Climbing Competition

Mary L’ Esperance celebrates with friends below as she completes a route up the climbing wall during a competition at the Campbell County Recreation Center on Feb. 11.

Photo by Ed Glazar, Gillette News Record. 

GILLETTE — “They completely changed it, every route has been changed,” Kate Johnston said, as she shook out her hands and grabbed a few things from a locker.

“They gave us three minutes to get ready,” Mary L’Esperance added.

Johnston and L’Esperance readied themselves by the lockers near the replica Devils Tower at the Campbell County Recreation Center, balancing the excitement of the 13th annual climbing competition with the essentials they needed to care for themselves at the same time.

Chalk — check. Harness — check. Shoes — check.

“I have some arthritis. (This) gives them a little brace,” Johnston said as she wrapped purple gauze around joints on her fingers before passing it on to L’Esperance. “A lot of older climbers stop because of arthritis and we don’t want to stop.”

Across the way, 3-year-old Evelyn Neiman prepared in her own way, munching on mini Starbursts she’d acquired from the center’s vending machine for a quick zap of energy. Her mother Doni said it was only her third time climbing but that Evelyn wasn’t afraid.

L’Esperance wasn’t afraid either. For her, it was more an anxious energy that made her bounce slightly on the balls of her feet.

“I’m a little nervous. I haven’t been able to climb in more than a week but I’ll be fine once I get on the rock.”

In the last year and a half, Johnston and L’Esperance have become frequent flyers at the Rec Center but this was the first indoor climbing competition they’d been a part of.

For L’Esperance, the competition was also a celebration and a way for her to see how far she’d come in the last 18 months before hitting the 70-year mark three days later. It was a way for her to see the rekindled love she has for climbing in action — a love that would’ve lain stagnant if not for Johnston.

About a year and a half ago, Johnston went to a climbing festival in Ten Sleep to support a friend who was a vendor at the competition.

“I went to you know, buy a T-shirt and support my friend and somehow I was roped into climbing and I actually really loved it,” Johnston said.

The revelation was surprising given that Johnston has always been afraid of heights, something that goes hand in hand with climbing. She admits that at first, the climbing was frightening but with much encouragement from her friends, she made it to the top.

To overcome the fear, she simply doesn’t look down.

When she returned from Ten Sleep, Johnston wanted to begin climbing at the Rec Center and thought of Mary who she knew had climbed in the past.

“She asked me if I wanted to go and I thought, ‘why not?’” L’Esperance said. “Now, I’m just absolutely addicted.”

L’Esperance and Johnston meet up at the Rec Center at least three to four times per week to practice techniques and routes that challenge them physically and mentally. L’Esperance goes so far as to plan doctor appointments, grocery store runs and hair appointments around her allotted time at the gym.

In theory, climbing is simple. A person finds ways to move up a vertical wall by using holds or if outdoors, rocks and divots. The difficulty comes when a person is met with gravity, the holds being far between or in challenging positions and the strength it takes to pull someone’s own body weight higher up the cliff or wall.

L’Esperance said that before getting back into climbing with Johnston, the most recent date she climbed was more than two decades ago.

“The last time, I was 45 and at Devils Tower,” she said. “I had a goal that before I turned 50 I’d make it up and I made it when I was 45.”

She appreciates that with indoor climbing there’s mild temperatures all year round. And though she often sees older men climbing their way up the tower, L’Esperance is the oldest woman she knows who participates. Rather than fear, she feels strength in what she’s able to accomplish each day.

“I am probably the most fit I’ve been in decades and I’ve done karate, I’ve walked, I bike, I’ve done Tai Chi,” she said. “(Climbing) is so rewarding and at least for me it has given me an incredible strength and has improved my balance, coordination and strategy dramatically.”

With Johnston as her belayer, she’s never afraid of the possibility of falling.

“You do not climb with anybody unless you trust them. Many times when I’m trying a new technique and I have no confidence, I say to myself, ‘Kate’s got me,’” L’Esperance said.

Johnston sees L’Esperance’s attitude and courage as a shining example.

“She’s flexible and strong and has a lot of enthusiasm and energy. She’s just really impressive and, you could say, an inspiration,” she said.

In the past 18 months, the two said that other climbers on the rock have also become family. After Saturday’s competition they were even going to join another they’d met for a hot bowl of homemade chili.

But first they had to get there.

Back on the rock

In the second round of competition, the two began by climbing routes beside each other. L’Esperance followed a path of sunshine yellow tape, while Johnston trekked vertically on a route outlined by jaunty rays of sunflowers.

As L’Esperance carefully made her way up the 1,100-level course, she seemed relaxed, eyeing the concrete obstacle in front of her with a wary yet confident gaze. To onlookers, it looked like she’d been climbing for years.

She followed a smooth cadence — lift a leg, raise an arm, stand up — all techniques she and Johnston practiced time and again. At one point, she lifted a leg only to test out all of the nooks and crannies around her before placing it back where it began. It looked something like a dancer preparing to twirl across a stage.

Instead of the tested method, she placed both hands on the same hold, pulling herself up and moving her right arm to a higher hold at the same time as she adjusted her foot placement.

A smooth transition, she continued on without thought to what she’d just accomplished.

Climbing higher, she used her arm and body to brace herself as she maneuvered a ledge about halfway up the tower that had minimal holds on the right side. The arm and brace technique was something she’d been messing around with while practicing the last few months and she’d been itching to test it out on the course.

Although different than what she thought it would feel like, the practice paid off and L’Esperance made it smoothly to the top before gliding lightly down to complete her next test.

At 45 years old, she made it to the top of the real Devils Tower. Now, at 70, she and Johnston can say they’ve climbed the replica hundreds of times. And it doesn’t look like it’ll be slowing down anytime soon.

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