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Tools of the trade

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So, you have your ice axes – your tools, as they say. You have your waterproof, weatherproof boots – don’t tell how much they cost. You have your crampons, medieval looking devices that fit boots with spikes, allowing you to step and kick reliably into sheets of ice as sheer as a window. And, of course, you have zero body fat, muscles of stone and the stamina of a thoroughbred.

Now it’s time to climb … rock. Well, that’s what mixed climbing is all about.

It’s also known as dry tooling. Marcus Garcia, professional climber, climbing coach and owner of the indoor climbing gym, Rock Lounge Durango, defined mixed climbing as rock climbing with ice climbing equipment.

“Mixed climbing is using ice axes and crampons to ascend certain difficult sections of rock,” he said. “It’s more of a winter sport. When our hands get too cold to go out and climb, we just grab our tools and go.”

Mixed climbing’s popularity will be on display Tuesday and Wednesday, when young climbers will ascend a 30-foot-high climbing wall hovering over Buckley Park. It’s the nation’s first youth sanctioned event.

In the surrounding mountain environment, where winter climbers have relentlessly sought out every frosty nook and cranny possible, from giant blue ice falls to obscure gullies and canyons, many don’t stop when the ice runs out. They move up, encountering frozen moss (which is surprisingly good), slotting picks in cracks, utilizing pockets and the most unimaginably small edges. If you think it’s difficult to comprehend, it’s even more difficult to actually do.

In traditional rock climbing – free climbing – you’re using your hands to grip and feet for stepping and friction, usually wearing soft, thin tenacious rubber-soled shoes. But in mixed climbing, armed with the tools for ice, you morph into something different with steel extensions of your body. Your reach is elongated by 50 centimeters, your grasp mounted with a hook-like steel barb with unfailing power.

Your big toes become metal darts, tipped with spikes that carve into tiny imperfections in the rock where you can crank your body weight on their purchase. It’s like jacking up a grand piano with a screwdriver.

While your tools hang on by a fraction of an inch, now you must hang on to them. Think of Tarzan, swinging from limb to limb, because in effect, that’s what capable mixed climbers resemble, constantly repeating impressive feats of strength and grace. Seeing is believing.

For anyone who loves to climb, it’s another opportunity to follow their passion.

“The difference is mental,” Garcia said. “In dealing with the fear and the mental side of it, you learn to deal with the extension of your hand where you don’t have the connecting feeling of rock on your skin. You have to learn to trust a piece of equipment.”

A wildly popular sport in Europe, where some kids even attend competitive training camps, only recently is mixed climbing gaining elevation in the U.S. as a competition. Organizations like the UIAA, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, are beginning to sanction events.

When the young climbers descend on Durango, it will be mostly because of Garcia. It’s not impossible that mixed climbing, sponsored by the Association of Recognized International Olympic Committee Sports Federation, could be an Olympic sport one day.

“It’s like a stepping stone,” Garcia said. “That’s how big this is.”

Garcia himself recently competed in a UIAA World Cup in Bozeman, Montana, and will compete in the upcoming Ouray Ice Festival, which brings some of the world’s best climbers to the world’s biggest ice park nestled in the Uncompahgre Gorge.

For the competition in Durango, an artificial wooden wall 32 feet tall and 16 feet wide will be constructed in Buckley Park. The wall will riddle climbers and spectators alike with sets of challenges in difficulty and speed.

Thirteen-year-old Nathan Parker will be swinging his tools, his first competition. He said for him, it’s an internal battle as well as competing with others.

“You’re hanging there and it’s like, ‘I have to finish this. I have to get to the top,’” he said.

Garcia said coaching kids for the competition keeps him on his feet.

“What I tell them to do, I’m going to get in there and do the same thing,” he said. “They trust me, and I have to step up and be a role model. It’s getting them to build confidence in themselves.”

Parker said he’s getting strong, but also learning good lessons. Life lessons.

“It works a bunch of muscles, but it teaches you life skills, like discipline to get things done,” he said. “And perseverance. It’s not like any other sport.”

He likes the gear, too.

“You’ve got giant spikes on handles,” he said. “I mean, there’s nothing like that.”

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