: “Ready … attention … go!” I spring upward, right hand reaching for a hold that looks like a twisted yellow horn. I grab it and pull down hard on it, then propel myself upward toward the next hold. A few moves in, I find my rhythm, swing up left, right, left, right, then glance at my opponent racing alongside me. It’s close, but in a final burst upward, I launch myself toward the finish, smack the buzzer, and the race is over. The timer says six seconds. I sit back in my harness and breathe a sigh of relief as I am slowly lowered to the ground. Usain Bolt I’m not. But as a youth competitor in speed climbing, I can hold my own.

A childhood and adolescence spent as a competitive rock-climber makes me different from others. Instead of spending summers at a lake or at sleepaway camp, I spent weeks dozing fitfully in a tent or the back seat of a van, climbing outside in the muggy jungles of Kentucky or up the arid mountains of Utah. Every vacation my parents and I took since I began climbing was for a competition. Beijing; Sydney; Quito, Ecuador — we were lucky each location seemed to be more beautiful than the last.

I was 10 when I first began climbing at an indoor recreation center. I knew climbing was the sport for me the day I finally made it to the top of the skull wall — an overhanging face with a green skull leering from the top. After weeks of revisiting the tiny wall at the rec center and trying unsuccessfully to scale it, I finally made it. I battled my way to the top, skinny 10-year-old arms flailing, and dramatically jabbed the skull right in the eyes. And that was it. I was hooked.

My passion for climbing snowballed from there. From my first time climbing outdoors to my first climbing team, then my first competition, my second climbing team and my first climbing trip. In a little over a year after I started, climbing had taken over my life. I would spend three to four days a week training with Team Texas, a competitive climbing team in Carrollton, Texas, which I joined in 2004. I lived weeks on the road with either my team or my family. The two had become almost interchangeable at that point, traveling to competitions and climbing outside. I kept to a strict diet of carbs before climbing, protein after. I’d wake up early to do yoga and then do abs in the evenings. I’m not sure exactly when climbing crossed the line from hobby to lifestyle, but it jettisoned past that line and kept going.

I first started competing as a difficulty climber. With a time limit — usually five minutes — I would climb as high as I could on a hard route. I enjoyed difficulty, but I eventually found my preference in speed climbing — a race to the top of the wall.

Two climbers scale specifically and identically set routes to reach the buzzer at the top as fast as they can. It’s like something out of Ninja Warrior, except the warriors are preteens and take several seconds to scale a 30-foot wall.

Speed competitions were always over in a flash, usually tucked at the end of a long, grueling difficulty competition. The bigger difficulty competitions were almost always on-site, which meant that climbers would be hidden away in “isolation,” and called out, one by one, to attempt the route. Depending on where you were in the running order, you could spend from one to seven hours in isolation. A few times I found myself near the tail end of the running order and would watch with despair as my friends departed one at a time, while I was left nearly alone.

When I was finally called from isolation, it wasn’t quite my turn. I would move to the on-deck chair, turn toward the crowd and wait for the competitor before me to fall. Then I could turn around and tie in to the rope. While on deck, I was not allowed to look at the wall,or talk to anyone. It was five minutes of anxiety, spent watching the faces of the audience around me, watching them gape as the competitor before me did well or grimace if she fell early. I could always tell by the noises the audience made how the person ahead of me had done. Loud cheering signaled a new high point; a collective gasp indicated a low fall.

Being on deck meant I had five minutes alone with my thoughts, surrounded by an audience. It was a vulnerable place to be, and my heart always gave a little jump when the route judge would hand me the end of the rope and say, “Tie in.”

With steady hands (or sometimes shaky ones; I’m no hero), I’d tie my knot, and as soon as I turned around, my time would begin. I’d always give the route a slow, meandering once-over, to spot anything I might later overlook. Then I’d step up to the starting holds, chalk up my hands and begin.
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“Be efficient,” I’d tell myself as I climbed. I knew once I got to a certain level, I could first make it through qualifiers and then make it to the semifinals. The noise of the crowd, once blotted out, would come to the forefront of my mind as I climbed, and I could tell when their cheering became louder that I was making moves my competitors could not. The best sound in the world was the roar of the crowd when, obviously tired, I would tense my body, set my feet and spring for a hold and stick it.

Competition routes were set very hard, however, and falling was inevitable. I knew that, eventually, I would fall. The worst part was the fleeting moment when I realized I was falling, trying for a move and feeling my feet swing out or my hand slapping just shy of the next hold. As soon as I felt myself falling and the safety rope arresting my fall, I knew that was it. I was done. It was out of my hands now (literally). “You just know that if [your child] comes off the wall low, it’s not a fun ride home,” Carole Walter, a teammate’s parent, said to me. The act of falling was no picnic, either. Drops could range from 5 feet to maybe 20 or more. My dread of taking a fall was half from my competitive spirit, half from instinctual self-preservation.

My coach, Kyle Clinkscales, is no doubt one of the best in the country, coaching my team to 10 national team championships. He’s been at it for 17 years yet still has not worked out his competition-time jitters. He says watching his kids climb is heart-wrenching, and he is known for his numerous superstitious rituals during a competition. “I do my best to teach my kids before, during and after the [competition] that your self-worth is static,” Kyle tells me. “That you are not a good or bad person by how you perform at that event.”

Today, at age 22, I still climb, but not as frequently. I don’t train, and my former competitors and I are more likely to see one another at a bar than in isolation. But I still find ways, even if it’s just through writing, to keep climbing in my life.

Climbing has been an irreplaceable part of my life and will be until I’m too old to walk to the crag.

Caillin Murray is a former editorial intern at American Way. She sometimes wonders what she might have been if rock-climbing was an Olympic sport instead of a really dangerous hobby.