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?