Rock’N’Rugged | Philly Current Magazine

[This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 Issue of the Philly Current Magazine]

It’s a Friday afternoon, and a light rain drums the roof of the climbing gym. Inside, everyone gradually stops what they’re doing to watch a lone climber ascending the steepest wall the facility has to offer. The thin, long-armed athlete swivels his legs up and out, and hooks his feet onto a small hold above his head. The move is called a ‘bat hang,’ and as he hangs upside-down by his toes, the name suddenly makes sense. A moment later, he lifts his hands up to a hold, rights his body, and continues to pull himself up to the top of the wall, clipping his rope into fixed carabineers as he goes.

This rugged display of athleticism is nothing more than part of an average weekday workout for Jesse Grupper, an acclaimed competitive rock climber and long time member of the Philadelphia Rock Gym (PRG) Climbing Team.

“That was fun,” Jesse, a 19-year-old freshman at Tufts University, says as his belayer lowers him down off the most difficult route on the 60-foot wall. Jesse’s not even breathing hard. He grins at his belayer as he unties from the rope. “What a great move! Thanks for the catch!”

Jesse has been living in the world of competitive climbing for nearly a decade. When it comes to competitions, he took home the gold at three national youth bouldering championships, and placed second at the 2015 IFSC World Youth Championships in Arco, Italy. This winter, he took fourth in the pro division of the Dark Horse series behind some of the biggest names in climbing. And most recently, he placed second in the open category at the Friction Burn, a competition held at PRG, his home gym. And these are just a few highlights from his impressive resume.

But for someone so accomplished, he has a humble and grounded view of both competing and of himself. “In climbing,” he says, “It’s me against myself, and me against the wall. It’s not about who is better than who.” He refers to the mindset as his “no expectations” attitude. “When I have that mentality, I tend to climb my best.”

On days like this, when the rain makes outdoor climbing impossible, Jesse often trains indoors. But only a fraction of Jesse’s actual climbing takes place inside. On a recent trip to West Virginia’s New River Gorge, he climbed his hardest outdoor line to date, a route called Still Life, which has a rating of 5.14b. In the climbing world, that rating causes jaws to drop. But when discussing the climb – an achievement that other elite climbers might let go their heads – Jesse instead grows quiet.

“Climbing has taught me so much about life,” he says as he gets ready to belay his climbing partner. “Every time I step up to a wall, I’m putting my life at risk. I have to overcome my fear. The fear of heights. The fear of failing, the fear of falling. I have to learn how to trust in myself and to trust in others.” In his spare time, Jesse uses an online blog to reflect on the lessons he has learned from his competitions and his climbing trips. These posts have titles like ‘How Lucky We Are To Fall,’ ‘Nature vs The Proper Soul,’ and ‘The Benefits of an Injury.’

He pauses for a moment to focus on his teammate, and shouts encouraging words up to her as she climbs. Once she’s finished the climb and they’ve untied the rope, he gives her a high five, and then turns back to continue his explanation. “One of things I love about climbing,” he says, “Is that there’s always this sense of friendly camaraderie. It’s like we’re all banned together to combat this epic, natural force – the rock. We love seeing each other sending hard routes and succeeding. We’re always cheering each other on.”

Even though he is at school up in New England, Jesse is still coached by Randi Goldberg of Philadelphia Rock Gym – his coach of nearly ten years – and he still competes as part of the PRG climbing team. He trains four days a week, making sure that one day each week is a ‘fun day.’ “When it’s climbing, they’re all fun days, really,” he admits with a smile. And now that Jesse is out of the youth circuit himself, he has even started coaching a local youth team himself.

When asked what we can expect from Jesse Grupper, he shrugs, and instead of talking about upcoming competitions or hard outdoor routes, he simply says that he has two exams on Monday that he still needs to study for – Astronomy and Calculus. But then he flashes his characteristic grin. “What I really want to get out of [climbing],” he says, “Is an experience. I believe that reminding myself of this essential truth will give me the “no expectations” attitude that will allow me to perform my best.”

And that’s the way it is for Jesse. The sky above the top of the crag is truly the limit for this Philly Climber. And we know that wherever his climbing may take him, it’s bound to be accompanied by positivity, insightful reflection, and an endless supply of cheerful grins.

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