The Last boulderfest

In November 2019, I hosted Seattle Bouldering Project’s annual climbing competition, NorthWest Boulderfest (NWBF). It’s a professional climbing competition that draws in talent from all over the world to lay claim to an 8,000 dollar prize pool. This year we had huge talent from the Japanese National Team, Kaito Watanabe, as well as Alannah Yip, who competed for her bid for the 2020 Olympics. Those competing for the prize pool by entering Opens, must qualify by making it into the top six of the morning’s redpoint style competition where they have unlimited attempts to score on ten different climbs over the course of three hours. Upon making top six, they return to the gym by six at night to enter Isolation before the Onsight finals where they compete for four minutes at a time on four different routes. The caliber of competition and mastery for NWBF has never been higher than 2019’s and this necessitated ample preparation from those hosting the event.

While planning starts months in advance, with youth coaches acting as telemarketers for event sponsors and routesetters wrestling for a hold budget, the week before boulderfest is where the term NW Boulder Stress is born. An all hands on deck situation leads to staff from all departments operating as a ‘strip’ crew, removing holds from walls and cleaning everything.

Routesetters from around the world come together for... lunch.

The first day after the strip is dedicated to setting the eight competition routes for the finals. A team of over ten routesetters from Spain, Australia, Minneapolis, Austin and our home, Seattle, collaborate for an entire day exclusively on creating the best possible competition experience for athletes and viewers. Teamwork, honesty and coordination create a mix of emotional and creative energy that overflows the sealed off room. Everyone is feeling it. The stress, the excitement and even the anxiety.

Setters have to repeat move after move with a fore-running squad, making sure that each move is possible for every height. Egos are threatened as moves are deemed to difficult by some while the same moves are done easily by others. Tweak after tweak, slight pivots to each hold, the addition of tiny screw on chips and the repositioning of volumes, the geometric features on the wall are done with every few attempts. All the while, I take notes on who has set the route, the movement style, and whatever setter comments arise. At the end of the first day, setters mark the holds used for the competition boulders as well as where they are on the wall. Setters then have to begrudgingly take all the holds off the wall, making room for the redpoint routes, only to reset those routes hours before finals.

Does it go? It takes multiple setters climbing Opens routes a number of times before the final seal of approval is placed. But even then it may change day of the comp.

The next three days are spent settings routes for the redpoint sessions. This consists of setting the qualifying routes for the Opens finals as well as ten routes for each citizen category. While this is going on, I update a spreadsheet with contenders for Opens finals. In coordination with the setting team we study these competitors to adjust the difficulty of the finals routes, while also giving me time to familiarize myself with the athletes. All the while management and staff field questions and help sign up citizens. Its quite hectic, but not as much as day of.

The day of Boulderfest begins with the Opens, professional category, Redpoint competition allowing the top athletes from the female/male categories to rest prior to finals later that night. Having athletes start in the morning also allows us to take time in accessing their final scores and confront any scoring issues. Once we have the top six from each category, I sit down with the newly crafted running order, and research the athletes. The next few hours still have citizen competitions going on across four different skill categories, with scores being processed for awards later that evening.

Later that evening, we open Isolation and members of the Seattle Youth climbing team volunteer to check in the pros. Isolation is a closed off portion of the gym, where competitors are asked to surrender their phones and stay to warm up while routes are being reset for finals and the crowd fills the gym. The next two hours had me sprinting around trying to accomplish a variety of tasks as our competitors prepared to perform.

Competitor Leo Costanza chalks up and gets in the zone for his first attempt on a route.

The first task I had was the most sensitive. Interviewing the twelve finalists in iso surfaced challenges in balancing entertainment for the spectators as well as comfort for the competitors. With the youngest competitor being 15 and two others being under 18, challenges arose as concerns about crowd volume and lighting came up. One competitor asked me if I could make it so the crow did not cheer, and while I told them I could not do that, I did promise to do my best to reduce their intensity during this climbers times of peak focus.

For the adult finalists, I made sure to get as much information about them as possible. Whether it was details on the latest pro climber drama, or simply remarks about Nathaniel Coleman’s chin. I asked each adult competitor their most embarrassing story and asked them again to tell me the most embarrassing thing they knew about the other competitors. While I did not use the bulk of the stories that were told in isolation, the shared experience of laughing and joking around created an atmosphere of ease and camaraderie between athletes that were about to compete against each other.

My time spent in Iso was cut short as I immediately moved to announcing the awards for the citizens categories. I introduced myself to the top three competitors in each of the citizens categories. Frantically running through their twenty-four names, to make sure I could pronounce each one, I then told them how we were going to stage for the camera only moments after learning this info myself. I explained to each how I would call them down the main staircase like a blushing teenager waiting for their date on prom night. I told them where to look for the photos, where to stand for their placement and somehow managed to get all their names correctly (don’t ask me how, I still have no idea).

Finally, the event began. Heart quickening, I took to pacing the floors as crowds of excited onlookers spilled through the garage doors at the main entrance. It took a few seconds to fight through the paralysis of realizing I had to initiate and run through this entire competition. I saw my coworkers funnel the crowd into roped off sections, they seemed to just keep piling in. Finally, after exchanging some panicked eye contact with a coworker, I welcomed everyone to 2019's Northwest Boulderfest.

Nekaia Sanders chalks up on the first women's route before throwing for a dyno.

And then the show began. With all my preparation on one sheet on a notebook in front of me, in the form of a running order with a few reminder notes on things to talk about with each athlete, I introduced athletes by their running order.

The actual competition is simple. Two climbers at a time, one from each category try to top their routes in as few attempts as possible in under the allotted time of four minutes. Prior to climbing, all the athletes can read, examine, each route, four in total, to craft their plan of attack. Climbers earn standings based upon the following in respective order: tops, attempts to top, halfway holds called bonuses (sometimes called zones), and attempts to bonus.

The first round of routes asked two questions. For the women's category, the routes asked if they could perform under pressure right out of the gates. This route was largely agreed upon to be the easiest of the woman's category, yet the movement demanded confidence and dexterity. The men's category had a tough and straight forward route that required heavily trained tendon strength as well as skill in using finger cracks. These routes can be seen below.

The second women's route demanded power endurance. Being the longest route in the competition, this sloper route required perfect hip positioning to get below each hold and save energy. The men's second route was similar to the women's first route in that it was dexterity based. This route was unique because the bonus, which was the hardest move, was establishing on the starting hold.

Maya Madere on route three. This movement would trigger a reoccurring tendon strain.

The third women's route went through the middle of the roof wall, the most overhanging wall at SBP. It was a tough one that required removing one's feet from the wall to do a move only from your hands via a momentum driven swing. This particular route shut down many and even caused a tendon strain injury in competitor Maya Madere, despite this, she manged to climb through the following route with little hindrance. The men's third route, also in the roof, was an ambiguous amalgamation of volumes that required expert route reading and body tension. This route also caused injury. But this time, competitor, Alex Fritz, was unable to continue climbing. Fritz tore his hamstring on a heel hook in the third boulder. While he was unable to climb afterwards he has since made a full recovery, over the course of about six months. This was Fritz's first injury climbing, but like Madere, he knows the competitive stage necessitates the highest level of climbing and with it a higher level of risk.

Alex Fritz makes it through the crux on the route that would tear his hamstring.

The final route required power from both categories at the end of the night. After climbing throughout the morning and through the first three routes of opens finals, these next two routes would be long and explosive in order to test how far each athlete could go. The women's route required a gaston, a movement where you pull from the center of your body outwards, demanding great back strength. The final men's route was a series of dynamic compression movements, huge slaps that forced climbers to hug their way to the finish. It was during this men's route that a volume broke off the wall. Nathaniel Coleman, managed to kick the starting volume off the wall. While this was a nightmare for the setting team, I had prepared for this situation after witnessing a spinner, where a hold is not secured to the wall correctly, happen at Portland Boulder Rally the year before. You can see how that panned out below.

It's weird that people get excited about athletes grabbing things and pulling themselves to the top. It makes for an odd community. But the community flourishes during these spectator events that take dedication and love from everyone. Watching a professional climber is watching flow, the moment where challenge and expertise climax. Watching bouldering is the sprinting edition of this flow. It offers fast paced demonstrations of athletic prowess where the focus is on the individual. The athletes become stars in the community, but they are so different than the stars of traditional sports, because their fans are climbers themselves. Very few fans of professional climbers do not climb. It's not like football or soccer that build fandom out of territorial allegiances. The climbing community builds fandom out of personality, story and flow. A good climbing competition must highlight theses things.

Alannah Yip carefully places the heel hook on her way to getting first at Northwest Boulderfest.
Kaito Watanabe celebrates completing the first route of the competition. A trend of tops that will lead to him getting first place.

There are many things I would like to change with my role in NWBF. The most important changes would further highlight athletes' stories. While there is not much room to interview athletes on during the competition, dedicated research can allow for commentators to weave stories for the athletes. This is why event hosts must interact with the athletes as much as possible prior to competitions. The more groundwork they can lay down, the more rapport they can build with the athletes, the better the stories they can tell. This becomes difficult when you do not know which athletes are performing until hours prior to the competition. And even once you know who is competing, you can't take all of their time prior to the event because they have to warm-up and do their pre-competition rituals. It would help to have the qualifying round for the Opens athletes be on a completely different day to allow for research time, but also a larger window for routesetters to reset for Finals. With a bit more production time we could film interviews with athletes that can be played during the event during downtime, that also may allow for the MC who is yelling for three hours straight to run to the bathroom. Professional climbers make a living through marketing their brand, themselves, to other climbers. Allowing them to interact more with fans will help to develop their professional careers.

As I am writing this, in the mist of the COVID-19 pandemic, I realize that the next boulderfest may be further off than we can predict. Climbing in gyms, itself, may be further off than we can predict. The sport is reliant on a physical community regardless of whether it is indoors or outdoors. And while small groups of climbers may be going outside sooner than we think, safety in the sport necessitates close physicals proximity, that simply is not permissible in these times.

But climbers are specifically well equipped for this pandemic because climbing is a life sport. Climbers that start when they are as young as nine can return to the sport ten years later and climb right back into it. Even I have taken up to a year off of climbing, and as I am writing this, I am in the midst of going six months without truly climbing. But your body doesn't really forget how to move on the wall. It never forget the twist locks, the drop knees, the double clutch dynos. And it always wants to return to those moments. These moments will return. And climbing competitions will come back.

This serves as more than just a recounting of a memorable night, but also as a guideline to what it took to put on this event. This event highlights the dedication to the sport for those involved in production and performance, but also from the community who attends to witness the peak of climbing performances. And while the next Boulderfest may be far off, it's important to take moments like these to reflect on what we were before the fall. And how we can change our beta for the next time.

Special thanks to SBP staff, Quinn Mason (for the pics) and all the people who make this community great. Miss ya. - Rodger Caudill