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Operation Speed Climbing: From the Nose to the Olympics, Speed Climbing Is Making Its Mark

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Speed climbers throwing for the finish at the 2019 Villars World Cup.© IFSC/Eddie Fowke

In July, I grasped the start holds of the speed wall at the 2014 USA Climbing (USAC) speed finals in Atlanta, Georgia. I planted my right foot on the starting foothold and my left foot on the footpad. The first ding went off and I rehearsed the beta in my head. The second ding came and I realized I had to hit the buzzer in under 7.5 seconds to advance to the World Championships in Noumea, New Caledonia later that fall. Then came the third beep. I launched into the climb, allowing muscle memory to take control.

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in sight, speed climbing has come to the forefront of climbing news. Competition climbers across the world race in six World Cups year-round and additional national events. They race the clock, and each other, on a 15-meter wall to earn a spot on the combined Olympic roster heading to Tokyo this summer. While many see the climbers racing up the wall as a new subset of climbing, speed climbing has been around since the earliest days of the sport.

Like all other forms of competition climbing, speed climbing began in the mountains. Each year, ascents got faster. In 2007, Swiss speed climber, Ueli Steck, set the speed record up the Eiger’s north face at 3 hours and 54 minutes. Dani Arnold shed an hour and 26 minutes off of Steck’s record in 2011, which lured Steck back in 2015. On November 18, Steck climbed the Eiger in 2 hours and 22 minutes. On technical faces like the Nose on El Capitan, ascensionists whittled their times down as well. Warren Harding’s first ascent took six months in 1958. Two years later, Royal Robbins, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost did it in 6 days. In 1975, John Long, Jim Bridwell, and Billy Westbay climbinged the Nose in one day. Now, Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold hold the record at 1 hour and 58 minutes. Initially, climbers wanted to make speedy ascents to limit their exposure on the wall but it’s transformed into a sport in its own right with climbers lining up below the Nose every year to attempt Yosemite’s Grand Prix.

While climbers raced to the top of El Capitan, speed climbing became a serious competitive pursuit in other parts of the world. In 1940s Soviet Russia speed was a key scoring metric for early climbing competitions. Before any other country, Russia added speed climbing into their repertoire of ways to earn more medals. The first international climbing competition was held in the city of Gagra, Russia, in 1976, where climbers were judged solely on how fast they could get from point a to point b. This helped launch the era of competitive speed climbing. In the competition world, where bouldering comes down to tops and zones and lead climbing comes down to control on holds and tops, the winner of a speed climbing race tends to be obvious, with a simple fastest time.

After over a century of climbers running up big walls, the competitions became more disciplined. Before 2007, route setters threw jugs up a forty foot wall for a speed route, and they were given discretion as to the difficulty and direction of the route. The setters intended the climb to be easy and straightforward. They wanted to test competitors solely on their ability to climb fast. As more people raced, climbers and setters alike began to question the consistency of the speed routes. They wanted a fairer playing field. In 2007, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) adopted a standardized route. This specific set of holds is now required at national and international competitions. Entre-Prises manufactures the IFSC approved speed holds and distributes them to routesetters globally. I was fortunate enough to climb at Metrorock in Everett, MA, one of the first few gyms in the country who had an IFSC speed wall. This seemed like an unfair advantage at the first nationals competition that USAC employed the route. Yet not long after the event, gyms across the country started acquiring speed walls. Todd Schester, the marketing manager at Entre-Prises Climbing Walls, estimates that about twenty gyms nationwide now have a version of the route. “Speed is definitely on these gyms’ radar, whereas six years ago it really wasn’t,” Chester says.

Entre-Prises now manufactures two different wall heights, a 10.5 meter and a 15 meter. Smaller gyms in the US use the 10-meter wall while the 15-meter wall became the standard for international competition. The 10.5 meter has 24 handholds and 16 footholds, while the 15 meter has 40 handholds and 22 footholds. Tailored to accommodate competition climbing, all speed walls are exactly 5 degrees overhanging. When I began climbing on the speed wall in 2011, one person would be hooked into a grigri pulling down on the climber’s end of the rope, while another person would be pulling the break end as fast as they could. On occasion, the belayer would have to sprint backwards to keep up with the climber. There would usually be a third person on stopwatch duty too. Times were slow enough then that belayers could usually keep up with climbers, and stopwatches were accurate enough. No longer are the days of janky belay setups and stopwatch timers. In 2016, the IFSC announced that certified automatic belay systems would be required at all international speed events. In search of a standardized belay system that could accommodate world record times, the IFSC pronounced Perfect Descent Climbing Systems as the official auto-belay supplier for World Cup and World Championship competitions. Designed to outpace record-holding speed climbers, this lanyard retraction design is the only approved auto-belay system for the IFSC. In addition to auto-belay devices, the IFSC now uses automated timing systems. Each one consists of a footpad for the start and a pad at the top to automatically start and stop the timer. The IFSC is currently in the process of finding one manufacturer to supply all of the timing systems for World events to further level the playing field.

Reza Alipour realizing he’s just set the world speed climbing record during the 2017 Nanjing World Cup.© IFSC/Eddie Fowke

Since the emergence of the IFSC wall in 2007, climbers set records yearly. In 2017 Iran’s Reza Alipour set the men’s world record at 5.48 seconds at the World Cup in Nanjing. In 2019, at the Chongqing World Cup, Yi Ling Song of China set the female record at 7.10 seconds. Then, just a few months later in Xiamen, Indonesia’s Aries Susanti Rahayu broke Song’s record, bringing the women’s time down to 6.99 seconds. Russia, China, France, Poland, and the Ukraine consistently produce some of the best speed climbers. John Brosler, who achieved an American speed climbing record of 5.99 seconds during the 2019 USAC Combined Nationals at Momentum Millcreek in Salt Lake City, Utah, noted, “Their sports programs are way more regimented than the US. Their athletes go to school and focus on sports for a long time. This also applies to speed climbing.”

A number of techniques go into climbing the route fast. When I began speed climbing 13 years ago, my team members and I would shed seconds off of our time every practice. We just climbed it a lot, and the more we did it, the faster we got. However as climbers have gotten faster, they have realized that there are two basic betas, a short beta person and a tall person beta, with every climber sequencing it slightly differently. The short person beta uses more of the holds, including one foot jib at the top that a lot of people use as a hand. The tall person beta incorporates more dynos and eliminates any unnecessary or awkward movements that shorter climbers may need. Because the holds are far apart, taller climbers generally have an easier time linking the large moves in a straight line up the wall. “I think being taller helps a little bit but there are definitely a lot of short speed climbers that do well. The general build (of a speed climber) is stocky and muscular with strong legs,” Brosler noted. Ultimately, it comes down to the climber’s fast-twitch muscles, explosive power, and execution.

Entre-Prises provided the first iteration of the speed wall after the IFSC announced them as their sole supplier. The route consisted of large, red finger jugs for hand holds, slightly in-cut but not a full jug, and good enough to stick when jumping to them. Since the first model of the wall, the IFSC has hired varying suppliers to produce near identical variations to the first, but with better holds. While the route still requires some accuracy, the juggier handholds are easy to catch when hitting them dynamically, allowing for greater momentum, and consequently, faster times. Many of the handholds are also used as feet, however there are a series of small footholds scattered throughout the climb as well.

The key to setting record times comes down to repetition and then tactics. “Do the route over and over again to get the muscle memory down and then make the moves as efficient as possible,” says Brosler. “Something as small as a hip tweak or any kind of nitty-gritty change in body position can alter your climb.” American speed climber Kyra Condie added, “focus on being smooth and not fast.”

“Once you know the route and you’re not really working on the sequence anymore, training is mostly off the wall,” says Brosler who focuses primarily on explosive power, elevating his heartrate through running stairs, doing springs, and box jumps. John likens his speed training routine to that of a track and field athlete. He focuses a lot on plyometrics aka jump training. “It’s the one discipline where you need to focus on leg strength and power,” Brosler says. Beyond that, climbers include doing max power runs with six-minute rests between, climbing the route with a weight vest, and endurance laps. Brosler sometimes trains endurance by climbing the whole route, lowering half way and then immediately going back to the top. “You have to be able to climb at maximum effort all the way up the wall without getting tired and slowing down at the top,” Brosler explains. In competition, climbers often have to do many runs with little rest in between. At past national events, climbers would complete one run and then immediately hook into the next belay setup with 20 seconds of rest in between if you’re lucky, sometimes more if you stalled to retie your shoes. Every climber completes two reps up the wall per round, with a total of three rounds of competition if you make it to the finals.

At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, climbing will be included in a combined format. Athletes will compete in all three disciplines, bouldering, sport, and speed, for an overall score. As a result of the new format, there is a new scoring system. Because of the combined nature of the competition, the IFSC came up with a way to fairly combine scores from each discipline. An athlete’s ranking in each discipline will be multiplied together to create an overall score. For example, if an athlete gets 1st in speed, 17th in bouldering, and 20th in lead, their overall score will be 340. The lower the number, the better you do. This format is being used in all of the Olympic qualifying events as well. With this scoring system, athletes benefit from being good in all three disciplines, rather than highly specialized in one discipline, however this is rare. Nevertheless, it’s valuable to be exceptional in one discipline.

So what does this mean for speed climbers? Many speed climbers who are exceptional in that one discipline lack strength in bouldering and lead. Thus, for a speed climber to make the Olympics, they would have to be winning these World Cup speed events, assuming that they are not excelling in the other two categories. “You’d need to be able to come in middle of the pack I think out of 20,” says Condie. “But a first place ranking is super valuable so it’d literally have to be the fastest speed climber who has the best shot,” Brosler adds.

Aries Susanti Rahayu descending after her record-setting climb during the 2019 Xiamen World Cup.© IFSC/Eddie Fowke

In total, 20 athletes for each gender will be allotted spots to compete at the 2020 games, and each country can only send a maximum of two athletes per gender. Seven out of the twenty athlete spots were assigned at the 2019 World Championships in Hachioji, Japan. Another six spots per gender came from the IFSC combined qualifying event in Toulouse, France, in November. Between the World Championships in Tokyo and the Toulouse qualifier, 13 out of the 20 athlete spots have been filled. Five more spots will be granted to the overall winners of five continental Olympic qualification events. The last two spots for the 2020 Olympic Games are discretionary to the tripartite commission made up of national Olympic committees, the International Olympic Committee, and international federations. Their pick is intended to give additional support to a country in need.

Of the sixteen competitors who qualified for the Olympic Games at World Championships, three were speed climbers. Aleksandra Miroslaw (POL) made the women’s team by qualifying 1st in speed, and 19th and 20th in bouldering and lead, respectively, totaling a score of 380. Rishat Khaibullin (KAZ) made the men’s team, qualifying first in speed, 17th in bouldering, and 16th in lead with a total score of 272. Additionally, the third-place speed finisher for the men, Mickael Mawem (FRA), earned the last spot by placing 8th in bouldering and 18th in lead, with an overall score of 432. Unfortunately, US speed climber John Brosler missed the cut, placing 14th in speed. His teammates, Drew Ruana and Nathaniel Coleman, however just missed the top eight by four and five spots, respectively. The two performed well all around; Coleman placed 8th in lead, 10th in speed, and 12th in bouldering, while Ruana followed closely behind in 6th for lead, 12th for speed, and 18th for bouldering. All-around climber, Brooke Raboutou (USA) made history at the event. Her 6th place performance in speed, in conjunction with her 7th and 10th place finish in lead and bouldering, respectively, earned her a ticket to the 2020 Olympic Games and made her the first climber to represent the U.S. in Tokyo. (Later, at the Toulouse comp, Coleman and Condie both earned spots on the Olympic roster for Team USA.) Ultimately, Brosler and Condie’s predictions were accurate. Only the first-place speed climbers made the Olympic team, with the exception of Mickael Mawem, who placed toward the top of the pack in lead and bouldering.

When I was training for worlds the summer of 2014, my bouldering power spiked. Through speed training, I found myself sticking dynos and deadpoints that I had never been able to before. I was thrilled to see my speed training translate into bouldering strength, as I was competing at the Pan-American Championships for both disciplines in December, just two months after Worlds. Though my primary focus had been on speed during the summer leading up to PanAms, I managed to make finals in bouldering. When I hit the finishing panel on my last speed climb at Nationals that summer, I looked up to see my time of 7.20 seconds, and knew I had advanced. What I didn’t know at the time, is how positively my upcoming speed endeavors would affect my bouldering and lead climbing.