First off, Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends and Happy Columbus Day to my fellow Americans.
I followed this past weekend’s International Federation of Sport Climbers (IFSC) World Cup through Facebook and Twitter thanks to the coverage by the American Alpine Club (AAC), a main sponsor, and Climbing magazine. I’ve never followed one before and it was a neat introduction to sport climbing, though my opinion of climbing competitions hasn’t changed too much.
Climbing is a skill and a good method of improving that skill is through competition. Historically this has been done through self-challenge and climbers pushing outside of their comfort zone in front of their peers. Charlie Houston, Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins and others are good examples climbers that have done this. Achieving a first ascent or putting up a new route on a natural feature was an accomplishment that often stood on its own merits, though recognition was often limited to other knowledgeable climbers.
Organized competitions, on the other hand, offer a great opportunity to measure one’s skills against another climbers’. Many skill-based occupations have competitions that pit one specialist against another, such as fire fighters, pilots, chefs and so forth. Climbing is now no different.
However, climbing has long held the cultural place of being a space of semi-private accomplishments and that they are only a subject for insiders. As climbing has evolved and even expanded (thanks to gyms and sponsorships of athletes) the sport climbing arena has adopted a contrasting environment likened to high profile marathons, like the one in Chicago also this past weekend.
Climbing competitions certainly raise the bar for the competitors, but it’s important to remember that the accomplishments at comp events and the achievements on rock in the backcountry are very different. One is a wilderness experience and the other seems to be like being at a ski resort. Competitions play a unique role in the lives of some climbers, but for others it can be the antithesis of what climbing is really about.