Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Changing Seasons: Dark Horse & Livin' Astro

Fall is officially here in New England! Over the past couple months, I’ve transitioned from the summer life of competing and traveling back into my sophomore year classes here at Northeastern. As much as I love traveling and climbing during the summer, there’s something special about coming back to Boston for this time of year. You really can’t beat the crisp apples and amazing colors display from tree leaves, but most importantly, prime climbing temps and the beginning of a new season of the Dark Horse Bouldering Series.

Last year, I competed in Dark Horse for the first time. I’d watched videos of the events before, but competing in the competitions blew my expectations away. The energy is insane, pro athletes fly in from all over the country, and the finals problems are some of the most innovative and ridiculous climbs EVER. I guess you could say I had a good time.

Coming into the first event of the season, I really wanted to train as hard as possible in order to have the chance of winning the first event, since the winners of each of the first three competitions get an automatic bye into the Dark Horse Championships. To prepare, I really focused on doing a lot of power-endurance workouts and campus board drills to get my contact strength up as high as possible. It was hard scheduling enough time in the gym to train given my workload this semester, since I am currently taking 20 credits of mechanical engineering courses. However, having less free time really changed my perspective on training, as I was able to really focus on getting a lot done during the short period of time available to me.

The morning of the comp arrived quickly, and I couldn’t wait to get to Metrorock to begin climbing. Qualifiers went well, and I was able to complete most of the harder problems in relatively few attempts, securing me a 3rd-place spot in the finals after Vasya and Mike Foley. The top eight men were only separated by falls, so it was decided that everyone would advance rather than just the top six.

Photo: Garrick Kwan
After the “Young Guns” finals (kids 15 and under) were finished, myself and the other finalists headed into isolation to begin warming up and get a quick run-down of the rules for finals. As is Dark Horse tradition, the rules meeting wasn’t complete without several ambiguous hints about the problem, including the fact that problem 1 for the men would not have an actual finish hold, and that several footholds would be scored as well as handholds.

Expecting a balancy slab traverse, we each headed out of iso one at a time to tackle the finals problems. When I turned around to face problem 1, I was reminded why Dark Horse is as exciting as I remembered it by the overwhelming noise from the crowd, who was taking their cues from the announcer (dressed this time around as Wilfred). At first glance, problem 1 did appear to be a balance-intensive traverse on slopers at ground height, but after several botched attempts to work my way across, I realized that a running start was actually required. After I figured this out, I was able to complete it in only a couple more attempts. Problem 2 was a powerfest on lots of pinches and slopers with huge dynos in between, which fit my style of climbing excellently and I was able to complete it on my second try. Unfortunately, problem 3 shut everyone down at the same move, which was a huge throw to a dish, but it had a cool opening dyno that required a mandatory double clutch off of a sloper.

Problem 2
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 2
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
In the end, the comp came down to whether Vasya or I had less falls. Since I took less tries on problem 1 and only two tries on problem 2, I came out in first! There was some questionable scoring on problem 3 because Vasya controlled a hold that was further ahead than the dish with his left hand, but Charlie Schrieber and I both controlled it with our right hands so it didn’t matter too much in the end.

Psyched to have come out on top, I could now shift my focus entirely to outdoor climbing. As SENDtember transitioned into ROCKtober, the temperatures around the Northeast dropped, and conditions became ideal for some crushing.

One project that I’d been looking at from last season was China Beach (5.14b), in Rumney, New Hampshire. After sussing out the moves and trying to avoid a swarm of wasps and ladybugs on a particularly muggy day, my friend Kai Mu convinced me to try Livin’ Astro (5.14c), the line just to the right of China Beach. After a try or two on it, I was hooked. Livin’ Astro fit my style of climbing much better than China Beach and was clearly the most prominent and natural line on the cliff.

In addition to the style of climbing, the history behind Livin’ Astro was very appealing to me. It was first climbed by Dave Graham in early 2000, who established it as the hardest sport climb in New England at the time. After getting back to my dorm and watching footage of Dave making the first ascent in Dosage II, Livin’ Astro became the only thing on my mind.

Dave Graham making the first ascent of Livin' Astro (4:42)
Video: Big Up Productions

I made the trip up to Rumney every weekend from then on, recruiting rides up from friends all over the Boston area. As several weeks passed by, I found myself making significant progress and began linking sections together. However, I kept getting shut down by a single hard move at the top.

The climb can be broken down into three distinct cruxes: the bottom (sustained V8 up to a sloper rest), the middle (v9/10 core-intensive/shouldery boulder problem to a jug) and the top (four-move V10 for me, V9 if you’re just a little taller). I was able to individually figure out both the bottom and middle cruxes fairly quickly, but the top crux proved to be my nemesis. The entire sequence revolves around a single vertical slot which is the only hold between an undercling just above the rest and the arete. I must have tried the move going to the slot and the move out of the slot at least 50 times, each try seeming no closer than the next. Over time, I finally was able to figure out the perfect body positioning to stick the hold and move off of it, but it was still extremely low-percentage.

The crux hold! Dave Graham demonstrating proper technique.
Working Livin’ Astro was a unique process for me since I was able to come back every weekend to try the climb and train for individual moves in the gym in the weeks between. The majority of my hardest sport climbing in the past was done on summer trips, and the ability to really dial in a training regimen for a project like this was something I’d never experienced before. It also helped that my friend Andrew Palmer was working (and sent!) Jaws II, a 5.15 two lines to the left of Livin’ Astro, as we were able to motivate each other to try to get our projects done.

The weekend after Palmer sent Jaws, I headed up with my friends Alex Coda and Sean O’Donnell, accompanied by filmmaker Ian MacLellan. The temps were well into the 40’s that day, which made for a particularly uncomfortable warm-up, but it was crisp enough to compensate for the high humidity levels. When I felt ready, I laced my shoes and began up the headwall. After fighting through the first two cruxes, I found myself staring down the last boulder problem for the first time on a redpoint burn. I shook out for a long time, allowed my nerves and breathing to settle, and fired the final moves to the top! As I lowered down, I could barely believe I’d finally sent my first 5.14. To see one of my biggest goals in climbing finally realized meant more to me than words can describe.

By the time we all packed up our gear, it was still only around 2pm, so we decided to head over to the Blackout Boulder Brawl at Metrorock Newburyport afterwards. All of us had a great time, and I was able to flash all five finals problems to win the comp! All in all, that day was probably one of the best days of climbing I’ve ever had. However, Sean certainly took home some of his own personal glory by flashing two V5’s and a V6 and placing 11th in advanced! This was super impressive given he’s been climbing for barely a year. Solid, bro!

Now that everything’s mostly settled down now, I can finally get back to schoolwork and training for Dark Horse Round 2. I’m excited to see where the next couple months take me, and am looking forward to getting back out to Rumney in the spring. Jaws is up next!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dominion Riverrock and Team VXI Review

Last weekend, I competed at the 2013 Dominion Riverrock Boulder Bash. I’ve been watching videos of this competition for years, and man did it look cool. After experiencing the event firsthand now, I can say with absolute certainty that it is the sickest, raddest, most awesome bouldering competition I have ever competed in. EVER. I guess you could say I had a good time.

Dominion Riverrock has been going on for several years now as an outdoor sports and music festival located on the James River in Richmond, Virginia. Two years ago, the event organizers decided to add a bouldering component, which quickly turned into the most epic climbing competition in the history of mankind under the direction of local routesetter Brent Quesenberry.

Brent’s vision was that instead of boring ol’ climbing walls for competitors to test their skills on, competition routes would ascent giant multicolored volumes suspended in an overhanging steel cage. What evolved from there became legendary: the Dominion Riverrock Boulder Bash.

Footage from 2011. Does this get you psyched enough?

This year, I headed out to Virginia to see how well I could compete against some of the best boulderers in the country. I was lucky enough to be able to stay with one of my good friends from the area, Riley Varner, whose family hosted Dalan Faulkner and Kyra Condie along with myself.

The competition ran over the course of three days, with bouldering qualifiers, semifinals, and finals occurring on Friday and Saturday, and speed bouldering all day on Sunday. In between rounds, Kyra, Dalan, Riley, and Danyelle (Dalan’s sister) were able to walk around the event, taking in all of the other competitions being held (slacklining and the dog jump contest were personal favorites). It was really cool to see these events happening concurrently with the climbing comp; it gave the spectators something to do all day long and kept them from getting bored from watching a single event.

Photo: Dalan Faulkner
Photo: Tanner Rozum
Photo: Len Murtha
The competition itself ran smoothly given the weather constraints of the weekend, as the only disruption was that second qualification round was postponed for a couple hours due to a thunderstorm. The problems were extremely cool to climb on, as both the left and right walls had completely different styles: The right wall favored more sustained, pumpy moves, while the left wall’s moves on an enormous star feature were much more gymnastic and bouldery since the overall terrain was much shorter due to the angle not being quite as severe.

Photo: Dave Wetmore
After the qualification and semifinal rounds, I found myself sitting a very solid 5th place heading into the final. I knew I would have to bring everything in order to move up in the competition. When we went out to preview the final climb, I knew I would be beyond psyched even if I didn’t make it very far. The climb traversed the right wall and incorporated nearly every single volume, with lots of dynamic movements and toehooks the entire way. It looked awesome.

When I finally turned around to face the wall to climb, I realized the crowd was way bigger than I initially thought, which put me a little on edge, but also gave me more inspiration to try my hardest. I ended up getting farther than I expected, coming off in the middle of the last overhanging bulge with an extremely hard pinch sequence. The highpoint that I achieved was only beaten by Jimmy Webb, the eventual winner of the competition, but Vasya Vorotnikov and Rob D’Anastasio both matched my highpoint and had a better semifinal score, which put me in 4th place. I was stoked!

Video: Richard Levin

The next day, Kyra and I competed in the speed bouldering competition, which happened to be a new event at Dominion Riverrock this year. The competition was essentially a speed campusing event on the left wall, and was much more laid back than the bouldering event of the previous days. I figured not many people would show up to compete, but he number of competitors was increased dramatically by the added cash incentive of $500 for the overall combined best placement from both the bouldering and speed events.

The speed competition went smoothly as well, with the only minor glitch being that one of the photographers stepped on the timing system cable at one point, pausing the comp for 15 minutes while organizers reconnected the wires. Incidentally, the timing system that was used at this event was made by one of my friends from Colorado, Landon Cox. His laser timing devices (Twin Dolphin Timing) have been used at USA Climbing events for the past few years, and it was great to see his products at this event as well.

Kyra Condie placing 2nd in speed bouldering.
Photo: Backlight Photography
I ended up winning the speed competition ahead of Vasya and Jimmy, which meant Vasya and I tied for second overall with Jimmy coming ahead with the overall win. Below is some GoPro footage of the speed event, with the Twin Dolphin timers featured as the start mechanisms. I highly recommend them for any high-level event!

Myself (left) vs Vasya Vorotnikov (right) in the final round.
Photo: Mark Pownall
1st Place in speed!
Photo: Lizzy Keenan 
On a side note, this was my first time using the Five Ten VXI’s in competition, and they performed way beyond expectation. If you haven’t heard of them, they are an upgrade to the current Team 5.10 model, but are much more of a combination between the Teams and the old Projects, as the shoe is one of the softest climbing shoes I have climbed in. This gives them the ability to toe in on extremely overhanging terrain by allowing your toes to dig into any foothold and keep your core engaged through any sequence of moves.

The rubber used is a new hybrid variation called MI6, which was used by Tom Cruise in the new Mission Impossible movie as he ascends the Burj Khalifa. After testing my new VXI’s on my home window, I confirmed this theory. This rubber is literally sticky enough to stick to glass. The stickiness wears out after a couple of days of being subjected to chalk and dirt, but after a quick scrub with a washcloth they are back to their old stickiness, good as new.

The VXI’s also bend much more than their predecessors, which gives them an added advantage of being capable of toehooking virtually any surface. This was especially noticeable on the final climb, where a key double-toehook allowed both myself and Jimmy Webb to power through a move that stumped many other competitors. There’s no doubt about it: The VXI’s are revolutionary.

Five Ten Team VXI's! Get yours this fall!
Thanks for reading! I would also like to thank both of my sponsors, Five Ten and Metolius, as well as my parents for helping me continue to compete at amazing events like these. This weekend I will be heading back to Hadley, Massachusetts for the 2nd annual Ring of Fire competition. Stay tuned!

Good times :)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Training with a Champion

For the past month and a half, I have had the unique privilege of training with one of the best female sport climbers in the world, Charlotte Durif. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, simply enter her name into any respectable search engine and you’ll get a long list of career accomplishments, sponsor lists, her own professional website, and countless photos and videos of her being an all-around boss at competitions and outdoor crags. She’s also a five-time World Champion and is one of the few women in the world to have climbed 9a (5.14d). I’ve watched her compete at World Championships and World Cups for years, but never imagined I’d one day get the opportunity to train alongside her.

I first was introduced to Charlotte when I traveled to Atlanta last September to compete at a sport climbing World Cup held at Stone Summit, the largest indoor climbing gym in the US. After the competition, I found myself catching up with one of the French National Team coaches, with whom I had traded jackets with the year before. Upon hearing that I was going to school in Boston, he called Charlotte over and introduced me to her. It turns out that the Ph.D program she was enrolled in allowed her to take a 1-semester internship doing nuclear physics research at MIT, and she was looking for someone who knew the area decently well and who she could potentially train with.

After getting over my initial reaction (ohmygodimtalkingtoCHARLOTTEDURIF) and chatting with her for a bit, I discovered she was very amicable and spoke English quite well. I agreed to keep in contact with her over the next few months and meet up with her soon as she got to Boston in January.

When she finally arrived, I met her at the airport and helped her move into her dorm at MIT. From then on, we’ve been training several times per week as our work schedules allow, going to Metrorock and doing lots of endurance training on the lead and bouldering walls at the gym.

Climbing with Charlotte is inspiring. She climbs with such a calculated efficiency in her movements, as each hand and foot placement seems deliberate, precise. Her ability to read routes is nearly impeccable, (she can find kneebars and rests on almost every hold) and she never seems to get pumped. It is clear from her climbing style that she can dominate any competition that she sets foot in, and watching her in tricky roof sequences is like observing a choreographed dance routine flawlessly executed 50 feet over my head.

During one such training day, I was attempting to send my 5.13 project in the Metrorock arch, which I had fallen off the middle dyno on my first try and was getting really pumped sticking the lower and finish crux moves. She then proceeded to casually walk the climb twice in a row, and then gave me beta for a turn-around move that made the lower crux substantially easier. I tried the move, fought through the upper crux, and BARELY sent. It felt great to finally complete my project, but I was even more impressed by how casual Charlotte had made it look. Freaking europeans. Wow.

The great part about training together is that she we will subtlety attempt to outdo each other, always going for that one extra lap and pushing each other to keep a quicker pace through the route. She’s also really fun to talk and joke around with, and she’s a great addition to the Boston training group consisting of Shane Messer, Katie Lamb, Josh Larson, and myself.

Anyways, I believe training with her has greatly improved both of our climbing styles, (I push her to climb faster and be more gymnastic with her moves, she shows me how to climb smarter) and has prepared both of us extremely well for the SCS Open Nationals this weekend. She’s easily one of the strongest sport climbers I’ve ever seen, male or female regardless. Will this be the first time that the United States will see a French National Champion? I’d certainly like to think so.

Tune in tonight at 7pm MST (6pm PST, 9pm EST) to watch the finals at!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

ABS14 Nationals: Training, Competing, Performing

Last weekend concluded the 2013 ABS National Championships. This year, I traveled out to Colorado Springs to compete in both the youth and open divisions, securing a semifinal bid in the adult category and my 5th National Bouldering Championship title in my last youth bouldering competition ever.

This two week Colorado experience has definitely been one of the best times of my life, and I am extremely grateful to be able to live out this lifestyle, balancing my studying with traveling and competing with some of my best friends. Now that I am able to look back and reflect on the trip, I can conclude that these results did not come without a great deal of training, competition preparedness, and mental focus.

A week prior to the Open National Championship, I participated in a 4-day training camp hosted by US Team Coach Shane Messer. This training was some of the best I have ever done before a national event given the time constraints of president's day weekend. Throughout the weekend, myself and 40+ other athletes from around the country did countless onsight drills, flash-format exercises, and crossfit-style workouts put together by Melissa Godowski. After the camp, I felt more mentally and physically prepared for nationals than I have felt any year before.

Step 1: Training: check.

Shane doing what he does best.
Photo: Emily Varisco
Earthtreks head coach Ellis Whitson getting some holds out for onsight training.
Photo: Emily Varisco
One of the most useful aspects that I got out of the camp was a routesetting perspective provided by Brent Quesenberry. If you didn't know Brent, you would never guess he's run 4 marathons and has more climbing expertise than most competition routesetters today. During one of his lectures on routesetting, he described the three influences on US bouldering competitions today: the Tony Yaniro style, (straightforward movements on directional holds) the showy American flair, (double-clutch dynos, bat-hangs, figure four's, etc) and the subtle European volume style that has begun to appear more and more often.

Brent (left) and Ellis being amazed by the climbing abilities of very small children.
Did you know Brent was also responsible for hand-building hundreds of wicked volumes and for this?!?
He's also one of the nicest dudes you'll ever meet.
Photo: Emily Varisco
The climbing abilities of Arabella Jariel (11 years old)
Photo: Emily Varisco
According to Brent, these three styles combine to form the modern-day US bouldering competition problem. This style was epitomized to a point by my 2nd semifinal climb in open nationals, in which competitors had to start facing the crowd and maneuver through hold-less volumes for 5 or 6 moves, then make a committing dyno to a good horn, then campus and power their way through the last couple slopers to the finish. When I turned around and saw this climb, I broke it up into three sections in terms of styles, which made it much easier to read and execute. Unfortunately, I was only able to get just past the dyno and ended up 19th overall in semifinals, but it was still my favorite problem of the competition.

Step 2: Competition preparedness: check.

Lots and lots of volumes.
Photo: Tom Condie
Photo: Tom Condie
The jump!
Photo: Dylan Huey
The only thing that was lacking for me to complete the climb (and potentially make it on to the final round) was lack of willingness to dig in. On any given day in training, I am confident I could have pulled off the move I fell on with a couple tries, but that is not how competition works. Comps are all about how well you can perform right NOW. The added pressure of these types of situations makes competition climbing all the more interesting, and rewards competitors for "bringing their man-pants" as Nicholas Milburn so eloquently puts it.

Nicholas Milburn brings his man-pants. Do YOU?
Photo: Tom Condie
Coming back the next weekend for the youth competition, I knew I had to put my try-hard face on in order to do better than the weekend before. Fortunately, in finals, I was able to borrow an iPod from one of my best friends (and now Vertical World team coach!) Alex Fritz, which helped me zone in on the three finals problems that the setters had prepared for us. With the added focus and pressure of finals, I was able to dial in my movements and complete all three boulder problems for the win! This time was especially gratifying since this is the last year I am eligible to compete in youth competitions.

Step 3: Performing under pressure: check.

Photo: Tom Condie
Now for the fun part! Here are some photos and videos from the event:

Charlie, once again proving his arms are larger than his legs.
Major props for him even competing this weekend, he pushed through 2 hernias to make finals!
Photo: Tom Condie
Brendan Mitchell winning The North Face Young Gun Award!
Super deserved, Brendan is one of the nicest and most humble kids in the sport today.
He also crushes 5.14.
Photo: Kim Mitchell
Photobomb: Tyson
Joe Gifford majestically reppin' the glorious country of TEXAS.
Photo: Tom Condie

Caption this photo?
Photo: Dylan Huey

Trying to figure out the correct beta on problem 2 in semifinals. This was not it.
Photo: Tom Condie

Me and my partner in climb, Cicada Jenerik!
It was both of our last years competing in youth after competing together for over 10 years.
Photo: Scot Jenerik

National Champs!
Photo: Tom Condie

Youth Highlights!
I would now like to take the time to thank my entire family for coming out and supporting me at this competition, it really means a lot that you've been there for me since day 1. I'm especially proud of my brother Yuri, who is now getting back into climbing after a 7-year hiatus, who competed in the citizen's competition alongside my dad! You go, bro. Everyone look out, we got another Levin on his way to the top.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dark Horse Championships!

This past weekend concluded the epic saga of the Dark Horse Bouldering Series. This year, Josh Larson and Dave Wetmore really stepped up their game, producing not two, not three, but FOUR heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, crowd-pleasing finals rounds that cumulated in the final championship round on saturday.

To kick the weekend off, my friend Nicholas Milburn flew in from Houston to compete, so we decided to pregame for qualifiers by going out for some delicious dim sum at a local restaurant nearby my dorm on Northeastern campus. Bright and early the next morning, we headed off to Metrorock after a solid breakfast at the dining hall in order for Nick to compete in qualifiers.

One of the unique aspects of Dark Horse is that if you are able to win one of the qualifying rounds, you automatically receive a bye into the finals of the championship. Having already qualified for the finals due to my win in round 2, I was able to relax during the qualification round on saturday and watch the action unfold.

The line-up.
Photo: LT11
Qualifiers were probably one of the most impressive redpoint sessions I've ever witnessed. Since its inception, the Dark Horse has grown in reputation and draws the strongest competitors from all over the country and even some internationally. This year was no exception, as professional climbers flew in from as far as Colorado to test their mettle against the boulder problems that Josh and Dave cooked up. By my count, at least 13 V12 and above climbers (not including the ladies) were in attendance, with only 9 of those being able to qualify for the finals. Just sitting in the crowd and watching as Daniel Woods, Paul Robinson, Carlo Traversi, and many others battled it out for a spot in the finals by flashing multiple V10's was certainly something you don't see every day.

After qualifiers ended, everyone headed to the back of the gym to watch finals. In the couple weeks leading up to the event, the hype for Dark Horse had been a crazy firestorm of videos and facebook updates from pro athletes confirming their spot at the event, as well as a secret surprise from Josh Larson & crew. When everyone finally entered the back area, the secret was finally revealed: Josh and Dave had built a brand-new competition wall that towered above the pumped-up crowd and demanded the attention of every single person in the building. I had known about its inception for the few weeks preceding the comp, but had not seen it with my own eyes.

The Dark Horse wall!
Photo: Jenna Keller
As the finals crowd grew to capacity, myself and the rest of the finalists got ready by making up ridiculous boulder and campus problems in our tennis shoes. It was pretty cool to be playing add-on with the strongest boulderers in the country, especially when someone [Jimmy Webb] starts doing one-arms on really bad slopers to warm up.

Finally, after the Louder Than 11 crew got their cameras rolling got the crowd amped beyond recognition, Dark Horse Finals began. When I turned around to face problem 1, it was hard to focus with the raucous mass of people behind me cheering harder than I have ever experienced in a climbing comp before. Even more intimidating was the fact that I was seeded directly after Daniel Woods, who set the bar fairly high, as you can imagine. The most intense moment I experienced was while I was sitting in the chair before problem 2, as every single climber on the wall topped their respective climbs at the same time. I thought my eardrums might burst.

Man of the hour - Bryan Rafferty MC'ing it up in finals!
Photo: LT11
Overall, I performed well, topping the first problem and making it decently far on the other three. However, on problem 4, I pulled my right-finger pulley tendon while attempting a rose move on a two-finger pocket, which made me stop climbing immediately. I was surprised when Jimmy Webb had the same issue, as he looked to be in a severe amount of pain after pulling the move. He also stopped two minutes before his time ended.

The infamous pocket.
Photo: Natalia Boltukhova
Isabelle Faus ended up taking the title for the women with a dominant performance over powerhouses Angie Payne and Meagan Martin. For the guys, D Woods pulled the comeback victory by flashing problems 3 and 4, but the true Dark Horse of the event was Nick Picarella with his outstanding tops of problems 1, 2, and highlight-reel flash of #4. Major props, dude!

All in all, I was still psyched! Dark Horse is by far the coolest local competition series that I have ever competed in, and completely lived up to all the expectations that I had. I got to get on some awesome problems and hang out with some of the best climbers in the world. Huge shout-out to setters Josh Larson and Dave Wetmore, and Jordan Shipman and Jon Glassberg from LT11 who have been essential to getting this series to where it's at now. Can't wait next season!