The Story Behind ‘Young Guns’ and the Rise of the Teenage Climbing Pro

Ashima Shiraishi, 15, climbs in Flatanger Norway.

Young Guns, the most anticipated film in the 2016 Reel Rock world tour, follows two American climbing sensations, Kai Lightner and Ashima Shiraishi, for the better part of a year. What's so compelling about this 28-minute documentary is not the amazing moves and epic rock they ascend — there's plenty of that — but the fact that these two are teenagers, dominating the sport and bettering tenured adults in the process. 

The two became friends in 2014 at the Ring of Fire in Massachusetts (note: there are spoilers from here on down). At that particular competition, there were no age brackets, which permitted Lightner and Shiraishi to go head-to-head with adults. Each was the youngest climber in their gender, and each took first, pulling off stunning upsets against national champions. 

In the past decade, climbing gyms have popped up all over the U.S., spreading the sport beyond its roots in mountain towns to places like Fayetteville, North Carolina, Lightner’s hometown, and New York City, Shiraishi’s birthplace. So it’s not exactly surprising that more kids are getting into the sport, or that they’re starting younger (both Lightner and Shiraishi were six years old). What’s interesting — and what Young Guns spends the bulk of its time exploring — is that while Lightner and Shiraishi are winning competitions, they're still just kids, learning a sport that has long bowed to the merits of accrued knowledge and learned skills over natural-borne physical talent.

The crux of the film is the time Lightner and Shiraishi spend together over summer break in Flatanger, Norway, accompanied by their parents and a film crew. There they take on Hanshelleren cave, an enormous overhanging swath of granite with the highest concentration of the hardest (5.15) sport-climbing routes on earth.

The trip is tough for Lightner from the start. He slips off his so-called warm-up route, “basically the easiest climb in the whole cave,” according to Shiraishi, and soon realizes that his decade of indoor climbing skills doesn’t exactly translate into the outdoors, where there’s no tape to indicate the next handhold. Shiraishi, who already has significant outdoor climbing experience, aspires to become the first woman to climb a 5.15 during the trip, and projects Thor’s Hammer (5.15a), but ultimately fails to complete it.

Both climbers deal with frustration and disappointment in Norway, albeit gracefully. “I guess it’s just a part of climbing,” Shiraishi says. But you get the sense that she’s only just started to grasp what those emotions actually feel like when the stakes are higher than “just having fun.”

The film ends on a high note, with Lightner becoming more comfortable in the outdoors and beginning to mentor the next generation of climbers, and Shiraishi heading off to another climbing trip, this time to Japan, where she becomes the youngest person (and first woman) to ever climb a V15 bouldering problem. Kai’s mom, Connie, perhaps says it best. “Kai and Shiraishi are very strongly driven, but they’re learning that sometimes in life you have to roll with the punches; that sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn.”

See reelrocktour.com for a complete schedule of screenings and locations.