On the rocks

RockSport’s advanced youth climbing team—one of only a few in the country—teaches kids concentration and courage

Reagan Nelson belays for her fellow climber JoVonna LuQue at RockSport Indoor Climbing Center.

Reagan Nelson belays for her fellow climber JoVonna LuQue at RockSport Indoor Climbing Center.

Photo By Carli Cutchin

When you are 12 years old and a rock climber, you make gravity look like a fairy tale. Dilworth Middle School student JoVonna LuQue seems strangely adult when I talk to her on the ground. Though she’s small, I mistake her for someone years older. When she climbs, her thin body takes on an unearthly spideriness, her adult-like poise overtaken by the uncanny catlike quality some children possess.

LuQue’s coach, Dave Shuller, calls it “primal monkeyness.” Kids, he says, are in touch with a part of our primate ancestry adults have long since forgotten.

“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “I learn from watching them.”

LuQue is part of an advanced climbing team Shuller coaches at RockSport Indoor Climbing Center in Sparks. The team, Shuller says, is one of only a handful in the country. Shuller’s 18 advanced climbers travel to other climbing gyms to compete against these teams. But competition—and indoor climbing itself, for that matter—is just a means to an end. That “end” happens outdoors, scaling the face of a true rock.

“First and foremost, [kids] want to go out and rock climb,” he says. “Competition is for fun.”

Shuller meets his climbers at various spots in the West, such as Happy Boulders near Bishop, Calif. He selects a few older climbers to go with him to Utah every summer. Climbing outdoors produces the real thrill—and, at times, the real danger. Just a few weeks ago, when Shuller was climbing outdoors with students, one boy fell eight feet and broke his wrist while “bouldering"—working his way around a rock horizontally rather than vertically.

“And he’s still stoked,” Shuller comments, noting the resilience of the young and the dedication exhibited by young climbers in particular. “He comes in for youth climbing and hangs out. You don’t find that [in some sports]. [Injured] kids don’t come to the games and dress out.”

As I watch LuQue partner up with fellow advanced-team member Reagan Nelson, 15, I realize that climbing is a very intimate sport—you depend on your partner for more than points, for more than a win. It’s a sport of trust, as LuQue says. You have to trust yourself, believe you can do it. But you have to trust your partner, too.

LuQue and Nelson are lead climbing. They are connected by a black rope, with the rope attached to the seat harness worn by each. As LuQue pulls herself up, she slips her ropes into “quick draw” hooks on the wall. On the ground, Nelson holds the slack rope and watches LuQue intently, almost unblinkingly. Nelson is LuQue’s safety net: When LuQue drops suddenly from the wall, the rope goes taut and Nelson is pulled off her feet. The pulley system keeps LuQue from plunging to the ground. The two remain suspended for just seconds; LuQue then swings back to the wall and again begins the climb while Nelson returns to the ground. The remainder of her climb is swift and smooth.

LuQue began climbing walls at fairs a couple years ago, then started taking classes at RockSport. She competed in the indoor climbing nationals last year in Portland, Ore. She says she was somewhat satisfied with her performance, but I get the idea that she’s prone to underestimating her skills.

“Her becoming a good rock climber just kind of sneaked up on her,” Shuller says. “About midway through last season, she realized how good she was. It opened her eyes.”

Nelson is another of the girls on the advanced climbing team. Nelson, who with her long, blonde hair and blue eyes has a healthy, California-girl glow, is involved in other sports—she plays softball and golf and is going out for the bowling team. But there’s something about climbing that resonates with her, makes her focus her attention on rocks rather than the ever-popular high-school team sports.

“It’s more mental,” she says. “And it changes. Like in softball, you hit the ball and run …”

Shuller, 30, has been coaching for five years and climbing for 17. He grew up bored in Truckee and found that there was little to do but get into trouble.

“It was either [climbing] or start stealing cars or something,” he says.

Shuller will be the first to tell you he’s no nature freak. He climbs because he loves the physical challenge, not because he loves the rocks and trees themselves.

“I hate it when climbers start talking about [love of nature],” he says without pause. “I’ve talked to ball players who start talking about the fresh-cut grass. That bores me. I’d climb next to a trash heap. [Climbers] love nature, and we protect it, but that’s more of a theological thing. That’s not something for me to talk to the kids about.”

Instead, he talks to them about fear. He tells them it has to go.

“They do pushups if they ever say they can’t do anything. It’s a way to get them to think they can do it. That’s 99 percent of it.”

And, for the most part, his students are grateful for the push. LuQue and Nelson didn’t have any psychological hurdles to overcome when they started, but another advanced climber, Anita Dombovari, 14, was afraid of heights when she began.

“You just kind of overcome it from doing it so much, and you think of how much fun you’re going to have,” Dombavari says.

But scaling rocks is just half the battle. No matter how good you feel at the top, if you haven’t planned your journey down the rock, you’re—screwed. While climbing with her team on a weekend trip recently, Nelson learned about the paralyzing effects of fear on an outdoor rock. When she reached the top, she realized that she hadn’t planned her route back down. She was stuck.

“I hadn’t thought of a way to go down.”

What did you do?

“I panicked for a while,” she replies. “Then [Shuller] was there, and helped us down.”

True, fear can freeze you. But there’s also the tightness in the gut that makes you keep climbing.

“You kind of stick with it," Dombovari says, "because you’re afraid to fall."