Past a skate shop and bulky shirtless crossfitters, and opposite an axe throwing bar, sits a climbing gym in the old Daily News garage in Brooklyn.
Amateur climbers were gathered to compete in the adidas Ticket to Rockstars event. Many, like myself, were there for their first ever competition, while the crusher few were vying to win entrance to the Finals in Stuttgart, Germany, and the chance to compete against pros.
For the intro price of $25, I signed up for some cheap thrills, swag, and this story. Considering the notoriety of World Cup comps and the upcoming Olympics, I wanted to see what the hell this was all about.
Would the experience live up to the hype?
It was 2pm on a hot and hazy Saturday, the sun is radiant and the blacktop is radiating heat. Children in green shirts are spilling out into the street chattering with the enthusiasm of a sugar high. Heavy baselines boom from the open doors of the stucco entrance that reads, “THE NEWS – BROOKLYN
Inside, the chalky air rises in convection flumes and settles in back quarters and on black mats. Friendly faces check me in, while pint-sized competitors and families with cameras gather around for the award ceremony in the background.
“The prize for the top female… well, uhh, girl,” the announcer pauses. “The top finisher in the girl’s Kids Jam category is Tessa Huang who flashed nearly every problem!”
Cheers give way to pounding music, which pulses through the speakers thrashing my eardrums. I’m surprised you can’t see sound waves in the thick mist that hangs like humid air over a seaside beach. It’s like preparing for a night in a hostel with a loud snorer; “Gonna be a long one,” I think to myself.
“The Open Jam starts in 10 minutes,” the MC hollers over the sound system.
I dash outside for free ice cream: Strawberry jam crumble in a cone. Ice cream before a competition, you say? I was prepared to do whatever it takes to win. Just kidding. Damn do I like ice cream.
“Welcome to the first ever adidas Rockstars event here in New York City,” the MC declares without exclamation points. “We’re going to go over the rules then let you get to the fun.”
Logistics are confirmed, scoring clarified, and a count is given.
“3, 2, 1. Go!”
Cheers amass and the mass disperses in the way a drop of soap slowly spreads across the top of a bowl of water.
Despite the sludgy speed, the stoke is high and volume higher.
A woman behind me starts on problem #6, a slightly more than vertical jug-haul on green holds. She makes a few moves, tentatively, trying various body positions, and falls.
Lines queue up quickly around low grades and where others already are. It was a peak into human psychology: People were attracted to the manageable and the masses.
I walk through the central corridor under the Brooklyn Bridge facsimile to the back left corner where there is a nook with easy problems. A booming speaker and the only meaningful fan in the place complement the space.
Climbers cruise a slightly overhanging moderate comprised of downward facing pinches on sloping feet, pink holds. The feeling I always get in a new gym washes over me: “I wonder if I’m gonna eat shit on these?” As if all of a sudden I’ll forget how to climb and any technical ability beyond flopping will escape me.
After watching a train of people repeating the same refrain, I jump on and flash the problem in similar effect. “Okay, this is manageable,” I assure myself.
Turning away from the nook unveils the cave. It is comprised of an upward slanting roof covered in hard problems and a flowy jug-haul on an arete. The movements look fun so I wait in line for the yellow moderate.
There are big cheers for top outs and proud parents phone-filming their daughter. She starts strong but the transition out from under the roof proves difficult for her feet. She tries—fights once, twice, three times to kick her legs up—but falls in the end and returns to the line for round 2.
Scoring is straight forwardish. Three levels of difficulty: Blue (easy), Red (moderate), Black (hard). Each problem equates to a total number of points between 100-400, with harder sets worth more. Points are divided by the total number of people who complete the problem. For example, if 2 people finish a black worth 400, they each get 200 points. If 100 people do the same blue worth 100 points, each person gets 1 point. Most points gets a trip to Stuttgart. There are 40 problems total.
Thus proved one of the challenges of the event: 40 problems for 280 participants (or so the rumor went) meant a lot of waiting around.
“I didn’t know it was going to be this crowded,” demurred Victor He, who was supposed to be in the office until 4:30pm that day. He came down at the behest of his significant other, bicycling from Midtown.
“But I’m glad I came,” he says. “It’s a good environment to practice finding happiness in, which I’m being intentional about.”
I move towards the entrance to a cupcake shaped peninsula and try a harder piece, white holds.
The problem starts on crimps and is off-balance, with only the right leg on a sticky sloper. Then it goes into a falling lunge to a right hand pinch on a half moon while simultaneously latching on to a slippery football sized dihedral with the left. The next sequence was a left heel hook match to the left hand then a left hand reach up to an open palm crimp on the corner of a dihedral. Hold body tension and slowly bring your legs under, then right foot up and into the crescent, maintaining balance and grip on slippery hands the whole way.
I didn’t get this one. “Interesting,” I thought to myself.
The problems were lavished with what Laurent Laporte, the head route setter of adidas Rockstars, described as “funny.”
“What do you mean?,” I probe.
“We want people to smile while climbing,” he explains. “There are different styles, we try to incorporate some surprises, like no hands or unexpected movements.”
We look around and see plenty of smiles.
“Americans love lining up,” an Aussie mused to me before boarding the bus in Boston. Her observation played out accurately as the respect for queues was strong at the comp. On the plus side, it gave you ample rest.
After tiring of waiting for the white moderate, I proceeded to the back, returning near the fan and a problem that begins with a jump start, black holds.
Stepping up lands you on a peanut-sized undercling that you catch with your thumbs, holding tension on a right-footed pedestal and left-footed friction on a sloping dihedral. Steady yourself to officially start. The next moves were a traverse left on tricky slopers for feet to a downward angled dihedral you needed to match hands on. Leaning left and holding with your right hand, jump around the corner to a deep-pocketed sloper that required keeping your right hand on for compression while cutting feet.
“Fun setting today,” remarked Courtney Billig, who regularly climbs in New Jersey. “A lot of dynamic moves, which is not something I tend to try.”
About 2 hours in a few crushers arrived and make quick work of the cave problems. This includes Ray Hansen (who won the comp) and Téo Genecand (who took third).
The green set in the cave was a strongman contest. The problem starts low on overhung pinches and moved to a dead point two-finger pocket. This was followed by a shallow jug then a series of Tarzan-like swings through 3 two-finger pockets that required rotating one’s body 180 degrees. Climbers hung and swung their whole weight on two fingers at a time. This led to a toe-hook out from under the roof, then a hand match, finishing up with technical face climbing on small crimps. The problem was #38 (out of 40), making it one of the most challenging of the lot.
I tried working a pink in the mid-30s, what others called, “maybe a V9.” Not knowing the grades and in the light of competition, it was fun to jump on random problems that caught the eye.
“It’s a cool opportunity to see what comps are like,” noted Josh Greenwood, a coach at Brooklyn Boulders who was participating in the event. “What’s nice is it encourages people to try something new, different problems they might not normally do.”
Riley MacLeod, an editor at Kotaku, agreed. “I’ve only been climbing three months,” he starts. “But the woman who taught the intro class said ‘you should do it!,’ so I signed up. I almost turned around on the way here.” He continues, “I tend to wuss out near the top, but today, it only counts if you get to the top, so I’m going for it and completing the climb! This has definitely inspired me to push a little more.”
Nearing the end and with ears ringing like a steel drum, I call it a day.
My cheeks are sore and I realize I’ve been smiling the whole time. Seeing the participants enthusiastically try problems and cheer each other on lit me up, and is a reminder of how special the climbing community can be.
Never turning down a free beer, I cash in my drink ticket for an ale and kick back to watch competitors attempt their last climbs. There’s back slapping and hand clapping, high fiving and laughing, all in the name of camaraderie and fun.
“I like to compete with myself,” says Victor, “not other people.” “Which means you can celebrate everyone else instead of rooting against them,” I add. “Right,” he says.
I can see what the hype is all about now.