From the print edition
The reigning champions of rock climbing in Central America live in Costa Rica. Now they’re taking their titles to Santiago, Chile, to compete against the best climbers in South America.
Sierra Allen, 20, and Aziz Ftis, 22, won the women’s and men’s divisions, respectively, at the Antigua Boulder Challenge, a bouldering competition held in Antigua, Guatemala, that drew competitors from across Central America. They are competing Friday in the Bouldering Masters competition in Santiago, Chile, a competition sponsored by The North Face outdoor clothing company with a $2,500 prize for the top contenders. Because of their wins in Guatemala, The North Face is flying Allen and Ftis to Santiago to compete.
Bouldering is a form of rope-less climbing that focuses on executing physically difficult and mentally demanding movements on a stone face or artificial climbing wall.
Bouldering competitions pit numerous climbers against routes, also called “problems,” designed for extreme difficulty on artificial climbing walls with plastic holds. The climbers are scored on the number of attempts it takes them to finish a series of problems, each with a five-minute time limit.
Allen, originally from the town of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, Canada, lives in Providencia de Dota, in southern Costa Rica, with her parents, who started coming to Providencia for winters 15 years ago. In this rural community, a 14-kilometer drive through cloud forest on a dirt road that turns off of the Inter-American Highway near el Cerro de la Muerte, they discovered a valley full of boulders. Allen’s father, Eric, a long-time climber, started establishing routes on the rocks, eventually convincing his daughter to take up the sport.
Where other competition climbers spend hours each day in the gym preparing for events, Allen takes a more pura vida approach.
“I’m horrible at making myself work out,” she said. “I’d rather go climb rocks for fun. I don’t train in the gym, but I go climbing every day.”
The forests around the valley where Providencia sits happen to not only be studded by boulders, but also teeming with parasitic strangler figs that grow up and around the trunks of other trees, eventually killing them and leaving towers of woody vine standing in the forest. In many places in Costa Rica, guides take tourists to climb up the insides of these towers. Allen and her father use ropes and scale the outside of the strangler figs just like a rock face.
Climbing the trees, which can reach heights of more than 30 meters, helps her develop endurance, Allen said. She also trains on boulders near her home, climbing as many problems as she can in a day. She added running to her regimen since her victory in Guatemala, but admits that under normal circumstances, she hates it.
Allen said her goal for the upcoming competition is “just to go and have fun, to go and not get too competitive.”
“I enjoy sharing a sport that makes me really happy and keeps me healthy with a community of climbers,” she added.
She also explained that Alex Johnson, a full-time professionally sponsored female climber from the United States is going to compete in the Bouldering Master competition, so she’s not necessarily expecting to take top prize.
“Basically, she’s going to crush us,” Allen said.
Ftis, the son of a Tica mother and a Libyan father, works at a travel agency in San José when he isn’t climbing. He takes a more technical approach to training than his fellow co-champion.
“In this case, because it’s a bouldering competition, I try to get familiar with the five-minute blocks. I work on a route [in the climbing gym] and try to finish it in less than five minutes. Then, I take five minutes of rest and try another problem so that it is very similar to the competition. I also do repetitions of the same problem five times with predetermined rests to improve my conditioning.”
Much of Ftis’ training and some of his anxiety about the competition are focused on time. In a bouldering competition, he explained, competitors have five minutes to try each route and then five minutes to rest in between.
“It’s important to train in a way that’s similar,” Ftis said, “so that your body gets accustomed to that rhythm, and at the moment of the competition it won’t be a shock to your body.”
He also tries to take regular trips to climb outside on natural rock in different areas around Costa Rica, and goes on 90-minute runs on mountain trails once or twice a week.
His main concern for the Master’s competition is about getting enough rest beforehand. He arrives in Santiago around 3 a.m. on Friday morning, he said, and the competition starts at 2 p.m.
Ftis started climbing at 15, after years of skateboarding, surfing and riding BMX.
“Some friends introduced me to climbing,” said Ftis. “And I saw it was a sport that is really physical, but also has a mental component. That’s what grabbed my attention.”
“In my first years climbing, it was more for play or for fun. Now, it’s a passion, a lifestyle,” he said.
Allen talks about climbing as a lifestyle, too. She recently quit her course work in computer science at Simon-Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada, to move back to Providencia. She now takes online classes.
“I feel so lucky to have had Providencia,” she said. She loves exploring new boulders and nabbing first ascents – being the first person to climb a new route or problem. She also loves the area around Providencia, which now hosts an annual bouldering festival, thanks in part to Allen’s family, and is chock-full of unclimbed boulders.
Her strategy for the upcoming competition, besides enjoying herself, is to use the scant few minutes of time she gets to see each problem before climbing it, to form a mental image of the sequence of the route’s movements. After that, she said, on her first attempt she’s going for broke.
“My first attempt is my best,” Allen said. “I put every thing I have into it.” If that doesn’t work, she said, it’s time to figure out a different sequence.
Ftis said he’s focused first on qualifying for the finals in the competition in Chile and then on placing in the top three spots – hopefully in the number one slot. But, he said, climbing is less about these competitions than the tribe of climbers.
“In Costa Rica,” he said, “we’re very few, the loyal ones. Climbing is a developing sport here and the climbers, we’re a small group, but we’re like a family.”