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Rock Climbing Nationals: The Country’s Biggest Climbing Competition

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Salt Lake City, Utah is known as home of Mormonism, cross country skiing, and arguably some of the most unusual rock formations in the world. But this weekend, there’s a different attraction: young people from all across the country will leave their homes to meet in Salt Lake City and participate in a friendly yet aggressive competition. This competition is the last stop in the indoor competition circuit known as the American Bouldering Series (ABS). After, climbers go on to international competition, but first must make it through this: Nationals.

For some background, bouldering is climbing without ropes or harnesses for safety, only mats to catch climbers when they fall. Typical competition routes range from 10 to 20 feet, with as little as 4 or as many as 15 holds.

A typical competition day consists of four “problems,” or climbing routes. Competition is indoor, and isolated by tarps tied to the ceiling with ropes so that the climber is unable to see any of their fellow competitors climb. The walls can be steep with big movement, or more than 90 degrees – called slab climbing – with small holds that challenge a climber’s balance.

One such climber, Community High freshman Benjamin “Hobbs” Kessler, hopes to place in the top ten. “It’s just really fun to compete,” said Kessler. “I really like competing and all my best friends are are all over the country [that] I met competing and climbing, so I get to hang out with my best friends and I get to compete against them, and the problems we do are really fun.”

Kessler has been a rock climber since he was four years old, and his early start has certainly paid off in his rock climbing career. He is currently ninth in the country for the 13-15 year old age group in rope climbing. He has also competed in Nationals every year since he was nine, and has placed three times in the top ten.

Kessler loves to compete, even though some of his best friends are often his toughest competition. He believes that makes it all the more enjoyable. “It doesn’t matter if you beat people you don’t care about,” he says. “You want to beat people that you like or don’t like; you want to beat them because you don’t like them, or you want to beat because you want to mess with them, if you’re their friend.”

Kessler thinks that competition strengthens the friendships he has. “I’m a lot closer to climbers,” he says. “Just because climbing is so major in both of our lives… there’s a lot more to relate to.”

ABS Nationals kicks off on Friday, Feb. 9, with Qualifiers. On Saturday, the top 20 compete in Semifinals, and Finals is on Sunday and features the top 10 climbers. All stages of competition are available as livestreams on Youtube or on the USA Climbing website.

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