Breaking the Surface: The Evolution of Professional Rock Climbing

                                                   By Hayden Miller

This weekend I spent Saturday afternoon on Boston’s waterfront watching elite cliff-divers throw themselves through spins and flips from an 92 foot platform cantilevering out from the roof of the Institute of Contemporary Art.  Everyone present was experiencing similar emotions.  Before each diver would jump the announcers would ask for quiet, the crowd would take a collective deep breath in, then 23,000 pairs of eyes would follow the diver’s airborne acrobatics as he accelerated upwards of 65 miles per hour towards the waters surface followed by an eruption of ‘holy-shit-I-cannot-believe-we-just-watched-him-do-that’ applause upon the diver surfacing safely.

After watching the first round of the diving competition, I began to digest what I was seeing.  It was not just incredibly fit athletes performing at the highest level their sport offered but a highly successful event that had been embraced by thousands of people who knew nothing about the sport.

Let me be very clear that doing this is exceptionally difficult.  As someone who has been climbing for 10 years, competed in international level climbing events and has an intimate knowledge of the climbing community and industry, I can be very sure in saying that competitive climbing is no where near to achieving the kind of success in the United States that the ICA Cliff Diving World Series demonstrated this weekend.

Furthermore, this series has been able to achieve this all in the last four years.  The United States has been unsuccessfully trying to market competitive climbing for over 20 years.  The US held its first World Cup (a successful series in Europe) in 1989.  However, we took an 18 year hiatus from hosting an event between 1990 and 2008.  The X-Games tried making climbing a successful public sporting event as did the now extinct Professional Climbers Association (PCA), both attracting top athletes with large cash purses.

There are hundreds of reasons why the X-Games, the PCA and World Cup events were unsuccessful here in the United States but, in the end, it comes down to these events not able to hold the audiences attention. Climbing, like most sports, requires a combination of fitness, problem-solving, reflexes, and perseverance. It is these characteristics that make it both fun to participate in and watch.

However, the difference between watching climbing and, say, something like cliff diving is that I do not ever need to try to do a quadruple back-flip from an 92 foot cliff to know it is extremely difficult. Often in climbing, spectators seem convinced they could be doing what the competitors are doing just as well. Without having climbed before, it can be hard to tell that a vertical climb with large (that is in terms of the volume of the shape not the usability of its surface) holds can be much more difficult that a climb out a horizontal roof on seemingly small grips.

Up to this point, climbing competitions have attempted to mimic the difficulties one might encounter outdoors on real rock cliffs; longer routes make you more tired and worse grips are harder to hold onto. However, this formula is not exceptionally entertaining to the majority of people who have little perspective on exactly the difficulties the competitors are facing. Thus it has been difficult to maintain momentum in building a larger audience for competitive climbing.

Despite all of this, the sport is just on the edge of breaking through to a much larger audience. Climbing has been shortlisted to become an Olympic event in the 2020 Games. The highest attended (the organizers only stated “thousands and thousands”) climbing competition in the United States took place in New York City’s Central Park (although with the bland format usual of current competitions). An increasing number of teenagers and young adults are being exposed to the sport through school’s outdoor clubs and summer programs. The internet has allowed blogs and other online communities to bring climbers together from all over the world, thus increasing the ease to access information.

The days of needing to know the right people to get a hand drawn topographic map or buy a piece of homemade gear out of the back of someone’s truck are gone.  They have been replaced by an instantaneously available feed of videos, photos, descriptions, maps, gear reviews, and other information and this has made breaking into climbing much less arduous. That is unless you decide to try Deep Water Soloing:

As I though about all this watching the rounds of cliff diving become progressively more insane as the competitors added more and more flips and spins to their already impressive dives, I finally realized why the Cliff Diving World Series is so successful.  The moment came when the announcer told us that Gary Hunt, the #1 ranked diver in the world, was going to attempt the most difficult dive done in competition today.  I realized that when the 23,000 people left the competition and inevitably told their friends and family what they had witnessed that the vast majority was not going to say they saw the single most difficult dive done.  They were going to say they saw people huck themselves off of a 92 foot platform towards the water at 65 miles per hour.

The bottom line is that people do not care about the pure difficulty of what is being done; people care about seeing something wild they have never seen before. Some events in the climbing world have began to adapt and try different styles of competition. Deep-water soloing and Duel style competitions in Europe have both been successful there. Stateside, people have tried everything from 24 hour endurance competitions to actually taping the prize money to the climbing wall but these events have had difficulty gaining exposure beyond just climbers:

If climbing is to change from being a niche sport to having an audience far beyond just its core group of participants then the industry needs to take cues from both other extreme sports and from those within the industry that are willing to experiment. We must stop having competitions that mimic true rock climbing and accept that people really just want to see an exhibition of humans doing seemingly crazy things.

Follow Hayden’s rock climbing exploits on twitter: @gazedoface

photos courtesy of Stephen Fiedler, twitter: @seeitbelieveit