FOR A FEW ETERNAL SECONDS, THE LANKY climber hovers beyond vertical. She clings to the rock at a 45-degree angle, fingers crimping a limestone edge, feet smeared onto nubbins. Every muscle in Lizzy Asher's body ripples. She briefly studies the rock, then positions one foot on an impossible kernel, tests it and rockets her upper body across the stone. At the same time, she grabs a slick, sloped pocket with one hand -- chalked to prevent slippage -- gripping a flake with the other. Within seconds, she has passed the crux of a classic rock "problem" at McKinney Falls State Park near Austin, Texas.
Asher is not dangling 100 feet up a cliff; she's 8 feet above terra firma, bouldering, an offshoot of rock climbing that pits human against rock without the usual tools of vertical combat, such as ropes and wedging devices. The high school student makes her gravity-taunting moves in quick, ballet-like sequences. She wears no special gear besides a chalk bag and climbing shoes. Below her is a 6-by-4-foot chunk of foam -- a "crash pad" -- and her sister Alexis, 21, a fellow boulderer who is spotting Lizzy in case she peels off the wall unexpectedly.
The 17-year-old pro is part of a bouldering subculture spawned at least in part by the rock gym craze of the '90s. The rocks around Bishop, Calif., the activity's current hub, have become so popular that some residents of the area blame a local author and bouldering booster for an increase in housing prices.
The sub-sport's growth has touched off a rivalry with some old-school climbers, as well as environmental concerns ranging from how wildlife will react to the intrusions to the splatter of chalk holds that don't wear or wash away.
"I hope I'll never be accused of being a climbing curmudgeon," says Colorado-based alpinist Jim Donini, 60, who has racked up first ascents in Patagonia, the Himalayas and Alaska and used to boulder to train for mountaineering jaunts. "But I have my own feeling about alpine climbing being the epitome of the sport. ... You love it for the remoteness and beauty.... But you go to some bouldering areas -- not all of them -- and you find cigarette butts and candy wrappers. It just seems like the younger bouldering set is there for pure physical enjoyment and the challenge, and not so much for the spiritual aspects of climbing. People want to go out and get their quick fix and get back home by dark."
Lizzy Asher, who doesn't smoke or chuck candy wrappers, sees it, not surprisingly, quite the opposite. "Bouldering is almost the purest form of climbing. You're not putting in any gear," she says. "So I totally disagree with people who say it's not the real thing."
Unlike traditional climbers, boulderers define their sport not by altitude, endurance or rope lengths (pitches) up a route, but by degree of difficulty and brute strength. While traddies might spend days on a long route or weeks on a mountain, boulderers bust in, top out, then head home.
Bouldering was used over the years in the U.S. as a training tool for mountaineers. It allowed them to try high-risk moves without having to be far off the ground, says Scott Isgitt, a trad climber and boulderer who owns Austin Rock Gym in Austin. "It was about pushing the limits of the human form."
Isgitt, 34, has seen the sport spurt as gym rats who learned to climb indoors took their newfound moves to real rock. Now there are magazines, videos and gear dedicated to bouldering. "There are people who say it's not real climbing," adds Isgitt, "but I think it's legitimate. Whether some of the old school like it or not, it's here to stay."
The naysayers mistake quicker for easier, says Lisa Rands, a 28-year-old Bishop resident whom many consider America's best pro female boulderer. "Individually, the moves are a lot harder than anything you might find on a route.
"It's not that it's easier to do; it's easier to get to," notes the compact climber, who vaulted to celebrity status after embracing the sport in 1999 when she often found herself too busy to do longer "route" climbs.
Sit a spell in front of Rands' "Hit List" video, which trails the petite, buff, Hello Kitty-collecting blond doing crazy-hard boulder problems (sections) in the Sierra, and it's immediately clear: There is nothing easy about these rock rambles. Whether it's a 3-foot-high overhang parallel to the ground (a "roof") or a 15-foot "highball," with the toughest moves at the top, it requires utter focus. Clinging to microscopic crimps on bare rock, Rands is a picture of hard-body athleticism.
She and fellow California climbing luminary Chris Sharma (also a revered sport climber) tend to stick to problems about 3 to 20 feet high, finessing and powering through highly gymnastic sequences. Unlike alpine or big-wall climbers, who haul reams of clinking protection devices as they ascend, boulderers work the same problems over and over until they top out, doing it for the physical and mental gratification.