It was my turn next. I could feel the affects of my sympathetic nervous system taking control; my stomach filled with energy and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
I managed the lower part of the climb without feeling too tired, but on the final series of moves, approaching the crux, I could feel the fatigue in my forearms. I struggled to hang onto a small but crucial finger edge. There was a moment of doubt as I re-gripped and brought the other hand into position for the lunge. Last year I came in second place due to an arbitrary, last-minute rule change. I wasn’t going to let it happen again.
Since their inception in 1985, climbing competitions have been going through a rapid process of evolution. Although there have been numerous speed climbing competitions in Russia and bouldering competitions in the U.S., the advent of free climbing competitions in Europe have brought the competition issue to an international level.
In the past, many countries, including the U.S. and Britain as represented by their respective Alpine Clubs, refused to sanction any type of climbing competition. Now, the UIAA (International Union of Associations of Alpinism) has taken a new stand and is currently discussing the development of a standard set of regulations for such competitions (see Basecamp, this issue).
My first experience in a European competition was last year in Arco, Italy. Before I arrived, I had no idea what to expect or how the competition would be structured. Even during the competition, I wasn’t exactly sure what the rules were or how one’s performance would be evaluated. As it turned out, the organizers weren’t sure either, hence controversy ensued. Claims of individual favoritism, political pressure, and sponsor intrusion were common. Nonetheless, I felt that it was a worthwhile experience and that competitions would eventually evolve beyond these shortcomings.
Two months later, I returned to Europe and won France’s first outdoor climbing competition, the Gran Prix de France D’Esacalade in Troubat. The rules were better structured that the competition in Italy, but there were still problems.
This year I returned to Europe to compete in the same two competitions. Although the rules and structure of this years competition in France were different than last year, they weren’t clearly defined until the last minute. In retrospect, I think the organizers were vague so they could adjust the rules according to how the competitors fared.
It seemed like the structure was determined by the ability of my competitors. As it turned out, the women’s routes were too easy, both the semi-final and the final routes were not on-sight as they had been last year, and we were given more than enough time to practice the routes before competing. Both Renee Guerin and I made the final climb, and since there was no tiebreaker, we both came in first place (see Troubat report in Basecamp).
The results of the men’s competition were even more absurd: three world-class climbers ended up in a tie for first place: Glowacz, Raboutou, and Tribout. It was apparent that the biggest problem in both the men’s and women’s competition was the difficulty of the final route- it was just not hard enough- and the lack of a tie-breaking “super-final.”
After spending six days in Toubat, it was nice to actually go play on the rocks. I headed straight to the Verdon for some good food, warm sunshine, and spectacular climbing. Unfortunately, it was only a brief interlude before I had to drive to Arco.
The competition in Italy was the best organized so far. The competitors were told exactly how the contest would be structured, ratings, and when we would climb. The competition was designed to measure two important elements of contemporary free climbing: climbing on-sight and the ability to climb a route after work (hangdog rehearsal). On-sight and red point climbs were created for both men and women. These climbs were the most difficult ever done in a competition so far. The men’s red point route was 8b (5.13d) and the women’s was 8a (5.13b).
Like last year, there were thousands of spectators: even Reinhold Messner showed up to catch the action. On Saturday, all the competitors met in a small climbing area isolated from the competition to eliminate any possibility of cheating. Throughout the day we would hear reports about how the men’s competition was going (see Arco report in Basecamp).
Finally, it was time for the women to compete. Anxiously awaiting our turn, we couldn’t help but be distracted by the roar of the crowd indicating the success or failure of each competitor. My strongest competitors in the women’s event were Isabelle Patissier and the brilliant Italian climber Luisa Jovane. Isabelle went before me and made the climb successfully. The pressure was on. I had all year to think about this moment. As I began climbing, I felt confident but extremely nervous. The first section of the climb went smoothly but the tension multiplied when I realized I’d blown the sequence.
It became obvious that I had the wrong hand on a crucial hold and I needed to down climb a move to switch hands. The holds were thin and I could feel one hand slipping as I was making the transition. My mind was racing and my heart was pounding. I can only remember thinking one thing, “try no matter how insecure it feels- ill make it.” The next moment I could hear the crowd clapping.
Luisa also made it without much problem, so there were three of us tied for first place. Sunday was the final judgment day. The best possible performance would be to reach the chain demarcating the end of the climb, in the least amount of time.
Even though the men’s competition was held simultaneously, all eyes were on Luisa as she began to climb. Her 5’8” frame floated effortlessly over the first series of 5.12 moves. When she arrived at a quasi rest point, she hung around for what seemed like several minutes before launching into the final series of moves to the chain. As she finally began to move from the rest, her climbing style grew more hesitant, until she suddenly lunged for the chain, slapped it, and fell.
Now I needed not only to touch the chain, but to catch it in the least amount of time. As I was preparing for the climb I rehearsed this lunge several times in my mind. When the final moment arrived and I was staring at the chain, all thoughts of doubt were completely overridden by the rehearsed image of success as I lunged and caught it.
Later, photographer Uli Wiesmeier came up to me and said, “It looked like you caught a good thermal up there.”
But the competition wasn’t over; Isabelle still had a chance. For her to win, she not only had to catch the chain, but she had to do it in less time. Her strategy was to bypass the rest in order to save time. She cruised the lower part of the climb with plenty of time to spare, but fell off on the last series of moves before the chain.
Meanwhile, the men’s competition was still underway but the winner had already been determined earlier in the day. Since Glowacz was the only person to flash the onsight climb the previous day, he secured first place by redpointing the final route. So we became the winner of both Troubat and Arco.
Climbing in this contrived set of circumstances, in front of 10,000 expectant eyes bears little resemblance to the usual act pursued strictly for its personal value. The climbs I’ve competed on have had many chipped holds, and in the case of Arco, they were almost completely artificial. The “route designers” used a cement-type compound to create holds on blank sections of rock. This enabled them to create routes of the appropriate level of difficulty, all in one convenient area for the spectators and cameras.
Although organized competition does provide a new dimension to climbing, with its own intrinsic values, it will have a limited life span as it exists today. Problems such as the destruction of limited natural resources, variable weather (rain and the disadvantage of climbing in the hot sun), and designing a competition that is both meaningful and fair, indicate the need for competitions to be held in a more controlled environment.
Ultimately, I think that these competitions should be held on artificial climbing walls that are designed to look and feel like rock. The artificial walls that exist today are not ideally designed to simulate rock climbs- there is plenty of room for improvement.
However, while some may argue that artificial walls will not provide all of the same qualities of a rock climb, I don’t feel its necessary to compare the two. As a sport of its own, this type of climbing can provide a medium in which people can enjoy the gymnastic form of rock climbing, the gratification and financial rewards of public recognition, and the communion of various climbers through the world, while leaving the natural climbing areas for traditional rock climbing.