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How Lynn Hill, Robyn Erbesfield, Jim Karn and Others Helped Get Us to the Olympics

Competition climbing had scrappy origins, but thanks to a dedicated crew it took off.

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Before there was an Olympic team of Brooke Raboutou, Kyra Condie, Nathaniel Coleman, Colin Duffy …. Before Ashima Shiraishi was fifth at a World Cup in Chamonix and Sean Bailey ninth in Toulouse in 2019 … or Alex Puccio and Megan Mascarenas each won Vail twice between 2009 and 2018, and Sean Bailey took silver, or Puccio won at three Arco Rockmasters … or Alex Johnson won a WC in Switzerland and Daniel Woods won Vail in 2010, or Johnson won it in 2008, with Paul Robinson third ….

Before Sasha DiGiulian took overall gold at the 2011 World Championships in Arco; Emily Harrington won the Serre Che Invitational in France in 2006; Lisa Rands won a World Cup in Lecco, Italy, in 2002; or Katie Brown was first at Arco in 1996 and in a WC in France in 1999 … or Chris Sharma won a World Cup in Kranj in 1997 and led the world on rock ….   

Before all those and with a bow to the many others who have made finals fields and top 10s or advanced a round, were the first from this country, who faced more obstacles and gained more success than you may know. Those who headlined, organized and created the early events paved the way for the sport today and its entrance into the Olympics.

Try some trivia

An old climbing-trivia question I used to ask at trade-show events was: Who was the first American male to win a climbing World Cup? People would guess. Maybe Ron Kauk? Kauk made some podiums, but no … it was:

Jim Karn, La Riba, Spain, September 1988.

Karn was the most dominant American male climber of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he committed to the emergent hard-climbing and comp scene of Europe, moving there for many months at various times. He also always excelled outdoors, with, for example, an early repeat of Marc LeMenestrel’s famous 1986 8b+ / 5.14a Le Minimum.

Photo: Jim Thornburg

Karn says honestly that at La Riba, he hadn’t thought he would make it through two rounds.

“The event lasted several days, not the standard two or three of later World Cups,” he says. “I remember struggling every day to barely make it through the elimination rounds, but I seemed to do better as I got more tired, while a lot of guys, who were better climbers, seemed to maybe perform less well or make mistakes as their fatigue increased. Or maybe they just got bored and wanted to go home.” Karn made it clear to finals.

“In those days, the rule was that wherever the climber touched highest on the wall was marked as his or her high point, not the last actual hold touched,” he says. “Therefore, you would always try to slap the wall as high as possible as you were falling off. It was a terrible rule, and I was glad when it changed.” In the final, he fell near the top and slapped high, gaining the lead. Marc LeMenestrel of France went next, and Karn sat back expecting to dip to second. “Marc strolled to the last quickdraw, then clipped in and sat down. Somehow, he had confused the last quickdraw for the anchor. It was a simple mistake,” Karn says, “and handed me a win I didn’t deserve.” (Read on, though.)

Back to those trade shows. Asking who was the first American woman to win a World Cup would have been too easy. Or would it?

The original American standout in the novel craze of professional comps, Lynn Hill was invited after the Italian climber-organizer Marco Scolaris saw her cranking Take It Or Leave It, a 5.12d in the Verdon Gorge, in June 1986. He urged her to attend the second annual Sport Roccia, at Arco, that summer.

Hill was the first American to win a comp, and was to become the dominant woman competitor for years, ultimately winning some 30 international events.

“Lynn, you must come to this competition next month,” he said, as recalled in her memoir, Climbing Free. “There is only one other woman who climbs strong like you. … Catherine Destivelle. She’s French.” Top of the pack, Hill and Destivelle were to vie for wins at early events before Destivelle returned to mountain pursuits.

Catherine Destivelle of France was an early top climber, succeeded as Hill’s main competition by Isabelle Patissier and Nanette Raybaud, both also French, and Robyn Erbesfield of the USA. Photo: Beth Wald

Hill was the first American to win a comp, and was to become the dominant woman competitor for years, ultimately winning some 30 international events. She was number one at the Grand Prix d’Escalade in Troubat in 1986, and the Bercy Masters in Paris and the Arco Invitational in 1987. She won cash and a brand-new car at an event in Munich in early 1988. But (for trivia or documentary purposes) was Munich a World Cup?

Recently I chased her down to where she was climbing in Hueco Tanks and asked. She didn’t remember. Yup, it was all a long time ago.

I finally turned up the event’s name: the 1989 German Free Climbing Championship. After that event, Hill went climbing at Buoux for a few days before the season’s first World Cup, in Leeds, UK. But in Buoux on May 9 she had a serious accident, falling from the belay on a warm-up after neglecting to complete her tie-in knot. After recovering from her injuries, which included a dislocated elbow, she won at the World Cup in Lyon, France, that autumn.

Robyn Erbesfield won the overall World Cup a near-unbelievable four years running. Photo: Beth Wald

Meanwhile, Robyn Erbesfield came out of nowhere to win at Leeds, the first of the official UIAA World Cup circuit (though the term World Cup was in use previously, with UIAA sanctions and World Cup points for trial events), which would make her the first American woman to win one—a tenet she confirms, as does High Drama, a history of the comp movement by John Burgman.

Robyn shared the top of the podium with Jerry Moffatt of England. Leeds was only the UK’s second comp, after The Yorkshire Open run by DR Walls the same year.

Also little known today is that Karn, always a top boulderer, won the 1991 and 1992 L’Open International de Bloc à L’Argentière-la-Bessée, France, the second time sharing the podium with Erbesfield—the first time two Americans won an event. Erbesfield won the whole World Cup from 1992 through ’95; in 1993 she was first in every comp she entered. In a storybook finish, Lynn Hill won her very last comp, in Birmingham, England, in 1992 before retiring to pursue her broader interests in climbing. Karn was third in the overall World Cup standings in 1990 and remains the only American male to make that podium.

Today we have an Olympic team, and Robyn and Didier Raboutou’s daughter, Brooke Raboutou, age 20, is on it. We have gyms, teams and programs, we have coaches and the USAC and a training center in Salt Lake. About 10 Americans can be expected to show up at an international event. And whereas the expenses are still sky high, there are sponsorships and salaries, and for the last few years the USAC has been able to offer travel costs to some team members. Previously even tip-top professional climbers such as Alex Puccio in 2015 struggled with the costs of attending the five or six annual World Cup events.

In the earliest days, Lynn was generally the only one going, and unusual in enjoying an early sponsorship, from Chouinard Equipment. Many comp purses followed for her and Robyn Erbesfield. Still, for most early aspirants, joining the circuit was a good way to go broke and worse, maxing out your credit cards. Most climbers lacked the funding or ability to stay in Europe and train and compete consistently. But a few made it happen …

Early forays

Hill, Erbesfield, Karn, Shelley Presson and Scott Franklin were the first leading Americans to commit to comps and the hard-climbing scene in Europe, all moving to France for various amounts of time. Jennifer Souders Cole, who made finals at the first Snowbird event, in 1988, traveled to Europe for the full season the next year, and others went to assorted events. 

Travel and organization were difficult, with few other Americans consistently around to confer with.

“I think the time I spent in Europe training was … like war,” Timy Fairfield, a subsequent strong competitor, said in a 2009 interview in Climbing. “You don’t have as much support, there weren’t as many Americans to lean on to speak the language.”

“I looked up to all of these people who were older than me and much more accomplished at competition climbing and training abroad than I was when I first hit the scene. Scotty [Franklin] is the man! He was so dialed.” — Timy Fairfield

Various early climber-competitors traveled together in knots, whoever could afford or chose to go, usually attending events while on climbing trips. I was among them, bookending comps on either end of, say, a two-week trip. Another was Hans Florine, who won the first International Speed Championships, in 1991. We crowded into a moldy basement near the Frankenjura and, another year, a moldier house near Buoux.

All comp climbers were rock climbers; I remember Alain Gherson of France, an alpinist, for crying out loud, making a podium. Most people trained outdoors. After any comp, they’d brush off the results by saying, “Let’s go climbing!” Today’s traveling competitors might typically spend a day or two on rock on such a trip, but mostly climb in gyms.

It was even a bit of a surprise in 1990 when Dale Goddard and Geoff Weigand of the U.S. and Australia arrived and spent the first five days or so at gyms in Belgium, mainly one called Blueberry Hill, near Brussels. They explained to us how great it was. We listened curiously and went back to Buoux and Volx.

The Foundry and other crucibles

The Foundry in Sheffield, the UK’s best-known early gym, opened in 1991. Most climbers still gravitated to outdoor areas, made life decisions accordingly. In 1991, Timy Fairfield and Kurt Smith picked me up at the airport in Nuremberg for a World Cup. They had been climbing in the Frankenjura—and in the “Psycho Cellar,” a private co-op in the basement of an apartment building in Erlangen. “Low ceiling height so everything was steep as hell,” Timy says. “Loud speed metal music!”

In this country the first climbing gym to open was the Vertical Club in Seattle in 1987. Over the next 10 years some 40 gyms arose nationwide. Those included the Front in Salt Lake and the Boston Rock Gym, both in 1989; the Boulder Rock Club in 1991; and, in 1992, Vertical Endeavors in Minneapolis, the Phoenix Rock Gym, and Thrillseekers (in an old porn theater) in Denver. The Clipper City gym opened in Baltimore that year but burned down in 1995. The Cleveland Rock Gym and Philadelphia Rock Gym were 1994, and the Crux in San Luis Obispo; Cathedral Rock Gym in Lehighton, Pennsylvania; Go Vertical in Stamford, Connecticut; and Mission Cliffs, the Bay Area, in 1995. In 1997 the first Earth Treks opened, in Columbia, Maryland.

American comps consisted of bouldering contests in California and Arizona until the big bang of an onsight international event at Snowbird in 1988. Snowbird also hosted a World Cup in 1989, but then the impresario, Jeff Lowe, turned his focus to a national series.

A standout in that growing national scene, Timy Fairfield was on the second wave of Americans to dig in in Europe. After traveling often to compete, he moved to France in 1995 at age 25. 

Fairfield recalls: “I looked up to all of these people who were older than me and much more accomplished at competition climbing and training abroad than I was when I first hit the scene. Scotty [Franklin] is the man! He was so dialed in the style when I got to Europe.” Franklin, Karn, Presson, Hill, Erbesfield and Fairfield all spoke or learned to speak French. 

A happy Robyn Erbesfield right after winning Leeds. Photo: Ian J. Smith

“Lynn and Robyn were pivotal to all of our success,” Fairfield goes on. “They helped in innumerable ways ranging from housing, training advice, and mental-game wisdom to helping us with financial opportunities overseas. They included us in well-funded public climbing demonstrations so that we could earn desperately needed money to keep training in Europe. They got us into travel-piece photo shoots so that we could maintain our sponsorships and leverage our images on rock. They knew the professional rock-climbing game and taught us how to play it and survive in Europe.”

Fairfield lived abroad for six years, winning L’Open International de Clamecy, part of the International Bouldering Series that presaged the Bouldering World Cup; he was ranked #1 in Bouldering for six months. He also won the International ’98 Open Difficulty Event in Canteleu, France, and recalls: “The final route was set way too hard, which played to my bouldering gumption along a long lip traverse, where I blew off a clip and gunned for a suicide high point. I took a huge swinging fall and kicked my belayer.”

Fairfield was the first American male to podium at Arco, with a third in bouldering in 1999. He was fortunate enough, as various visitors have been by European teams, to be included in travel and training by the French federation.

Karn has told “I never considered myself to be in the same league as the best World Cup climbers, but … I began to feel like I belonged. The other guys on the World Cup treated me like a peer, even like a friend. The Europeans (and the rest of the world) welcomed me and seemed to really enjoy seeing me do well. I have fantastic memories of being in the highest pressure situations with everything at stake and having my direct competitors do whatever they could to help me.” He considered competing to be a high form of respect.

He adds today: “The French have a saying, ‘Jamais deux sans trois,’ which means ‘Never two without three,’” or that things come in threes. “They said it to me over and over when I won [L’Argentière] the second time”—urging him to return. “It’s one of my favorite memories from those events.”

The bigger picture

In 1987, the UIAA formed a commission, which met for three days in Chambery, France, to formulate early comp tenets and rules. I attended, sent by the American Alpine Club, which subsequently provided seed money for the American Sport Climbing Federation. Small in membership, the ASCF was run by Ralph Erenzo, Peter Darmi, and eventually Hans Florine. Its youth arm took off and separated as the Junior Competition Climbing Association (JCCA). The ASCF ran various events, including a successful National at Hunter Mountain, New York, in 1993, but lapsed after Florine’s departure in 1996. In 2003 it reemerged and ultimately became today’s USA Climbing (USAC).

Another Chambery attendee was Marco Scolaris, who became president of the UIAA Commission for Competition Climbing, eventually founding the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), where he remains president.

Sasha Akalski of Bulgaria (now Toronto), another at Chambery, was jubilant upon the 2016 announcement of Olympic inclusion. “Our dream came true!” he posted on Facebook. “Congratulations, everybody.”

While comps in Europe attracted thousands from early on, World Cups on American soil fell away for many years after a sparsely attended one in 1990 in Berkeley, California. But the inclusion of climbing in the 1995 Extreme Games in Providence, Rhode Island, staged by Erenzo, Jordan Mills, and others, was key, and repeated as the X Games, run by Jim Waugh. The Bouldering World Cup in Vail, Colorado, starting in 2008, became a marquee event at the annual Mountain Games.

Competition climbing here had scrappy but often shining beginnings. It rose and faltered and rose anew, part of a thoroughfare—with great competitors; functioning governance;  skilled routesetters, hold designers, and wall makers; and a record of spectacular events—that an Olympic committee saw and nodded upon.

Alison Osius attended a dozen international events—as far as she remembers.