Some climbers approach the vertical plane with a grace and balance honed by years on the rock. Others flash through tricky sequences of moves with inborn talent.
Lucas Morgan climbs with a bit of both.
Morgan, of Spokane, is an up-and-comer in a sport that welcomes youthful record-breakers. After a fourth-place showing at a national climbing competition in Portland two weeks ago, Morgan scored a place on the U.S. national climbing team. He also happens to be 13 years old.
"I have always liked climbing around. I liked climbing trees. It's fun being up high," says Morgan, while resting between routes at Wild Walls, the local climbing gym/pro shop/hangout where he trains. Asked if he's ever been scared of the heights he scales, he says simply, "No."
Friends say Morgan is shy. But he's fearless on the rock -- or, in this case, the plastic holds of a Wild Walls climbing route (rated roughly 5.12b in climbing parlance -- in other words, really difficult). Lucas climbs with a sure-footed grace that's ballet-like, swiveling his hips fluidly for better positions as he surges upward, hold over hold, a large sloping hold here, a tiny crimper there. He smears his foot flat on the wall, skipping a hold, then swings past an over-hanging roof without pausing.
"He's in an age category that's just starting to express their talent," says George Hughbanks, Wild Walls youth team coach. "Technically, Lucas is superb. Technically, he does a lot of things right. He's not one to have to overpower routes."
Smaller climbers often have an easier time of it, given their higher strength-to-weight ratio. High-end climbing, though, is about more than power; it's about balance and route-finding. Some of the world's best climbers are young, like Gen Xers Chris Sharma and Tommy Caldwell, both barely into their 20s. Older experienced climbers, though, can put in tough routes long past the point that most professional baseball- and basketball-players call it quits.
If he'd taken to soccer like many other kids, Morgan's climbing exploits may have ended with trees and basketball hoops (his one serious climbing injury was a broken arm sustained a few months ago, falling from one). Morgan was almost 11 and looking for something different, says his mother, Anita Morgan. He tried karate lessons housed in a building on West Second Ave. Curious, one day they wandered down the hall into the Wild Walls gym, hopped on a $5 introductory route, and he was hooked. He climbs several times a week now, mostly inside but also at area crags like Deep Creek.
"In some ways, he was always a climber," says Anita. "So this was a way to place those energies is someplace safe," with a rope and harness. "When he climbed, it engaged all the best parts of him. He was more engaged, more on... I've seen it be such a a good match for his various gifts and talents."
Now Morgan is a competitive climber, a member of the gym's youth climbing team. A few others are talented climbers, too, like Melissa Main, 12, (who placed 10th in the female 12-13 category at nationals) and Ryan Ehrgood, 14, described as having an incredible work ethic in training. But Morgan is only the second or third area youth to place in the top bracket at nationals.
That he made it to the competition this year was perhaps a bit of luck -- bad and good. Earlier this year, just before his first regional competition, Lucas fell from that basketball hoop and broke his arm. The injury knocked him out for weeks, and when he did recover, "he wasn't climbing well," Anita says. Morgan climbed in just three regionals, taking a third-, a fourth- and a fifth-place. Had the U.S. Competitive Climbing Association officials now proffered him an invitation based on previous performance, Morgan's scores would have kept him out of nationals.
But he was feeling stronger, primed for a comeback.
Nationals is the national youth climbing championship sponsored by the USCCA, held July 5-7 in Portland. The first day was a "flash" competition, with climbers lined up by age categories to climb pre-set indoor routes. They won points based on how high they climbed without weighting their safety rope, Morgan explains.
"I flashed the first two routes. Got 'em both," he says.
The second day, officials held the competitors in isolation so they couldn't see the routes or other climbers scaling them until their turn on the wall.
"I didn't do so well," says Morgan.
His foot slipped off a hold -- the sort of silly thing that sometimes just happens in the twisty, reachy heights of competitive climbing. He still climbed well enough to compete as a finalist, climbing hard and smooth there and grabbing fourth place out of 34 in his age category -- and, says Anita, beating boys he'd lost to at regional competitions. That won Morgan a place on the national team, meaning he can participate in an intensive climbing camp with big-name vertical coaches. National team members 14 and older also get to compete in the world climbing championships. By one year, Morgan missed his shot at scaling against competitors, now gathering in France. That's one more year of practice, building strength and grace before roping in again. He hopes to score a world-level competition.
"With everybody in climbing, it's basically limited only by how much time and effort you're willing to put into it," says coach Hughbanks. With Morgan having started so young and shown such progress, "The potential's there."