“But they aren’t real climbers…”



In the US where the dirt­bag cul­ture is still es­poused as an ideal, comp climb­ing’s per­ceived glitz and glamor can seem like anath­ema. Com­ments like “No comp climber will ever send the Dawn Wall,” as I heard in Boul­der, Colorado—just prior to comp climber Adam Ondra’s fast re­peat of the VI 5.14d in Novem­ber 2016—per­pet­u­ate the myth that comps, with their live streams, big crowds, and strange, gym­nas­tic moves up gi­ant blobs, have noth­ing to do with “real climb­ing.”

Nonethe­less, comp climb­ing has been around in a for­mal con­text since 1947, when the USSR, to cel­e­brate its 30th an­niver­sary, held an event on cliffs in the Kavkaz re­gion. (It was a speed event based on the com­bined time it took a climber to climb up and down a 30-me­ter cliff [roped], and then com­plete a 30-me­ter tra­verse in both di­rec­tions.) In the mid-1980s, difficulty com­pe­ti­tions be­gan ap­pear­ing in Europe, the first be­ing Sportroc­cia in 1985, on the lime­stone of Bar­donec­chia, Italy. 1991 saw the birth of the UIAA World Cup cir­cuit. Over the last cou­ple of decades, comp climb­ing has grown. With the gym boom and at­ten­dant youth teams, our sport reaches a broader au­di­ence than ever, with climbers be­ing ex­posed to it at younger ages and with climb­ing mak­ing its first ap­pear­ance as an Olympic event in Tokyo in 2020. To dis­miss com­pe­ti­tion climb­ing is to dis­miss how much it’s ad­vanced our sport.

Take Ondra’s FA of the 5.15d Si­lence in 2017, Angy Eiter’s re­peat of the 5.15b La Planta de Shiva that same year, and in 2016 Nalle Hukkataival’s FA of the V17 Bur­den of Dreams. All of these climbers com- pe­ted: Ondra is the de­fend­ing Lead World Cham­pion, was Boul­der World Cham­pion in 2014, and has 14 World Cup wins. Eiter was four­time Lead World Cham­pion and has 25 World Cup vic­to­ries. And Hukkataival was on the Boul­der cir­cuit from 2004 to 2011.

Many re­cent ad­vance­ments made by top climbers can be traced back to their work­ing with coaches to a de­gree pre­vi­ously un­heard of—and even those not work­ing with coaches are ben­e­fit­ting from devel­op­ments in sport science. Watch­ing Si­lence, the doc­u­men­tary about Ondra’s tick of his 5.15d, we see just how closely he col­lab­o­rated with Aus­trian team phys­io­ther­a­pist Klaus Isele, who helped Ondra not only main­tain fit­ness and re­cover, but also de­con­struct the climb’s fu­tur­is­tic se­quenc­ing. Each ad­vance­ment we are see­ing to­day comes from climbers who are ei­ther in the comp sys­tem or have been there pre­vi­ously, build­ing their train­ing foun­da­tion.

And ev­ery elite com­peti­tor is a climb­ing ad­dict—to be a top com­peti­tor means you have to eat, sleep, and breathe climb­ing. In­deed, on the comp cir­cuit, you’ll find a twenty-first cen­tury ver­sion of dirt­bag­ging, with climbers shar­ing ho­tel rooms, camp­grounds, and apart­ment floors and work­ing long hours dur­ing the off-sea­son to scrimp to­gether funds. Af­ter the Vail Boul­der­ing World Cup in 2016, climbers from Rus­sia, Is­rael, Slove­nia, Italy, Korea, and Canada con­verged on a grotty ho­tel in Estes Park so they could climb to­gether in Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park. That trip saw the first re­peat of Hyp­no­tized

Minds (V16) by Rus­tam Gel­manov of Rus­sia, a re­peat of Jade (V14) by Jong­won Chon of South Korea, and many other hard sends.

It’s time to say good­bye to any stigma around comp climb­ing and in­stead wel­come it as the in­cu­ba­tor of our sport’s top tal­ent. (For a longer es­say on the sub­ject, visit climb­ing.com/comp­san­drock.)

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