There is something special about the IFSC’s Bouldering World Cup stop at Vail. From Alex Johnson’s legendary victory there in 2008 to Alex Puccio’s storybook flash of the final boulder last year, the event delivers results that get etched in competition history.

Some of that magic comes from the roaring crowd at Vail, which gathers every year to not only watch the climbing, but also to take part in the various other festivities of the GoPro Mountain Games—sort of the Woodstock of outdoor recreation. This year was no different, with a massive throng of spectators crowding the lawn to cheer on the competitors in the final World Cup competition of the 2019 bouldering circuit. A highlight of this year's gathering was a collective display (2:44.41 in the livestream), midway through the action, of support for climbing’s inclusion in the 2024 Olympics. It was a cool moment—a time capsule of where climbing is in its ongoing Olympic journey. The weekend was packed with plenty of other historic, highlight-reel moments as well.

Down to the wire for the men

Heading into the weekend’s competition, the men’s 2019 overall title was still very much up for grabs and the buzz was about whether the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra or Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki was going to emerge as the season’s champion. As if on cue, they delivered some thrilling action. They were neck-and-neck with four tops each heading out of the semi-finals, and Narasaki threw down the gauntlet early in the finals by flashing the opening slab problem (2:18.15 in the livestream). The drama heightened on the following boulder, a dynamic smattering of Cheeta dishes, which Ondra flashed and Narasaki did not. Then Narasaki pulled away, topping a third boulder—also a slab—that bested Ondra.

Yet, while the focus was on Ondra and Narasaki's back-and-forth tussle for the overall season title, Japan’s Yoshiyuki Ogata was subtly dominating—at least, as subtly as someone could top every single boulder problem. On the fourth boulder of the finals, a shoulder-busting overhang haul that proved to be too much for both Ondra and Narasaki (as well as Canada’s Sean McColl and Germany’s Jan Hojer), Ogata forced everyone to take notice. He topped it for the Vail victory, thus securing his first-ever win in a World Cup competition. Narasaki’s second place finish behind Ogata was enough to give Narasaki that coveted 2019 overall title. Ondra will likely be back with a vengeance during the upcoming ropes circuit, which is sure to be as electrifying as the bouldering circuit.

Into the history books for Janja Garnbret

It was surprising that the competition in the women’s division was as exciting and intriguing as it was, considering that Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret already secured the 2019 overall title at the Munich World Cup event two weeks ago. But with the championship already to her credit, Garnbret was gunning for something unprecedented: a clean sweep of the entire bouldering season.

And the excitement came in Vail not because Garnbret looked her typical dominant self, but because Vail proved to be her biggest challenge of the season. Spectators first realized something was amiss when Garnbret struggled on the first boulder in the semi-finals, a crimpy overhang. It was astonishing that Garnbret did not reach the top while several other competitors—France’s Fanny Gibert, and Japan’s Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka—did. Finding herself in an uncharacteristic hole early on, Garnbret did end up advancing to the finals, but even there she struggled. It took her two attempts to reach the top of the first slabby boulder, which Noguchi and Gibert both flashed.

But Garnbret rallied and never lost her composure, proving why many people already consider her to be the greatest competition climber of all time. She hung with Nonaka and Noguchi, topping the second boulder, and distanced herself from her Japanese rivals by topping the third boulder as well, a crowd-pleasing progression up enormous dual-tex pillars. It is worth watching and rewatching Garnbret’s flash of the fourth boulder (1:52.58 in the livestream), which secured her victory—and her historic season sweep of all six competitions. Spectators are so used to seeing Garnbret display uncanny skill and composure, but the tears of joy streaming down her face afterwards marked one of the few times she has looked, well, human, with her emotions laid bare.

Onto the next circuit for Team USA

The results at Vail were a microcosm of the whole bouldering season for the Americans. Team USA had a stellar qualification round, with Natalia Grossman, Margo Hayes, Alex Johnson, Kyra Condie, Nathaniel Coleman, Sam McQueen, Sean Bailey, and Matt Fultz all advancing to the semi-finals. But there was severe attrition as the semi-finals progressed. Of the American bunch, Grossman and Coleman finished the highest, placing 7 and 8 in their respective divisions. The results for the other American competitors were as follows for the women: Hayes in 11, Johnson in 13, Condie in 14, Brooke Raboutou tied for 21, Ashima Shiraishi tied for 23, Sierra Blair-Coyle tied for 27, Sienna Kopf tied for 33, Mia Bawendi tied for 35, and Piper Kelly tied for 37. And for the men: McQueen in 14, Bailey in 18, Fultz in 20, Drew Ruana tied for 25, Zander Waller tied for 31, Josh Levin tied for 45, Zach Galla tied for 47, Joe Goodacre tied for 49, and John Brosler tied for 53.

At the conclusion of the semi-final round, with no Americans advancing to the finals, commentator Charlie Boscoe aptly noted, “Team USA could count themselves slightly unlucky today.” The same sentiment could be applied to the entire 2019 World Cup circuit for the Americans.

There are some hard truths about the 2019 season, but there are some positive takeaways too. First, the blunt reality: Team USA did not have a great Bouldering World Cup season from a results standpoint. There were bright spots here and there (Shiraishi topping a dynamic boulder in Chongqing, China, to finish in 9 comes to mind). But American fans never got to witness an American competitor in a bouldering finals. That is not meant to be a knock on the members of the American team or USA Climbing; the international field is simply more competitive than it ever has been. Objectively, the consequence is unfortunate because the United States had a lot of fan momentum at the onset of the season from the ESPN partnership and the ever-present Olympic hype. I wonder if some of that fan interest was deflated by the lack of an American presence in any World Cup finals.

The optimistic outlook would be that Americans still might shine during the upcoming Lead World Cup season. Shiraishi, Hayes, and Bailey, despite being decorated in all disciplines, are absolute crushers on ropes. That bodes well for Team USA. And Condie and Galla have proven that they are forces to be reckoned with in the combined format. So, there is reason to believe that the American competitors have a shot at Olympic qualification. Time will tell. Until then, bring on the ropes!

The lead World Cup season kicks off on July 4 in Villars, Switzerland, which will also include a speed climbing event. Stay tuned to Climbing.com for the livestreams and coverage.

Results

Men

  1. Yoshiyuki Ogata (JPN)
  2. Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
  3. Jongwon Chon (KOR)
  4. Jan Hojer (GER)
  5. Adam Ondra (CZE) 
  6. Sean McColl (CAN) 

Women

  1. Janja Garnbret (SLO)
  2. Akiyo Noguchi (JPN)
  3. Fanny Gibert (FRA) 
  4. Miho Nonaka (JPN) 
  5. Luce Douady (FRA)
  6. Mao Nakamura (JPN)

Missed an event? Catch up on the 2019 competition season here.