The Rise of Climbing in a Small Texas Town
The Rise of Climbing in a Small Texas Town
From College Clubs to Climbing Gyms
Full Disclosure: Upventur provided monetary funds to the UNT Climbing Club for 2017-2018 season in exchange for a sponsorship spot on the team's jerseys seen in several of the images below.
In a college town where football reigns supreme, there isn’t much room for other sports. The small town of Denton, Texas where Upventur is headquartered, is home to the University of North Texas Mean Green football team and although the team has seen better days, it is still the leading sport on campus, and in the area.
Like any other college, the University of North Texas has other sports such as basketball, swimming, volleyball, softball and a couple of others. The university directly funds these sports, and that includes equipment, travel and scholarships for athletes. However, other sports like UNT’s climbing team are only considered a club by the school, and club sports, unlike their larger counterparts, receive limited funding.
The club’s current president, biology junior Austin Sivoravong, joined up at a time when the club was mostly a collective of recreational climbers. The club has changed since then with many of the team’s top climbers placing in top spots at climbing tournaments. Now, after first being the traveling manager and then co-running the whole operation with his brother, Sivoravong has managed to receive some additional funding from the school, but it was not always easy.
In the first competitions, the team had not proved themselves yet, and because of it, they lacked the budget to send a team to Austin. "I just want to give a shoutout to all of the old climbers two years ago who paid out-of-pocket to go to these competitions because nowadays our funding has increased from $500 to $5000,” Sivoravong says. "And so now we can be like yeah, of course, the whole team is going to Austin. But two years ago we would have had to say ‘hey guys we all want to go to Austin, and If you can afford to pay out of pocket then that would be great…' "
Climbing, depending on the discipline, can have a prohibitive cost of entrance. Gear such as shoes, chalk bags, and if rope climbing; carabiners, ropes and harnesses, are expensive but necessary. Sivoravong owns multiple shoes ranging from the $130 Scarpa Insight’s to the $160 Evolv Shaman’s, and his climbing team peer, marketing junior Cole Dyson, is considered among his friends to be the shoe guru—he owns seven pairs. Almost all climbing gear sold is for safety reasons, but the cost of quickdraws and other types of gear can add up to a significant cost in a matter of climbs. Dyson argues that climbing is about as expensive as any hobby, and the prices go up depending on the climber’s needs.
To save money, students can pay a $30 fee every semester to climb on the wall at the Pohl Recreation Center on UNT’s campus. The pass allows students on a budget to climb the wall as many times as they like and provides them with gear. Then again, a short drive down Oak Street in Denton, reveals another kind of gym, one that doesn’t do rope climbing.
Opened in 2015, the Summit gym in Denton—the company’s fourth location in the North Texas area—focuses on a type of climbing called bouldering. Differing from rope climbing, however, bouldering involves much shorter routes—known as problems—and doesn’t require a harness or ropes; just chalk and a plan of attack.
"Summit Denton, because they're a bouldering only gym, they're not able to put out a bunch of different rope routes which works really well for the UNT wall,” says Dyson. “So, rope climbing is graded on the Yosemite Decimal System whereas bouldering is graded on a V Scale and that V Scale can differ from gym to gym. A lot of different gyms use tape and then set up a very specific grade." Summit uses a circuit system that sets problems to distinct colors. Yellow is the easiest grade ranging from V0 to V1, and it goes all the way to the hardest, black, which are problems graded V8 and above.
The climbing community has been growing steadily ever since the Summit gym opened in Denton. Monthly passes are available at the gym, for $55 and $40 for students, as well as advanced and beginner classes, and because why not, also yoga. At Summit, according to Dyson—an employee at the gym—they care about community and people, which is why they host events like a recent one where they served breakfast and mimosas at night. Events like these still feature climbing, but they are more focused on getting people to know each other.
Dyson says that community is one of Summit’s biggest goals, from member events to competitions, “their goal is to try and get you in and get you on the wall and then get you to come back, and not only trying to climb a bunch of different routes, but also climb with a bunch of different people."
Summit also prides itself on teaching beginners how to climb. "Sometimes you get people that are just coming in for a fun date idea or just a fun night out. But then if you have someone come in there and they're struggling on the routes and they're like 'hey I'm really interested in how I need to be doing this.' That's where that community aspect comes into play because we'll sit there and we'll talk with them. We're not telling them how to do something; we're giving them ideas on how to do something. And so that communication, that conversation that we had with them not only makes them feel more confident and helps them out with their climbing, but it also opens up a line of communication to get them to come back, to not just be on the wall, but to come back and see us,” says Dyson.
That attention to new climbers has paid off. Summit, which got its start by buying out other gyms, built its first location from the ground up in Denton and now two years later they’re opening another location in Fort Worth, driving up their gym total to five.
"I definitely had friends at the gym before I even had that many friends in the school itself because they're very welcoming. They'll remember your name even if you're a beginner. People will make it a point to make me feel included and encouraged,” says photography Junior and UNT Climbing Team member, Mia Alfonso. “When I went to Dallas, I would try and make friendly conversation with people at the gym, and they would just kind of look at me and keep doing what they're doing. Whereas here at (Summit) Denton I made a bunch of friends.”
These two gyms, completely different in technique, have created a buzz around climbing in the Denton area and that is good news for Sivoravong’s climbing team, which now boasts over 60 members—up from 10 members when he initially joined. Competition is serious, and Sivoravong says that he and the other competitors on the team take their job very seriously even though they are self-taught and self-disciplined. With no coaches, or major support, they have managed to make a name for themselves at competitions all over the country.
After one semester of climbing, Sivoravong and his twin brother Ben were the only officers left in the club, after the previous president had to drop out of school for a personal reason. They fought an uphill battle, Sivoravong says, because the culture of the club was stuck in being laid back and chill. He convinced several members to compete and once they bought-in the club began appearing at more competitions. Within a year they had gone to regionals, and the organization had doubled in size. Now they are the biggest sports club at UNT and one of the strongest collegiate teams in the nation, according to Sivoravong. He says the UNT club sports department loves to tell this story.
They did not know what to expect at nationals, but 3 of the 14 climbers they sent got a podium—Sivoravong was one of them. Now some of the top climbers on the team are ranked nationally for collegiate climbing, "which is absolutely insane," says Sivoravong. “We may not be like D-1 star athletes like in football and basketball, but a lot of the time climbers on the team work just as hard as those athletes do."
It may not be the most significant sport, but it is beginning to grab the attention of more universities especially in states heavy in rock climbing like California, Colorado, Utah and Texas Sivoravong says. "I can predict in the future, and leading with these four states, that it could eventually become one of those things where you could potentially, you know, go to college on scholarship because of rock climbing. Just like someone does for basketball and football."
Although most competitions are for rope climbing, Alfonso, Dyson and Sivoravong all climb at both gyms. Dyson says that bouldering has made him a worse rope- climber, but that it is still fun. Sivoravong trains multiple times a week at both gyms. The climbing team meets at the climbing wall at the recreation center twice a week.
Although climbing is catching on in the mainstream, mainly since the announcement that the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics will feature the sport, it is still stuck in the past in some ways. Climbing seems to be male-dominated, and although brands like 5.10, The North Face, and Black Diamond, champion female climbers considered to be some of the best in the world, it can still feel like a boy’s club.
"On a professional level I don't think it's male-dominated but definitely on a more local level, like at your local gym or even like if you're not a professional and you're just like a really good climber, there's definitely more men who seem to succeed and get better,” says Alfonso, also a top a climber on the UNT Climbing Team.
Alfonso has been climbing since she joined her local climbing team in Houston when she was seven and is now one of the fiercest competitors on the UNT Climbing Team. Now that she is in college she feels that other women have stopped climbing competitively, which has evened the playing field for her. Last year at a national competition Alfonso made it to finals and is now ranked 16th in the country for collegiate women. Apart from competing, Alfonso is also a team coach and the club’s media officer, but she mostly coaches she says.
"I love seeing the beginner girls get better too. Just because girls tend to not think that they can be as strong as all the guys on the team or in the climbing community. And so, I like being able to disprove that as well as help them get better and get to that point too,” Alfonso says about being a coach. "I think it's just a lack of support for female climbers, which ever since I was little, it's gotten so much better over the years but it is still just something where I think female climbers definitely need other female climbers to help push them."
From a small club of climbers who just did for fun, the UNT Climbing Team has really come into its own recently, competing with big schools, and just showing up, but taking podiums in the process. All three athletes have placed in their competitions, and for a school that mainly cares about an alright-at-best football team, that means something. It can’t be stated that their success has garnered more members, but ever since Sivoravong and his brother took charge, their members and budgets have grown. Maybe it is the perfect time for climbing to find a hold in this community, and it seems that Summit is doing well and here to stay. For a small city nowhere near boulders or rock walls, Denton is, apart from being a music, beer, and football town, also a climbing town.
"Two years ago if you had said, ‘oh I'm on the UNT Climbing Team’ people would have looked at you and asked, 'there is a climbing team at UNT?’ But nowadays if you say, 'yeah I'm on the UNT Climbing Team' they'll say ‘oh you're one of those guys.’"