Years after it was first promised and at a cost of more than $10 million per linear mile, President Donald Trump is confident that his newest stretch of a strengthened barrier along the U.S. southern border is “virtually impenetrable.”
How confident? Enough to have its scalability tested by the world’s greatest rock climbers, he told reporters on Wednesday.
“We have, I guess you could say, world-class mountain climbers. We got climbers,” Trump said beside a newly finished section of the barrier in Otay Mesa, California, which tops heights of 30 feet. “We had 20 mountain climbers. That’s all they do—they love to climb mountains. They can have it. Me, I don’t want to climb mountains. But they’re very good, and some of them were champions. And we gave them different prototypes of walls, and this was the one that was hardest to climb.”
The climber test, Trump boasted, is proof that “this wall can’t be climbed.”
The problem? The country’s top climbers have no idea what the hell Trump is talking about.
“I have never heard of any climbers ever being recruited to try and climb a border wall,” said Jesse Grupper, who won the gold medal in the men’s sport lead category of this year’s USA Climbing Sport & Speed Open National Championships.
“I absolutely have not heard of anyone testing sections of border wall,” said Kyra Condie, who currently ranks second among the nation’s women boulderers and is considered a serious contender for the U.S. team when the sport makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo next year. “It would even be hard to find any of us willing to do anything to help Trump and his efforts in any way.”
“Definitely no well-recognized U.S. climbers have taken part in something like that,” said Ross Fulkerson, a seven-time member of the U.S. national team who is currently ranked third in the country. “I haven’t heard of any climbers ever helping out with testing.”
Speaking to the nation’s top-ranked climbing athletes, past climbing and bouldering champions, and sports associations, The Daily Beast sought clues to the identity of any climber who might have participated in such a test. Not a single person in the tight-knit community of world-class climbers had heard a single word about any border wall experiment.
“We live in strange times,” said Marc Norman, CEO of USA Climbing, the sport’s national governing body. “I am not aware of any of our athletes being contracted to do such work. Ironically, I have heard rumors of climbers being contracted by zoos to test animal enclosures, but that is about all.”
Spokespeople and executives at the country’s oldest and largest climbing and mountaineering groups, including the American Alpine Club, Mazamas, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Alpine Institute, were similarly at a loss.
“Walls continue to activate the basic human sense for adventure and freedom to explore,” said Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club, who was in the nation’s capital this week with 60 of the sport’s top athletes to advocate for action on climate change. “I am not aware of any climbers who have been hired to test walls. I would think if any of our very best had done so, we would know.”
Many in the climbing community expressed skepticism that athletes who practice a sport defined by conquering seemingly insurmountable obstacles would participate in the construction of a barrier intended to keep people out of the country—particularly the sport’s most promising athletes, almost all of whom are in their teens or early twenties.
“I have absolutely never heard of such a test as Trump seems to be talking about,” said Arlin Weinberger with the Alpine Club. “I also think it might be difficult to find mountain-climbing types willing to test the detestable border wall.”
Grupper, the nation’s reigning male sport-climbing champion, told The Daily Beast that the ethos of the sport is “too focused on inclusion for a climber to agree to such a request,” even from a sitting president.
Still, some admitted a willingness to try climbing the wall, if only out of curiosity.
“I would like to see how it looks and try myself—why not?” offered Alexey Rubtsov, a former world champion boulderer who won the bronze medal at U.S. nationals in 2017.
“I suspect that this would be an interesting experiment,” said Kai Lightner, who was considered a top contender for the U.S. Olympic team before he took a hiatus from competitive climbing to focus on his college work.
But others said that such a test would be tedious for climbers who enjoy tackling the most challenging routes.
“If it’s the slat wall behind him when he made the comment, it looks like it would be easy for a professional rock climber to get up and over,” said Mitsu Iwasaki, executive director of mountaineering organization Mazamas.
“Mountain climbers climb 2,000-foot cliffs, not 20-foot artificial barriers,” said Grupper. “Also, most climbers try and only use their hands, so they wouldn’t be the best people to ask to climb an artificial border that one could use tools to ascend—maybe a construction worker would be better.”
Fulkerson posited that Trump might have confused rock climbers and boulderers, who largely rely on their hands and feet, with mountain climbers, who use technical equipment to navigate mountainous terrain. A rock climber’s skills, honed by scaling training walls via plastic holds bolted onto them, “would transfer extremely well to trying to get over a border wall,” he said.
“It makes sense that they would want people to test it out, but ‘mountain climbers’ would not be the people to do it,” Fulkerson said. “Rock climbers would be far better suited for such a test given we constantly practice climbing up vertical and overhanging walls.”
The administration did not provide any clues as to who or what Trump said scaled the wall. In response to a request for comment on the supposed recruitment of champion climbers to test the border wall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed the Otay Mesa barrier, referred The Daily Beast to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Homeland Security, which supervises U.S. Customs and Border Protection, referred questions to the White House, which did not respond to requests for clarification regarding the test’s parameters, participants, or existence.
The border wall in Otay Mesa replaces 14 miles of preexisting barrier, initially constructed under the direction of now-U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and is intended to be the first stretch of a wall that will stretch along nearly the entire U.S. southern border. The new barrier section is designed to absorb heat to deter immigrants from touching it—“you can fry an egg on that wall,” Trump said on Wednesday—and cost $147 million.
“This design, it’s a game-changer,” Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told reporters at the Otay Mesa event, adding that the demonstration would hopefully counter the “a false narrative out there that this wall is the president’s ‘vanity wall.’”
Shortly thereafter, Trump put his signature on one of the barrier’s iron-coated, concrete-filled, rebar-reinforced bollards.