The Yank-N-Yard at Stone Age Climbing Gym in New Mexico is one of the most iconic climbing competitions of the modern era. The event has been held consistently for more than two decades (“an annual tradition since 1998”), making it one of the longest running gym competition series ever. It has also garnered prestige at the highest level, particularly as one stop on USA Climbing’s 2019 National Cup tour—where Natalia Grossman famously swept the American bouldering circuit. But more than just a singular contest, the Yank-N-Yard traditionally kicks off eight days of special events for Stone Age that is part of the gym’s Prime8 Climbing Festival and annual membership sale.
Of course, like all gyms, Stone Age has had to grapple with the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Yet, the challenges of the pandemic have made membership sales more critical than ever this year. “The pandemic of 2020 completely changed our lives, which have become more muted, the joys we are still deriving from day-to-day activities less shared with our friends and people in general,” adds Stone Age’s owner Bryan Pletta.
So, when it came time to organize this year’s Yank-N-Yard competition, Stone Age had an operational crux. “We strongly felt that we had to do something to bring back, on an appropriate scale for the pandemic times, some of the feeling that this tradition created in our community for the last 24 years,” says Pletta. But how?
It is worth noting that Stone Age also opened a new facility in August. This 27,000-square-foot gym—called Stone Age North—is a purpose-built, full-service facility and part of a more expansive development in Albuquerque that includes a food court with eight local restaurants and a Santa Fe Brewing Company taproom. Pletta naturally wanted to showcase Stone Age North with this year’s Yank-N-Yard event, and leverage the relationship with—and the proximity of—those numerous nearby restaurants.
After some deliberation, a decision was made to still hold the 2020 Yank-N-Yard competition and loop in those local businesses, but with specific modifications amid the ongoing pandemic. (Even back in June, several climbing gyms were speculating about the implementation of mitigation efforts for competitions in a COVID-19 world; this year’s Yank-N-Yard necessitated putting many theoretical measures and musings into practice.)
“We knew that the format of the [Yank-N-Yard] competition had to be changed; consequently, we started by reviewing the competition space and estimating the number of competitors that we could safely hold,” Pletta tells CBJ of the Yank-N-Yard’s 2020 preparations. “This allowed us to determine how many rounds of climbing would be needed in order to maintain social distancing and give everyone the space to climb in comfort. Based on that, we ended up creating a number of two-hour rounds that would each be available on a reservation system to 40 competitors.”
Stone Age also decided that each competitor would be allowed to bring up to one guest as a spectator at the Yank-N-Yard this year—with a maximum of 20 spectators in the gym at any one time. Two youth-specific competition rounds would be held on Friday, October 16 (with a 30-minute break between the rounds for a prize raffle and cleaning), and four rounds for adults would be held the following day, October 17 (with a one-hour break between the rounds). The nearby restaurants agreed to give all competitors food and age-appropriate drink vouchers for a socially-distanced celebration after the climbing too.
In the end, it amounted to a fun and communal indoor climbing competition—no small feat in this pandemic age. And after the fact, the competition could possibly act as a roadmap for other gyms aiming to hold comps this fall and winter. So, CBJ asked Pletta to elaborate with some “Dos” and “Don’ts” for holding climbing competitions during this pandemic, all garnered shortly after the Yank-N-Yard’s success this year.
Do make sure that you follow the restrictions imposed by your state and local authorities for running your business during COVID-19. Follow the occupancy limits, social distancing, and hygienic requirements, and adjust your competition accordingly. Stone Age had to change some activities to conform with changes in New Mexico restrictions that came up just days before the Yank-N-Yard competition; be flexible.
Do limit any “extraneous” people. Rather than bringing more people into the event with volunteers, Stone Age opted to go with a self-judged format to limit the number of people in the room.
Do lean on the connections you have forged with local businesses and climbing company representatives over the years to build sponsorship for the event. Like almost every business out there, sponsors are feeling the hardship of the times…so be willing to work with them to create win-win propositions to bring some promotion for their company. Stone Age cut sponsorship levels in half this year and eliminated cash contributions for the higher-level tiers to allow in-kind contributions for all sponsorship levels.
Do make the event fun! Stone Age’s routesetters were able to get creative and set fewer problems this year, but the majority of the problems were visually interesting “comp style” boulders that were fun to climb. A normal Yank-N-Yard citizens’ competition would have more than 100 boulders/problems. This year, the gym focused on setting 24 physically distanced, fun, and unique climbs.
Do give out prizes and awards. Stone Age split its prizes into six bins. Each round of climbers was treated to a prize raffle from generous sponsors.
Do consider adding an activity that will support the community in need; as part of Prime8, Stone Age offered free climbing as one of the Prime8 events to everybody who brought three non-perishable food items to be donated to local food banks.
Don’t try to accommodate too many competitors. Stone Age had 24 boulder problems in 18 zones, so on average the gym planned for approximately two climbers per problem. A modified zone format was used to multiply the opportunities for scoring throughout the range of grades. This felt comfortable with plenty of room for the competitors to spread out.
Don’t forget the spectators. Stone Age did not initially account for spectators in the competition’s planning, but especially during the youth rounds, the gym had a lot of parents wanting to watch. The gym was only able to accommodate 20 spectators, which worked fine for the adult citizens’ rounds but not for the younger youth athletes. In hindsight it would have been better to modify the youth rounds to have 30 competitors and 30 spectators rather than 40 and 20.
Don’t over-publicize it as an “event.” Even though Stone Age was operating at half of the state-mandated occupancy limit for the competition (including spectators), some people thought the gym was being reckless in holding the Yank-N-Yard while COVID cases were spiking in the state and across most of the country. In reality, the gym’s bouldering area was less busy than on many of the busiest (non-competition) nights. Nonetheless, the gym still received some negative social media comments and ended up getting a call from the New Mexico state police for hosting a perceived mass gathering. After explaining how the event was being run, the officer had no problems with it and allowed Stone Age to carry on with the competition.
Don’t create opportunities for people to congregate. As mentioned, Stone Age programmed in a one-hour transition period between competition rounds so that there was a lot of time to get the previous climbers out of the building and check in the next group of competitors.
Don’t encourage travel. Stone Age consciously scaled back this year’s Yank-N-Yard to be a community-focused members’ comp. The gym did not hold the Open comp with a cash purse that traditionally attracts travelling professional climbers. Due to New Mexico’s 14-day mandatory travel quarantine, Stone Age contacted all out-of-state climbers that had already registered and let them know that if they could not abide by the quarantine rules, they should stay home. All registration fees to any out-of-state climbers was refunded, as well as those of any local climbers who were not able to attend or felt uncomfortable due to the current regulations and conditions.
John Burgman is the author of High Drama, a book that chronicles the history of American competition climbing. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient and a former magazine editor. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team. Follow him on Twitter @John_Burgman and Instagram @jbclimbs