HUECO TANKS STATE PARK AND HISTORIC SITE, Tex. — With a concentrated squint, Ashima Shiraishi silently sized up her first rock of the day, a menacing slab of jagged beige boulder 20 feet high, scuffed by white chalk left behind from bigger, older, more experienced climbers.
A black crash pad as thick as a mattress was placed on the ground, and without a rope or harness for protection, Ashima shrugged off her purple jacket, hoisted herself onto the boulder and began to scramble up, her calf muscles bulging gently as she grabbed one nearly invisible ledge of rock after another. With a final stretch, she reached the top, her glossy black ponytail disappearing first, then one limb at a time, until she was out of sight.
A tiny voice floated over the top of the boulder. “How do you get down?” she said.
Ashima had just begun a two-week climbing expedition this spring at Hueco Tanks, a state park that is a mecca for bouldering enthusiasts, 860 acres of rock masses surrounded by endless desert and sky 30 miles northeast of El Paso.
Three days after she arrived, she stunned the bouldering world by climbing Crown of Aragorn, an exceedingly difficult route that requires climbers to contort their bodies and hang practically upside down by their fingers as they navigate a rock that juts out from the ground at a 45-degree angle.
On the scale of V0 to V16 that governs bouldering, Crown of Aragorn is a V13, a level that only a few female climbers had reached.
None were 10 years old, as she was.
Ashima, a petite girl with pale skin, a toothy smile and a thick fringe of bangs cut in a perfect line across her forehead, is not only the best climber her age in the United States, or maybe anywhere, but her accomplishments have already placed her among the elite in the sport.
In 2008, when she was only 7, she began sending problems — bouldering lingo for ascending routes — that some adult climbers could not handle.
On a trip to Hueco in 2010, she climbed a V10 called Power of Silence. The next year, she ascended a V11/12 called Chablanke.
At the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship in Colorado Springs in March, she easily came in first place, all 4 feet 5 inches and 63 pounds of her.
Before finishing fifth grade, Ashima, who recently turned 11, is redefining what physical tools are required to be an elite climber and showing how a child can hold her own against professional climbers who are adults.
This summer, she will accompany a group of American climbers for an expedition in South Africa, where she will be the only child climber in the bunch.
“She’s this adorable little girl who climbs hard and cries when she doesn’t send,” said Andrew Tower, the editor in chief of Urban Climber magazine. “Her climbing I.Q. is so high, you show her how to do something and she soaks it up really quickly. She understands innately how to move.”
It did not take a pro to see that there was something unusual going on at the time Ashima started climbing in 2007, when she was 6.
Her parents, Tsuya and Hisatoshi Shiraishi, had immigrated from Japan in 1978 and settled in a loft in Chelsea. When Ashima, their only child, was 2, they began taking her to Central Park in search of amusement.
One afternoon when Ashima was in kindergarten, they wandered over to Rat Rock, a boulder 15 feet high and 40 feet wide at the south end of the park that is a favorite spot for amateur climbers.
Ashima joined the other climbers and began to scurry up the rock without help, so focused on her climbing that she begged to stay at Rat Rock through the dinner hour. Finally, when it became so dark that Ashima could not see the rock anymore, they went home.
The Shiraishis were mystified. “We didn’t even know that climbing was a sport,” her father, Hisatoshi Shiraishi, said later.
But he knew that his little girl was good.
The Shiraishis went to Rat Rock almost daily, visits that stretched through the summer and into the fall. Ashima kept improving, climbing higher and faster, often attracting a crowd.
By November, it was becoming too cold to climb outside, and the Shiraishis started to worry. What were they going to do with her all winter?
Some bystanders in the park encouraged Hisatoshi Shiraishi, known as Poppo, to take Ashima to a proper climbing gym.
“They said, ‘You’re special,’ ” Ashima recalled, her voice trailing off with a shade of embarrassment. “They told me that I should be climbing at a gym, all the time.”
Climbing tends to attract outdoors types from Western states like Colorado, Montana and California. But every once in a while, “someone pops out of some crazy part of the U.S. and shows us all that it doesn’t much matter where you live,” Tower said, adding that the 19-year-old Sasha DiGiulian, one of the best female climbers in the world, is from the Washington suburbs.
Poppo had never heard of climbing gyms, and none of Ashima’s classmates were into climbing. But curious about the sport and happy to indulge Ashima, he took her to the Manhattan Plaza Health Club on the West Side.
“If it wasn’t for Rat Rock, I wouldn’t have found climbing,” Ashima said, smiling.
Soon, they fell into a rhythm: Ashima would climb nearly every day after school, with Poppo as her coach.
He did not know about rock climbing, but he knew how to move. He had been trained as a dancer, studying Butoh, a form developed in Japan a half-century ago that is influenced by German Expressionism. In New York, he performed in a group called Poppo and the Go-Go Boys, whose “strangely beautiful” routines sometimes ended with dances on and around toilet bowls, a finale that was “more than a prank,” an admiring review in The New York Times said in 1993.
In those days, Poppo the modern dancer and choreographer wore his hair in a triple Mohawk. Now he has toned it down a bit, but on a recent Saturday afternoon at the gym in New Rochelle, N.Y., where Ashima takes a private weekly lesson and participates in the occasional climbing competition, Poppo stood out among the suburban parents in khakis and J. Crew sweaters.
His hair, dyed canary yellow, was buzzed short on the sides and spiked on top. He wore designer eyeglasses and a light gray T-shirt decorated with neat rows of Japanese lettering. (They read, “Are you stupid?”)
Poppo, who has given up Butoh but still moves with the lithe ease of a dancer, watched Ashima intensely as she moved steadily up the wall.
When Ashima climbs, he said, he feels he is climbing with her.
“With dance, there is space all around you,” he said, spreading his arms wide and fluttering his fingers in a circle. “I teach her to think about the space around her when she is climbing.”
Modern bouldering is not much older than Ashima. It reached widespread recognition only in the 1990s as a discipline of rock climbing, one that requires participants to climb without ropes or harnesses, on rocks that generally do not reach higher than 15 or 20 feet.
The sport favors the small rocks over the big ones, so it lacks the drama and death-defying heights of climbing mountains like Everest and K2. But its fans are drawn to bouldering for its spare quality, powerful movements and the simplicity of being unburdened and unaided by heavy equipment.
Very little gear is used, beyond a pair of light climbing shoes, a pouch of white chalk to keep the hands dry and a thick mattress, known as a crash pad, that lies beneath the climber.
During local competitions, a point value is assigned to each boulder problem based on how difficult it is. Athletes climb in isolation, without any verbal help from the ground.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 3.65 million people participated in sport, indoor and boulder climbing in 2011.
And as climbing has gained popularity, more children have tried it. One of the top children in the sport, a frequent competitor of Ashima’s, is Brooke Raboutou, the daughter of the former climbing champions Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou and Didier Raboutou.
Physically, children and teenagers may even have some advantages over adults: their small hands and feet allow them to use holds that adults cannot. Some experts have suggested that they bounce back more quickly from falls and injuries than adults do.
Ashima has not escaped injuries. Her knees are marked with scrapes and scabs. On her forehead is a faint yellow bruise, the size of a quarter, sustained during a climb at her gym in Brooklyn.
“I was trying to do a really big move and I hit my head,” she said.
Getting hurt does not seem to bother her.
“I don’t think about it,” she said. “I know how to fall.”
But the mental requirements of climbing are too much for many children to handle.
Up close, bouldering is slow, even ponderous, a sport that allows for long stretches of hanging out, talking with fellow climbers, sitting around and contemplating holds and pinches. A group of climbers might stay at one chunk of rock for hours, staring at it and plotting the smartest way up.
None of that seems to bore Ashima.
“When she’s climbing, she’s not a child,” Poppo said. “Her mentality is like a professional climber.” Obe Carrion, her private coach, calls it “the stone face” that she wears during competitions.
Kynan Waggoner, the director of operations for USA Climbing, the national governing body for the sport of competition climbing, said Ashima competed as if she were five years older than she is, mentally and physically. The children who excel at climbing, he added, tend to have an ability to concentrate that is beyond their years.
“The best young climbers climb like shrunken adults — they don’t move like children,” Waggoner said. “Their coordination is like a fully formed adult. Their balance is better; their agility is better. They just look like little men or little women. Everything is precise; everything is calculated. That’s how Ashima climbs.”
Not everyone in the bouldering universe is convinced of Ashima’s precociousness. On the Web, her climbs have been questioned by anonymous commenters who have suggested — unfairly, according to the evidence — that she has cut corners.
Doubters have said Ashima could not possibly have climbed what she did, but other climbers have come to her defense.
“These anonymous trolls may have to eat their words,” a blog post on dpmclimbing.com read last year, noting that two days into a trip to Hueco in 2011, Ashima tackled two more difficult boulder problems, with plenty of witnesses around.
Commute to Climbing
Climbing is pretty much the only thing that holds Ashima’s interest for long. Television, movies and computers are not a big part of her day, partly because the Waldorf school she attends has a philosophy that includes a general distaste for technology.
She collects handmade Japanese stickers, which she keeps in a scrapbook, and her favorite subjects are gym and woodworking, where she learned to make a cutting board and a salad spoon and fork.
And though she is as smiley and goofy as the next fifth grader, Ashima shuns the typical pink-laden world of many of her schoolgirl friends. Carrion, 35, likes to tease her that her big reward for all this climbing is a trip to Disney World to check out the princesses, a suggestion that makes her wrinkle her nose in disgust.
“She’s never been a girlie girl,” said her aunt Kay Horikawa, who attends her competitions faithfully and watches her practice. “She’s never had a Barbie.”
What Ashima does have is a steely focus that is unusual for someone her age.
Competitions have been part of her climbing repertory since she was 7, and for the last three years, she has won the national youth bouldering championships, the biggest contest in the sport.
She insists on climbing nearly every day, in a rigorous schedule that takes her directly from school, the Rudolf Steiner school on the Upper East Side, to the gym in Brooklyn where she trains, Brooklyn Boulders.
From Monday through Friday, she and Poppo take a crosstown bus to the West Side, then a D train to Brooklyn Boulders in Gowanus, where she practices from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Another hour of travel, and they are back home in Chelsea for dinner, usually something Japanese like ramen noodles, and homework. (Wednesday afternoons are reserved for lessons at a Japanese school, where she is drilled in language and culture.)
On Saturdays, Ashima often goes back to Brooklyn Boulders, and on Sundays she rides Metro-North with Poppo to New Rochelle for her lesson with Carrion.
During a recent competition there in traditional climbing, which she mixes in with her training in bouldering, she scaled a wall almost 45 feet high with astonishing speed, causing other parents to glance away from their own children and watch Ashima.
“Beautiful climb!” one mother shouted from the ground as Ashima reached the top.
Taking a break afterward, she flopped down on a squishy blue mat next to two climbers, 18-year-old girls with muscular shoulders and biceps, who greeted her by name. Her peers among fellow 11-year-olds are few. “I hang out with older kids a lot,” Ashima said, stretching her legs in front of her.
Indoor climbing is a necessity during much of the year in the chilly Northeast. But Ashima longs to be outside climbing on real rock, a more unstructured approach that allows climbers to navigate rock by identifying holds that occur naturally, rather than their artificial replicas bolted to an indoor climbing wall.
While some children her age might beg their parents to take them to a beach or an amusement park for spring break, Ashima asked her parents if she could fly to El Paso with Carrion, a former pro climber, for a two-week climbing expedition in Hueco.
They arrived for the trip together, along with her aunt, Horikawa, a music engineer whose flexible schedule allows her to travel with Ashima.
Hueco is most definitely a place that was designed for grown-ups. Many out-of-town climbers stay at the Hueco Rock Ranch, an inn and campground with a grungy hippie vibe where the best rooms go for $60 a night.
Climbing routes in the park have names that seem to have been dreamed up by macho 20-something men: So Damn Insane, Dirty Martini on the Rocks, Girls of Juarez.
Gray foxes, bobcats and roadrunners roam the Chihuahuan Desert, which is a sunny paradise one moment and a swirl of choking dust the next.
But the bouldering in this part of the country is magnificent. Approaching the entrance of the park in a packed sport utility vehicle, Ashima was squirming with excitement.
“This is my favorite place to climb, the best place to climb,” she said. “I just can’t wait to get out there.”
Even outside El Paso, 2,000 miles from New York, Ashima is a celebrity.
On the trails, a 40-something man walked by with his son, who was about Ashima’s age, glanced at her. The two doubled back.
“Introduce yourself to her,” the father whispered to his son, who nervously approached, said hello and then ducked away in shyness.
After doing a few warm-up climbs, Ashima, Carrion and the group headed over to Crown of Aragorn, the V13 that Ashima was determined to tackle on this trip.
After she made a few failed attempts, and some clumsy falls off the boulder, frustration set in.
A dust storm had kicked up, sending sand in her eyes, mouth and ears. She walked over to a mat. Sitting on the ground eating string cheese and sipping a drink, she waited for a break in the wind. Carrion crouched down to give her a pep talk. “You don’t want to be a one-sided climber,” he said. “You’re not weak, you’re strong as hell.”
A few minutes later, she was back on the boulder but fell off again. Still, she refused to call it a day.
Her aunt whispered from the sidelines. “She doesn’t like to quit,” she said.
Three hours after she approached Crown of Aragorn, Ashima finally gave up, but Carrion sensed his pupil would be back. “She’ll send it,” he said.
Two days later, she did, earning immediate accolades from pro climbers two or three times her age.
“The day she did that, I just wrote on Facebook, ‘Ashima is my hero,’ ” said Angie Payne, 27, the first female pro to climb a V13, two years ago, the same level of difficulty that Ashima has just achieved.
“She’s pushing standards in the adult world,” Payne said. “She’s right at the edge of what adults have climbed and she’s on track to take it to a completely different level, assuming she still loves it in 10 years. I really hope she does because it would be really cool to see what she can do.”
Ashima says she has no doubt about that. After high school, she wants to be a pro climber. She already has a running start.
And weeks after sending Crown of Aragorn, Ashima said she had surprised even herself.
“It felt so good,” she said. “I didn’t think I could do it. Next year, I want to do something even harder.”