Race to the Top
When Jesse Grupper, E19, was in first grade, his older sister took climbing lessons, and his mother took him along. Soon he was taking lessons, too, enamored of the sport. He competed regularly through the years before coming to college, where he quickly joined the Tufts Climbing Team.
This summer he made it to the World University Sport Climbing Championship, held in Bratislava, Slovakia, along with more than sixty athletes from twenty countries. Eight climbers—including Grupper—made it to the final; he placed fifth.
“It was a very close final, and I’m very happy with my performance,” he said. “It meant a lot to me to be able to represent Tufts on an international stage.”
Grupper had qualified for the event at the U.S. Collegiate National Championships in Houston in April, winning both the sport and bouldering disciplines at the competition. (The Tufts Climbing Team also placed third overall at the nationals for sport climbing.)
Tufts Now recently caught up with Grupper to talk about what’s involved in sport climbing and about his recent efforts at the world championship.
Tufts Now: Tell us how sport climbing works.
Jesse Grupper: You are tied into a rope on your harness and that rope goes directly to your belayer (the person at the other end of the rope). As you climb, you clip the rope into safety points called quickdraws along your route path.
Competitions in sport climbing are based on who gets the highest. The routes are pre-made by officials called route setters. Route setters can make the climb harder or easier based on making holds smaller or larger and closer or farther apart. It’s very difficult to get to the top of any of the routes that are set, and usually only one person completes the climb, if that.
We are placed in a room called isolation where we can’t see the outside climb, or how far our competitors are getting on it. We are brought out one at a time, and each given six minutes to complete the route, or get as high as we can. Each hold is worth one point, and whoever has the most points at the end of the competition wins.
How do you prepare in the moment for a climb?
You start at the bottom of a climb, and have to figure out a way to use certain holds you’ve been given to get to the top. It’s a mental challenge as much as it is a physical one. Because of this, the strongest climber is not always the best. Climbing’s just like any engineering or computer science problem—just without a spreadsheet.
Do you get nervous before competitions?
I’ve competed in many national and international competitions and being nervous never really goes away, but I think that’s part of the process of the sport. Being nervous and still being able to perform your best is something I have strived for—it’s what makes the sport so fun.
Climbing teaches you to not let your emotions change how you act. The day of a competition, I’m of course nervous to see how all of my training has prepared me to perform. But that kind of high-level competition environment always pushes me to do my best. It also is a ton of fun if you can push through those nerves.
What’s it like competing at the international level?
Walking into a climbing competition, I’m always impressed by the atmosphere. Of course you have your fair share of intense athletes. But climbing is essentially a collaborative effort. I had members of the German or Austrian team sharing advice about my final climb as much as my fellow teammates. That’s an environment that you don’t get in many other sports. Everyone supports one another to do the best they can do.
After the World University Sport Climbing Championship was over, I hung out with Slovakians, danced with Chileans, and did core workouts with the Japanese team. It’s an inclusive community that wants everyone to have a fair chance at doing their best.
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.