Texas Rock Climbing conquers new heights

Elizabeth Hlavinka

Art history senior Hanna Bernbaum joins her competitors in the isolation area, handing over her cell phone and leaving her teammates behind. She has only a moment to look at the wall — 10 seconds later, she’s scaled it.

Bernbaum is an officer in Texas Rock Climbing, UT’s rock climbing team, which competes in six competitions per year, as well as regional and national championships. Climbers participate in one of three divisions — bouldering, speed climbing or sport climbing. Bernbaum specializes in bouldering, a no-rope climb at a maximum height of 10 feet, as well as speed climbing, where climbers scale a 10-meter wall as fast as they can. 

Bernbaum said climbing is meditative to her and calls it “dancing on the Z-plane.” “If I’ve had a bad day, there’s no doubt I’ll be going climbing to filter out all the toxins and bad emotions,” Bernbaum said. “I feel beautiful while climbing.”

The team is comprised of 65 undergraduate and graduate students. Beginning in 2012, Texas Rock Climbing won nationals three years in a row. For the past two seasons they have placed second, making them one of the top five teams in the nation.

Their coach, John Myrick, started the team in 2008, when there were few opportunities for college climbers to compete. To help bridge the gap between youth leagues and adult professional competitions, Myrick coordinated with college teams around the country to host the sport’s first Collegiate National Championships. The year the series began, there were 45 teams participating. Now, there are over 200. 

“When I was in high school, I had a dream to see climbing become a college sport,” Myrick said. “How cool would it be if you could get a scholarship to go to college for climbing and represent your school?”

Myrick has been showing people the ropes from a young age. When he was 10-years-old, he went on a Boy Scout camping trip and taught his Scout masters how to climb and belay, using the knowledge he had gained from hanging around a mountaineering shop near his house.

Later, he joined the Navy and developed a training program which included climbing skills for people that were about to enter the search and rescue school. During this time, he was inspired to create what would later become the team’s philosophy: “FES” — focus, execute, send. 

“It’s a way to approach any obstacle or challenge you face in life,” Myrick said. “If you can use that to stay poised and help give you confidence in high pressure situations, that’s huge in life.”

While some climbers like Myrick have been climbing since childhood, many of the team’s members are new to the sport. Bernbaum, for example, didn’t begin to climb competitively until her second year at UT. After leaving the NCAA rowing team, she said she was looking for a more communal and down-to-earth sport.

“[Our community] is rooted in this sense of adventure, and it’s also based on trust,” Bernbaum said. “Every day at practice, you’re trusting somebody with your life — that translates socially.”

Krista Henehan, the USA Climbing director of operations, said what sets the collegiate series apart from other divisions is that all three disciplines are included, whereas at both the youth and professional levels, they are separated. Additionally, competitors perform on teams that include mens and womens divisions, as opposed to individual competition. 

Mechanical engineering senior Michael Sulkis, the team president, said the group dynamic is his favorite part of climbing. Last season, he earned the Most Valuable Player award, which was presented to him at the team’s annual banquet. 

“I’m not the strongest climber on the team, but I put a lot of work into [it] and I care about it a lot,” Sulkis said. “It means a lot for my teammates to recognize that.”

Although climbing is still considered a recreational sport, it is growing rapidly. This year, USA Climbing will send a team of 27 students to Shanghai, China to represent the United States in their first Collegiate World University Championship. 

Krista Henehan, the USA Climbing Director of Operations, said that as the sport expands, having appropriate facilities becomes increasingly necessary. 

“This last year was the first year we were able to host the competition in three different venues,” Henehan said. “Being able to have a gym shut down their facilities so we could be there for a weekend shows how much the sport has grown in the past few years.”