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Outside, the parents watch and wait nervously. Scott's climbing buddy, Hans Florine, is here too, running around like he owns the place. He practically does: Florine is the most famous climber present, and is also staffing the competition. Want to get into isolation to tell your son his grandmother just died? You'll need Hans' permission. Worried that another parent plans to secretly pass his kid info about the route? Tell it to Hans. The latter, in fact, is a common ploy. Florine stands and dutifully nods to a stocky father who is incensed about something. The climber is not amused, but his polite nature keeps him from telling the irate father to go Dick Cheney himself.
Watching him control the proceedings is like watching Tiger Woods coordinate the Junior PGA finals. When Florine isn't darting about on official business, he's signing posters, chatting with young climbers, and shaking hands like a politician. Most of those doting fans are young girls in tight spandex shorts who stare at Florine the way your typical eleven-year-old might stare at Usher, the pop star.
During his down time, Florine has been spending weekends in Yosemite with Scott, working up to their attempted two-for-one conquest of Half Dome and El Cap. "It's been hard the last couple months," he says, "because he's been training for indoor sport climbing, for which you need to work on shorter, harder, powerful climbing, when out there it's big endurance things. The types of climbing and how it affects your hands is different."
The elder climber dismisses Scott's physical changes as par for the course. His young protégé is "gonna go through an uncoordinated stage," he says. "It's something that all these kids are going through, so all these kids that he's competing against are in the same boat."
Florine's role as grand pooh-bah leaves him little time to pal around with Scott today, but they wave as Scott and his rivals stroll out of isolation and stare up at the imposing route. Many of the kids move their arms slowly above their heads, mimicking the motions they'll need to get them to the top, but Scott just takes it all in.
At the Nationals, kids eleven and under have to climb with a safety rope that extends from the competitor's waist harness up to the top of the wall and back down to the mat, where it is clipped into the harness of the belayer, the person who acts as a counterweight in case of a fall, and who takes up the excess slack as the climber ascends. The older competitors, by contrast, are lead climbers -- they ascend ahead of the rope, which trails down between their legs to the belayer on the floor. To protect against falls, they snap their rope through D-shaped metal clips known as carabiners, which are latched periodically along the route. But if a lead climber loses his grip, he falls twice the distance he's climbed since clipping into the last carabiner.
And Scott does fall. About four-fifths of the way to the top, he slips from his handholds and plummets earthward. The force lifts his belayer off the ground, leaving the two to dangle for a moment like balancing weights. A pair of twentysomethings grabs the belayer and pulls him back to the mat. Once his feet are firmly planted, he lowers Scott down.
The fourteen-year-old looks disappointed, but his attempt still places him in the top ten. He'll be back for more tomorrow. Until then, he cheers on his peers, especially Simon Benkert, a close friend from San Francisco who makes it to 90 percent. Right up until Simon falls, Scott is clapping and shouting encouragement. An onlooker would never know they were rivals.
The routes awaiting the finalists on Sunday morning are impressively barren -- so barren that they send some young competitors into gape-mouthed awe. None is more difficult than the route that Scott and his peers will attempt -- the organizers skipped them ahead of the sixteen-to-seventeens to tackle the route designed for the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old boys. The fourteen-to-fifteens will in fact be today's final act, mainly because they are the best bunch of young climbers anyone can remember.
Their forty-foot-high run begins with an immediate overhang. Most of the kids position their bodies underneath, feet to the left and head to the right. They then mount the challenging hang with slow and deliberate movements, trying to conserve strength for the remainder of the long haul to the ceiling. But once they get around the lip and are again parallel to the wall, they face a vertical desert, the only oases being tiny "crimper" holds no thicker than a marble. From there, it's roughly another ten feet to the next substantial hold, a blue monstrosity that looks deceptively easy to grab, but in reality offers little in the way of grippable surfaces.
The eighteen-to-nineteens didn't fare so well on this route -- only two out of ten made it to the top. Now the crowd is settling in again as Scott and his rivals start coming out to climb. The gym grows quiet, much more intense. Parents crane their necks and stand on chairs, or jockey for the front bleacher seats to get the best views of their offspring.
First up is Grady Bagwell. He swings his body, feet left, head right, then mounts the lip, but by the time he gets around it, his thin body is quivering like a leaf. He's exhausted already, and his fingers won't hold out. He makes a few more moves, but ends up falling off the wall at the 40.89 percent mark. The crowd gasps, then applauds the effort as it catches its breath.
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