Is Psicocomp the Next Big Thing?

A climber catches air at Psicocomp
A climber catches air at Psicocomp

It must have been seven years ago that a small group of climbers, myself included, sat around a table in the downtown Manhattan offices of Urban Climber discussing a new approach to climbing competitions: deep water soloing.

We pondered the best way to do it. Perhaps in a lake, where we’d build a free-standing wall and then the climbers would get dropped at the start by boats. Speed boats. There would be revealing swimwear aplenty, a la surfing or beach volleyball, and a danger element in the form of big belly smackers from 30 feet. It would have that je ne sais quoi that bouldering and sport climbing and speed climbing comps just did not. We could see it in the X-Games or even the Olympics.

As so many had before us, we envisioned the next big thing. But our vision never moved any closer to reality than speculation. Despite a not-yet-unspoiled optimism, we hadn’t the money, time, or connections necessary to pull of a DWS competition, so we stuck to gear “reviews” and first-person essays about soul bouldering.

Fast forward to 2013, to the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City. The Unified Bouldering Championship comp held on the roof of the parking structure adjacent the Shilo Inn, despite the throngs it once drew and a certain energy, is no longer. In its place this year, a duel-style competition on an artificial wall towering more than 50 feet above the 750,000 gallon aerials pool at the Utah Olympic Park Training Center in Park City. In this event, known as Psicocomp, two competitors are pitted against one another in every round — whoever falls lowest gets the chop and winners advance to the next tête-à-tête. Still, even the victors can take breathtaking whips through air, clapping and plooshing into the pool with explosive results.

As I watched from the sidelines, jostling for position with more than a dozen photographers, I felt a vague sense of satisfaction. I had no involvement in the competition, but this idea that had been bandied about, expanded on and delved into for the better part of a decade had finally come into being. And it was just as cool as so many of us had imagined.

In science, great minds, famous and unknown alike, will often flit around the periphery of a major discovery for some time. Then, all at once, multiple parties will simultaneously come to the same conclusions. So it was with Charles Darwin, the guy who created the working theory for natural selection, and Alfred Russell Wallace, who you’ve probably never heard of but who discovered pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time.

For unknown reasons, certain ideas can float in the zeitgeist and then suddenly catalyze, seemingly from thin air. This is how the Psicocomp felt to me. It is the manifestation of a concept that has been laying dormant for years, periodically almost surfacing, but never quite having the right conditions to sprout and mature. For whatever reason, the planets are now aligned and the deep water soloing competition is reality.

Still, questions remain: will such comps survive the test of time? Or will the Psicobloc Masters Series ultimately become another Snowbird — a huge event laden with promise but lacking the fan base and commercial support to reproduce at scale? Only time will tell. I think the Psicocomp organizers are heading in the right direction, but they need a driving force, someone with serious clout, like Chris Sharma, who’s willing to keep his foot on the gas for as long as it takes to get this thing not just off the ground, but flying at safe altitude.

What happens after that is hard to predict, but maybe climbing will return to the X-Games (are they even cool anymore? I haven’t been paying attention). Maybe climbing will finally make it into the Olympics, after all. Or maybe these flashy DWS competitions, in tandem with the mushrooming gym culture and increased visibility of climbing as a whole, will take the sport to that rarefied next level that everyone is always talking about.

Personally, I hope the Psicobloc Masters Series is a big success. Maybe, for the first time, we have the right formula for translating the esoteric art of scaling vertical surfaces into a spectator sport for a wider audience.

What do you think?


Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

9 thoughts on “Is Psicocomp the Next Big Thing?”

  1. The competition was a step in the right direction but the need for a pool that works with a climbing wall, will limit venues. Also, difficulty climbing is too slow too watch, so they should make the routes easier. That way, more climbers will send the problems and speed will become a factor. They could put a dyno and buzzer at the top, so you still get a big fall, and this would make it more exciting to watch. I am not saying make the routes 5.9, something like 5.12+ for woman and 13a for guys. The head to head format is great and would be more exciting with some speed element, rather then the stopping, chalking, and shaking out, too boring.

    There just aren’t that many competitive rope climbers in the USA and the setting was really for rope climbers. Sharma was the class of the men, no surprise there, and he fell on purpose, so not to win his own competition, truly a class act. For the females, there were really only 2 competition rope climbers, Sasha and Delaney, in the competition, so no surprise that they were first and second, but the climbing was slow and deliberate.

    Overall a great competition, congratulations to the winners. I would suggest having both the womens and mens problems set at the same time, different tape/ colored holds, like in a gym. This will eliminate down time and speed things up a little along with slightly easier routes. This will make it a better show case for mass appeal.

    1. “like 5.12+ for woman and 13a for guys.”

      -Are you trying to say that male climbers are better than female climbers?
      Hahaha! That’s funny. It’s also bullshit.

      Most of the female climbers I’ve ever know and seen have actually proven to be just as good, if not better, than us guys. Yes there may be more male professionals than female, but that’s not really because of skill; it is because of interest.

      After all, women are more flexible and wearing a harness for them is never a problem because they don’t have man parts. Because of these qualities I would already expect them to be better than us in the first place…

  2. Climbing always was and always will be boring to watch. It was cool the that the routes were so difficult, but aside from merely falling off, the climbers didn’t make them look difficult.
    It’s not intriguing or compelling to watch, there is no tension, no real suspense.
    Fill the pool with hungry sharks or deadly jellyfish….

  3. I think the comp was amazing and is truly the best format for competitive climbing. There were a ton of people there that did not climb, at all, and loved it!

    I am not sure why this has not been discussed anywhere. There needs to be some serious consideration for safety. At one point there were shark toys floating around in the pool that went under the climbers! Also, two of the male competitors nearly fell on each other (2 ft apart) due to the turning nature of the routes. The routes were too close. Can you imagine Jimmy Web falling on your face from 50 feet and surviving? One woman climber swam under the other climber who was still high on the wall when she left the pool. Last but not least the idiot in the water filming was directly under the climbers many times. One time Delaney fell just a few feet from him. Any one of these falls could have seriously injured both the falling climber and especially the person in the water. Someone could have easily been paralyzed, broke their legs, or honestly killed. These things should not be taken lightly.

    Both the men’s and women’s routes need to be on the wall. There needs to be alternation between the men and women so as to allow for longer breaks. This way the speed will stay up and more people will top out. Most everyone was totally pumped for their last goes, especially Delaney and the mens quarter and finalists.

    Overall this was amazing, huge crowd, amazing climbers, beautiful wall! I can’t wait for the next.


  4. It was cool but to be honest I much prefer to watch IFSC bouldering events. More problems, more variety, really different approaches to same problems time to time. Also I really do not think climbing will ever break into “mainstream” just too weird and incomprehensible to uninitiated. Also speed climbing at ifsc.. probably the worst most stupid sport I ever watched

  5. Great comments. If anyone is interested I wrote a piece on this comp with a more skeptical forecast.

    Regarding safety, there should have been a person in the water with the sole task of being ready to haul any unresponsive climbers out of the water stat, which is SOP for high diving comps. A competitor commenting on my FB page noted that many climbers hit bottom in the course of the comp and that there were two very close calls on collisions

  6. If people are willing to watch baseball, they’ll watch anything. Speed climbing is not climbing. DWS is a small niche in the climbing world. It must be a pain to dry off your shoes and chalk bags after that comp.

  7. When I worked in the technology startup business, we’d often say that if someone came up with a game-changing, revolutionary idea that was going to change the world, then it was likely that at least 20 other groups were already working on the same idea in various stages of development and one was probably close to shipping.

    Regardless, if something is “in the air,” it doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be successful. But the Psicocomp sure had gotten a lot of positive notice. We can yammer all day, but subsequent events and how well they do will be the real proof.

    I appreciate peterbeal’s comments as well. One of my kids is a beginner diver. So I don’t know much. :-) But from what I’ve seen, diving does not mess around with safety. Even beginner kids on a 1m springboard get chewed out if they swim under the landing zone. This is not to be mean-spirited. It’s to keep them and others out of wheelchairs. The safety issues with Psicocomp definitely need to get up to speed and some qualified dive people should be able to help with that easily. I also think that how you fall and enter the water may need some attention. There are better ways to enter the water than others.

  8. I do hope to see another Comp like this, but the Safety part is so important. I am glad Peter Beal is writing about this and that at least a few people pay attention to the safety of the lives involved and not just the coolness of the comp.

    I had a great time watching, and the competitors were in true form! I will be excited to see the series mature!

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