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Buck Off and Climb

Climbers challenge themselves and each other at indoor event

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Chalk powder is in the air as climbers gear up for the 15th annual Boise State Buck Off Climbing Competition. Since the competition takes place indoors on an artificial rock wall, little gear is required: Not much more than a harness, climbing shoes, 20 bucks and some pumped up forearms are necessary to take a crack at the 20-plus routes that will be included in the competition itinerary.

Katie Bruck, the Buck Off organizer and facilitator, has a simple explanation for why climbers will show up to at the event. "Sweet prizes," she says. Bruck has been busy wooing sponsors for the event, and past years have yielded a pile of prizes valued at $2,000. "Everyone goes home with something," Bruck says. Even without the climbing paraphernalia, the competition has an established community draw because of its longevity and the sheer number of climbers in the valley.

Poised between the chilly end of winter and the slap of spring, the Buck Off is an appropriately timed event. Scheduled three days before the official start of spring, March 21, the competition is a summary of winter months spent climbing indoors. Climbers get to showcase their ability and navigational finesse on routes marked in a rainbow of colors that indicate the flow of the climb, as well as the level of difficulty.

Though an offspring of outdoor climbing, indoor climbing has become a sport all its own. Clean and simple, gym climbing is an easy way for anyone to test their forearms. Even experienced outdoor climbers use indoor facilities because, as Geoff Harrison, director of the outdoor program at Boise State, says, "It's a good way to measure where you are [as a climber.]" Because indoor climbing and outdoor climbing are different sports, the ratings for climbs are a little different as well. "The climbs are rated 5 fun, 5 fun plus and 5 fun minus," Harrison says, which offers some perspective on the attitude mingling with the chalk in the air in the gym. Outdoor climbs are rated from a 5.5, which would feel like walking up a staircase made of stone, up to a mind-bending 5.15 which only a select few climbers in the world can accomplish. Indoor climbs have a color code that indicates their level, ranging from yellow and green (easy), orange and blue (intermediate), to red and white (difficult). "The beauty of color coding the climbs is that it makes it possible for anyone to walk into the gym and climb without having to understand a grading system," Harrison says. "They know that no matter which wall they are on, if they're a beginner, they can tackle the yellows and greens." The color coding makes the sport more accessible to the curious.

The Buck Off is one of only a few competitions of its kind in the Treasure Valley, a sort of Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, where climbers can meet other rock addicts. With the Black Cliffs half an hour out of downtown, Table Rock above Boise, Swan Falls past Kuna, the City of Rocks near Burley and the magnificent Sawtooths presiding over it all, climbers in Boise aren't hurting for great places to test their skills. The only thing holding them back might be the winter, which can seem obscenely long for climbers who prefer being outdoors. Staying in shape is a prerequisite for maintaining control on the rock as much as having someone to get outside with.

The Boise State Buck Off has become, for climbers, something like a yearly potluck without the potato salad. Climbing is a friendly sport in that it requires at least two people to even get on the wall. Because climbing is also an inherently dangerous sport, trust must be cultivated between climbing partners, each of whom will take turns being climber and belayer. The belayer protects the climber. The two are connected by a rope that runs between the two individuals and through an anchor point at the top of the wall. The climber might be the driver, but the belayer controls the brakes. They must communicate constantly, and there is a language used to keep the belayer aware of what the climber needs and intends to do. They sound off to each other with quick shouts that let the belayer know when their job begins and ends.

Climbers at the competition rely on volunteer belayers who get harnessed-up to put on the brakes when they fall. "Maybe we could do eight-minute-dating on each route," he jokes, "the bell rings and you've got a new belayer." Harrison's laid-back nature seems to come as standard equipment with climbers, making the competition a friendly event in which everyone, climbers and non-climbers alike, are welcome to enjoy the show of climberly finesse.

Three days before the competition, about 15 volunteers spend hours setting new routes in the gym for the competition. It is a time-consuming task; each hold in the course of a 37-foot climb must be individually set. Besides just tracing a path up the wall, Harrison says route-setters must take physical challenges into account when setting a route. If they are not careful, they just might construct a route that pretzels a climber enough to strain a muscle or pop a ligament. Setters must consider what is humanly possible as they assemble their climb. "We try to set at least 10 routes for each level," says Chris Roy, one of the volunteer route setters. All of the routes will test climbers' strength, flexibility, balance and determination.

Because the routes are all new to competitors, it is a test of personal grit to complete a climb on the first try. The climbs simultaneously check an individual's physical ability to withstand the strain of the route and their mental clarity to focus and solve the problems presented in the course. Harrison says that points are awarded based on success, which he defines simply as getting to the top. This may not be as easy as it sounds. "The first time you feel it, touch it and see it is when you're on the route," says Harrison.

During the competition, if a climber successfully makes it to the top of the climb on a first attempt, they are given 10 points; second attempt earns seven points, and third earns five. The competition is organized so that each climber may attempt six climbs in their category. "A climber could potentially be doing 18 climbs," Harrison points out. But that would be one helluva tough day at the Buck Off.

March 17, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $20 advance registration, $25 on-site registration. Registration fee includes a T-shirt and entry into a prize raffle. Participants demonstrate their technique on boulder, tope rope and lead climbing routes with categories from beginning to advanced. Boise State Campus Recreation Center climbing gym, 1910 University Dr. For more information, call 208-426-2628 or e-mail gharriso@boisestate.edu.

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