Climbing Extraordinaire – Kim, Ja-in

Faces of Korea: Climbing Extraordinaire – Kim, Ja-in
Written by Peter Jensen-Choi

When I first met Korea’s number one female competition sport climber, she was no more than a teen. It was 2005 and we were at an indoor basement bouldering gym in Hongdae. Her two older brothers, ripped to the core without a pinch of fat on their bodies, attracted our attention with their savage yells as they pulled down through extremely difficult looking moves on the overhanging roof-like climbing problems, but not too far behind them was also this girl pulling down on some pretty difficult problems herself. Kim Ja-in was probably no more than 15 or 16 at the time, but she was clearly pulling hard, doing well in the local competitions, and talk of how if she kept it up, she might become great only very sparsely ruminated around the table between all of the expedition talk that evening.

Since then and from time to time, while browsing through this or that Korean climbing mag, I’d spot her picture and think to myself, “Hey, there’s that little girl. She’s in here again.” Nowadays, if she’s not being either featured, listed or photographed standing on a podium gracing a medal around her neck or holding a prize raised up in her two hands in one of the three major Korean outdoor climbing magazines, most of you have likely seen her face on a North Face ad, but just had no idea who on earth you were looking at.

Aside from the obvious, her dominating the women’s sport climbing competition scene in Korea – she has consistently ranked in the top five in Asian competition since 2004. She participated in only 6 competitions from 2004 through 2006, was in an average of 6 a year in 2007 and 2008 to 12 in 2009. Not only was her progressive shift from more regional competitions to international competitions significant, but her average place in competitions went from 9.8 to 4.1 in a span of just three years from 2007 through 2009. That may not seem like much, but we are talking about competitions among the world’s strongest female sport climbers. In 2010, she placed first seven consecutive times out of the eight IFSC comps in which she competed. She is currently ranked number one in the world by 78 points over Angela Eiter of Austria in the overall World Rankings; she leads by 201 points over Mina Markovic of Slovenia in the IFSC World Cup rankings and is number one over Akiyo Noguchi of Japan in the IFSC overall rankings.

So when an online Seattle-based start up mag, Vertical Woman, came to explore Korean ice, learn a bit about Korean climbing culture and some of the women in our local climbing community, it just made sense to get a hold of one my contacts and arrange an interview with Kim Ja-in through MOUTAIN magazine in a northern Seoul climbing gym where she regularly trains.

That late afternoon when we walked into the North Face climbing facility, there she was with the other North Face team climbers, bouldering around on a problem. A few of them tried, but got spit off. It was her turn and she worked through the first few moves and got to the crux where she did this crazy heel hook with her left foot. It was sick and I only wish I’d gotten a video of this because she was bent like pretzel and in an almost contorted figure four like position as she made only a slight grunt under her teeth to cleanly finish the problem to the top. Down she jumped, still splotched with chalk marks here and there from head to toe and greeted us with a large happy smile.

Last year, she tried to join in and compete in the men’s category; however, the Korean Alpine Federation shot this idea down for now. She plans to try every year until they finally do let her compete in the men’s category. Inspired by this, Genevieve (from Vertical Woman) with whom I was interviewing Ja-in, reminded us of the famous German female ice climber, Ines Papert, who, after getting permission to compete in the men’s category a few years ago in the States, blew her male competition off the ice.

Competing with the boys probably won’t be too much of a problem for Kim. She’s not only one of the highest ranked female climbers in the world, but the fact that both of her older brothers, Ja-ha and Ja-bi who are also sponsored on the North Face climbing team and regularly train regularly with her, have spurred her on and given her both the confidence and psychological edge to want to compete in the men’s categories. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for her.

If getting strong and good at climbing were only about training hard, there’d be a lot more average climbers becoming extraordinarily great, but since that’s not the case for most of us, how does someone like her do it without getting burned out? Her answer to that was answered when we asked her what a few of her other future challenges were. Her short term challenges were pretty straight forward – to win the upcoming IFSC World Cup Climbing Championship in Arco, Italy this coming July and to keep petitioning to be able to compete in the men’s category at comps here in Korea. She feels that her biggest challenge in the future would be simply staying excited, enthusiastic and keeping climbing fun— but, makes sense when your whole life has and does revolve around climbing, right?

On just a side note, and excuse me while I digress, but I find this part about her very intriguing. It’s common for Korean siblings to share the same prefix or suffix of their names, for example, Ja-bi, Ja-ha and Ja-in. The prefixes and suffixes of Korean names are usually written in Sino-Korean characters. For her and her two brothers, their shared prefix, “Ja”, is derived from the butchered way Koreans pronounce the German word for rope, seil or “ja-il” and the suffix to each of their names comes from cara-bi-ner, ha-ken(German for piton), and in-subong(i.e. the name of the small towering granite peak that looms over northern Seoul’s Bukhansan National Park area). As a climber, you’ve just ‘gotta’love it; but from the outside, it would be easy to understand how all of this climbing stuff could turn one off from climbing completely. So, again, how has she done this without burning out and tossing in her climbing slippers altogether?

Ja-in credits the way her parents and brothers were able to make (and keep) climbing a naturally fun activity while she was growing up as major factors in helping her to develop the way she has. She also added that this is the same approach and philosophy she adopts toward climbing now— to enjoy having fun climbing with her family and friends. So, as long as she keeps up her infectious outlook on climbing, I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of her for a lot longer to come.

SAN is offers rock climbing courses, group outings and a beginner rock climbing school program which begins twice this spring, March 13 and April 24, 2011. For more information, see What’s Going On – Sports & Fitness.