A Long Way to Fall 

Is champion climber Scott Cory losing his grip on greatness?

Page 2 of 6

Rock climbing isn't just about getting to the top: It's about numbers. From the bottom of a face, climbers must first mentally map a path up the wall. That path is typically a known quantity, and has been rated according to difficulty. These ratings allow inexperienced climbers to pick a suitable route, and give the pros a chance to brag as though comparing grade point averages. The Yosemite Decimal System used to rate the difficulty of climbs is a bit convoluted, but in the end most routes fall between 5.7 and 5.14 -- the former being challenging only to a novice, while only the very best in the world can handle a 5.14.

It's tricky to balance the needs of superstars with those of the after-work crowd, but that's what climbing gyms strive for. Each wall here at Touchstone is covered with plastic holds so foreign in design that were they to be found lying on the street, the discoverer might mistake them for some sort of alien egg sacs. Each month, one particularly accomplished climber scuttles up a rope-and-pulley contraption and uses a sprocket drill to remove the holds. Then, with skill and precision, the route-setter mounts the wall with new egg sacs and builds fresh routes.

It's a bit like creating a vertical maze. On difficult runs such as the 5.11s and 5.12s, the setter places each hold with a specific movement in mind -- a truly challenging route has just one possible set of movements that result in success. This means climbers must read the route correctly, lest they get halfway up and find themselves stranded.

The holds themselves are a motley mix of clashing neons and bright primary colors. Adding to the rainbow are bits of colored tape used to mark each hold as part of a specific route. Scott ignores the tape. He hangs from one hold like a hairless monkey, then swings to a more distant one on another route -- a feat that looks both exceptionally difficult and extremely fun.

Between climbs, he bounces around the gym and pals about with the kid to whom he'd shown his biceps. The kid swipes Scott's water bottle and begins drinking. Scott laughs, and the boys run off to the bouldering cave, where climbers can practice without fear of a long drop.

But a long drop is something Scott could face careerwise, and don't think his parents and mentors don't know it. Dominic Farley, a professional climbing coach from Peak Experiences, the Virginia venue for last year's Nationals, is no stranger to the havoc puberty can wreak upon a fledgling career. One of his students, eighteen-year-old J.P. Maher, has been climbing for four years and until recently placed high in the USA Climbing rankings. This year, however, J.P. didn't even make it to the final round at the Nationals. "There is that transition period, right about the time they're going into puberty until their body structure finalizes," Farley says. "Your bones are growing faster than your muscles and tendons, or your tendons are growing faster than your muscles and bones. It's an awkward period, and it can be risky, too. They can overtrain and disrupt their growth plates. Every sport can affect it. I know climbing is excessively tough on your tendons, in your hands and arms, so that's where the risk is."

Farley's sentiment is echoed by Travis Julyan, a former full-time instructor at San Francisco's Mission Cliffs -- the popular climbing gym where the North Face discovered its wunderkind. Right from the start, Julyan could tell Scott had talent, but as with his own students, he knew the boy's future was uncertain -- a slave to the whims of testosterone. "Every time you pull yourself along an overhang, or up around a lip, it's like doing a chin-up," he says. "The more you weigh, the tougher it is to get yourself up there."

He should know. Julyan, too, has been climbing since he was a teenager. "When I got to my twenties, it was like I hit a plateau," he says. "I got stronger, and built more muscle, but it really felt like I lost something in the transition."

Scott may have genetics working against him, too. Traditional climbing strength comes from the tensile strength of tendons, and muscles that are designed to grip and hold rather than crush and stomp. And while his parents are both extremely athletic, they aren't wiry. Jim's sport was boxing, and Jason, Scott's elder brother, is a top-notch football player -- neither being activities particularly well suited to the type of body climbing demands. Yet that's precisely the body type shared by Scott's adult climbing pals, Hans Florine and Tommy Caldwell; they are the very definition of wiry. Seeing photos of the three of them standing together, it seems clear that Scott is destined to morph into another species entirely.

This possibility has never come between these "best friends"-- which is how Scott's parents refer to the pros their son climbs with. The reality is that Scott doesn't have best friends in the normal sense. Do the crowned kings of rock climbing come over to the Corys for hot cocoa and peanut butter crackers? No. Does Scott host sleepovers with thirty-year-old men who appear on magazine covers? Of course not. The relationship is more that of tight co-workers, or a mentor-protégé bond.

In a lot of ways, Scott is indeed normal for his age. He scarfs pizza and fries, listens to music, and plays video games -- he especially likes Fight Night, EA Sports' new boxing game -- but he also strives to make climbing his adult career, and that fact dominates his life. "He doesn't spend much time with kids his own age," Jim says. "During the week, he's out doing his job. The weekends he might do a few things with kids."

Then there's the dual personality: the Scott Cory his family and schoolmates know -- goofy, joking, gossiping with peers about the latest music downloads -- versus the always-polite media-savvy Scott, replete with polished sound bites and a bright, toothy grin. This is a family that clearly understands media relations. His parents smile and extol their son's virtues in clear, unstammering words, with the same matter-of-fact cadence as their boy.

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