BOULDER, Colo. - Emily Harrington patiently surveys the climbing wall, mapping out the way her hands and feet will travel along a route called Paranoia.
"It looks challenging," Harrington says before ascending the route at the Boulder Rock Club.
The 5-foot-2, 90ish-pound Harrington zigzags from one hold to the next - stretching her body in ways that would make a gymnast jealous - and makes it to the top of the 32-foot indoor wall in less than 3 minutes.
Charlie Boas, her belay partner, shakes his head. Boas, a route designer with the club, has tricked up the course to stump Harrington, and she makes it look effortless. Boas holds supporting ropes as Harrington makes her climb.
"For 1 minute there at the top I made you think," Boas says.
"The route was tricky," she answers.
He doesn't buy the compliment.
"It was cake for you," Boas says.
Harrington has been making a mockery of courses all over the world. The 20-year-old international affairs major at the University of Colorado is ranked 16th in the 2006 UIAA Climbing World Cup rankings. Not bad, considering she's only been able to make two events on the predominantly European circuit.
Just imagine if she had more time to compete.
"She'd definitely be one of the best. She's already one of the best American climbers," said fellow climber Beth Rodden.
Harrington started in USA Climbing youth programs and worked her way to the top. She was second in the World Youth Championships in 2000, and won the North American Championships in 2004. She has been finishing in the top 10 at world championship events since she was 16. She spent more than two months in Australia in 2004 filming an outdoor climbing video.
"She's great for rock climbing," said Anne-Worley Bauknight, the executive director of USA Climbing.
Out of 91 climbers on the UIAA lead circuit, Harrington is the lone American. There are no U.S. climbers on the men's side.
"The French team has 20 girls competing and I'm by myself. No teammates, no coach, no one else," she said. "It would be great to travel with a team."
With competitive sport climbing on the rise, that day could be coming. USA Climbing had a huge increase in membership in the past four years, from 1,639 members in 2002 to 6,392 last season.
There are more than 400 public climbing facilities in the United States, and UIAA officials are working on a proposal to make the sport an Olympic event. They put on a demonstration during the Turin Games, with Harrington one of the featured climbers.
But competitive rock climbing hasn't caught on here the way it has in Europe. Competitions are held on climbing walls, which dissuades some world-class climbers who'd rather carve out a new route on natural rock. In sport climbing, permanent anchors are fixed to the rock or rock wall.
Harrington combines the two. She works indoors on her technique and applies it outside.
She currently is attempting to become only the second American woman to scale a cliff face that's rated 5.14b, according to the Yosemite Decimal System that grades the difficulty of routes (5.15a is the most difficult - for now). Rodden is the other.
The route Harrington is attempting to scale - called Vogue on Industrial Wall near Boulder - has small holds, a wickedly steep face and nerve-testing overhangs.
She's spent countless hours trying to figure out the right way to ascend it, but is only in the preliminary stages. She said it might take her 20 more visits before she solves the route.
"It's a very difficult route," said Harrington of the route that was put up by Rodden's rock-climbing husband, Tommy Caldwell.
Harrington, who's been climbing since she was 11 and already has two 5.14a climbs on her resume, has unbelievable balance on the wall and can stretch from one hold to the next in contortionist ways.
"Only in rock climbing can a 175-pound man envy the size, agility and strength of a 90-pound person," Boas said. "She's amazing to watch."
Harrington learned from Robyn Erbesfield, a four-time World Cup champion. Erbesfield thinks Harrington could be the sport's next big star.
"She has all the qualities a climber needs to be No. 1 - strong mind and body and a lot of motivation," Erbesfield said.
All that she lacks is time.
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