A Long Way to Fall 

Is champion climber Scott Cory losing his grip on greatness?

Page 5 of 6

Gabor Szekely, another, thicker boy, also goes left to right, then manages his way around the ledge, but when the time comes to scale the desert, he falters and slips at the same spot: 40.89.

Jacob Carrick, a short fellow who begins quivering as soon as he attaches himself to the wall, falls so hard that his off-guard belayer is jerked off the ground and nearly collides with Carrick midair. Hands rise from the crowd and guide them back down, the only injury a wounded pride.

Scott climbs seventh. He walks out of isolation deep in thought, eyes down, headphones on -- he's listening to rapper Kanye West, his dusty blue CD player tucked into his chalk-covered backpack. The crowd points and whispers. They've all heard of Scott Cory, but many have never seen him in person.

He slings his backpack to the ground and sits, back to the wall, looking like a child who's been given a time-out. He breathes heavily, the pressure visible on his brow. He has briefly surveyed the route, and knows it's insanely difficult. After a moment he stands, walks to the front of the wall, looks up at it.

Finally, he clips the rope into his harness and sets himself at the base. He swings under the lip and holds for a moment to chalk his hands and decide the best route. He ultimately chooses the same left-to-right position that all the others have used. While he appears strong, he also seems worried. He knows what awaits him above the lip.

Still, Scott never shakes, and each time he reaches out for a handhold, the movement is deliberate, strategic. He makes his way around the lip with no wasted movements, and clings to the flat of the front wall, where he surveys the expanse of nothingness above -- Spider-Man turf.

He glances down at his rope, pulls up some slack, and holds it in his teeth. Then he reaches up and clips it into a carabiner beside his head. He has five minutes or less to get to the top, but from here it just doesn't seem possible. For all his strength and skill, Scott simply has put himself in the wrong position.

Finally, he reaches upward, desperately searching for a good grip. He hangs on for a moment, but the sweat, the difficulty, and the foe that is gravity push him downward. He falls, dangling from his rope like a cat ready to land on all fours, his face a mask of distress. His score: 40.89 percent.

The day's last climber is a burly, mature-looking boy named Daniel Woods. He's been climbing almost as long as Scott, but seems vastly more confident. It is obvious Daniel will prevail today, from his first move to his last. He stretches up the wall quickly, with ease, making every grip and foot placement look effortless. He never quivers, never twitches. When he encounters the lip, he's the only climber who goes head left, feet right. His moves provide an "oh!" feeling of revelation: This is how it was meant to be done.

Daniel makes it across the void, but even he doesn't reach the top. At 79.09 percent, his grip gives way and he falls. Still, he's made it twice as far as many of his rivals. Scott, meanwhile, has tied for seventh place behind less-accomplished climbers including Bryan Hopkins, Ryan Roden, and his friend Simon Benkert.

But a funny thing happened as the finals drew to a close: Even as Daniel Woods was knocking them down in the standings, the voices that cheered for him the loudest were those of Scott Cory and the other fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. Despite their travails, they had ceased to compete among themselves, and had teamed up in true mountain spirit against the dreaded wall -- content, as it were, to see one of their number make it this far.

Even though this is the first time since age eight that Scott Cory has failed to earn a spot on the USA Climbing National Team, and the first time since age ten he has failed to medal in the Nationals, his eyes remain gleeful. He horses around with the other kids his age, bouncing from cluster to cluster of teenagers as he tries to fit everyone into a rapidly dwindling window of camaraderie. His real best friends are the kids he's been competing against for the better part of his life. Tomorrow they will be gone, and Scott will be back at home.

In the end, climbing is a solitary sport. Hanging alone from a mountainside with only a rope and your belay partner is an experience vastly different from these competitions. On the rock, there's no ill will, no cheerleaders, and no rival go-getter to steal the spotlight. Hell, there's not even a spotlight. And although Scott may be entering his awkward years, and perhaps even nearing the end of his pro climbing career, to him the only thing that truly matters is being able to go to Yosemite and be alone with that mountain. If the cameras and labels and sponsorship deals all vanished tomorrow, he would still be there. And when the smoke clears and the boy is grown, it's a good bet he'll still be thinking about that mountain on any given Friday.

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