Top climbers competing at Auckland in national series.
Around 100 climbers of all abilities are in Auckland this weekend to contest round four of the 2012 Climbing New Zealand National Cup, making it the largest indoor climbing event in this country's history.
The National Cup series is open to all climbers, in all age groups from Under 12 to Open and Masters and for the climbers at the top end of the field there is more than just bragging rights at stake.
Chris Gatland, the president of Auckland Sport Climbing, said his club took the plunge this year towards organising their first national event. The punt has paid off. The Auckland club pledged $1000 towards the Open's prizes ($500 for men and women) and the country's best talent has followed.
"This kind of prize-money has never been offered before but we made the pledge to generate wide interest from the outdoor climbing community," said Gatland.
"We wanted to make the Open category the best display of sport climbing ever seen and make it accessible to spectators, as normally the very best climbing is only seen outdoors in very remote places."
Josh Evans is the defending men's champion. He leads the series this year and admitted there are some nerves ahead of the biggest meet of the season.
"It is going to be a tough event and there is a lot of pressure on to perform," said the 16-year-old from Long Bay College on Auckland.
"There are a lot of great climbers coming to this one for this prize-money. We don't normally compete for that sort of money so it is pretty exciting and adds an edge to the competition."
Evans said the key to his recent form has been "a lot of time on the wall" and plenty of bouldering to develop his aerobic fitness and strength.
"I have been doing a lot of my training with my body at 45 degrees to the wall so it has been nothing but hard work, but it is getting results."
Evans has opted out of competing in the Worlds this year to focus more on his school work and outdoor climbing. After his recent run of results he has lofty ambitions for his climbing career.
"I want to make a name for myself on the international climbing scene," said Evans, who has been climbing since he was 4 years old.
"I want to work on my outdoor climbing, take on the hardest climbs in New Zealand and then head overseas and keep challenging myself."
Rotorua's Tayla Atkin is leading the women's series after winning the second and third events this year and wants to win in Auckland even more than usual because she needs the money.
"I need the $500 to pay off my computer," laughed the 16-year-old from Western Heights College.
"So there is more pressure than usual. I love the adrenalin rush of climbing and in big events it is even better. I have been counting down to this event because I can't wait to try and win another title."
Atkin, who has been climbing for the past seven years, is not competing at the worlds because she cannot afford it. But she is training hard and winning the national series would be a huge thrill.
"It would be awesome. The series is so much fun getting around New Zealand and the climbing community is really supportive and encouraging.
"It helps you push yourself to a new level. It is only a small sport in New Zealand but the people involved are committed to making it grow."
The current series has run every year since 1994. While the format and number of events has varied, the current format of four events with an athlete's top three events counting towards the series results has been in place since 2002.
Competition climbing in New Zealand has a long history. The first events were in 1987, and have continued every year since. "It is a fun event for all competitors," said Gatland about the national series.
"Young climbers get to travel around the country and meet other climbers to compete, learn skills, share stories about outdoor climbs, and of course hopefully win.
"Most climbers are not intensely competitive but are more focused on personal achievements, personal goals, or completing a 'project'. The series is good because you get to know people well over four events and form friendships ... even relationships." For the 48-year-old Gatland climbing is a family affair. His son, Chase, 20, went to the World Youth Championships in Scotland in 2010 and his 15-year-old daughter, Erica, is hoping to make the team next year.
Gatland, who is not a climber himself, hopes that the introduction of climbing to a larger audience in an accessible place will serve as inspiration for newcomers to the sport.
"Not all climbers aspire to be world champions and many want to measure themselves against their peers, but most also enjoy socialising with other athletes. Climbers will often walk away from the competitions with comments that 'that was a really fun climb, or the setting was really good'.
"The youth component of the series has maintained its popularity, with strong growth from the Bay of Plenty region.
"At the adult level ... we have difficulty moving our youth athletes through to the adult level. This year has seen a marked improvement in the open competition quality and participation level."
That could be good news in time for our Olympic medal chances. Climbing is one of eight sports shortlisted for inclusion in the Olympic Games in 2020.
James Maguire, the president of New Zealand Climbing, believes the sport warrants inclusion.
"Climbing is a primordial activity that involves basic human movement skills," said the 37-year-old, who is also the president of the Oceania Council for Sport Climbing and a member of the executive board of the International Federation of Sport Climbing.
"It is something everyone does as a child; to get to a standing position when you are young you have to climb up to get there. It means that people of all ages can relate to the activity.
"Inclusion would bring an exciting new and innovative sport that is gender balanced into the Olympic programme. It is something that everyone can relate to from a young age, understand as a sport and participate in at their local climbing gym." Maguire explained there is no specific criteria for inclusion in the Olympics but certain aspects of sport climbing will help the sport achieve its goal of being included.
"The fact that climbing is a sport for all people, with great fitness benefits for young and old alike is an overriding benefit. Significantly of great benefit is that we have high national federation support and high participation levels at our world championship events.
"Climbing offers a unique opportunity to include a sport that appeals to a wide market.
"While it appeals to youth athletes there is significant participation in older age groups. As an example, there are more than seven million regular climbers in the United States, where the number of first-time participants has increased by 20 per cent in the last year."
The prospects for climbing's future look bright. In the short term this weekend is all about the elite climbers in New Zealand contesting the biggest event in the sport's history.By Peter Thornton