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This article originally appeared on gymclimber.com
Now. It’s really happening. Snowbird, Utah, June 11-12, 1988. The first International Sport Climbing Championship: a whole new world in the United States. There had never been a big-scale international comp on these shores. A few regional bouldering comps, yes. This was different, a turning point—and a flash point.
anklin, a star from the East who’d climbed 5.14, been to France, seen current world standards; Ron Kauk, great Yosemite talent, who epitomized both all-around skills and a spiritual connection to the natural world; and Lynn Hill, top female climber in the country, who’d won several international events. Climbers from eight countries were here, a $17,000 purse in the offing.
Yvon Chouinard, a Yosemite pioneer and founder of Chouinard Equipment, and other heroes were out on the grass watching. Everyone, it seemed, was—in the strong mountain sun, at this high canyon arena; and the cameras were watching, too. Stars were to shine, opportunities to follow for … who knew?
“What do you do for a job?” I’d asked a nice woman staffing the event. She listed a bit of a hodgepodge, and mused, tilting her head, “I might like to get into this.”
I crouched among the 40 invitees, abashed but thrilled to attend. I’d seen a comp, in Paris; wondered at the time if I could even do that, go out alone under a spotlight and climb in front of all those eyes. Never before Snowbird had I been on an artificial wall. I had prepared by climbing at Smith Rock, Oregon, practically the country’s only sport-climbing arena, for 10 days.
Below, on the banks of Little Cottonwood Creek, which flows by the world-class ski resorts of Alta and Snowbird, were two commentators for CBS Sports. One was James Brown, well-known sportscaster, and one was a smiling “Spider Dan” Goodwin, event-wall designer, famed for scaling the World Trade Center using suction cups and skyhooks and wearing a Spider Man outfit. On-air reporting with Brown, he was surely thinking, Hell, yeah, I’d do more of this ….
The eventual telecast would open with a shot of Jean-Baptiste Tribout, age 25, a top French climber, moving up the 115-foot, $155,000 (according to John Burgman’s book High Drama) wall, which soared up one side of the luxury Cliff Lodge, a ski lodge. The wall was vertical concrete adorned with two shallow panels that presaged today’s volumes, while a 10- or 12-foot roof guarded the top. The program would swiftly cut to a demo sequence of Goodwin poised on the slab above the roof; per a script he panted, faux-pawed at the slabby holds, and croaked, “I’m just goin’ for a lunge!”—then whistled off, 60 feet, legs trailing. Dan had a mullet, as was common. He also had some guts, to take that fall.
Climbing before thousands of people, and against rather than with other climbers, was the opposite of the personal endeavor most climbers pursued or at least thought they did. Many regarded comps with skepticism or outright hostility. A few, like America’s Beth Bennett and the Canadian climber Peter Croft, declined the invitation to participate.
“I said no, and so they got me on the phone and started listing reasons why it would be perfect for me,” Croft says. “Every one of those reasons convinced me I should steer clear.
“One of the reasons I got into climbing was to get away from organized sports. I remember one person asking, ‘What if you thought you might win—would you go then?’ I told them I wouldn’t go even if I knew I would win. It sounded like climbing minus all the cool stuff.”
“You Americans are selling out too easily,” a British friend told Michael Kennedy, then editor of Climbing magazine, the night before finals. As Kennedy later wrote in the American Alpine Journal, the friend said comps would destroy the spirit of climbing.
Today, with events so established, with youth and national teams, great solid rosters of coaches and functioning governance, all barreling collectively toward the Olympics (someday we will be looking back at the pandemic), it is hard to believe comps were once complete unknowns. CBS Sports took a chance on the event, upon a pitch from Bob Carmichael, who for years had filmed the televised “Survival of the Fittest,” a sort of outdoor version of “American Ninja Warrior” that starred various climbers including John Bachar, and which Lynn Hill won four years running. Carmichael was a climber himself.
Americans were, at least, proud that Hill had won several events: twice at Troubat, France; at Arco, Italy; and in Bercy, near Paris, in 1987. Bercy had been attended by Chouinard and Kris McDivitt, early Patagonia CEO; also Jim McCarthy, then president of the American Alpine Club, which was trying to figure out how to help—and what to make of—the circuslike new genre. Making things exciting, Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle of France had each won events. Head and shoulders above the rest of the women’s field, they could generally be expected to jockey for the top two spots. …
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