Welcome to climbing

My oldest daughter, Coach Ella, joined Team ATX when she was 8, which means I’ve been hanging around climbing gyms for the past 11 years. Neither my husband nor I have a climbing background, so we had a lot to learn when Ella first joined the team. Here are answers to some of the questions I asked at the beginning and some of the questions I’ve been asked in the years since.

If you have any questions that aren’t covered here, let me know.

Welcome to the climbing family.

Heather O’Keeffe Gardner (Coach Ella and Elizabeth’s mom)

how do i join the team?

Interested athletes should contact us at teamatxboard@gmail.com to arrange a meeting to discuss the team requirements and give a practice a try. While your kid is climbing, you’ll meet with one of the team’s Board members, who will provide you with a new member packet and the lowdown on how the sport works.

Team Fees

Team dues include full membership to both Austin Rock Gym and Crux Climbing Center. Climbers can attend as many practices as they want each week. 

  • Youth Team: $185 per month / $160 for second climber

  • Adult Team: $135 per month

Competition entry fees are separate from team dues. These fees are paid directly to the host gym. Entry fees are usually $50 for local competitions and between $65-$100 for regional and divisional competitions. 

There is also a coaching fee for each competition to cover travel and coaching costs. The coaching fee for local competitions is $10.00. The fee for out-of-town competitions is $30 and $35 for Regionals, $65 for Divisionals, and $125 for Nationals. 

In addition to team dues, climbers need to be members of USA Climbing if they want to compete at Regionals, Divisionals, and Nationals. You can buy introductory pass for local comps, but if your climber wants to go to Regionals, he or she MUST have a full USA Climbing membership when you register for Regionals. Go here for more membership information. 

Types of Climbing

Climbing is broken into three disciplines: Bouldering, Sport, and Speed.

  • Bouldering is climbing without ropes. There’s a height limit to the routes, usually 10 or 15 feet. In competitive climbing, the bouldering season runs from September to January.

  • Sport climbing involves ropes, and the routes are much higher. Climbers wear harnesses and work with partners called belayers. The sport climbing competitive season runs from March through July. Sport climbing is further broken down to two types – top rope and lead.

    • In top rope climbing, the rope hangs from the top of the wall and the belayer takes up slack as the climber goes up the wall. Climbers in the Youth D and Youth C compete in top rope climbing.

    • In lead climbing, the climber carries the rope as he or she climbs, clipping it into devices called quick draws, as the belayer feeds out slack. Lead climbing allows for routes that have under hangs and that go around corners. Competitors in Youth B, Youth A, and Junior categories compete in lead climbing.

  • Speed climbing is exactly what it sounds like – climbers see just how fast they can go up the wall. All speed walls are set exactly the same. Climbers in Youth D and Youth C categories (we’ll get to categories in a minute) compete on 10-meter walls, and Climbers in Youth B, Youth A, and Junior categories compete on 15-meter walls, which is the international standard. There are two 15-meter walls in Houston.. Here’s footage of the world record speed climb from 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4n6xfu8VDU I recommend watching it—it’s like something out of a super hero movie.

Levels of Competitions

There are four levels of competition: Local, Regional, Divisional, and National. For the really, really good climbers there is also the international level. All three climbing disciplines are now included in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. USA Climbing, which is the governing body for competitive climbing, has broken the country into regions and divisions. Team ATX is in Region 402, which includes Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

  • Local competitions take place within our region. Team ATX usually goes to competitions in Austin and Houston, but we sometimes venture farther north to Dallas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Local competitions are fairly relaxed and only take one day. Climbers must compete in at least two local competitions and place in the top 20 in at least one in order to be eligible to compete in Regional Championships.

  • Regional competitions are held towards the end of each climbing season and are open to everyone who has competed in at least two local competitions. and placed in the top 20 in at least one. The top ten climbers in each age group move on to Divisionals. Team ATX is in Division 4, which includes all of Region 402 plus Arizona and New Mexico.

  • Divisional competitions take two days, and the top 6 from each age group move on to Nationals.

  • Nationals is the final competition for each climbing season. Bouldering Nationals take place in March, and Sport/Speed Nationals are held in July.


Climbers are grouped into categories based on their birth year and age.

  • Junior – 2001-2002

  • Youth A – 2003-2004

  • Youth B – 2005-2006

  • Youth C – 2007-2008

  • Youth D – 2009 and later

Competition Formats

There are two kinds of competition formats: redpoint and onsight.

  • In redpoint competitions, climbers have three hours to complete as many climbs as possible. They then tally their top climbs, and the climber with the most points wins. Local competitions are usually redpoint format.

  • In onsight competitions, climbers aren’t allowed to see the routes before they climb them. They are held in an isolation area, or iso, with other climbers in their category as well as coaches. Once it’s time to climb, climbers are brought out on to the competition floor in order, and there is a set amount of climbing time and rest intervals. Regionals, Divisionals, and Nationals follow this format.


Routes are rated and scored according to their difficulty. At some competitions climbers only receive a score if they finish a route (redpoint). At others, they receive points based on the highest hold they reach (onsight).


All climbers need to have their own climbing shoes (sneakers don't work), harness, chalk bag, and chalk. Team ATX is sponsored by Mad Rock, which offers special pricing on their shoes. We have an order form you can use.

You should buy a harness that is appropriate to your climber’s size. One of the coaches or the gym staff can help your child get fitted. One note of caution – don’t buy a used harness. There’s no way to know if it has any worn spots or weaknesses. Safety is of the utmost importance.

Be prepared for your climber to lose at least one chalk bag per season; they are forever wandering off. Fortunately, chalk bags and chalk are pretty common prizes at competition raffles. Packages of chalk usually last a long time, but be prepared for everything your kid owns to be covered in chalk.

Once your climber starts leading routes, you may want to invest in a rope and rope bag: not all gyms have them available. If your climber does bouldering in the wild, you may also want to get a crash pad. They’re a bit pricey, so if you don’t plan to climb outside, no need to buy one. You can also get crash pads with the Mad Rock Pro Deal.

In addition to their actual climbing gear, all members need to wear a Team ATX shirt at competitions. We have t-shirts and tank tops available for purchase. 


There is always a need for volunteers at climbing competitions. The most common volunteer jobs are belayers and route judges. Both Austin Rock Gym and Crux offer belaying instruction, and it’s a good idea to learn. It will allow you to take your kid to the gym to climb outside of practice hours as well as volunteer. There is route judge training available at competitions. It sounds daunting, but it’s a really good way to learn more about the sport.

With few exceptions, parents can volunteer at events and still watch their kids climb. Volunteering also a really, really good way to make the long hours spent in climbing gyms go a little faster. In addition, you’ll meet a lot of cool people and get a free lunch.


Climbing has its own language. Here are some common words and phrases you’ll hear your kids using to describe their climbing.

  • Boulder Problem: a climb on a boulder

  • Route: a climb on a taller wall requiring a rope

  • Projecting: figuring out how to climb a boulder problem or route

  • Send: finishing a route

  • Flash: finishing a route on the first try

  • Beta: information about a route like its difficulty, good footholds, specific moves (note: It is very against the rules to give climbers Beta when they are sitting in isolation or climbing.)

  • Crux: the hardest move or series of moves on a route

  • Pumped: when the muscles in forearm cramp up

  • Flappers: a piece of skin that peels off a blister or callus, usually on their finger tips, or palm of the hand

  • ATC: a standard belaying device that goes on a belayer’s harness to hold the rope

  • Mad Rock Life Guard or Grigri: similar to an ATC but auto-locking

  • ClimbOn: a magic ointment that climbers swear by to repair blisters and calluses (seriously, my daughter is convinced that it can fix anything up to and including a severed limb)

  • FES: the team cheer the kids do at the end of every practices. It stands for Focus, Execute, Send.

  • FES wagon: the team van

  • FEStergator: the team mascot

Climbing Parents

Finally, a note about being a climbing parent: your job at a competition is to make sure your climber is there on time, provide them with food and water, and cheer for them when they climb. The coaches work with each climber to figure out which routes they are going to attempt and the order in which they will do them; you don’t have to worry about it. It’s preferable to let the coaches do their job. We end up just confusing the kids or we cause them to be distracted.

The kids need to learn how to keep track of their gear and their score cards how to fill in their top scores and submit the cards to right place.

Climbing is an amazing sport that teaches kids strength and resilience that will serve them throughout their lives. They will form bonds with their own teammates as well as with climbers from all over the country that go far beyond the climbing gym.