A Conversation with Pro Climber Kai Lightner

Kai signing autographs at Rock and Rave 2015 in Atlanta.
Kai signing autographs at Rock and Rave 2015 in Atlanta. Brandon Campbell
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It has been a busy year so far for 15-year-old rock climber Kai Lightner. In the past few months Kai has visited us here in Chattanooga where he did a Q&A together with his mom Connie at the Lookout Wild Film Festival. He stopped in at High Point Climbing & Fitness to climb and visit with the Climbing School. And he was also one of the headlining pro’s at the Rock & Rave climbers party held at Stone Summit in Atlanta.

Of course one of his more notable appearances was his recent win in the National Championships for sport climbing, competing for the first time in the adult category. Almost immediately after stepping off the podium, Kai boarded a plane for Spain where he had his sights set on Era Vella, a 5.14d sport route put up by Chris Sharma, which he completed just days ago.

Kai lives in Fayettville, NC where he goes to school. His mother is his biggest supporter as well as his belay-partner. He has won several youth National Championships and so far has spent most of his time indoor climbing for competition but has also done several 5.14 sport routes outdoors.

Between championship wins and trips to Europe, we managed to catch up with Kai for a quick conversation about his climbing:

Hanging with Chris Sharma in Spain.
Hanging with Chris Sharma in Spain. kailightner Instagram

When did you first start climbing?

I officially started rock climbing right before my 7th birthday. However, I’ve been climbing all of my life- anything (and everything) that was climbable.

How did you discover that climbing was something you were good at?

When I was 7 years old, I made it to the National Championships my first try. My coach, Emily Taylor, used to always tell me that I had a “very raw” talent in the sport. I always figured out very different and unconventional beta to complete routes. It wasn’t very pretty to watch, but I figured out how to get to the top.

What is your greatest strength as a climber?

I am able to keep myself calm and focused during high pressured situations; whether it’s on a tough route that I really want to send or at a high profile competition. I think staying mentally tough is a necessity (and strength) in this sport.

Your greatest weakness?

Junk food. I know it is not good for my body if I want to have optimal performance, but I can’t help but sneak a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos whenever I can. They are way too good!

Do you get nervous while competing?

Not as much as I used to. I’ve competed in over 70 competitions, including 16 national championships and 5 international championships. In time, I learned to focus on doing my best and not to worry about the outcome. This helps with keeping my nervousness under control.

Kai bouldering in the pro's comp at Rock & Rave.
Kai bouldering in the pro's comp at Rock & Rave. Brandon Campbell

What do you love more, indoor or outdoor climbing?

It’s hard to choose. I love both for very different reasons. When I am indoor climbing, I’m completely focused on training for competitions. I love the thrill of competitions, and the energy that I feel from the crowd as they are cheering us on. It gives me an amazing adrenaline rush. When I am outside, on the other hand, I am completely at peace and focused on having fun and enjoying my surrounding environment. I am usually with friends and having a blast hanging out. Even when I am working a project, I sometimes get wrapped up in the moment of trying to conquer a challenge. I have my moments of getting frustrated, but it’s hard to stay upset when you are surrounded by beautiful scenery and great friends.

What is your favorite place to climb in the outdoors?

The Red River Gorge. I love the features and the overhanging routes.

What do you imagine you would be doing if you hadn't discovered climbing?

I have no idea. Climbing is such a huge part of my life. I have a lot of energy and would have needed an alternative that would have kept me equally busy.

What's your favorite crag snack?

Coconut chocolate chip CLIF bars. They are really good!

Check out this award winning film by Evolv Climbing about Kai and his mother, Connie Lightner.


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