Conquering difficult climbsat age 10

Conquering difficult climbsat age 10

Ashima stunned the bouldering world by climbing Crown of Aragorn, an exceedingly difficult route

Ashima Shiraishi, a 10-year-old bouldering enthusiast, on a climb known as Greasy Kids Stuff at Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, Texas. NYT

With a concentrated squint, Ashima Shiraishi silently sized up her first rock of the day, a menacing slab of jagged beige boulder 20 ft high, scuffed by white chalk left behind from bigger, older, more experienced climbers. A black crash pad as thick as a mattress was placed on the ground, and without a rope or harness for protection, Ashima shrugged off her purple jacket, hoisted herself onto the boulder and began to scramble up, her calf muscles bulging gently as she grabbed one nearly invisible ledge of rock after another. With a final stretch, she reached the top, her glossy black ponytail disappearing first, then one limb at a time, until she was out of sight. A tiny voice floated over the top of the boulder. “How do you get down?” she said.

Ashima had just begun a two-week climbing expedition this spring at Hueco Tanks, a state park that is a mecca for bouldering enthusiasts, 860 acres of rock masses surrounded by endless desert and sky 30 miles northeast of El Paso.

Three days after she arrived, she stunned the bouldering world by climbing Crown of Aragorn, a exceedingly difficult route that requires climbers to contort their bodies and hang practically upside down by their fingers as they navigate a rock that juts out from the ground at a 45-degree angle. On the scale of V0 to V16 that governs bouldering, Crown of Aragorn is a V13, a level that only a few female climbers had reached before. None was 10 years old, as she was.

Ashima, a petite girl with pale skin, a toothy smile and a thick fringe of bangs cut in a perfect line across her forehead, is not only the best climber her age in the United States, or maybe anywhere, but her accomplishments have already placed her among the elites in the sport. In 2008, when she was only 7, she began sending problems – bouldering lingo for ascending routes – that some adult climbers could not handle.

On a trip to Hueco in 2010, she climbed a V10 called Power of Silence. The next year, she ascended a V11/12 called Chablanke.

At the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship in Colorado Springs in March, she easily came in first place, all 4 feet 5 inches and 63 pounds of her. Before finishing fifth grade, Ashima, who recently turned 11, is redefining what physical tools are required to be an elite climber and showing how a child can hold her own against professional climbers who are adults. This summer, she will accompany a group of U.S. climbers for an expedition in South Africa, where she will be the only child climber in the bunch.

“She’s this adorable little girl who climbs hard and cries when she doesn’t send,” said Andrew Tower, the editor in chief of Urban Climber magazine. “Her climbing IQ is so high, you show her how to do something and she soaks it up really quickly. She understands innately how to move.”

It did not take a pro to see that there was something unusual going on at the time Ashima started climbing in 2007, when she was 6. Her parents, Tsuya and Hisatoshi Shiraishi, had immigrated from Japan in 1978 and settled in a loft in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. When Ashima, their only child, was 2, they began taking her to Central Park in search of amusement.

One afternoon when Ashima was in kindergarten, they wandered over to Rat Rock, a boulder 15 feet high and 40 feet wide at the south end of the park that is a favorite spot for amateur climbers. Ashima joined the other climbers and began to scurry up the rock without help, so focused on her climbing that she begged to stay at Rat Rock through the dinner hour. Finally, when it became so dark that Ashima could not see the rock anymore, they went home.

Widespread recognition

Modern bouldering is not much older than Ashima. It reached widespread recognition only in the 1990s as a discipline of rock climbing, one that requires participants to climb without ropes or harnesses, on rocks that generally do not reach higher than 15 or 20 feet.

The sport favours the small rocks over the big ones, so it lacks the drama and death-defying heights of climbing mountains like Everest and K2. But its fans are drawn to bouldering for its spare quality, powerful movements and the simplicity of being unburdened and unaided by heavy equipment.

Very little gear is used, beyond a pair of light climbing shoes, a pouch of white chalk to keep the hands dry and a thick mattress, known as a crash pad, that lies beneath the climber. During local competitions, a point value is assigned to each boulder problem based on how difficult it is. Athletes climb in isolation, without any verbal help from the ground. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 3.65 million people participated in sport, indoor and boulder climbing in 2011.

And as climbing has gained popularity, more children have tried it. One of the top children in the sport, a frequent competitor of Ashima’s, is Brooke Raboutou, the daughter of the former climbing champions Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou and Didier Raboutou.

Physically, children and teenagers may even have some advantages over adults: their small hands and feet allow them to use holds that adults cannot. Some experts have suggested that they bounce back more quickly from falls and injuries than adults do.
Ashima has not escaped injuries. Her knees are marked with scrapes and scabs. On her forehead is a faint yellow bruise, the size of a quarter, suffered during a climb at her gym in Brooklyn.

Up close, bouldering is slow, even ponderous, a sport that allows for long stretches of hanging out, talking with fellow climbers, sitting around and contemplating holds and pinches. A group of climbers might stay at one chunk of rock for hours, staring at it and plotting the smartest way up. None of that seems to bore Ashima.

Climbing is pretty much the only thing that holds Ashima’s interest for long. Television, movies and computers are not a big part of her day, partly because the Waldorf school she attends has a philosophy that includes a general distaste for technology. She collects handmade Japanese stickers, which she keeps in a scrapbook, and her favorite subjects are gym and woodworking, where she learned to make a cutting board and a salad spoon and fork.

And though she is as smiley and goofy as the next fifth-grader, Ashima shuns the typical pink-laden world of many of her schoolgirl friends. Carrion, 35, likes to tease her that her big reward for all this climbing is a trip to Disney World to check out the princesses, a suggestion that makes her wrinkle her nose in disgust.

“She’s never been a girlie girl,” said her aunt Kay Horikawa, who attends her competitions faithfully and watches her practice. “She’s never had a Barbie.” What Ashima does have is a steely focus that is unusual for someone her age.

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