A Long Way to Fall

Is champion climber Scott Cory losing his grip on greatness?

The interior of Touchstone Climbing in Concord is lightly dusted with a fine chalk snow that falls ceaselessly from overhead. The tiny white flakes accumulate on brightly colored plastic handholds, and puff out of chalk bags that are strapped to sculpted glutes in tight spandex. Just inside the entrance, a bored-looking clerk sits at a retail counter stocked with Clif bars, climbing equipment, and some dog-eared copies of Rock & Ice magazine, his own glutes plastered motionless on a barstool. It’s a good gig for a climbing junkie — he gets free use of the facilities, and 15 percent off on gear — but he still looks as though he’d rather be somewhere in Yosemite, or at least up on one of these soaring walls, beneath which a herd of teenagers is learning the basics from a pair of half-interested instructors, climbing bums like the clerk.

Suddenly, there’s a loud thud behind the group, and all heads turn to locate the source. It’s the sound of a heavy North Face backpack hitting the padded blue floor, kicking up a cloud of chalk dust. Beside it, surveying the room and looking as if he’s king of the mountain, stands the most accomplished climber within fifty miles of the place.

His name is Scott Cory, and he’s been a professional for seven years. In 2001, he teamed up with renowned climbers Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell to conquer the Nose of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Thirteen hours later they’d set a record for one of the fastest ascents of the infamous face, which typically takes four days to mount.

Scott has climbed all over the world. As of this workout, he has been a member of the USA Climbing National Team six years running and has seldom finished a competition without standing on the awards podium. He has just returned from Peru, where he and fellow climber Steve Schneider became the first Americans to complete a free ascent — without upward assistance from manmade gadgets — of “Welcome to the Slabs of Koricancha,” an insanely difficult route on the 17,470-foot Andean peak La Esfinge (“The Sphinx”).

If the Touchstone clerks and trainers are living a climber’s dream lifestyle, then Scott’s is nirvana. Fuck the 15 percent discounts: He gets everything free — backpack, ropes, shoes, sunglasses, dietary supplements. His trips around the world are paid for by his sponsors: Bollé, Bodymax, PMI, Met-RX, Petzl, and the North Face. He has appeared in catalogues, documentaries, Sports Illustrated, Rock & Ice, and all manner of television news programs and talk shows. In a sport where there are no seven-figure salaries, it’s sponsorship that makes the sun come up in the morning. “The sponsorships make it a lot easier to be able to keep climbing, ’cause then you don’t have to pay for a lot of the gear,” Scott says.

But all this glitz may be in jeopardy. Since 1998, Scott has advanced in the USA Climbing Nationals from fifth to third, and then to second place in both 2001 and 2002. But rather than continue his rise in the standings, he has begun to slip, placing third in last year’s competition. His body is starting to work against him, his youthful exuberance giving way to a more media-worn exterior. And while his love for the sport is as strong as ever, his advanced age is proving his most difficult obstacle.

Will fourteen-year-old Scott Cory of Brentwood, who has conquered everything he has ever put his hand to, be undone by puberty?

To date, the climbing career of Scott Cameron Cory has been punctuated by “youngests.” At eight, he was the youngest climber ever to make the USA Climbing National Team. At ten, he was the youngest American to “onsight a 13a,” which means he completed an exceptionally difficult route, without a single fall, and without ever having seen the rock face before. At eleven, he was the youngest ever to conquer the Nose of El Cap. A month later, he became the youngest to do the Nose in a single day. Then, at thirteen, he was the youngest to scale the face of Half Dome in one day. Of late, he has designs on a new youngest: He wants to be the first kid to climb both of the aforementioned Yosemite icons in the space of 24 hours — an attempt that has been pushed back several times in recent months.

The boy is phenomenal on the rocks, to be sure. But the sponsorships, the media attention — much of it hinges on his kid status. Hotshot climbers are a dime a dozen, but Scott’s youth helps convince companies he’ll make their sportswear, sunglasses, and supplements move off the shelves. The title of his Web site, ScottCory.com, plays up this role: “Scott Cory — Kid Climber.”

Not for long. Scott shot up six inches in the past year alone, and now it seems the rest of him is struggling to catch up, as though his limbs were scavenged from various sources. He still has scrawny boy legs, but now boasts the arms of a man. Hair has appeared along his elbows and forearms, and he’s grown rather fond of his newly acquired biceps. His back, meanwhile, has blossomed into a knotted mess of bulging deltoids, lats, and God-knows-what-elses. His voice, while still high, seems to be dropping by increments daily. And the bits of him that have matured are gargantuan. “When he hit thirteen, the muscles started growing. His back blew up and he got those biceps,” says Scott’s father, Jim Cory, while his son stands in the background, flexing a Popeye arm for a pal.

Today, it’s business as usual for Scott and his parents, Jim and Jennifer. Their son is here to train — or try to. “Scott’s bored with these routes,” explains Jim, a former Golden Gloves boxer. “He’s climbed everything here, and they haven’t changed the routes in a while, so he gets bored pretty quickly.”

That much is obvious as you watch Scott dangle a dozen feet off the ground — showing off, as it were — without even bothering to don his harness. Finally, he lets go of his colorful handhold and plummets to the mat with a loud thud, a reprise of his entrance.

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.

Yet the Corys hardly fit the stereotype of celebrity sports parents who push their children for financial gain. Jim and Jennifer mainly seem concerned with helping their three kids — Scott also has a sister, Katie — get the most out of their fleeting youth. “He knows that most people who start out doing something at seven don’t do that for the rest of their lives,” Jennifer says. “But at this point he’s hoping to turn climbing into what he does for his life. When he was four, he wanted to be a professional golfer; when he was five, he was way into baseball. Every sport he’s tried he’s gotten 100 percent into it. He’s been focused and intense since he was born.”

She might as well be describing the whole family, which seems to harbor the cherished gene that compels its hosts to throw everything into their work. For Jim and Jennifer, that work is their kids. For the kids, that work is sport.

The first route Scott ever climbed in Yosemite was called Commitment, and that’s something the kid has in spades. His sponsorships, the globetrotting, and his hobnobbing with the climbing cognoscenti are mainly thanks to his own persevering nature. He spends three to four days a week at the climbing gym, dividing his three-hour workouts between cardio, bouldering, moderate climbs, and extremely difficult ones (5.12 and up). While prepping for a competition, he’ll throw in three days of two-hour weight- and speed-training stints under the watchful eye of Bodymax sports director Shawn Dassie.

But his parents mandate none of this. Scott determines his own conditioning schedule, picks his own practice routes, and often acts as his own coach. His folks are simply there as supporters and, as the case may be, chauffeurs — at least until Scott is old enough to get his driver’s license.

The boy, meanwhile, claims he isn’t interested in being a hero to his classmates. He takes pains, he says, to keep his professional career on the down low. “I just don’t like bragging about what I do,” Scott says, “and I do it because I love doing it and it’s fun, and not because other people want me to.”

There are, of course, people who want Scott to climb because he wins, not because he’s having fun. Today, at the 2004 USA Climbing Nationals, he’ll have another chance to prove himself to them and anyone else. The venue is Pipeworks, Touchstone’s Sacramento facility, where he’ll be the top-seeded competitor in his age bracket from Northern California.

The aptly named gym is an old pipe-fitting warehouse in the worst section of the capital city, a sort of industrial Renaissance Faire. The facility’s rear is a vast, half-covered space cluttered with old lengths of sewer pipe and the rusted hulks of numerous machines. Across the gravel parking lot, a wayward climbing wall sits neglected. Some rowdy boys dangle from its rim and grapple with some of the lower handholds like lost children in a Mad Max flick.

The lot is beginning to fill up on this July morning. The support staff has been up all night. The prelims were yesterday, meaning that six separate routes had be planned and laid out the previous evening. Six new ones were fashioned overnight for today’s competition, and another six will be created for Sunday’s finals.

The girls are first up. Five at a time, they exit an isolation room and pick their way up the walls toward the final handhold. They are scored according to the percentage of the total distance completed in the five minutes allotted.

It’s easy to identify the newcomer parents: They’re the dads with blank stares on their faces, shaking their heads back to reality as they catch themselves ogling competitors in the sixteen-to-seventeen category, or the moms with their mouths agape at the postpubescent boys walking around shirtless. The boys are Michelangelo sculptures, the girls mini Mia Hamms. “My God, that boy’s chest is perfectly formed,” one mother whispers furtively to the middle-aged woman next to her. They titter, then turn quiet as the stocky lad walks by, his arms cocked in that familiar bodybuilder position.

Scott arrives just before noon and checks into isolation. In competitive indoor climbing, foreknowledge of a route is verboten. None of the competitors can walk through the front door until after they’ve climbed. Instead, they are relegated to Pipeworks’ bouldering room, which has been shrouded off from the main facility by a blue tarp. “When I was younger it used to be bad, ’cause I would run around and do whatever and get all tired,” Scott says of the pre-contest isolation. “But now that I’m older I can finally learn to relax.”

Within this cave, nearly one hundred boys aged ten to nineteen warm up under the supervision of event staffers, like scores of human spiders pacing up and down and sideways on the walls. Scott immediately blends in among them — just another daddy longlegs. It’s hard to keep track of him, since all the climbers wear identical shirts to prevent any undue intimidation a sponsor’s logos might bestow on competitors or their rivals.

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.

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.

Now, if he can just get that driver’s license.

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