It’s Time to Em­brace Comp Climb­ing …



The Ja­panese climber Kai Harada hung from the top hold on the last prob­lem of the men’s boul­der­ing fi­nals in Inns­bruck, Aus­tria, shak­ing his head in dis­be­lief. The 21-yearold’s flash had se­cured vic­tory at the 2018 In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Sport Climb­ing (IFSC) Boul­der­ing World Cham­pi­onships in Septem­ber. Harada hes­i­tated to let go, as if he wasn’t ready to face his achieve­ment. Then he dropped, placed his face in his hands, and wept as the arena’s sold-out crowd of 6,000 ex­ploded into a stand­ing ova­tion.

The event—or­ga­nized by Aus­tria Climb­ing and the IFSC—was held at OlympiaHalle Inns­bruck and demon­strated what comp climb­ing could be with the bud­get of an NBA game, plus set a high bench­mark lead­ing up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Light pro­jec­tions danced on the walls, an over­head dis­play showed scores and close-ups, an ex­cited an­nouncer fol­lowed with crimp-by-crimp com­men­tary, and a DJ seam­lessly in­te­grated songs into the ac­tion, in­clud­ing sub­tle, light­hearted jabs at the com­peti­tors (“The an­swer is blow­ing in the wind” when one boul­derer couldn’t de­ci­pher a bal­ancey slab dyno).

In pretty much ev­ery de­vel­oped coun­try but Amer­ica, comp climb­ing is an es­tab­lished sport. The first in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, SportRoc­cia, was held in 1985 near Bar­donec­chia, Italy, with routes on real rock that were “rou­tinely chipped and glued to achieve the cor­rect grade,” ac­cord­ing to State­ment: The Ben Moon Story. The first in­ter­na­tional comp on US soil was in 1988: the fa­mous Snow­bird event on the Cliff Lodge. The mod­ern World Cup cir­cuit has ex­isted in some form since 1989, and US Na­tion­als un­der USA Climb­ing since 2004. This year’s World Cham­pi­onships took over Inns­bruck, and ev­ery­one I met—climber or not—knew the big names and re­sults. In fact, comp climb­ing re­ceives govern­ment fund­ing in many coun­tries. In Aus­tria and Slove­nia, for ex­am­ple, com­peti­tors hold mil­i­tary po­si­tions—their en­tire role is to train and rep­re­sent their coun­try. The strong­est squads, like Ja­pan, at­tend train­ing camps to­gether, work­ing un­der team coaches.

How­ever, in the US, comp climbers are on their own—and are of­ten dis­par­aged for “not climb­ing on real rock.” This, and a lack of fund­ing—Alex Puc­cio crowd­funded her 2015 World Cup travel costs—may ex­plain Amer­i­cans’ mid­dling per­for­mance year af­ter year. Even just post­ing the World Cham­pi­onship re­sults on Face­book, Climb­ing got neg­a­tive com­ments. Ac­cord­ing to one com­menter, “Turn­ing train­ing-for-climb­ing into its own dis­ci­pline is shame­ful and em­bar­rass­ing.”

Funny. Peo­ple used to say the same thing about sport climb­ing and boul­der­ing. Climbers in the US have such an un­ques­tion­ing rev­er­ence for Yosemite’s Stone­mas­ters and El Cap­i­tan that we are per­pet­u­ally liv­ing in the shad­ows of peo­ple like Royal Rob­bins and Yvon Chouinard, who ad­hered to strict tra­di­tional val­ues. But let’s not for­get that the great­est ac­com­plish­ments of that era were pri­mar­ily aid walls, many since freed at 5.13 and 5.14, of­ten at the hands of climbers who got strong through sport climb­ing and boul­der­ing. Lynn Hill was the first to free the Nose, and she also trav­eled with the Eu­ro­pean com­pe­ti­tion cir­cuit. Tommy Cald­well, in The Push, cred­its the 1995 Snow­bird comp for jump­start­ing his pro ca­reer. And the orig­i­nal Snow­bird comp, by the way, was or­ga­nized by ice and alpine pi­o­neer Jeff Lowe.

Dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion lead­ing up to the fi­nals, Adam On­dra

stressed the need to sep­a­rate in­door and out­door climb­ing in our think­ing. His per­for­mance con­firmed this. On­dra, un­de­ni­ably the world’s strong­est rock climber, did not reach boul­der­ing fi­nals. His only stand­out mo­ment was when he threw a Si­lence- style no-hands knee­bar on P4. On­dra hadn’t com­peted in an in­ter­na­tional boul­der­ing event since 2016, and while his off-the-couch comp per­for­mance landed him in sev­en­teenth place in boul­der­ing—and sec­ond in com­bined—he’ll need to fo­cus on in­door climb­ing for the next two years if he hopes to win in Tokyo. The event-spe­cific train­ing On­dra will need to put in for the Olympic for­mat—which com­bines lead, boul­der­ing, and speed—will likely cause his out­door climb­ing to suf­fer short-term.

It’s true that to­day’s top comp climbers—Janja Garn­bret, Jakob Schu­bert, Jan Ho­jer, Alex Puc­cio—are also lead­ers on stone ( see climb­pcrush­ers). How­ever, comps stopped be­ing a train­ing ground for out­door climb­ing long ago—to­day’s routes and prob­lems, show­cas­ing au­di­ence-friendly park­our-style move­ment, re­flect this. In the men’s boul­der­ing fi­nals in Inns­bruck, three out of the four prob­lems started with a dyno, and com­peti­tors would in­evitably top out if they latched the leap. These ath­letes live and breathe comps, struc­tur­ing their train­ing, di­ets, and lives around achiev­ing peak per­for­mance on plas­tic. Let’s rec­og­nize that. It’s time we take off our Make Climb­ing Great Again hats and cel­e­brate achieve­ments both on and off the stone.


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