Lesser-known ‘mixed climbing’ goes big in Vail

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 6:16 p.m.

VAIL, Colo. — Climbing a soaring 55-foot wall made to resemble rock and ice over and over again proved to be a grueling task, but Boulder resident Sam Elias managed to pull out a win after scaling the Winter Teva Mountain Games mixed climbing wall 11 times.

It was a physical test of strength and endurance, and the longer a contender stayed in the competition, the more the test became mental, as well.

Mixed climbing is somewhat new as a spectator sport in the United States, although most of the competitors at Golden Peak last week have been doing it for years on real rocks and ice in places like East Vail and Ouray.

There’s a World Cup circuit for mixed climbing that’s big in Europe, too, but constructing walls just for mixed climbing in the United States is still uncommon, said competitor Stanislav Vrba, a Frisco resident from the Czech Republic who finished second in the finals.

“This style is very popular in Europe — it’s good to see more competitions like this in the States,” Vrba said. “This will help get more people excited in it.”

There were about 200 people watching the finals — far cry from the summer Teva Mountain Games events that can draw thousands of spectators, but certainly an important beginning.

“It’s been awesome to watch [the Teva Mountain Games] grow,” Elias said. “I’ve come to the summer games and supported friends. I have big hopes for the winter aspect of it and I hope to continue to participate.”

The mixed climbing competition started out with 20 competitors that were eventually eliminated to a final round of six men and two women. It was less about the physical difficulties and more about the structure and the time element.

Emily Harrington, who finished in second place for the women behind Dawn Glanc, said the foam made the climbing harder and harder throughout the day. The foam on the climbing wall was made to resemble ice — climbers could ax into it head-on, but they couldn’t stand on it or ax into it from the top.

As the day went on and more climbers picked into it with their tools, the more deteriorated it got, Harrington said.

Then, add in the racing element, and the competition that didn’t seem all that difficult became quite difficult.

“This isn’t that hard, but when you add the time factor into it, it adds a whole new element which is new for all of us, so it’s really cool,” Harrington said.

Harrington won this year’s Ouray Ice Festival competition, and Glanc finished second. And Glanc won the event last year, proving these women are at the top of their sport.

For Glanc, the foam was what threw her off her game a little bit. Both Glanc and Harrington fell during each of their two final rounds, but Glanc happened to fall from higher up the wall than Harrington, making Glanc the winner.

“The challenge in this competition is the foam — it’s totally crazy,” Glanc said. “It’s unlike anything we climb on naturally.”

The athletes liked the wall, though. Elias, the men’s winner, said there really isn’t another option than foam for building a mixed climbing wall because natural ice wouldn’t last throughout the day.

“It’s similar to ice, how you swing into it and kick into it, but in terms of getting your tools and your crampons out of it, it’s really different,” Elias said. “The most strenuous part of today was getting the tools out of the foam. You need to have the foam — real ice changes too much to have a competition on. It can get easier, it can get harder, so there’s no way to standardize it and make it fair. The foam is the closest thing to that.”

Andres Marin, a part-time Ouray resident who is from Colombia, looked on and smiled as he watched a sport that he loves finally gain some traction in the United States. He has climbed walls similar to the Teva Mountain Games wall in Europe, but not in the United States.

“It’s really cool. Finally, we are growing the sport,” Marin said.

Mixed climbing will be on demonstration at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia — a first step in making it an official Olympic sport — so Marin feels the United States should be putting up more of a presence in the sport.

“I think [the Teva Mountain Games], for sure, is leaning toward that,” Marin said. “This event is really cool … The energy is great — it’s super fun.”

Glanc echoed some of Marin’s comments about the Teva Mountain Games, adding that events like it could help bring World Cup Mixed Climbing to America.

She said it’s ironic, too, because mixed climbing actually got its start in Vail.

“It started right here in Vail — this is where it was born,” Glanc said. “Hopefully this will encourage people to come out, especially women to come out and try it.”

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