RENO — You can tell Jenna Wang is a great speed climber without even watching her. All you have to do is listen.
During a recent climb in downtown Reno, Wang, 15, waited quietly while an automated timer counted down her start.
The timer beeped and she was off. You could hear her shoes, hands and knees bumping over the holds on the 15-meter wall that towers above Virginia Street on the facade of the Whitney Peak Hotel.
Less than 11 seconds later there was a slap and another beep when Wang tapped the timer at the top of the wall. The climb was a new personal best for Wang, who was scheduled to compete at the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Youth Championships, held in the South Pacific city of Noumea, New Caledonia from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23.
“The top three holds are all jumps,” Wang said. “So it is really hard to keep your momentum going.”
Nearby, Wang’s friend, Emma Palmer, 13, practiced on a sport climbing wall. Palmer isn’t old enough to compete in New Caledonia, but she’ll be competing in the climbing federation’s upcoming youth Pan American Games in Puebla, Mexico.
Wang and Palmer are among a generation of young climbers looking to scale the ranks in the sport of speed climbing, which has existed in various forms since the 1940s but didn’t enter the mainstream until about 50 years later.
“Speed climbing is a lot of muscle memory,” said Wang, due to the fact all official speed climbing routes use the same holds.
The event involves scrambling up a 15-meter wall as quickly as possible. It’s designed to be more spectator friendly by having competitors compete side-by-side while racing up identical routes.
Brian Sweeney, coach of the Sierra Climbing Team that practices at BaseCamp at Whitney Peak Hotel, said the race-style format is more straightforward than solo climbing events in which judges evaluate nuanced climbing maneuvers.
“It is much easier for an audience to understand,” Sweeney said.
Wang’s IFSC speed event is a form of competitive climbing. Others include lead climbing and bouldering. Competitive climbing differs from traditional climbing in that it uses fixed holds on artificial surfaces, as opposed to climber-installed and removed surfaces used on stone surfaces for traditional climbing.
The growing popularity of climbing gyms has contributed to increasing interest in competitive climbing, although many competitive climbers also participate in traditional climbing.
Eric Wang said his daughter built up her skills by practicing and competing as much as possible, in addition to participating in family climbs on the weekend.
“Part of youth climbing is instilling a love of climbing,” Eric Wang said of the competitive aspects. “They won’t be doing this competition climbing forever. Really it is about going outside.”
Wang said he and his wife, Sally Wang, aren’t worried about their daughter participating in a sport many outsiders consider dangerous.
He described the sport of climbing as high consequence but low risk. By that he meant that because the consequence of falling is so great, climbers go to great lengths to reduce risk. That includes always using good ropes and building redundancies into the safety efforts so if one fails there’s another behind it.
“It is far more dangerous driving your car to go climbing than it is to be out there actually climbing,” he said.
Palmer said she doesn’t shy away from the challenge of a difficult climb, even if it’s something non-climbers would consider scary.
“I actually like being up high and looking all the way down,” Palmer said.