Did Psicocomp Just Make Speed Climbing Cool?

Climbers racing to the top at the 2014 Psicocomp deep water soloing competition
Competitors gunning for the top at the 2014 Psicocomp in Park City, Utah.

Last year, after watching the first Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah, I wrote in a blog post, “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.” But the truth is, the format still wasn’t perfected then: the routes were a little too difficult, and the climbers had to slowly work their way to the top, resting and shaking out along the way like they might in a World Cup comp. Ultimately, there were few top-outs (just one for the men and two for the women) and a lot of mid-route falls, which brought the energy of the event down a hold or two.

This year’s Psicocomp was another story. Here, setters Dani Andrada and Miguel Riera, both from Spain, and Steven Jeffery, a Salt Lake City local, reduced the difficulty of the climbs to something more attainable for the top-level athletes competing—about 5.13a for the women and 5.13d for the men, according to Rock and Ice. The result was a fairly major change in experience. Speed became more of a factor, raising the intensity of the competition and making the duel format more significant. It was riveting to watch Jon Cardwell chase event creator Chris Sharma ropeless up the overhanging wave of a wall at warp speed, or last year’s champ Jimmy Webb go move-for-move with this year’s champ-to-be, Sean McColl. For the first time in memory, my heart raced during a climbing competition as McColl, facing a motivated Daniel Woods in the final round, blasted up 50 feet of steep 5.13+ in just 32 seconds.

Speed climbing has long felt like the ginger-haired stepchild of the competition world. Its focus on hyper-fast ascents (15 meters in 5.88 seconds, as the current world record has it) of vertical walls with specified hold sets feels too far divorced from the act of climbing as many of us know it. In an Instagram post made during Psicocomp, though, Andrew Bisharat quipped: “Speed climbing finally gets cool.” Whether or not this was meant to be taken with a pixel of salt, I think there was something to it. It’s not that the speed component in climbing competition is intrinsically unappealing to climbers, but that the rigid, track and field-like approach that the IFSC takes with the event doesn’t offer the ideal mix of elements to engage a larger climbing audience.

Easier routes also meant that all those climbers who topped out had to jump the full, throat-tightening 50 feet to the little aquamarine pool shimmering below. One by one, they stood atop the wall, chucked their chalk bags off to the side, and then awaited the audience countdown to jump-off (or drop-off, as the case was for those who felt more comfortable downclimbing a bit, first). This added an element of audience participation, which is never a bad thing.

The 2014 Psicocomp ended up even more exciting than the 2013 version. Clearly the event organizers paid attention to issues they encountered on their maiden voyage and tried to remedy them (hot tubs to keep soaked competitors from going hypothermic between heats, for example). Like bakers tweaking a recipe, they adjusted the ingredients and the ratios to create a better overall result. Speed climbing up a steep wall in a head-to-head sudden-death format with little downtime, plus big falls into water, all in a scenic outdoor setting (coincidence that it’s at an Olympic training facility?), attended by some of the continent’s strongest climbers—it turned out to be a heady mix that left the attending throngs stoked.

With its second year in the bag, Psicocomp (and the general concept of deep water soloing comps) still feels like the most interesting development in climbing competition. Perhaps the biggest questions now are, how and when will it expand to other venues, and will people continue to turn out to watch? What do you think?

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Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

18 thoughts on “Did Psicocomp Just Make Speed Climbing Cool?”

  1. Enjoyed the comp a lot more this year due to announcing during the live stream. Last year I watched it on mute due to the announcing. As far as the climbing goes I enjoyed both aspects immensely.

    1. Yeah, I believe they split the live emceeing from the streaming commentators to make it easier to follow. Who was it did the announcing on the live stream? Brian Runnels and Chris Weidner, I think?

  2. I might be the only one who didn’t like this year’s competition. I thought they made speed too much of a factor by making the routes too easy. I love watching climbers struggle and take falls, not jump from the top. It was so boring that I skipped watching the men compete. Yawn.

    1. Yeah, Anna, to each his or her own! What’s your favorite competition format then? Lead difficulty? Bouldering?

  3. I’m 55 years old. I started (gym) climbing 6 years ago. I’m not very good, but if I’d started at a young age… I still wouldn’t be very good. Having said that, if this makes climbing more popular, more spectator friendly, then great. I guess. But while I’m amazed and inspired by the incredible climbing athletes of today, and in awe of the climbing pioneers who climbed things when they didn’t know if those things could even be climbed, if climbing became so unpopular that I was the only person left climbing in the world, it would still be my favorite physical activity. Well, maybe my second favorite. I’m not THAT old yet.

  4. I actually agree with Anna above — I thought that Psicobloc 2014 was less exciting than 2013, as the focus moved almost entirely to speed and away from difficulty.

    Not to say that the climb wasn’t difficult on an absolute scale, but relative to the elite talent of the competitors, it seemed fairly moderate. For both the men and women, it didn’t seem difficult enough to stratify the field. It was almost a given that most climbers could top out, it was just a matter of who could do it faster. In 2013, there was an additional layer of tension — not just who could dyno up the wall the fastest, but who could actually get up highest on the wall.

    I agree that 2014 was far superior in terms of actual execution of the comp. It was smoother, seemed better run, and that’s worthy of recognition in itself. But I thought that the pendulum swung just a bit too far away from difficulty and towards speed, to the point where the former was almost entirely overshadowed by the latter. My favorite part of Psicocomp is how it can marry the two elements, and be something different than either a difficulty comp or a speed comp, beyond the fact that a pool is the only protection. I’m hoping for 2015 that the process continues to improve, but that the routes are a little more difficult and bring back in that extra layer of competitive tension.

    1. Sounds good. Everyone has their own preferences and I’ve heard the organizers say they felt the routes were a tad too easy, too, a problem they plan to address next year.

  5. I have to say that I think it’s a shame that no sooner is a new sport invented, then someone has to start up a federation, and pretty soon we have to see who is the best or the fastest. People used to ski and surf and climb just for the fun of if, now we have judges determining who is the “best” surfer and timers proving that one guy skied down the mountain 1/200th of second faster than the other, so he is “better”. Come off it, can’t we enjoy sport any more just for the fun of it????


    1. Sure, it’s easy to enjoy climbing for the fun of it: don’t watch or enter comps! Of course many people enjoy competitions and find them to be quite fun (to watch and enter). I think it’s important to remember that just because someone finds competition to be interesting doesn’t have to lessen anyone else’s experience of climbing outdoors. I’d like to think there’s room for climbers of all ages, skill levels, and interests in the world…

  6. there is a lead world cup for all things hard, I think as a growing and evolving sport there is no right or wrong way to do it. Sean is a monster by the way i think he could have just as easily won at pure difficulty.

    1. I agree that there is no one way to do things well. Also, whenever you say “that was good” or “that was bad” really you leave the sentence unfinished; that was good or bad for what? If the goal was entertainment, I think this year’s event was better. If the goal was proving who was the strongest route climber, maybe last year’s was better. If the goal was to prove who was the best at math, both events failed :p

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