Aurora high school climbing teams reach for new heights

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AURORA | On a recent Saturday morning in a diffident Sheridan industrial complex, an unsung band of Aurorans gathered for their weekly ritual.

Nestled between Janitorial Unlimited and Glaser Frames, the scene was littered with multi-colored bags of fine white chalk, shards of broken pencils and wisps of paper teeming with squiggly check marks and Xs. A patchwork of pop and rock songs, including “Paper Planes” by MIA, hovered behind a constant chorus of “Come on,” “You got this” and “Niiiiiiiice.”

Such is the scene at the ever-growing network of Colorado High School Climbing League competitions — roughly three-hour affairs featuring wiry kids effortlessly scrambling up oddly-shaped plastic holds above padded floors. 

Several Aurora high schools have climbing programs, the newest of which was started at Smoky Hill High School last year. The team, composed of nearly a dozen Smoky Hill boys and girls, is led by a bouncy, pony-tailed climber named Dan Cornell.

Cornell, a native of upstate New York who began climbing in the Shawangunk Mountains nearly 30 years ago, started the Smoky Hill team shortly after his 9-year-old daughter spurned gymnastics to begin competing in the USA Climbing circuit.

Smoky Hill freshman Jordan Fishman has emerged as the breakout star of the entire Cherry Creek School District, winning nearly every high school-level competition he has entered and already eyeing the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. At the recent competition at Denver Bouldering Club South just off of South Santa Fe Drive, Fishman trounced his fellow competitors, the majority of whom were students from the nearby Colorado Academy in Denver.

Fishman, who is also gunning to make the national team for USA Climbing in the near future, said he was drawn to the sport several years ago due to its individual nature.

“I didn’t like team sports that much because you had to rely on your teammates more than yourself, and if your teammates didn’t put in the same effort that you did, then nothing came out of it,” Fishman said. “My dad was like ‘Hey, let’s go to the climbing gym,’ and I fell in love from there.”

Fishman and his teammates practice at the Rock’n & Jam’n gym in Centennial with their coach at least twice a week, and compete once or twice a month during the competition season, which spans from October to February. Competitions are a mix of non-roped bouldering, roped “sport” climbing and speed climbing, which requires competitors to climb a regulation 15-meter wall as fast as they can.

Competitive high school climbing has continued to proliferate in recent years, with more than 40 teams from across the state joining the league last year, according to Cornell.

American climbing gyms have also blossomed over the past decade, according to the Climbing Business Journal, which estimated the U.S. indoor climbing industry grew by 10 percent between 2014 and 2015, adding 40 new climbing-specific gyms last year alone. There were 388 commercial climbing facilities in the country as of Dec. 28, 2015.

But as one of the newest teams in the Central Division of the CHSCL, Smoky Hill is one of the few teams in the state without a climbing facility on-campus. Cornell said even a small facility at Smoky — a short wall with a few dozen holds — would help propel the team.

“That would change the whole dynamics of our team because then we could easily train, work on specific skills and specific routes,” Cornell said. “That’s really what we’re lacking, and that’s what all the other schools offer.”

Until that happens, Cornell said he’s focusing on getting his climbers ready for the state and regional finals in February, and taking them to climb outside this spring.

“When I started climbing, the first 20 years was just climbing for fun and adventure,” Cornell said. “These guys have never really been outside and they’ve never really seen the adventure side — they’ve only seen the competition side of it. And outside of that, it’s a whole other world.”