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Opinion: It’s Time to Embrace Comp Climbing and Leave the 1960s Behind

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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 19-year-old’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.

Jump to 1:30:35 to watch Harada’s victory.

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 most developed nations, 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 the early days of Yosemite climbing 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 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 How Competition Climbing is Pushing Standards for Outdoor Climbing). 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.

Not convinced? That’s fine. You don’t have to like competition climbing, but recognize that it doesn’t affect you and don’t go out of your way to dish hate on it. Comps are an addition to the sport. The cliffs are still there. You can go climb outside during the day, and then marvel at the multi-step dynos on the IFSC livestream at night. It’s time we take off our Make Climbing Great Again hats and celebrate achievements both on and off the stone.

Check this weekend for coverage of the first-ever USA Climbing Combined Invitational, the first major US comp in the Olympic format.