Friday, June 11, 2010

A Different Kind of Game

Here is a recap of the Vail World Cup by USA Chief Routesetter Chris Danielson for

Competition climbing is an interesting game, both for the competitors who throw themselves at the walls and for those of us who organize and help create the lines they attempt to ascend. Jamie asked me to write a recap of the recent Vail Boulder World Cup we both set. This comp was a great achievement for USA Climbing and a celebration of the amazing ability of top athletes, including one American who really stands out. In so many ways an event like this captures the excitement of the sport, shows how much bouldering has grown, and also highlights challenges of climbing competition organization.

The annual climbing comp held as part of the Teva Mountain Games has grown from a tiny event once held on a small portable wall to one of the premier bouldering competitions anywhere on the globe. The level of planning and coordination needed for an event of this scale is much more than most would imagine and Kynan Waggoner of USA Climbing deserves most of the credit. The IFSC has been incredibly supportive of our event, and seasoned representatives Graeme Alderson and Tim Hatch helped ensure this year’s competition went smoothly. The IFSC Chief International Setter, Manu Hassler, brought not only some European flair to our routesetting, but an easygoing demeanor that helped balance a stressful week of preparation. Rock and Ice also made a great event that much better by providing a live feed so the masses online could devour some action.

While the past two years in Vail were headlined by the Alex and Alex show, 2010 was the year of Daniel. A review of the competition through Woods’ performance, with some comments on routesetting and comp climbing in general, seems most appropriate.

Woods demonstrated strength early on by completing four of the five Qualifier problems with relative ease. He made a couple slips early on, but then demonstrated his enormous strength by flashing the longest and perhaps most powerful problem in the comp, a steep thug fest with big moves on good holds. He almost went into first after the Qualification but despite a strong attempt, could not complete the fifth and final slab boulder. Daniel was in third after Qualifiers, with the Young Slovenian strongman Jernej Kruder in second. Paul had a very impressive performance, going into Saturday’s round at the top of the field.
In preparation for the Semifinal round, we had worked hard to ensure a wide range of styles. Routesetting is not a science. What we do is try to create climbs that have a number of different objectives. Our goal, first and foremost, is to divide the competitive field, but we also strive to showcase the climbers’ ability in varied types of movement, making it exciting for the crowd, and safe for everyone. In the Semifinals, the climbers would first encounter a short low-percentage slab bloc, with a hard-to-catch swing move, and a tenuous mantle. Daniel bested it second try with a thrillingly timed jump to the finish as his weight moved up and off the slab press move. Next up was a relatively straightforward power problem and then a steep boulder with a double-clutch jump followed by compression moves. Neither of these presented a challenge for Woods. The last boulder mystified many of the competitors, with a difficult to decipher starting sequence leading to a very hard finish requiring contact-strength on slopers. Daniel made an astonishing flash of this final problem and secured first place standing going into finals, being the only one to complete all four blocs. (Rock and Ice vid 2:05)

Finals started a few hours later and the competitors were not the only anxious bunch. As we finished the preparation for the round, our routesetting team was certain every detail had been checked – start and finishes clearly marked, bonus boxes accurately placed, set-screws in every hold, padding in place. But, the thing about competition climbing is, so much of the pressure for the success of an event is based on the creativity and intuition of the people turning the wrenches, and then the unpredictable performance of the athletes. We do our best to calculate accurate difficulties that will split the field fairly with exciting action, but when the climbing starts, we have to leave it to the climbers to create their own drama.

As the group of six finalists went from boulder to boulder, Daniel climbed last on each one and put on a great show for the thousands of spectators. He climbed the first arĂȘte squeeze bloc second-go. The second problem had a hard jump to two crimps off the start, and a wildly difficult “drive-by” for the finish. While all the finalists figured out the start jump and made it to the last move, only a couple even touched the last hold, throwing their bodies up and out at the jug, and spinning off. Daniel latched the finish with a small swing. He kept his foot on.

The third boulder was the least inspiring and a miscalculation from a routesetting perspective. Each of the climbers made multiple attempts at a finishing launch that was just an inch or two out of reach. The crowd screamed enthusiastically before each climber went for the finish, but the cheers would be followed with a long communal sigh each time. Even for Daniel, that move was just too much. On the final bloc, the climbers would start in a dihedral, facing the crowd, set up and jump out to a huge ring, then finish up hard moves on crimps. This proved very difficult for most, with only Kruder sticking the early jump as others repeatedly swung off.

The last to climb, at first it looked as though Woods would be shut down by the dyno. But with only seconds left to get on the wall for a final attempt, Daniel demonstrated what I think may be his most mature moment as a competitor. Though by completing the second bloc he had already secured the win, he would not give up. After setting up and staring down the dyno, he jumped out and caught the ring, his body swinging up and past horizontal. The crowd went wild. Woods settled on the jug, then campused up and drove through the crimp moves Kruder had fallen on, with the thousands deep field of spectators roaring at every move. On the final two crimps he was well in control and staring down the finish jug. He placed his feet and went to pull but slipped off as he generated upwards.

Those last thirty seconds made for a nearly perfect finish for the World Cup Champion, and an enormous sigh of relief for our routesetting crew. We cannot predict exactly what the climbers will do, and this reflects the incredible subtlety of climbing competition. Daniel did stick the dyno and almost finished the boulder. If he had, it would have been absolutely incredible. I can hardly imagine how loud the crowd would have cheered. But, with seconds left, he could have also missed the jump and left us all a bit disappointed. The spectators may have been disappointed in the event, some climbers perhaps disappointed in themselves, and the routesetters certainly disappointed in their efforts. What makes climbing incredibly unique also presents a great challenge for our sport at the highest levels.

I have yet to learn of a sport where the environment that determines competitor performance is so malleable. At each event we are preparing anew a fresh competitive arena. In climbing competitions like the Boulder World Cup or most others like it, we cannot know for certain whether the climber(s) will achieve the pre-determined goal of getting to the top. They have limited time to attempt the climbs, but whether and (most of the time) exactly how they will, is entirely determined by the creative guesswork of routesetters.
There are sports, similar to climbing, where the preparation of the competitive arena changes by venue, but where each individual competitor encounters the same thing during the competition. But in any of these examples, the factors for success are very well-defined (for both the competitor and the spectator). Though the contours of the terrain and placement of the pins change, the golfer, for example, will get the ball in the hole eventually and the winner will be determined by who has made the least attempts to do so. Though the hills are carved differently and the gate placements altered, the skier will make it to the bottom of the slalom course and the winner will be the one who does so the fastest. In climbing, nothing is that simple.

We want first and foremost to split the field of competitors fairly. We hope that their performance on a variety of climbs will show, through a balance of power and fitness, mental tenacity, route-reading and on-sight ability, which among them is the best. Regardless of the format, competition climbing is anomalous. After this event, I am happy, but also pensive, trying to consider how to ensure successful competitions in the future, considering the unique challenges of how it all works.

In this example, Daniel put on a dramatic performance and finished off the competition in style, showing off how amazing bouldering is. Congratulations Daniel on an excellent win, you are a true competitor.

-American Head Setter Chris Danielson
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