Thirty years ago, rock climbing was relatively unheard of in mainstream culture. Today, commercial climbing gyms are opening in major cities, suburban areas, and even some rural towns are welcoming indoor climbing gyms. Likewise, professional climbing has been around for decades, but the rock climbing industry boom has brought about an entirely new world of professional climbing.
It made its Olympic debut in the 2021 (2020) Olympics and will come back again in a revised format at the Paris 2024 Olympics. It might not beat out soccer as the most watched sport in the world, but if you ever want to watch a professional climbing competition, you should know a few basics beforehand. As a niche sport, it appropriately has a somewhat complex scoring system and qualification process to compete professionally. But stick around until the finish of this article, and you’ll feel well-equipped to watch and enjoy professional climbing.
1. Different Competition Series (IFSC WC, North American, Olympics)
First, let’s break down the different avenues of professional competition. The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) is a global climbing organization. Every year, they host a series of World Cups from April to September. The first two months are a mix of bouldering and speed World Cups, and then they transition over to lead and speed. At the IFSC World Cups, climbers from participating countries’ national teams compete in one, two, or all disciplines, depending on which they qualify for during their national team selection.
This brings us to a smaller scale of professional competition. In the United States, USA Climbing is the governing body of organized climbing competitions from youth to the elite level. They host a variety of competitions for all levels of climbing, but for the professionals, one of the most important competitions is the National Championships. This competition, which has boulder, lead, and speed, will determine a handful of the climbers who make the National team for the following year’s World Cup circuit.
USA Climbing has also partnered with Climbing Escalade Canada to host the North American Cup Series, which offers a handful of climbing competitions across all disciplines from April to September.
And, of course, there is now the Olympics, which has its qualifying process but is in part based on World Cup performance and specifically designated Olympic qualifying competitions. The best part about catching these professional climbing competitions is that most are filmed or streamed and uploaded to YouTube for free viewing! Some competitions, including the Olympics, are also available on specific television channels.
2. How Bouldering is Scored
With an overview of the different professional climbing competitions to watch and easy accessibility via YouTube, it’s important to understand how the scoring works.
In each round of a bouldering competition, the climbers must attempt a circuit of four boulder problems. For each, they have 5 minutes to try and complete the climb. They aim to reach the top hold, conveniently labeled ‘Top,’ in the fewest attempts possible. The judges base points on the number of tries and the maximum height a climber reaches. However, there are only three heights that receive a score. If a competitor passes one scoring point but doesn’t reach the next, the judge only awards the climber the lower score. Instead of numerical marks, the maximum height climbed is marked by the start hold, a zone hold (approximately halfway along the climb), and the top hold. If they reach the zone hold, a ‘Z’ denotes their progress on their scoresheet and the number of attempts it took, or if they get to the top, a ‘T’ indicates their completion of the climb. The judges also recorded the number of tries to finish the boulder. A climber who does not make it to the zone hold only has their number of attempts marked down with no accompanying letter.
Regarding overall scoring, the maximum height reached is the primary determinant of placing. If multiple climbers have achieved the same score (i.e., all reached the Zone hold or all Topped the climb), then the judges turn to attempts, with those with fewer attempts placing higher.
3. How Lead Climbing is Scored
Lead climbing scoring is different from bouldering. Each round of climbing only has one lead route. The climbers have six minutes to climb as high as possible. Like boulders, there are on-the-wall markings for the start and finish holds. But unlike bouldering, the climbers only have one attempt, and if they fall, the belayers immediately lower them to the ground, ending their turn. So, instead, each hold on the route is awarded a point value. A climb with 35 handholds would be worth 35 points, maximum.
There are also +s awarded to point values if a climber controls the next climbing hold but falls, making a move off of it. The pluses allow separation in scoring to prevent ties. However, it is still possible to end with a tie if all climbers reach the same high point or they all finish the climb. In that case, the judges use a count-back system. Whoever placed higher in the previous round of climbing (i.e., if it’s finals, they look at the winner of the semi-finals) wins. Time only affects a climber’s score if they can complete it in six minutes. If they are still climbing, they will automatically receive a score based on their current position on the wall.
Yes, we intentionally skipped over speed climbing scoring because that is scored based on who goes the fastest. It is surprisingly simple compared to the other disciplines but exhilarating to watch. The speed climbers look like they run up the wall, defying all laws of gravity before you can even count to 10 (seriously, they’re that fast)!
4. How strong are these climbers? (We know they make it look easy.)
The last thing to know when watching professional climbing is that while these climbers may make the climbs look easy, they aren’t. Instead, these athletes are exceptionally fit and strong, putting hours and years of their lives into training for these competitions. Even if they slip off the wall early or don’t make it to the finals, every climber participating in a professional climbing competition has competed against the best to earn a spot on the professional stage.
For additional perspective on the insanity of professional climbers’ abilities, the size of the holds they grab can be a mere 6-10mm thick. Measure that on a ruler or turn your smartphone sideways and imagine gripping an edge the width of the phone. Companies who design climbing holds have to up their creativity in shaping and texturing new climbing holds to make it hard enough for the athletes as each generation of professionals surpasses the last. There seems yet to be a ceiling to the potential of climbing, and watching professional rock climbers showcases that!
With your new knowledge and understanding of professional climbing, tune into a competition! You are guaranteed to be blown away by the strength and grace on display. If you have any other questions about professional climbing competitions or the competitors themselves, drop them down below! We’d love to hear from you and answer any lingering questions!