Upwardly Mobile Katie Brown ascends to the pinnacle of her sport

January 11, 1999

Along time time ago, when Katie Brown was a quiet little girl,
as opposed to now when she just looks like one, classmates found
her adorable. So tiny, so cuddly. Like a stuffed animal. Few
could resist the urge to hoist and cradle her in their arms.

Thus, to her chagrin, Katie became like the title character in
the John Irving novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, forever being
carried by her peers against her will. "Mom," Katie would protest
to one of the few people to whom she dared speak, "don't they
realize I'm not a doll?"

No, she is a spider. Brown, 18, is five feet small and 85
pounds. She is itsy and she is bitsy and, also like an arachnid,
seemingly impervious to gravity when climbing a vertical face.
Since taking up sport climbing at age 13, she has proved to be
upwardly mobile. The wiry girl that everyone used to carry has
propelled herself to the summit of her sport.

In November in New York City, Brown won her second American
Sport Climbing Federation (ASCF) national championship of the
year (the ASCF held its spring championship of 1998 last April
in Colorado) in the sport's showcase event, the Difficulty
Climb. In a field that began with 25 female climbers and lasted
three rounds, Brown was the only woman to "flash" the wall
(i.e., climb to the top) in each round. The shy, spry one is
also the three-time defending Difficulty Climb champion at the
ESPN X Games.

"In a sport where how high you climb is all that matters," says
Robe D'Anastasio, a judge at the New York event and an
inveterate climber, "Katie is head and shoulders above everyone
else."

Difficulty climbing competitions are almost exclusively staged
on indoor synthetic walls. (About 400 such commercial faces
exist in the United States.) Using finger- and toeholds on
vertical faces, climbers ascend walls that range in height from
45 to 60 feet. Along the way are a series of clips, which are
numbered in ascending order. The climber, wearing a harness,
follows the route of the clips, clipping in at each number.

The rules are simple: Fall, and you are disqualified; climb
higher than everyone else, and you win. When two or more
competitors reach the top or receive matching marks from the
judges, they have a "super final round" climboff. What separates
a virtuoso like Brown from accomplished climbers is a
combination of agility and strength that allows one to reach for
far-flung holds without falling.

"For example," says Katie's mom, Eileen, "a well-set course is
one in which the winner may flash, the second-place finisher
falls after clipping in at clip 12 and third place clips in at
clip 11."

Whereas Brownian motion refers to the random movement of atomic
particles, Katie Brownian motion is fluid and efficient. Most
climbers, male and female, are portraits of sinewy muscle that,
halfway up the wall, take on the panicked visage of Eva Marie
Saint clinging to Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. Their
downfall, literally, is brought about by relying more on brawn
than brains.

Brown is lean, not muscular. To gawkers below, her four limbs
look almost identical in length and definition, sprouting out
from her tiny torso at what seem to be unnatural angles. Her
nimble figure and agile mind combine to effect the illusion of
an effortless climb. "Blessed are the flexible," says Brown, a
freshman at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., "for they
will not get bent out of shape."

Were she more outgoing, Brown might be a gymnast today. When she
was six years old, Brown begged her parents to enroll her in a
gymnastics class. "We did," says her mother, "and then we
arrived at the class. Katie pressed her face up against the
glass and saw a room filled with strangers. She refused to walk
in."

Six years later Katie decided to tag along with her brother,
Scott, two years her senior, who had taken up climbing. Within a
year she entered her first competition, in Cincinnati, and
finished last. "I thought that was the end of that," says her
mom, "but she was hooked."

The world's top sport climber really does resemble a
spiderwoman. At home she practices in the garage and under the
deck in the backyard. The former, which is designed to lodge two
cars, instead houses a pair of plywood climbing walls where
Katie hones her skills. As for the latter, the Browns have
installed on its underside toeholds and footholds. Their
daughter crawls back and forth along it, upside down.

"On weekends, though," says Brown, "I like to experience real
rock climbing." Almost every Friday, Katie (her father, David,
just relocated to Denver where the family will soon join him)
and her mom drive five hours north to the Red River Gorge in
Kentucky. There, with mom holding the belay (the safety rope),
Katie ascends the many routes of a popular wall known as the
Mother Lode while inspiring awe, and not a small dose of
insecurity, among the male climbers, who outnumber her.

"One guy, he's 6'6"," says Brown. "He designed a route where the
holds are so far apart that you'd have to be his size to reach
them. "You know what he named it?" says Brown. "Take that, Katie
Brown."

That path may be the only thing that exceeds Brown's grasp. For
now.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Climber's edge Like a chess master, Brown is always thinking a few moves ahead. [Katie Brown on climbing wall]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)