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A Different Sort Of Challenge

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

prAna Ambassador Kai Lightner navigates the route setting wiles of the ABS Open Nationals And ABS Youth Nationals bouldering competitions.

Bouldering competitions present a different kind of challenge for me, compared to sport climbing events. With bouldering, the route setters plan very complex, often difficult-to-read-yet-flashy sequences that we have to figure out in four minutes. Additionally, we have the luxury of tackling this challenge with thousands of people watching (in the audience and via live broadcast), bright lights, loud music and lots of cheering. No pressure….right?

ABS Open Nationals
First stop was the ABS Open Nationals, which was my first time competing in the open category at a national championship. The field was stacked with a lot of strong men with extensive competition experience. I entered the competition with no expectations, hoping to climb some fun problems and push myself to rise to new heights.

The qualification round consisted of a mix of five technical, balancey, and power boulder problems. There were 62 male competitors vying for 26 spots to move on from the qualifying round to semifinals.

After climbing the first three qualifier problems, I think that me being a natural sport climber—and not a boulderer—became pretty obvious. I’m not sure if it was my obsessive chalking habit on short problems, or my persistent quest to find efficient ways to smoothly climb powerful moves that lead spectators to that conclusion. However, I had a blast trying to figure out how to navigate interesting sequences in my own sometimes “special” way. I was excited to end the round topping out on four of the five problems, moving on to semifinals in 11th place.

The semifinal round was a completely different game, with four boulders of pure difficulty. The styles varied from technical slab climbs, to double dynos and very powerful movements. I was able to top the first problem, after falling a number of times on the double dyno move.

The second problem was my favorite: a series of pinches and slopers on a very overhanging wall. It took me a lot of time to figure out that sequence. By the time I managed to get past the maze of difficult holds, I was able to power my way towards the top of the problem, as I heard the “10 seconds remaining” warning. With a second left, I rushed the last move and fell on the finish hold. The last two problems were tough. I was able to make decent progress on the climbs, but four minutes wasn’t enough for me to completely figure out the beta. In the end two top outs earned competitors one of the six spots into finals. By falling on the finish hold of problem two, I failed to qualify for finals, ending the competition in 12th place.

At the end of all competition rounds, I always review video of my climbs and search for ways to improve moving forward. I ended the competition making notes of several areas that I wanted to improve for the youth championship days later. Among the top-ten critiques of myself was chalking a little less, making quicker decisions to go dynamic, and focusing more on trying to “decode” tricky sequences faster. For me the competition was a success, learning good information to help me move forward the following week. I flew home Sunday morning to attend school all week, only to return the following Thursday to start the fun all over again!

Youth ABS Nationals

This was my first year aging up to the Male Youth A (16-17 years old) category. Traditionally, MYA shares the same problems as the Junior (18-19 years old) category. Since their field was packed with several powerhouse climbers, I knew the route setters had loads of type-2 fun in store for us!

The four qualification problems were surprisingly reasonable. We had 36 kids vying for 16 spots into the semifinal round. Half of the competitors that qualified for semis had topped all four routes, and the other half topped three. I ended the round tied for first place, moving on to the next round. The number of tops in the first round had me a little concerned. Either the setters had decided to be really nice to us this year and set friendly problems, or they were trying to make us feel good during the first round, before breaking us down on the second day. I feared the latter, so I was bracing for a brutal semifinals round.

The semifinals round consisted of three problems. The first problem was a powerful climb where you had to get close and personal and hug a huge half-moon shaped feature in order to make a powerful move to a side pull. I was able to send that problem in two attempts.


Images via Lori Buhrfeind

The second problem was a crimp-fest. The problem was littered with 1/4 pad crimps on a slightly over hanging wall. Normally I love crimps, but I wasn’t amused that day. I wasn’t confident that I would complete the problem so I had to get creative to fight for each point in order to make sure that I didn’t fall far behind if I failed to finish.

I ended up falling as I went for the finish move. The last problem was a straightforward slab problem that I was able to flash. I ended semis in 2nd place, moving on to finals.


Image via Megan Abshire

The morning of finals, I realized that there was a two-way tie for first in the juniors category, between Nathaniel Coleman and Sean Bailey. Since our category usually shared the same problems as juniors, I knew the setters had something special in store for us. The first problem was all slopers on a slab wall—everyone’s favorite (sarcasm intended).

I was able to balance up on one horrible sloper, in order to get my foot up and mantle up to a slightly less horrible sloper. The final moves on the problem was really balancey, relying on sloper grip strength in order to finish (and match) the final sloper hold. I was really glad to flash that problem and put that one behind me.


Image via Tom Condie

The second problem was a technical, yet powerful climb, on a collection of small positive features. Luckily I was able to figure out the best way to hold the features and position my body (and feet) in order to make the problem slightly more doable. With a flash of that problem, and the reaction of the audience, I realized that I was in a good position to make U.S. team. Two problems down, one to go.

Image via Travis Wills

When I turned around to preview the last problem, I was so surprised, I almost started laughing.

I had never seen anything like it!

It was definitely a Nathaniel/Sean tie breaker problem, and the rest of us were thrown into their battle.

The start box was about six feet tall and ten feet wide.

It contained three huge to medium sized, layered volumes.

If you figured out how to get out of the start box, you had to grip horrible screw-on holds (like underclings) attached to another huge volume.

This was the first time I had ever been forced to use a screw on hold that was worse than the volume itself.

Next you had to dyno from the horrible underclings and a virtually flat hold (screwed on the side of another huge volume) to a set of layered volumes with a positive edge up top.

Somehow, I managed to stick the dyno on my last attempt only to wrestle with the final set of volumes and fall while trying to mantle my way to the finish hold.

That problem was insane!

During the past two weekends, I enjoyed hanging out with my friends and climbing some pretty fun AND interesting boulder problems.

I have competed at youth bouldering nationals since 2008, and the level of routesetting has increased significantly throughout the years.

Overall, the setters do a great job of mixing up problem styles and forcing climbers to become more well-rounded.

To top off an incredible two-week experience, I was nominated to be on the North Face Young Gun Rookie team for a second year.

My good friend, Grace Mckeehan, won the overall award.

She always has been, and will continue to be, an awesome role model within the climbing community.

I’m excited to push ahead and continue challenging myself even more through competitions and outdoor adventures this year! Next stop, SCS Open Nationals March 28….

~Kai Lightner, prAna Ambassador

Learn more about Kai at HERE