Climbing goes mainstream

It’s always been part of Boulder culture, now it’s an Olympic sport

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A competitor chalks up prior to competing at the 2017 GoPro Mountain Games in Vail.
Vail Valley Foundation

The visual skyscrapers called the Flatirons that dominate our skyline have always attracted attention. From the first ascent of the third Flatiron by Earl and Floyd Millard in 1906, these rock formations, along with craggy granite spires and faces in Eldorado and Boulder Canyons, comprise a year-round rock climbing environment that attracts world-class athletes and amateurs alike.

While Boulder’s climbing culture and bohemian practitioners were perhaps the most visible in the 1970s and 1980s when the cost of living remained cheap and it was still possible to car camp at Boulder Canyon pullouts, there’s no doubt that the area remains a prime spot for practitioners of the vertical arts, despite the tech influx and a dearth of cheap post-climbing watering holes. But these “arts” just got a whole lot more serious, as climbing has now joined the Olympic circus, with the debut of the sport scheduled for the 2020 Olympics.

Climbing at the 2020 Games in Tokyo will include sport, bouldering and speed events, with a total of 40 athletes (equally divided between men and women) going for the gold. Results — and medals — will be based upon the combined scores of each athlete.

Of course, since this is the Olympics, the format is not without controversy. In particular, the inclusion of a speed event as part of the medalling criteria has rankled some athletes, with Czech powerhouse and World Championship winner Adam Ondra criticizing this element of the competition.

“Anything would be better than this kind of combination,” Ondra stated in a 2016 interview with Climbing Magazine.

Regardless, the criteria has been set and the race to qualify for the Olympics is now underway, starting with the only North American World Cup event this year at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail.

Vail Valley Foundation
Athletes limber up on the wall at the 2017 GoPro Mountain Games in Vail. With climbing now part of the 202 Olympic Games, this year’s pro climbing events in Vail have an added level of importance.

The Vail location of this event may bother some Boulder hardcores, who correctly see a richer climbing heritage in their own backyard. But the reality is that despite its climbing pedigree, the Boulder community has never hosted anything quite like the GoPro Mountain Games, and the history of that event — which features sports like kayaking, trail running and mountain biking along with climbing — is one of sustained, year-on-year high-end execution. This is what matters when it comes to events that will shake out who goes to the Olympics and who stays home. In other words, if you want to host a climbing competition that has Olympic implications, you need to have a proven track record.

The complex production of the GoPro Mountain Games, and the associated World Cup climbing event, is handled by the Vail Valley Foundation (VVF). For skiers and cyclists, this organization is already well known. Its team is behind the highly successful FIS World Cup ski races at Beaver Creek and they’re assisting with this year’s Aug. 16 and 17 stages of the Colorado Classic cycling event.

“The Vail Valley Foundation is entirely unique,” says VVF’s director of public relations Tom Boyd. “We are in a very special position to be able to give mountain sports that much-needed boost because our main focus is our mission, not our profits. We have experience with international-level sporting events, so we are able to work closely with federation organizers as they guide their sport from fringe to mainstream, and all the steps along the way.”

This is certainly the case when it comes to the role VVF has played in organizing the climbing component of the GoPro Mountain Games, particularly now as the clock starts ticking down to 2020.

“We couldn’t be happier that Tokyo and the [International Olympic Committee] made the wise decision to make climbing an Olympic sport in 2020. We are working with youth climbing coaches from around the country to try and upgrade the size and levels of the climbing experience at the GoPro Mountain Games — right now we offer citizens and youth climbing as well, but it sells out early and there is more demand than we can meet,” Boyd says.

Because of the Olympic equation, this year’s event, in particular, promises to be intense, Boyd says.

“There’s definitely a feeling that the climbing circuit has ‘leveled up,’” he notes. “A lot more is on the line, the leaders in the sport are finding themselves in a bigger spotlight, and the sport is growing extremely quickly in terms of spectators — which makes sense. It takes a minute to understand the sport, but once you get the rules, it’s truly a dramatic and spectator-friendly sport. We have more than 3,000 [people] show up to our finals in Vail.”

And Boulder athletes, as you might guess, will be in the mix.

Vail Valley Foundation
Climbing isn’t just for pros! Citizen athletes warm up on the wall at the 2017 GoPro Mountain Games.

One of the athletes to watch at this year’s GoPro Mountain Games and to keep an eye on when it comes to making it to the big show in 2020 is Brook Raboutou. Raboutou is the youngest person to climb 5.14b (think insanely difficult and technical) and developed her talents climbing with Boulder’s Team ABC. Raboutou is no stranger to Vail, finishing ninth in an International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Bouldering World Cup at the GoPro Mountain Games in 2017.

Raboutou, part of a USA youth wave that will be peaking in 2020, is also complemented by Ashima Shiraishi, a New York-based Japanese-American who started by climbing rocks in New York City’s Central Park at age six.

“Shiraishi is really making a splash,” notes Boyd. “Watch out for her!”

Also in the mix is current Boulder resident Meagan Martin and lifelong Boulderite Margo Hayes. Hayes, for her part, learned to climb with her father in Boulder Canyon and has posted some impressive results that include placing sixth at a World Cup event in Briançon, France, and third at a IFSC youth combined event in Innsbruck, Austria, both in 2017 — not to mention becoming the first woman to climb a route confirmed at the grade 5.15, among the hardest in the world.

So, while Boulder is deferring to Vail in this year in regards to hosting North America’s only World Cup event for climbers, there’s little doubt that Boulder climbers are set to make an impact at the GoPro Mountain Games this year and also in 2020 at the Olympics. And that’s the kind of representation that all of our community, not just climbers, can be proud of.

On the Bill: GoPro Mountain Games climbing events. June 8-10, Mountain Plaza, 250 Vail Road, Vail.

IFSC Climbing World Cup Qualifiers. Friday, June 8,  9 a.m.

IFSC Climbing World Cup Semi-Finals. Saturday, June 9. 9:30 a.m.

IFSC Climbing World Cup Finals. Saturday, June 9, 3 p.m.

Youth Climbing Competition. Saturday, June 10, 8 a.m.

Citizen Climbing Competition Saturday, June 10, 11 a.m.

For more information and a full schedule, go to mountaingames.com