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Opinion: Comp Climbing Is Experiencing Its First Wave of Nostalgia

Recent events indicate a longing for a bygone era, but that is not necessarily a bad thing

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Crowd pleasing, parkour-style moves dominate the comp scene today, like this run-and-jump start from the 2019 IFSC World Championships, but in previous generations, finger strength and power were key.© IFSC/Eddie Fowke

In many ways, the recent string of Boulder Field Masters competitions, which concluded with an event appropriately titled The Modern Climber earlier this month, presented competition climbing in its most modern form. Throughout the fall, the series’ events took place at The Boulder Field, a multi-service gym in Sacramento, California, that features yoga classes, a swanky cafe, a large fitness area, a small wall for kids and work nooks for adults, in addition to 10,000 square feet of bouldering space. The Boulder Field Masters Series on the whole boasted a $60,000 cash purse; all competitions were livestreamed, and the Olympics—the pinnacle of modern competitive climbing—were referenced often in the lead up to each event.

But beneath the overarching uber-modern veneer, one competition of the series—The Force Majeure in September—was purposefully old-school. “This is our throwback to the years in which pulling down hard was paramount to the tricks, parkour, and ninja-style moves that seem to dominate our comp world these days,” declared the event’s press materials. In saying so, it felt as if the competition’s organizers and the fans were realizing for the first time ever that competition climbing has evolved to a point where a previous era can be nodded to—even revered. Referencing the long-defunct Professional Climbers Association’s circuit of competitions, the marketing description for The Force Majeure read: “Gone are the PCA days of Chris Sharma and Lisa Rands battling their way through straight-forward, yet viciously powerful moves culminating in wild throws to the lip of the wall. Until now.”

The Force Majeure’s adherence to pre-“skate-style” routesetting and its celebration of no-frills competing would have passed like a singular novelty if not for another event that took place the same weekend, The Bloc Shop Open in Montreal, Canada. Unlike The Force Majeure, Bloc Shop did not limit its routesetting and holds to those of a bygone era. Yet it was still a throwback in its own right, with commentator Pete Woods noting, “Some of us who have been around climbing for longer have been of late longing for old-school style problems, where there were things to grab and movement to be had.”

Woods’ broadcasting partner, Phil Lanthier, quipped, “I think [competition climbing is] moving in this direction where the routesetters have maybe had a field day with the coordination run-and-jump type of boulders. These are very much on display right now, but they may be balancing that out with pure power boulders. And I think that kind of balance is what we need.”

And then more recently at the Battle of the Bay stop on USA Climbing’s National Cup series, commentator Sera Gearhart acknowledged the sport’s ever-present change, saying, “It’s pretty special to see how this sport has evolved and how some of the young kids growing up on the youth teams have just evolved into these incredible competition climbers really gunning for the Olympics.”

The wistfulness expressed at all these events and the frequent mention of the sport’s evolution indicates that the current zeitgeist in competition climbing is one of nostalgic reverence. Not only is there a realization that competition climbing has progressed—ninja parkour moves and Olympic dreams and all—into a form that now has virtually no connective tissue to the outdoors, but there is also a collective curiosity about whether things used to be better.

That is not to say that everyone agrees that the old competition scene of the 1990s or early 2000s was better, necessarily. But there are enough people pondering sentimental questions that competition climbing can officially claim to be enjoying its first nostalgic wave. Remember the American Bouldering Series? Remember when Brian Runnells and Chris Weidner were the voice of American competition climbing? Remember when comp walls didn’t have huge volumes?

Questions like those are being informed by nostalgia in the climbing world at-large. If there was not a current fascination with bygone climbing eras, there would not be a market for gear like the Tulson Tolf California shoes, an unabashed tribute to “the ’70s, California, USA…Rock ´n´Roll, Free Jazz, and big walls, a lot of rock.”

Also, there would not be people buying and reading Jeff Smoot’s memoir, Hangdog Days, which frames the 1980s and “the race for 5.14” in a neon nostalgic glow. And there would not be 25,000 followers of the evocative Old School Climbing Instagram account.

This widespread climbing nostalgia arguably began with the cinematic release of Valley Uprising six years ago as an ode to a freewheeling Yosemite of yesteryear, but it has never really lessened. One could argue the nostalgia has only grown stronger. A Reddit thread started in 2017 is as active as ever with discourse: Old-School Rock Climbing vs. Today.

Underpinning the wistfulness at the competition level is quantitative generational turnover. Chris Sharma might have been one of the preeminent stars of the aforementioned PCA in the early 2000s, but it has been more than a decade since he posed any threat on the World Cup circuit. He is approaching 40 years old, and although still a powerhouse, his current role as deep-water trendsetter, gym mogul, route creator, and Instagram family guy leaves breathing room for his competition legend to grow. Youngsters nowadays probably know (or assume) that he once competed, but they likely do not know the details or the specifics of his competitive career—they just figure he must have dominated. The same could be said about Tommy Caldwell, at one time Sharma’s contemporary on the competition scene. In fact, one could argue that many of the current competition stars, Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret and Japan’s Futaba Ito among them, were not born until after Sharma, Caldwell, and other icons were past their respective competition primes.

Brooke Raboutou’s recent Olympic berth only adds to the nostalgia wave—or even anemoia—because her story is tied so closely to that of her competitor parents, Robyn Erbesfield and Didier Raboutou. Brooke Raboutou’s historic Olympic accomplishment cannot be understood without comparing the current competition scene to that which existed when her parents were active on it. And the fact that the two scenes are so different invites questions about the merits of each epoch. So once again, nostalgia beckons.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be the ultimate line of demarcation for all this. Someday fans will look back on competition history as Pre-Olympics and Post-Olympics. And what the sport evolves into in the years that follow next year’s Olympics is anyone’s guess (let us know in the comments below).

In the meantime, all the throwbacks are compliments and salutes to the sport’s growth over the years. They signify its development from the fringe to the mainstream to the megastream because competition climbing finally has—for the first time ever—a lot of stuff it can throwback to.