Megan Mascarenas dusted her fingers with chalk and studied a sunny rock face in the Snake Pit, a favorite hangout for climbers in the Garden of the Gods.
For a few seconds, they exchanged information. The boulder surrendered its secrets. Mascarenas "read the beta," as climbers say, loading data — each hold, crack or rock nub — in her mind and plotting a route to the top of the massive rock hidden in the Garden's scrub oak.
She placed her hand on the rock's sandpaper surface, touching it the way a sculptor might, and up she went with strength and artistic grace.
It has been that way for years. Mascarenas, a 17-year-old senior at Doherty High School, began climbing when she was 2. Today she is one of the top competitive climbers in the country, a three-time member of the U.S. Team, representing the United States in elite competitions.
Mascarenas is Colorado Springs' rock star.
She shook my hand gently when we met, but I could feel the strength in her fingers. "She's handy to have around when I need a jar opened," says her mother, Staci Suter. Megan stands all of 5 feet 3 inches, weighs 115 pounds, and possesses a climber's chiseled, powerful figure. She works out to maintain her strength, doing push-ups and pull-ups and busting her abs to build core strength. But she admits that her workout routine is often postponed in favor of climbing. It's all about time on the rock, or the wall at the Sport Climbing Center, her home away from home.
Teenage elite athletes are rare, but climbing provides an arena that eliminates age advantages. Mascarenas never showed an interest in traditional school sports. She carries a 4.7 GPA at Doherty, but earned her lowest grade most recently in physical education. With so much climbing to do, she couldn't seem to arrive at class on time.
Mascarenas loved climbing's challenges from the get-go. She discovered an activity with no limits.
"This is an awesome sport," Mascarenas says. "It's like a puzzle. It challenges you mentally and physically. You can progress as far as you want to go."
Growing up with three older siblings — sisters Kristina and Alexis, and a brother, Jesse — helped push her to be a better athlete. The four are extremely competitive.
"We can't even play board games at home," Mascarenas says. "It just doesn't work."
So how good is she? It's like this. The International Federation of Sport Climbing held a World Cup event at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail earlier this month. It will be the only World Cup competition held in the U.S. this year. Mascarenas had dreamed of competing there and winning.
"The Vail World Cup has been a goal of mine since I started competing," she says. "It's in Colorado, so there is a special connection. But I've watched other climbers there who inspire me. I've always wanted to be there."
She had placed fourth at the same competition last year, barely missing the podium. This year, with 20 family members among the 2,000 in attendance, Mascarenas climbed to the win. And nobody appreciates a family victory like your ultra-competitive relatives.
"We have a big family," her mother says, "and we were all crying."
The scoring system calls for each climber to complete four "problems," or routes on a climbing wall. Climbers get four attempts at each problem. The goal is to finish the route while including a "bonus" hold. It isn't easy. Mascarenas entered the event finals as the last of six qualifiers. "I had made some bad mistakes in the semifinals," she says.
But she climbed first in the finals and "flashed" (completed on the first try) two out of four problems. She also conquered a third. With each hold, her confidence grew and she absorbed energy from the raucous crowd.
"I love competing in front of a big crowd, especially when you're tired and everybody starts cheering for you," she says. "It made me feel better, even though my arms were burning."
Mascarenas will travel to Germany in August for the final World Cup event. She can't win the overall World Cup title because she hasn't competed in enough World Cup events — the travel demands for that are brutal. But another victory or podium finish would position her as one of the world's best.