Ice Climbing’s Olympic-Size Challenges

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Though immensely popular abroad, competition ice climbing remains a fledgling sport in the United States

In 2014, the U.S. held its first Ice Climbing World Cup in Bozeman, Montana. This year Durango took the torch with one goal in mind: to prove that ice climbing belongs in the Olympics.

“I don’t believe we’ll grow competition climbing in North America until it’s included in something on the scale of the Olympics. We need it to give people something to work toward,” said athlete Kendra Stritch, the only North American to win a stage of a UIAA world cup (women’s speed climbing in Bozeman in 2014).

The U.S. has some catching up to do. Other countries—Russia, Korea, even Ireland—pay their climbers to represent their respective nations at well-attended competitions in Europe and Asia. In America, state sponsorship is nonexistent and even brand sponsorship can be hard to come by. The future of U.S. competition ice climbing is rife with challenges.

In Durango one of the first was finding a venue. Organizers settled on an unlikely candidate, a punk rock-themed brewery on the outskirts of town.

It’s December 15, the eve of the competition, and final preparations are underway, the solemnity almost comical given the setting. Inside Ska Brewing, there's a skeleton in a beanie slumped over a sign that says “Second Floor Reserved: UIAA.”

Past him, tight-lipped officials from the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme are setting up a rules and regulations slideshow presentation. International judges and world-class athletes from 13 countries make their way upstairs, past a painting of a topless woman in a checkered skirt, past the bar, past the signs on every table that ask brightly, “What is that thing in the Ska Brewing parking lot?”

That thing is a 44-foot overhanging plywood climbing wall, roughly 20 feet shorter than many of these climbers are used to.

“This is the smallest wall we’ve climbed on,” says athlete Eimir McSwiggan who lives and trains in Korea for the good weather and abundant ice but competes under the Irish flag.

The primary reason for the stunted wall? Chief organizer Marcus Garcia had only four months to prepare for the event, and between the short fundraising window and America’s generally lukewarm interest in ice, he only got so far. The GoFundMe campaign remains $12,000 short.

The wall and its spectators outside of Ska Brewery in Durango, CO | Photo by Luke Lydiard

Modern competitive ice climbing, born in the bitter cold of the Eastern Bloc and the mountains of central Europe, has been slow to trickle west.

Marc Beverly, a member of the UIAA executive board and former competitor, started training for World Cups in his garage in Albuquerque. He later moved on to the frozen falls and flows where he worked as a mountain guide in Ouray, one of the ice climbing capitals of the country and a training ground for a number of American climbers. Even then, it didn’t compare to what international athletes were working with.

“The climbing in Ouray wasn’t hard enough,” said Beverly. In competitions, athletes from Russia and Korea were crushing the Americans, Beverly included. So he started traveling to Russia to learn from the best and bring home their more powerful style with its massive repertoire of moves for tackling the tricky reaches common in competition.

The imported skills helped Beverly personally, but the sport is still slow to catch on with a wider audience. For those otherwise happy to climb rock or plastic, winter weather and the perceived danger of lead-climbing a fickle medium with spikes in hand and on foot prove deterrents. But when it comes to the competition scene, perhaps one of the biggest barriers is the dominant American climbing ethic.

There’s this attitude that competition climbing is not real climbing, but it validates climbing for the rest of the world.

“It’s a ground-up trad culture,” said Stritch, leaning over a brewery table between climbs. “American climbing media sticks to that culture, and in my opinion, holds us all back.” Though plenty of publications dedicate coverage to the large and quickly-growing sectors of American sport climbers and gym climbers, competition climbing, ice or otherwise, rarely takes the spotlight like it does across the Atlantic.

“There’s this attitude that competition climbing is not real climbing. But the thing is, it validates climbing for the rest of the world,” said Canadian competitor Rebecca Lewis, “If I say I’m going ice climbing today, people are like 'whatever.' If I say I need to take two weeks off for an ice climbing competition, people suddenly pay attention and start taking the sport seriously. Other countries get it, but the United States is way behind.”

Forty-six climbers work their way through qualifying rounds. For the first half, there is just one spectator.

On Day One of the Ice Climbing World Cup, there’s no ice. It melted in the 40-degree weather, but that’s okay; the routes typically emphasize mixed climbing, anyway. The wall is sparsely decorated with volumes and plastic holds, each at the very end of an ice tool’s reach, some farther. Athletes are scored on their ability to get highest on the wall fastest, with points assigned for clips made and holds reached in a controlled manner. Route-setters Pavel Dobrinskiy and Kim Jong Heon—from Russia and Korea, respectively—have done their best to make the too-small wall a challenge for competitors used to longer, more elaborate routes.

Forty-six climbers work their way through qualifying rounds. For the first half, the crowd is composed of only one person, a Durango climber who saw the event on Facebook and figured he ought to check it out.

When the wall spits off one athlete after the next, Kim Jong Heon comes up behind me and nudges my elbow. “Hard, huh?” he says, grinning smugly. Later, athletes say the route setters executed their craft well, making the most of the small space by demanding powerful, technical moves.

“Ueli Steck used to compete in world cups,” Beverly said. “That’s the reason he’s so good.”

Thirty-six climbers move on to semi-finals. Temperatures drop, and hail falls on the resolutely cheerful audience, now 30 spectators strong. The athlete’s movements are smooth and powerful, each searching for balance, for perfectly consistent pinpoint pressure of crampon tips and sharpened tools on pea-sized sweet spots in the tiny holds. The lock-off power and body tension are impressive. So are the inverted whippers.

“Competing in this environment will test your ability at the highest level possible until you know with absolute certainly what you can and what you cannot do,” said Beverly. The competition stage represents that testing ground, the results of which translate to big mountain objectives far better than many assume.

“Ueli Steck used to compete in world cups,” Beverly said. “That’s the reason he’s so good.”

It’s Day Two, and officials and climbers start gearing up for lead finals. The Russian team is upstairs, playing darts and doing pull-ups on the second floor's rafters.

Marcus Garcia anchors two massive wooden cubes to the pronged tongue of a blue forklift. The machine lifts them above the climbing wall, two swinging dice dotted with red and blue holds, guarding the final anchors. Durango residents are gathering in the parking lot and the brewery in much larger numbers to watch.

Women compete first, and the emcee, a local boulderer, welcomes them as they tie in and starts a drinking game with the same rambling breath; every time an athlete wrenches down on an underclinging tool, a move called a Stein Pull, the crowd must tip back their beers. If anything could make this sport more popular in the West, this game might be it.

Many feel that without that Olympic validation, competition ice climbing will never blossom to its full potential, especially in the U.S.

“Getting the World Cup to come to the United States was instrumental,” said Marc Beverly. He was referring to 2014, when Bozeman first took on hosting duties. Prior to that, the ice competition circuit took place out of sight and out of mind for American sponsors and spectators alike, making funding nearly impossible for athletes to come by, no matter how talented they were.

Now athletes and coaches say interest is gaining momentum in the U.S., however slowly, and Beverly predicts that the International Olympic Committee will reach a decision about the future of Olympic ice climbing in the next six to eight months.

“The eastern countries like Russia have a head start and more experience, but the Americans athletes are just as good as any others,” Ice Climbing Commission member Carlos Teixeira says.

After ice and mixed demonstrations at past Olympic Games and years of discussion with the IOC, the 2017 season represents the next theatre of battle, and this wall is ground zero for what many hope is the final push that will throw this fringe sport into the Olympic spotlight once and for all.

He turns to the crowd, one move from the top with a minute to spare, turning up the volume with a wave of his hand, and if for a moment the sport’s success feels imminent.

It’s hard not to be transfixed by the grind of metal cranking against plastic, legs curling over arms in mixed climbing’s signature figure-four’s and figure-nine’s, the desperate clips with body weight suspended against a single tenuously balanced tool tip, the hard breaths sucked through tool handles clenched in teeth.

And when Alexey Dengin, clinging to the first of the hanging boxes, begins rocking it back and forth to close the gap between them, the crowd, now close to 200 strong, erupts. When he latches an elusive hold and swings from one box to the other, crushing the previous high point, the roar is deafening.

He turns to the crowd, one move from the top with a minute to spare, turning up the volume with a wave of his hand, and if for a moment the sport’s success feels imminent. The organizer’s debt, the old scaffolding, the mud, the twine-and-blue-tarp walls, and the table cloths held on by ski straps fade from view. All you can see is the noble glow of world class competition.

Find UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup Durango results here.

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