Don't tell me you're not competitive. You're a climber, you love competition. Sport climbers and boulderers compete by chasing routes with bigger numbers, often with little regard for the history of a route, and subsequently log on to the world's most popular climbing website, 8a.nu, to catalog them. Alpine climbers compete to bag more peaks, and won't sleep for 60 hours if it means a faster, lighter ascent. I'm no expert, but my understanding is that in mixed climbing, going, um, leashless, is a big deal. Brits (and old people) do something called traditional climbing, which apparently involves training for months in a basement on plastic, ruthlessly wiring a 25-foot route on toprope, and using words like knackered, bollocks and proper fucked to describe the experience when they finally manage a lead.
Point is, competition is what we do, and if you ask me (or Darwin) I think healthy competition is great. You can compete with yourself, with others or with the challenge nature presents you. Regardless, when done right, competition is good for you and good for the sport.
Competition climbing, however, has perpetually struggled to justify itself. It's a black sheep. To many, it eats away at the more righteous climbing pursuits listed above. The dissenting voices say competitions are only for posers who like to spray about how strong they are and who sell out the sport in the process. Comps are seen as illegitimate, fake and unworthy. All ego and no integrity.
Those who don't see the integrity in comp climbing have got it all wrong. In fact, comp climbing may be the purest form of climbing there is. It is the only type of climbing where routes are ungraded and the grades don't matter. Comps are simple. There's no quibbling over style of ascent, no wondering if the route is 5.15a or 5.15b (who cares?) and certainly no wondering if there were any witnesses. In a comp, everyone has five minutes to climb an ungraded problem, onsight if possible. It's arbitrary, but what in climbing isn't? Comps are fun. Everybody tries his or her best and then rocks out at a wild after party.
They say, Greatness is distilled in the pressure cooker of adversity. Because most of us usually climb with only a partner, the nature of the adversity becomes a private experience. That's great if you're the Huber brothers or Tommy Caldwell streaking up El Cap like a comet, but it sucks for me. I can't really grasp how cool it is that the Huber brothers can fire the Nose in 45 seconds because I can't be there to see it. Comps, however, offer a different climbing experience, one that's not inwardly focused on how badass your own achievements are, but rather one that allows you to look outside yourself and appreciate the talents and strengths of others. Climbing comps are awesome spectacles of pressure, adversity and greatness all brought together right before your face. It is hard not to see how far from the top you really are, and at the same time hard not to be inspired. We've been lucky to have many such examples on the Bouldering Championships tour but my favorite moment has to be from last year's opening event at the Gravity Brawl in Fairfield, New Jersey.
There's no other way to say it: The men's division presented the greatest climbing I have ever seen. It featured the two best boulderers in the U.S., Paul Robinson and Daniel Woods, entering their prime at the same moment and climbing head to head. Paul out-climbed Daniel early on, sending problems 1, 2 and 3, but Woods rallied late and was the only climber to send problem 4. It all came down to problem 5. Despite chants of GO-PAUL! GO-PAUL! Robinson couldn't stick a desperate go-again and the pressure was suddenly on Woods. If he could send the desperate problem 5, he'd win. If not, first place would go to Robinson, who would finally break through and have his day in front of his home crowd. The packed gym was wild. People were popping miniature noise-making fireworks and waving giant foam Number 1 hands. There was even a guy who brought one of those signs you see at football games that say John 3:16, only his read Woods 3:16 instead.
On his first try, Woods established a high point to the deafening encouragement of the audience, but he still fell two moves away from the win. As Woods rested for one last go, the whole crowd (including Robinson) got behind him, drowning out a PA system I had rented from a guy who normally does NHRA drag races with it. I have never been to a louder concert. Though Woods couldn't quite get the send within his allotted time, minutes after the comp had ended, in a display of showmanship worthy of a star athlete, Woods chalked up again and sent problem 5, much to the delight of the still-packed house.
Competition climbing in the U.S. has been around for 20 years, and some say it has been 20 years since something really amazing happened at a competition. Way back in 1988, the fabulous, flexible Frenchman Patrick Edlinger won the hearts and minds of all in attendance at the World Cup held in Snowbird, Utah. On the men's finals route, no one had even reached the roof, two-thirds of the way up the 12-story wall. While waiting for his turn, Edlinger kept his back turned to the wall and his headphones on. When it was time to go, he walked up to the base of the route, tied in and began climbing without even looking up.
In his book Postcards from the Ledge, Greg Child wrote, Where others had slapped for holds, or quivered as they held on with gut-busting power, Edlinger danced catlike, weightless and elegant, with his blond shock of hair swaying in the breeze. Those who saw him climb that day learned the meaning of the term poetry in motion,' and they went away moist-eyed, convinced that climbing was, after all, an art.
When Edlinger gained the roof, he reached, and reached again, and continued beautifully in his effortlessness. Spectators swear that as he pulled the crux, the rain clouds parted and a ray of sunshine came down upon Edlinger as he climbed to the top of the wall. He was the only competitor to do so.
The reason this story has remained so powerful, even 20 years later, has everything to do with the purity of Edlinger's onsight, which was brought to life for so many by the simplicity of the competition format.
Edlinger had it running through his veins that day, continues Child in Postcards, and whether your game was mountains or crags, big-wall routes or bolted sport climbs, 5.14 or 5.7, the Frenchman's fingers and feet tapped out a message that was the same for all: be there, be focused, be your best.
So, what's happened in comp climbing since then? Where are all the amazing moments? Well, as with Daniel Woods and Paul Robinson's climactic battle in New Jersey, they are there but few have been paying attention. An entire alphabet soup of organizations has tried to bring competitions to the forefront of American climbing: the JCCA, PCA, USAC, the X-Games and, most recently, NE2C, the operation I am running with Jason Danforth and Lu Yan. But, until recently, there has been very little industry support for competitions, and not too much love for them in the community either.
That is about to change. Due to the efforts of what is now U.S.A. Climbing (USAC), a whole generation of climbers has been introduced to the sport through competition. For over a decade, the USAC has been running junior comps across the country and churning out kids that hike 5.14. Almost every current top American climber under 30 started in a gym, on a climbing team. Chris Sharma, Ethan Pringle, Alex Puccio, Alex Johnson, Kevin Jorgeson, Emily Harrington, Paul Robinson, Vasya Vorotnikov and Daniel Woods have all gone on to master outdoor rock climbing in a stupidly short period of time. They are conscientious, ethical and great for the future of our sport. Climbing in a structured environment supported by committed coaches has positively shaped their values. Most of the new generation brings a relaxed yet focused attitude to the table. I don't miss the anorexic, wobbler-ridden pose-downs of the early 1990s one bit.
Competitions are the next frontier of climbing. I think that in five years, we will read about climbing competitions in more detail and with more excitement than ever before. Pro competitions will continue to grow and a sustainable pro tour will help the best and brightest focus completely on climbing should they so choose. Perhaps some of the best climbers in the world will hardly climb on real rock at all. Actually, it's already happening in Europe.
I understand that some people don't get comps. I guess if you don't like loud music or the nervous energy of a crowd waiting to see something great, then you won't like comps. But I still challenge you not to be impressed at the finals of a top-flight pro competition.
Luckily for you, the two biggest bouldering comps ever in North America are making 2008 a benchmark year.
First, USAC brought the first World Cup to the U.S. since Berkeley in 1991. The Teva Games in Vail, Colorado, was an enormous success. It was packed with thousands of spectators, had exciting upsets, and a brilliant finale. We were wowed by the dominance of Killian Fischhuber, of Austria, and were lucky to see Alex Johnson, an American, take the first-place podium for women.
Next, the Mammut Bouldering Championships are returning to the Summer Outdoor Retailer show August 8th and 9th in Salt Lake City. The 2007 Bouldering Championships event was the biggest bouldering competition since the X-Games and the biggest ever to be solely supported by the climbing industry. That is a crucial point. The Billabong Pipeline Masters is probably the most famous competition in surfing, but there would be no Pipeline Masters without the Billabong before it. In order for professional competition climbing to grow the sport, the industry, and therefore the community, have to see the value in comps, the value of using comps to support the best and brightest stars, the value of using comps to expand what is possible in climbing.
Of course, the real value of comps is being there. Something unbelievable will happen, something you really have to be there to see. I'll be in Salt Lake City this summer waiting to see what happens next. You should be there, too.
Pete Ward is a Managing Partner of NE2C, owners and operators of the Bouldering Championships pro climbing tour.