Dangling by his fingertips from a jagged outcropping on the ceiling of a climbing gym, Daniel Woods is clearly no "90-pound weakling." Just ask anyone who's tried to keep up with him. This 12-year-old from Longmont, Colo., is only 5 foot 1 and 95 pounds, but he's a bundle of muscle and determination, with two national indoor rock climbing championships in his trophy case. And he plans on collecting more.
"It's fun, and I like competing with other people," he says.
Climb For The Health Of It
Winning, of course, makes the outcome of any challenge more gratifying. Yet Daniel will tell you there's more to climbing than competition. He enjoys the sport in any shape or form, from traditional (or "trad") climbing in the great outdoors over long, multi—pitched inclines to sport climbing on a pre-bolted route to bouldering. Often, his climbing partners are just as interesting and varied as the terrain.
"The people I climb with, they're kind of silly," he says. "They care about how they climb, but they're focused on having fun."
An early riser
Daniel got his first taste of rock climbing when he was only six, as a member of a youth group—the Royal Rangers—near Dallas, Tex. He was hooked instantly, and he's been cliffhanging ever since.
He's not alone. In 1999, almost 6 million people tried climbing using a rope and harness, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. And that number keeps growing, especially given the sport's appeal to younger climbers.
"Climbing is a very natural process for children," says Ken Silber, owner of Boulder Morty's climbing gym in Nashua, N.H. "It's great exercise, but also a wonderful self—esteem builder. You can watch children grow, mentally and physically, solving this vertical puzzle."
Scott Franklin, a former competitive climber who founded Franklin Climbing, agrees.
"Kids are amazing climbers. They know how to use their body, and they know how to have a good time," he says "Climbing is the sport of the future because it's completely engaging. It takes you mind off the things that are bothering you. Whether you're an executive or a kid, climbing really grabs you."
Lessons In Life
Through a pull on the rock, young climbers learn patience, discipline, personal responsibility, trust, perseverance and control. They discover how to handle fear and failure, how to set goals, and how to succeed with character.
"With climbing, kids can really feel a sense of accomplishment," says Mr. Franklin, who grew up playing football, baseball and hockey. "It's very clear-cut, with a clear goal. The difficulty is very adjustable, and anyone can find an appropriate challenge. Traditional sports aren't as forgiving that way."
The Boulder connection
Daniel's climbing career got another boost four years ago when his dad, Steve, who is also a climber, moved the family to Longmont, Colo., next door to the climbing hot-bed of Boulder. Daniel flourished as a member of the Boulder Rock Club's junior development team, and on the spectacular outdoor routes throughout the state. His favorite area is Rifle, a western Colorado town with formidable overhanging limestone walls.
"I like the feel of the real rock, instead of the plastic holds found in the gym," says Daniel. "I just like being able to get up really high and look at the views."
To climb at such a high level, however, takes dedication, and countless hours training. Daniel's typical week includes three sessions at the rock gym, two days lifting weights and daily sit—ups, pull—ups and push—ups.
"Internally, he has a lot of motivation," says Steve Woods of his son. "He's probably a bit of a perfectionist. He likes to succeed. Those are all good qualities to have, as long as you're not obsessed. But Daniel is a very driven person."
Lessons From Losing
Daniel's meteoric rise in sport climbing hasn't come without a few pitfalls. At last year's national championships in Michigan, Daniel moved to the 12—13 age bracket. He was admittedly "kind of nervous" going into the competition, which boasts regional champions from around the country.
Though well ahead on points after the first rounds, Daniel slipped on a hold early during his final climb and fell off the wall. End of competition. Eighth place.
"It turned out to be one of the best things to happen to him," says Mr. Woods. "He got a taste of what it was like to actually lose."
"If I had won again, I'd probably start feeling a little cocky about myself, feeling that I was better than everybody else," says Daniel.
Instead, Daniel committed himself to becoming an even better climber. Ironically, the youngster who won last year's nationals, Ben Roth, is also from Boulder, and is one of Daniel's best friends. The two share a healthy rivalry, training regularly together, constantly trying to surpass one another as they aim for this year's national championship in Portland, Ore.
"We're good friends, and we mess around," says Daniel. "We like to push each other on routes, make each other climb harder."
Emotions for both can run high, but Ben and Daniel keep their passion in perspective. After all, it's only a sport. "It takes a lot of training," Daniel says. "If you're not good right off the bat, don't get discouraged. Just work at it—eventually you'll get better, and it'll become exciting."
Top tips for novice climbers
Want to climb? Matthew O'Connor, general manager of the Boulder Rock Club in Boulder, Colorado, offers these Top Tips to get started.
1) Use your feet and legs - climbing is not about pull-ups.
2) Get the right gear, especially climbing shoes that fit and are performance oriented. A properly fitted harness and quality ropes are essential.
3) When beginning, climb to get better. You'll make greater advances through sound technique. Set your own goals, and enjoy small improvements. But remember - if you don't fall, you're not trying.
4) Stretch! Climbing is stressful on your body's large muscle groups and connective tissue. Warm up by climbing routes well below your ability level.
5) Learn to belay with a passive belay device (ATC, tuber, etc.) as opposed to a Gri-gri or self-locking device. This will develop proper belay technique.
6) Experience all types of climbing - traditional sport and bouldering - on all types of surfaces - steeps, slabs, vertical, cracks and face.
7) Take a class with a reputable school, preferably one that is accredited by the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association). Proper instruction will improve your climbing and ensure safety.
8) Climb outside! While gyms are nice for learning in a controlled environment, the outdoors provides priceless lessons in route-solving, sequencing and creativity.
There's three basic climbing styles. They are:
Traditional climbing - "Trad" climbing refers to leading a route from the ground up, without prior inspection. This style accentuates endurance and technique. It allows for safety bolts inserted by the climber during the ascent, but doesn't follow a predetermined route.
Sport climbing - This discipline provides the added security of using bolts and anchors already attached to the rock face, allowing the climber to push his limits while reducing potential risk.
Bouldering - Bouldering grew out of training exercises where climbers attempted dangerous "problems" close to the ground. Done without ropes or harnesses, bouldering is characterized by short, explosive movements.
Where to climb
Chances are, there's a rock gym near your home. To find one, check out the Climbing Gym Association's web site at www.orca.org/subgroup/CGA for more listings (all you need is your Zip Code). For indoor climbing competitions, visit the US Competitive Climbing Association's web site at www.juniorclimbing.com.