If you happened to bump into Troy Anger a few months ago at Petra Cliffs Climbing Center in Burlington, he might have seemed a little intense, even kind of grumpy at times.
But don’t take it personally, he was just focusing. A lot. Anger, 24, was getting ready for an elite indoor climbing competition held this past November in Villach, Austria.
If you bump into him now, just ask him how it went and he might flash a wide smile.
The Austrian Military Sport Climbing World Championship has hosted soldier climbers from around Europe for years, but the U.S. military doesn’t have a climb team nor, until recently, climbers willing to compete or funds to send them. That changed in 2018 when the Colorado National Guard sent the first U.S. soldier ever to Austria for the competition. Specialist Troy Anger was the second. He joined the Vermont National Guard five years ago and is the first professional climber in their ranks.
And, he nearly won it.
The lone American in Austria
The three-day climbing competition pitted Anger — who officially competes for the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho — against nearly 100 elite climbers from the armies of Austria, Germany, Serbia and Spain. Although all those country’s militaries sent entire teams, climbers and even some coaches, Anger was completely on his own (2019 budget constraints only funded one climber.)
But Anger was no stranger to competition. For starters, he was a member of the 2019 USA World Cup Ice Climbing Team, climbing at both the Denver World Cup Finals and international world cup events just to name a few.
Still, there were other challenges for the solo U.S. climber, not the least of which was that he’d never seen the inside of a European indoor climb gym before. And things are a little different there.
“The hold set is completely different than what we have in the U.S.,” Anger said, of the plastic grips mounted on walls stretching 75 feet high that you hang on to as you climb.
Anger said he could go to just about any climb gym in the U.S. and recognize the holds. But in Austria, they were all new to him. That might sound like a small thing, but at a pro level, when success literally hangs on a climber’s experience with the holds — some of which are so small that the average person can’t even grip them — that lack of experience can be a big deal.
“It’s definitely a large mental disadvantage,” Anger said. “It messes with your head.”
The climbing competition
In general, sport climbing competitions are scored based on two things, how far up the route a climber gets, hopefully finishing or topping, and how hard that route is in the first place. A climber can be unsuccessful in finishing, but if it’s a really hard route and they get through enough of it, that will place a higher score than a climber who successfully completes an easier one.
The day before the competition, climbers were allowed to “project” different routes — essentially get on them and get familiar with how to climb them well — and then pick three out of several dozen that they would compete on to qualify.
As Anger got used to climbing the new holds, he also studied the climbers to see what he was up against. A lot of climbers opted for easier routes they knew they could top, Anger recalled. But he did the opposite, picking harder routes that were more risky but would score higher if he topped them.
But during qualifiers the next day, Anger got off to a rocky start.
“It felt hard, I’m not going to lie,” he chuckled of the 5.12d route he tackled first, which he thinks might actually have been a 5.13a, at least he says that’s what it felt like. The grade numbers follow the Yosemite Decimal System. (There are other grading scales out there too.)
To get an idea of the scale’s difficulty, a 5.0 grade is the entry level of what most people would consider technical climbing, as in you need to be tied to a rope because falling will cause serious injury or even death. Most people off the street would have a hard time getting up anything 5.6 or higher. But past 5.9, the grades becomes so difficult that they subdivide, 5.10a, then b, c, d, then onto 5.11a and so on.
Every grade Anger chose was considered advanced or professional level climbing, at least a 5.12 or higher.
The route finished up with a 3-foot dyno — short for dynamic move that involves launching up into the air in order to reach the next hold — onto “a nice jug” or larger hold, Anger recalls.
Dynos are tricky enough on most routes, but on a 5.12 d / 5.13 a they are downright hard to pull off. Anger recalls that the footholds he was jumping from were just big enough for the tips of his toes.
He topped the route but chewed up a lot of time. Climbers had about 5 hours to complete their three routes. But resting in between climbs was crucial, often for more than an hour to let muscles recover for the next effort. So Anger switched his strategy, pivoting to two new, slightly easier routes he hadn’t had a chance to climb. This is referred to as climbing on sight and presented a considerable disadvantage compared to routes he was able to practice the day before. Both were graded as 5.12b/c.
What’s that grade of climb like? For the average person off the street, imagine not being able to even get off the ground, let alone climb. At most climb gyms, maybe a handful of folks are climbing this hard a climb. And a small handful at that.
Anger topped them both, crushing his qualifying round.
The climb gym kid
“I definitely never thought I was gonna win this,” Anger said during an interview with the Free Press at Petra Cliffs Climbing Center in Burlington.
He first started climbing at Petra when he was 7 and, in a lot of ways, grew up among the climbers there, co-owner Andrea Charest said. He disappeared for a while and then showed back up at the the gym when his brother was DJ’ing at a climbing competition.
“Remember me?” Charest said he asked her at the event. He was 16 and from then on became a fixture at the climbing gym.
“He would spend all day there,” Charest said. “Petra was kind of a safe space for him to grow,” adding that Anger found mentors in the older climbers he met.
And heading into the semis, Anger was going to need to draw on all those years of advice and experience.
“I was just so tired and so beaten down by that point,” Anger said. “You get to a certain point where your forearms and your biceps just don’t have the strength to keep doing what you are trying to make them do.”
Anger remembers the semifinal climb, a 5.13c, being “pretty hard.” He got about half way through but couldn’t stay on. His showing was enough to make the finals though, where he faced a brutal 5.14b.
No one conquered it.
But an 18-year-old Austrian known mostly to climb outdoors rather than in a gym — and who had been climbing with both shoes untied for most of the competition — was quietly crushing most of his routes, picking grades twice as hard as anyone else.
“The kid was just really, really good,” Anger said.
In the end, the Austrian blew away everyone. (And yes, he did finally tie his shoes for the finals.)
Anger took first-place in his visiting division — which included all climbers save the Austrians, about 70 of the nearly 100 competitors — and took second place overall. It is the best finish ever for the U.S., the previous best, third, set by Colorado National Guard 1st Lt. Tyler Casey in 2018.
“Its a huge deal, I would have liked to see him compete,” Charest said of the Austrian competition.
In stark contrast, six months earlier, Anger was serving as a light machine gunner in the swamps of Louisiana during a training exercise with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain).
“It just goes to show that a highly trained Mountain soldier can fight and excel anywhere and under any conditions,” Maj. Steve Gagner said, commander of the Army Mountain Warfare School.
The school hopes to create a team in the coming years, building off Anger’s success, possibly to even compete in the 2026 Olympics.
Contact Ryan Mercer at [email protected] or at 802-343-4169. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmercer1 and facebook.com/ryan.mercer1.