What is Competition Climbing?

What is Competition Climbing?

History of Competition Climbing

It's no secret that competition climbing has taken a massive rise in recent years. You might have noticed an increased amount of kids warming up on your project calling themselves "comp team", or watched sport climbing's debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Competition climbing started in 1985 in Europe and competitions were held on natural rocks. That didn't last long due to significant issues whenever bad weather was involved. So in the early 1990s, competition climbing began on artificial walls. Since then, competition climbing has exploded and continues to do so!

Competition Disciplines

There are three different disciplines of competition climbing, bouldering, lead, and speed. For most competitions, athletes will compete in a qualification round, semi-final round, and finally, a final round of climbing. In each round, climbers are cut. These types of competitions are called "onsight format" competitions. That means the athletes cannot see or climb the routes before the competition starts unless there's a scheduled and timed "viewing period." During the viewing period, which is usually 5-10 minutes long, athletes can touch starting holds and discuss beta with each other for all the routes they will be climbing during the competition. Once the viewing period ceases, athletes are ushered back into the isolation area, where they cannot see their fellow competitors climbing, most commonly referred to as isolation (iso). Athletes remain in iso until it is their turn to climb, where they will have 4-6 minutes to climb each route.

Imagine trying your absolute hardest on a boulder at your maximum capability but only having 4 minutes to de-pump and regain your power for the next climb. It is hard. Competition climbing is no joke!


Competition Climbing Bouldering

Bouldering is the discipline of climbing on walls 13-15 feet tall without using ropes or harnesses. Instead, you've got a big, fluffy mat underneath you since every fall is a ground fall.


In a bouldering competition, each athlete climbs 4-6 different boulders. Their scores are based on how high up they can get on the climb and how many attempts it takes them to get to their high point. On every bouldering problem, there are 1-2 zone holds and a hold labeled "top", which is the last hold. If a climber gets to a zone hold and controls it with at least one hand, they are awarded the zone. The same rules apply for the top hold, except you have to control it with two hands for at least two seconds. For example, an athlete that gets to the top hold will place above an athlete that only gets to the zone hold, and this athlete will place above one whose high point is below the zone hold. If multiple athletes get to the top of the zone, they will be placed in order of who had the least amount of attempts to that point. The tricky part about this scoring is that all the holds in between the start and the zone, and the zone and the top, do not count for any extra points. If an athlete gets to the hole right below the top in one attempt and another gets to the zone and then falls in one attempt, they will receive the same score.


Competition Climbing Ropes

In the lead discipline, the walls are much taller, anywhere from 30 to 70 feet, and athletes require a rope and harness (and a belayer!) to climb. For those unfamiliar with lead climbing, the athlete starts with their rope on the ground, not already at the top of the wall like a typical top rope. As they climb, they will grab their rope and clip it into hanging carabiners (quickdraws) on the wall up the route. In the event of a fall, they will be caught by their rope and belayer long before they hit the ground!


Scoring for lead competition climbing is quite different from bouldering. In lead competitions, every hold counts as a new high point. Typically, every hold will have a number, the first hold starting with one and continuing up to the last, whatever number that may be. To receive the points for a particular hold, the athlete must demonstrate control of that hold. If they are on a hold and move up to the next hold but either miss it or don't control it, they will receive the score of the last hold they controlled, but with a plus at the end, for example, 20+. The plus sign indicates upward movement off the most recent hold and is a higher score than 20 without a plus sign. If two athletes top the route, it will come down to whoever climbed it faster to break the tie.


The speed discipline is the outlier of climbing since it is drastically different from bouldering and lead. It is what it sounds like. Athletes are climbing for speed. The speed route is the same worldwide to create consistency for all athletes competing in speed. The holds are manufactured by the same company, placed on the wall in the same fashion, and the wall angle is exactly 5 degrees overhanging and 15 meters tall. Athletes have multiple rounds (usually three) of climbing this route as fast as possible, and their fastest time is recorded.

Competition climbing will continue exponentially in the next coming years, so now you have an excellent idea of how it all works.