Competitive Rock Climbing

I shouldn’t be surprised there’s such a thing as competitive rock climbing. As a sailor I know that if there are two sailboats going approximately the same way, it’s a race, pure and simple. Maybe not so cutthroat competitive as America’s Cup or Volvo Ocean Race, but… All it takes is two and it’s a race.

We’ve raced Red Ranger. And lost. Indefatigable beat us bloody when they popped a spinnaker. The yankee is no match for an assymetric spinnaker. Now we want one, too. Joie de Vivre showed us a “clean pair of heels” via better sail trim (and a newer mains’l.)

Competitive sailing — with similar boats on the same water — is obvious. How can you compete in rock climbing?

It turns out that there are three common “disciplines” in this sport. Two that make some sense to me are “sport climbing” and “speed climbing”. The third part of this — “bouldering” — is just magical to me because I can only solve the simplest bouldering problems.

I’ve seen some videos of USA Climbing speed climbing “comps”. It appears that there’s two copies of a standard route and everyone goes head-to-head in that route in pairs. Maybe it’s single elimination, maybe double elimination. I’m vague on the details. 

It’s fun to watch. But it’s not a learning opportunity for me. I can’t appreciate the competitor’s decisions because it flits by too quickly. On the other hand, we’ve recently seen sport climbing and it’s pretty cool.

Sport Climbing

In the big national competitions, with announcers and lights and video production, it appears that it’s one climber under the spot light. What we saw last weekend was regional youth competition. It’s not so elaborate as the finals. The gym had stripped the holds from many of the walls to set up at least 30 fresh, new routes. There were also four new Junior routes.

Each route had a number, and a number of points. Points ran from 100 to 2900.

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Each competitor has 4 hours on the floor to climb as many as they can.

There’s a taped box around the place your hands must start. There’s another taped box — waaaay up there — where your hands must end. Get from one to the other and you get points.

One wickedly difficult route had no hand hold in the box. You start with your hands flat on the concrete inside the box. Really. People can climb from that starting position.

Fall and you get nothing. In some formats, you can get partial credit for how far you got before you fell. I think that’s reserved for finals and championships where you have judges who can watch and decide if you “controlled” a hold for two seconds before falling.

When we watched the comps, we could see four or five routes very clearly from where we were standing. At the time, we had no clue. A week later, we found that we were looking at a 1000, a 2400, a 2000 and a 1300. Seriously hard stuff.

We now know where the easy ones are. And they’re fun to climb. But not as interesting to watch, since everyone can “send” them — that is — climb to the top. Even me.

Checking the Rules

When I looked at the USA Climbing Rule Book, I saw a table of features a route must have. The points parallel the rating: 5.6 is 600 points; 5.8 is 800 points. The table only went to 1450 — a 5.14d route. 

The routes in the gym clearly go to 2900. What does that mean?

To me, it seems like the really tall routes are scored like two shorter routes back-to-back. There’s some standard, it appears, for number of hand-holds and number of moves where your center of mass must go up. Sideways and down moves don’t really count for much. 

Often your climb will involve some moves that are merely shifting some hands or feet around without actually going up very far. For example, you move up to a nice big “jug” putting all your weight on your right foot. From there, you can reach up with left foot and left hand to get set for the next move. That placement of hands and feet doesn’t count for much in the scoring because your center of mass didn’t go anywhere. Once you’re set, you can use your left leg to push you up the wall, looking for a new place to put your right foot. This is where the action is — center of mass going upwards.

Last night, I climbed a really tall route worth 800 points. The technical difficulties seemed to be on par with a 400 point route, but it was immense. Twice the height, twice the points, if I understand the scoring — something that’s still doubtful.

A shorter 700 point route was technically far more challenging. It involved two places where the wall leaned out over my head, requiring some tricky hip twisting to get my butt as high as possible while reaching up from under the overhang. And then walking my feet up while hanging from the upper section.

The 100 point route, BTW, was immense but really easy. Even for me. It was like two 50-point routes end-to-end. It’s a good warm-up because it’s long and simple.

Redpointing

The jargon of climbing is a hoot. The point of competitive climbing is to “onsight” the route. From first looking at it, you climb it straight to the top without putting any weight on the belay rope (hangdogging) or touching any holds that are explicitly not on the route (dabbling.)

I was able to onsite the six easiest routes. For #7, I fell. After that first failed attempt, I’ve managed to climb #7 without stopping or falling. That’s called “redpointing”. It’s not as cool as onsighting.

Route #3, however, is a sad story. I “onsighted” it on Sunday after the competition. On Monday, I couldn’t get anywhere with it. Total failure to make the top. My arms were so “pumped” (with lactic acid) that I couldn’t continue the attempt.

Tuesday, I fell again, but CA held me up so I could try again from where I fell. This is called “a take” — taking up the slack in the belay rope. I sent the route “with takes.” Not as cool as redpointing. This #3 route has become my new project route: I need to repoint it again.

Route #8 — 800 points worth — I onsighted. That was encouraging. In principle, it’s a 5.8, close at the limit of my current abilities.

Now that the comps are done, the gym’s route-setters have been putting new non-competitive route on the wall to fill the gym back up with more and more climbing options. Many, many new challenges show up each time we go back.

  © Steven Lott 2017