The Secret Cheese Competitions at IFSC World Cups

IFSC World Cups are competitions for lead, bouldering, speed, and... sometimes cheese.

Photo: Johannes Altner, IFSC judge

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“Cheater!” he yelled with an outstretched finger.

“Na uh,” retorted a pale woman across the table, her black hair dancing on her shoulders. The woman looked smug while she smiled through wine-stained lips. “We won fair and square.”

“But you used flavor enhancers! The pine nuts and honey are not allowed,” he said, his voice seeming to lack his usual baritones. He pouted deeply and she ignored him, but he wouldn’t drop it.

“The Italians lose every year because your cheese sucks,” he said, as if it were as the laws of gravity. “You used those flavor enhancers because you needed to. That doesn’t make you the winner.”

“Then why do I have the gold medal?” she retorted, dangling the shining trinket in his face.

While routesetters and other IFSC officials left the area to prepare for the coming round, the argument continued.

“Accept defeat, old man!” she said.

He said, “Not from cheaters!”


Three hours earlier

It was late afternoon in Briançon, France. Long shadows reached across the cobbled streets and pastel-colored houses. Shops closed and tired occupants retreated home for their afternoon reprieve. While villagers lay down for siesta, one gray-haired man walked down the streets. His shoes clicked and clacked against the stone. His almond-shaped eyes squinted in the light. Against his brown button-down he carried a bundle from home, delicately wrapped in white wax paper and sealed with a black sticker. His pace was brisk, as a man heading into a World Cup competition ought to walk.

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Across the town, people gathered outside a small, old gym. The cement building had a cement field and cement stairs leading to heavy doors. Next to the doors, a crowd grew from five to 15 people, all huddled around a scratched wooden picnic table beneath a small hemp canopy. They set down wax-wrapped parcels, alongside baguettes and wine bottles.

The man with the brown button-down reached the crowd and was greeted by warm smiles and curious gazes as he set his parcel on the table. While the unsuspecting surrounding villa continued to slumber, the crowd of people at the gymhouse began to buzz. The baguettes were sliced, wine was poured and seals were broken to reveal pungent, soft yellow and white cheeses. Small flags were laid out in front of groups of cheeses—for Italy, France, Austria and the United Kingdom.

Marco Scolaris, president of the IFSC, toasted the participants. At the clink of champagne glasses, the 2016 Briançon Cheese World Cup opened.

IFSC Cheese comp in Briançon, France, 2016. Photo: From the author

The IFSC cheese comps first began at the Paris 2012 World Championships as a pissing contest between an IFSC jury president, Tim Hatch, and technical delegate, Vincent Causse. Hatch has a thin face with prominent cheekbones and small rectangular glasses. As the jury president, Hatch possesses final authority in the competition venue, handling matters from arbitration to ensuring the safety of the climbers to getting lunch delivered to setters and officials. Causse, as the technical delegate, was the point of contact for athletes and coaches for questions and appeals. In typical French fashion, he wore a scarf tight around his neck, and a cigarette hung loosely from his lips.

The argument between the two colleagues had begun with Hatch, who had previously claimed that the UK had good cheese.

Causse had found the notion completely ridiculous. “Of course the French cheese is much better,” he must have retorted after an exhalation of smoke.

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Graeme Alderson, another technical delegate and, like Hatch, from the UK, joined in to back Hatch’s claim. Just prior to the Paris competition, he decided to push it a step further, taking any chance to prove British superiority over French arrogance. Alderson brought as much cheese as he could carry to the Paris competition to rub in Causse’s face. The rest was history.

The renowned French route setters Paul Dewilde and Antoine Pecher were impressed with the spread Alderson laid out. As chief routesetter, Dewilde had strong opinions about what was good and what wasn’t. He praised the grandeur of the creamy, strong, slightly sweet British cheese.

“No way is this British!” he said.

IFSC Cheese comp in Briançon, France, 2016. Photo: From the author

In ensuing months, Alderson continued to bring cheese to comps, and more countries joined in on the game. The first, of course, were the French, when another technical delegate, Christophe Billion, brought cheese to rival Britain’s sovereignty. The great cheese conflict spread from Hatch and Causse to Alderson and Billion. Aromatic cheese scents filled staff rooms and, as the fragrances traveled from nostril to brain, transformed into visceral feelings of conflict, triggering lively arguments and chronic tension. The Cheese World Cups quickly became IFSC tradition.

“A couple of bottles of wine always helps the atmosphere,” said Alderson. “It’s a nice way to relax and it’s great when the locals, either French national judges or members of the Event Organizers team, can join in as you get to know them better”—during otherwise busy and logistically stressful events.

Asked his favorite cheese-comp memory, Alderson said, “Paris 2016. We did it in the evening after the end of the day’s competitions. There was a big list of teams that entered and everyone was starving, so the cheese went down as a real treat, but also because it was the end of the day the wine was flowing.”

Photo from Johannes Altner, IFSC judge

Anyone can enter the competition. Usually it’s the British, French and Italians, but Paris 2016 saw entries from Austria, Canada and Germany as well. Normally, according to Alderson, the British are the podium toppers. In Briançon 2016, however, the Italians won by “cheating” with pine nuts and honey. Since then, he imposed a rule against any flavor enhancers other than bread and wine. Another year, the French won when Billon brought a Roquefort that cost over 50€ per kilo (or $55 per 2.2 pounds). Most contending cheeses are much less, 20-30€ ($22-33) per kilo.

A usual IFSC champion is the Welsh Black Bomber, an extra mature cheddar that packs a punch, pairing well with fiery red wine and tired officials. The Italians often bring versions of fresh Mozzarella or young, brie-like gorgonzola. The Spanish bring sweet, sweaty manchego, curdled from sheep milk and sealed in olive oil before aging. A maximum of five cheeses per country with a maximum of 1 kilo in weight is allowed, although other cheeses are often brought for enjoyment. The only accompaniments permitted are bread and wine.

The crowd acts as judges, scoring cheeses with one to four points. Cheeses are scored individually and as part of a team with the other cheeses from the same origin. Both individual and team scores are awarded in an immediate medal ceremony.

The prize? It’s mostly pride, although winners borrow IFSC medals for a photo-op. Little will the World Cup athletes that evening know that they’re technically being awarded used medals. Near them, IFSC cheese masters will stand waving, planning their next cheese investments.

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