Rock climbing reaches new heights with the growing popularity of competition

Not content with mere recreation, competition climbers aim to get the sport recognized in the 2020 Summer Olympics
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Ask Jamie Chong how important rock climbing is to him, and he quips: “I would say it is probably 80 percent of my life. The other 20 percent is sleeping and eating.”

In an interview with the Georgia Straight in a North Vancouver coffee shop, the 31-year-old competitive climber described how he got into the sport. He was a 15-year-old North Delta kid when a physical-education teacher took the class to a climbing gym in Richmond. He enjoyed himself but didn’t give it a lot of thought. The next year, he was hired at a facility in Surrey, where he started climbing all the time. Friends later introduced him to rock climbing in Squamish, and he has never looked back.

“I’ve been a climbing bum ever since,” Chong said with a smile.

Sixteen years later, Chong is part of a movement trying to get competitive climbing into the 2020 Summer Olympics. As a volunteer with Competition Climbing Canada, he’s on a mission to promote the sport’s benefits. He said that one of the biggest misconceptions is that climbing is “extreme and dangerous”, noting that the use of ropes eliminates most of the risks.

“Mountain biking is more dangerous,” Chong pointed out. “The chance that you’re going to fall off your mountain bike, break your wrist or break your arms—that’s more dangerous than climbing. If you’re not putting yourself purposely at risk and you are following the safety rules, you are not going to get hurt.”

Chong has the body of a climber. He’s lean and light, with a high strength-to-weight ratio. Like those of his colleagues in the sport, his hands have more than their share of calluses, and his fingerprints appear to have vanished. But he insisted that he’s never suffered a serious accident. “The worst I’ve had is a finger injury,” he noted.

So what is competition climbing? Unlike traditional climbing, say, up the face of the Stawamus Chief in Squamish, competitions take place on artificial structures. While scaling simulated boulders, athletes generally don’t need to use a rope. If they fall, they land on crash pads. There are also sport-climbing competitions, where people rely on ropes to try to get as high as they can in a given time frame.

Andrew Wilson, the North Vancouver–based interim director of Competition Climbing Canada, told the Straight by phone that the first competitions, in Russia in the late 1940s, relied on real boulders. This created a problem because, in these contests, routes need to be changed after every round. “They had drills and hammers and chipped the rock in between,” he stated. “They quickly realized, ”˜We’re going to run out of rock.’ ”

He mentioned that the first adult world-cup event took place in 1989 in Europe, and the first youth world championships occurred in 1992. And in 2013, the International Olympic Committee will decide on new demonstration sports for 2020. Wilson expressed optimism that competitive climbing will be among those selected, noting that the IOC officially recognized climbing as a sport in 2010.

“It’s extremely exciting,” he said. “I’ve been involved in this since its beginning.”

He added that later this spring in Canmore, Alberta, Canada will host its first world-cup rock-climbing event since the late 1990s. And the 2013 youth world championships have been awarded to Boulders Climbing Gym in Saanich, B.C. Young B.C. athletes will benefit tremendously from being able to train in the host facility, Wilson stated.

“That’s really significant,” he said. “A world cup will bring some athletes from different parts of the world, but it will be primarily North American athletes—whereas the youth world championships will bring athletes from literally 45 to 50 different countries, and there will be over 500 athletes here for that event.”

At the Edge Climbing Centre, Sean McColl talks about his Olympic dream.

Both Chong and Wilson have coached a 23-year-old North Vancouver climber, Sean McColl, who has a chance of making the Olympic podium in 2020 if the sport wins the IOC’s approval. McColl, who won the youth world championships in 2003, 2004, and 2006, is a regular on the adult world-cup circuit, which takes place most often in Europe. As the Straight went to press, he was ranked 11th in the world in the boulder category by the International Federation of Sports Climbing.

Wilson said that if a Canadian makes the podium on the world cup alpine-skiing circuit, it’s covered by media across the country. However, when McColl achieves the same result in competitive climbing, Canadians don’t hear about it because the sport is mostly ignored by the media.

“It’s not something in North America that’s got the same following, although I’m hoping that’s changing,” Wilson noted.

Shortly before leaving for a rock-climbing vacation in Utah, McColl sat down for an interview with the Straight at the Edge Climbing Centre in North Vancouver. As amateurs scaled a 50-foot wall nearby, McColl explained that a beginner doesn’t need a lot of physical strength to succeed. “That’s a pretty big misconception,” he said, noting that good footwork is perhaps a more important characteristic.

McColl offered up a big smile as he talked about the possibility of competing in the Olympics, saying he thinks about this nearly every day. He’s also excited about the upcoming world-cup event in Canmore. “Hopefully, I can make the finals,” McColl stated. “That would be a dream come true, especially in Canada. The big goal in climbing right now is to win a world cup.”

Sitting across the table was another local competitive climber, 22-year-old Vikki Weldon, who has competed in one adult and six youth world-cup events. Weldon is hoping to compete in the upcoming world-cup event in Canmore, which is limited to a boulder competition. She said that she would also love to participate in the 2020 Olympics, but quickly conceded that McColl probably has a better chance of making it.

“I’m not at the same level of competition that Sean is at,” Weldon acknowledged, “but that would be a really amazing opportunity, and I would definitely push for it myself.”

Weldon is one of many women who have flocked to the sport in recent years. She added that she has been inspired by numerous “really strong and iconic women climbers”, including Lynn Hill and Lisa Rands. “Women are definitely starting to close the gap,” she said.

Vikki Weldon talks about her passion for climbing.

In his phone interview with the Straight, Andrew Wilson noted that climbing is one of the few sports in which women are superior competitors to men at the outset. “They have better strength-to-weight ratios,” he said.

Despite the growing popularity of competition climbing, the IOC’s interest in it, and the selection of Canadian locations for world cup and youth world championship events, the sport has still not been officially sanctioned by Canadian sports bureaucrats. As a result, it’s not eligible for federal funding. This disappoints Chong, who has invested so much of his time and energy competing, coaching kids, and organizing events. “Right now, Sport Canada doesn’t even recognize climbing as a sport,” Chong said of the federal body, a division of Canadian Heritage. “It is a sport”¦but the government doesn’t recognize that.”

He hopes that changes long before Sean McColl and possibly Vikki Weldon get a chance to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Climbers scale a wall at the Edge Climbing Centre in North Van.

Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

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