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The Wright Stuff: Finding the Value of Climbing in the Olympics

Olympic hopeful Ashima Shiraishi takes a break from plastic in the Flatanger Cave, Norway. Photo: Brett Lowell / REEL ROCK 11

Maybe I should quit climbing. For the last four hours, Ashima Shiraishi and Kai Lightner have torn through the Denver climbing gym we’re visiting. As they dispatch route after route, I project one of their warm-ups.

“God, I suck at climbing,” I lament to myself as I whip yet again on a measly 5.12d. “And these rugrats are nonstop.” Ashima hangs from a foothold and shakes out. Minutes later, Kai floats off a sloper that would require Super Glue for me to latch. They hike one 5.13 after the next, their feet only touching the ground long enough to walk to the next route.

“You can do a lot that they can’t; you do have worth,” I murmur to myself. “They probably don’t even know how to hand jam, let alone hand stack—and you won’t find them in Alaska dancing up loose blocks to first-ascent glory. They are way too smart for that!”

These two prodigies are in Colorado to promote their new movie, Young Guns, part of the latest REEL ROCK Film Tour, a festival with movie screenings, clinics, presentations, and beer. I joined the festivities in Colorado’s Front Range to help with clinics and take part in a fun, informal team competition.

At lunch, the conversation turns to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and climbing’s inclusion.

“It has always been my dream to compete in climbing in the Olympics,” Ashima says.

“Me too,” says Kai. While Kai and Ashima are favorites, 2020 is a long way off, and who knows what mutant climber may come out of the woodwork in the next four years. With only two male and two female spots for each country, qualifiers will be highly competitive, and these two will have to train relentlessly. “What do you think of the format?” I ask of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to combine sport climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing for one medal. “It’s like giving one combined medal for the marathon, the 200-meter dash, and shot put.”

“Yeah, kind of,” Ashima giggles. Ashima is a top all-around climber, but she climbs slower than molasses, and will have to work on her speed if she wants that gold medal.

“You want to hear something crazy?” I ask the two youngsters. “I learned to climb on real rock, not plastic. And I was 21!”

“No, you didn’t,” Ashima says in disbelief. Kai and Ashima both learned to climb at age 6, despite living far from outdoor rock climbing in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and New York City, respectively. They are both still in school, and 90 percent of their climbing takes place on plastic. They are by no means unusual in the modern age of climbing, in which the majority of people entering the sport learn indoors. Of course, this duo spends holidays and school breaks traveling to outdoor climbing meccas, accomplishing groundbreaking ticks in bouldering and sport climbing. Kai climbed 5.14d in his early teens, and Ashima is the youngest person, male or female, to climb V15, but this would have been impossible without their proximity to climbing gyms.

Looking at Kai and Ashima, I see the future of climbing as well as products of the huge explosion of indoor gyms. According to the Climbing Business Journal, 40 new climbing gyms were added to the United States this year, for a grand total of 388. These days, you don’t have to live close to the rock to get really, really good.

While these hundreds of gyms churn out steel-tendoned mutants, most of these new climbers don’t progress into the more technical and complex world of traditional climbing, partially due to a lack of access and mentoring. The path to trad, big wall, and alpine climbing just isn’t clear or well-promoted to kids.

This concerns me. How will we raise the crusher who will free solo the Dawn Wall unless we start them young? Do I need to start the Cedar Wright Big Wall Free Soloing School for Promising Youth? The school’s motto will be “If you survive, you graduate.”

“Do you know who Royal Robbins is?” I ask Kai and Ashima. Crickets. Finally, sensing my frustration, Kai throws his hands in the air.

“No,” he gasps. “Should I?”

“Yes. You should know who Royal Robbins is, for God’s sake,” I say. I list other historic climbers, including Warren Harding, Chuck Pratt, and James Lucas, and they haven’t heard of a single one.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Gym climbing, especially competitive climbing, has become its own sport, one far removed from the “good old days” of adventure born in places like Yosemite. It’s impossible to be competitive in a sanctioned USA Climbing competition, let alone a World Cup, without spending the majority of your training time in a gym. We have entered the point in climbing in which a lot of comp climbers rarely go outside.
There is this attitude that climbing outside doesn’t help, and for that matter, indoor climbing isn’t enough; you need to be religiously campusing, system and finger boarding, and watching your diet and sleep, or else the next 16-year-old gym rat will nip at your heels. Part of me is amazed by this dedication, and part of me finds it a bit sad.

The Olympics will be many folks’ first peek into the world of climbing—and what a warped one it will be. When you mention climbing, they will think of skinny teens in a chalk-filled gymnasium, jumping between blobs of colored plastic.

Which brings me to a question climbers should all ask ourselves: Is it a good thing that climbing has become an Olympic sport? My feelings are mixed. As a professional climber, this means increased awareness of the sport and more opportunity for me to make a living doing what I love. Heck, maybe I’ll get to be an announcer in Tokyo.

“And Ashima gastons with a dicey drop-knee, and it looks like … it’s an all-points-off dyno for glory!” Pretty good, right? Call me, NBC!

All joking aside, my concern is that the spirit of climbing may get lost in Olympic Fever. For me, climbing is more than just a competitive and athletic endeavor; it’s also about communing with nature. I remember on a 40-hour push up Iron Hawk on El Cap, watching an eagle land on a perch 10 feet from me in a transcendent, spiritual, mind-blowing moment. Climbing is about adventure, creativity, and beauty, not artificial surfaces, competitions, and numbers. I fear a lot of modern-day gym rats are missing the magic of venturing into the unknown on an improbable line, of being runout on sketchy gear but knowing that they have the ability and experience to climb the route safely.

I’m not hating on the new school; I’m just worried that they’re missing out. I love the variety in climbing. By switching disciplines, I’ve never gotten bored. I love sport climbing, bouldering, and even gym climbing, but my stoke rockets to 11 at the idea of climbing a hard offwidth, an exposed big wall, or an alpine peak. I use gym climbing as training for real rock climbing, and I use bouldering and sport climbing as training for more adventurous goals, like first ascents.

To maintain the memory of climbing’s historical roots by this gym-mutant generation just a little longer, I later sent both Kai and Ashima a copy of Steve Roper’s Camp 4, the best book ever written on the early history of Yosemite rock climbing. I hope that these young climbers have some more earthy experiences in their careers, if only to help them appreciate other aspects of the sport. If I’m going to hang on the pink route in the gym, I feel they owe it to me to climb at least one inverted offwidth, multi-pitch, and finger crack. Maybe they will after the Olympics. I wouldn’t be surprised if these gym rats find themselves roped up at the base of the Nose with a bunch of trad jingle-jangles, going for it onsight all-free in a day!

But like it or not, climbing is in the 2020 Olympics, and it will change the face of our sport forever. Some think that this will be the worst thing to happen to climbing since hangdogging and Lycra, and others think that this is the best thing to happen to climbing since sticky rubber and cams. The truth lies in between. The fact is that our sport is growing quickly, and most of that growth is happening in urban areas and climbing gyms.

With Olympic inclusion, climbing will become more commercial and more competitive, but it will also have a broader reach. Climbing saved my life, and if more people are exposed to this sport and lifestyle, a lot of lives could be changed. Even if just a handful of these new recruits experience the beauty of Canyonlands or Yosemite, the Olympics might be the perfect gateway drug.

So with my crusty old-school rant out of the way, I’m excited to watch and cheer for our American team. After seeing Kai and Ashima decimate every hard route in the Denver gym, I walked away inspired by their dedication to hard climbing. I am so inspired, in fact, that I would like to announce my bid to represent the USA in the 2020 Olympics. If I’m lucky, the unexpected twist of including an offwidth will help get me to finals. But if that’s not the case, I’ll be lucky if I can pull myself off the ground. 

Cedar Wright is a contributing editor for Climbing. He’s a professional climber, filmmaker, and world-class goofball who resides in Boulder, Colorado.