Taking it higher and higher: Adrenaline-fueled competition in sports climbing

The International Federation of Sport Climbing World Cup Series 2023 was hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah, drawing the world’s top athletes to compete in the Boulder and Speed disciplines.

Rock climbing might seem like a tall order, but it’s far more accessible than one might think.

“People are often intimidated by climbing and have an idea in their mind that it takes too much strength, but they have the wrong idea,” explains Anne Abloa, a climbing enthusiast who co-owns Chockstone Climbing Guides along with her husband, Jim Abloa.

The company is a guide service at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon, which spans more than 650 acres and boasts approximately 3,000 feet in elevation. The Rock offers athletes and adventurers more than 1,000 different climbs, and it’s known as the birthplace of sport climbing in the U.S.

“We take out climbers of all abilities,” Abloa adds. “Sometimes it’s just a bucket list item to climb Smith Rock, a gym climber that wants to get outside for the fun of it, or maybe a climber just wanting a guide to give them the lay of the land. But there’s a climb out there for everybody at Smith Rock.”

A climb for everyone

Climbing includes three specific disciplines: bouldering, a form of free climbing performed without any ropes or harnesses; lead, which uses safety ropes but requires athletes to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring at least nearly 50 feet in height within six minutes; and speed, which also uses a rope and is what it sounds like, an athlete climbing as fast as they possibly can up a wall at least 50 feet in height.

While climbing didn’t officially become a competitive sport until the mid-1980s, its history as a competitive, thrill-seeking activity goes back decades in the U.S. and centuries around the world. Rock climbing was practiced in Europe well before it arrived in the United States. George Winkler is thought to have brought it to Italy in the late 1880s, and W. P. Haskett Smith is known as the “father of rock climbing,” having started the movement in the late 1800s in Great Britain.

On an organized level, many believe it got its start in 1985 in Italy at what is known to be the first organized lead climbing competition. Just a few months later, the French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing hosted the first indoor climbing event in Lyons, and the sport continued to grow, with the first World Cup in speed and lead occurring in 1989. Bouldering was officially added as a discipline almost 10 years later,
with its own World Cup established the same year.

In the United States, USA Climbing serves as the national governing body of the sport and seeks to promote its three disciplines. It does so through four specific series: youth, for athletes ages 19 and younger; collegiate, for athletes in undergraduate or graduate school; elite, its highest level of participation before joining the U.S. team; and paraclimbing, which provides opportunities for athletes with disabilities.

“The growth of our climbing community comes through these four different series,” explains John Muse, vice president of sport for USA Climbing. “This pipeline is how we seek to grow competitive climbing in the USA.”

The sport is growing within the United States. Like any sport, it took a hit during the pandemic when events couldn’t be held, but it has rebounded strongly since then, Muse says.

“I believe we’re back in full swing, if not stronger, and we’re continuing on the upward growth pattern we were seeing in 2019,” he says.

Currently, USA Climbing has approximately 9,000 competitive members with a membership nearing 30,000. Most of its growth is coming from the youth series.

Bringing the outdoors inside

Sport climbing doesn’t have to be restricted to outdoor locations. In fact, Muse says the availability of indoor climbing facilities is driving participation for USA Climbing.

“Commercial climbing facilities and climbing teams, such as youth climbing teams, are what really lead to a solid level of participation,” Muse says. “There are areas of the country in which you find more of them. It’s pretty strong in the northeast, there’s a large population in California and the Pacific Northwest, and in major metro areas of Texas.”

USA Climbing is hosting events in many of those destinations. The organization runs more than 300 climbing events every year. These range from local community events all the way up to championship events. There is a national championship held for each individual series, as well as national team trials for both the elite and paraclimbing series.

Salt Lake City hosted the only stop of the World Cup in the United States. In total, this year's World Cup included 18 events and visited 11 countries.
Salt Lake City hosted the only stop of the World Cup in the United States. In total, this year’s World Cup included 18 events and visited 11 countries.

The ultimate event within the sport is now the Olympic Games. Sport climbing made its Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan. All three disciplines of the sport were combined at that event, leading to a stand-alone medal opportunity. However, the 2024 Paris Olympic Games will separate the speed discipline from the other two, providing two medal opportunities for athletes.

“This is a very positive change,” says Muse. “The goal is to have all disciplines represented at the Olympics as individual events. That is our hope to eventually see.”

Bringing sports climbing to your area

In the meantime, USA Climbing continues to host its many annual events, and the organization is always looking for the next destination. “When we get to a championship level, and certainly the national championship level, there are more constraints on what is needed from a commercial climbing facility,” says Muse.

It also changes what is needed from the host city. Support from local hotels or suppliers can be helpful, Muse adds, as well as CVBs or sports commissions who are excited to bring the event to their destination. What isn’t always required, perhaps surprisingly, is the existence of a commercial climbing facility in the city.

“Sometimes we want to come in and build our own climbing walls and create the whole field of play from the ground up, so we may just be looking for an amphitheater-style facility,” Muse says. “It really all comes down to the support of the city and interest in having us there.”

He says those communities who are interested can reach out to USA Climbing to work with them on designing a space for the sport.