Eva Abert is a 4-foot tall, 66-pound sprite with dark curly hair. In shorts and a tank top, she defies gravity by scaling vertical walls with the grace of a real-life Spider-Woman.
With just three years of training at Santa Rosa’s Vertex Climbing Center, Eva placed 16th in her age group at a national championship competition in Wisconsin, competing with 35 girls who were each given four minutes to climb as high as she could up four routes on an indoor climbing wall.
Ten-year-old Eva, one of the stars of Vertex’s youth climbing program, is part of a gender surge in a sport most people associate with muscular men like Kevin Jorgeson, another Santa Rosan with ties to Vertex who stunned the world last month by free climbing Yosemite’s 3,000-foot Dawn Wall.
But brute strength and body mass, which give men a distinct edge in most sports, are not the keys to success in the high-risk sport of rock climbing. Instead, young women Eva’s age combine tenacity, mental focus and piano-wire strength to scale the world’s toughest rocks.
“I train a lot,” said Eva shortly after scooting up a vertical practice board with seeming ease, hanging on with just her fingertips at the Vertex facility in a Coffey Lane industrial park.
“Mental,” she said, indicating the hardest part of her sport by tapping the side of her head. Let uncertainty creep in during a climb and you’ve got a bigger problem than finding the next secure hold on the wall.
Justin Hall, 14, who started climbing at Vertex seven years ago, accompanied Eva and Vertex youth team coaches Jordan Welch and Kris Terry at USA Climbing’s national youth bouldering championships last weekend at Madison, Wis.
Justin finished fourth in the finals, winning a spot on the USA Team.
Welch said she has put aside her personal climbing goals to boost the youngsters.
“It’s all about the women and kids now,” she said.
The gender gap in climbing is “shrinking every year,” said Sarah McKay, 39, a Vertex co-owner who started climbing in a Santa Cruz gym 20 years ago.
It’s not a new trend, she said. Lynn Hill, a pioneer climber at 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, made the first free climb up The Nose route on Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan in 1993 and came back the next year to scale it in a day.
Young women have the “ideal power to weight ratio” for climbing, said her business partner, co-owner Gorden Cooley, 30, who at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds is larger than most male climbers. (Chris Sharma, widely regarded as the world’s top rock climber, is 6-foot and 165 pounds). Girls also possess an attention to detail that most boys lack, Cooley said.
“You need to read the sequence in front of you and execute,” he said.
When done right, climbing a wall “feels like you’re dancing,” McKay said.
Considering the passions it inspires, climbing would equate to the tango, the South American dance named after the Latin word for touch and often performed in close embrace.
“There is something metaphysical about it,” said Jeremiah Kahmoson, 35, of Sebastopol, who joined Vertex in 2001.
“A thousand feet off the ground enjoying the vista of Tuolumne Meadows. It’s transformative.”
For the 600 members of the Vertex climbing community, the last half-year marked a dramatic rebound from darkness to light.