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If you’ve read much of my climbing writing, you’ve probably realized I’m not big on worrying about grades or difficulty. So the title of this piece might seem surprising.
That said, I think a lot of folks give climbing competitions a bad rap. They think of comps and either they think of super strong crushers, like the people who go to Nationals or the IFSC World Cups, or they start getting images of people grade chasing, getting super stressed out, overtraining, and just generally taking things too seriously.
That’s what I thought when I joined a college climbing club and went to my first competition. I did it for the novelty of it, but had no interest in really competing. I didn’t perform well in the comp whatsoever, but I ended up having a really, really good time, and later I went to almost every competition our club team entered, including the Collegiate National Championships. Despite my own reservations about the comp vibe, I quickly realized that most people were just there to have fun.
The “taking things way too seriously” type of behavior that I mentioned above is something you’ll find in small doses in any competitive environment, and climbing is no exception. To be fair though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s totally healthy to care about your performance and strive to excel. If you don’t care at all, you won’t be motivated to climb in the first place. Balance is key.
Like I mentioned above, another big misconception people have about climbing competitions is that they’re only for strong climbers. Maybe you see a flyer for an upcoming comp at your gym and think “No way, I’m not good enough. Maybe someday when I’m sending at least V6 or V7 I’ll enter that competition.”
What a lot of people don’t realize is that you can compete in a climbing comp even if you project V2. Not just enter the competition, you can legitimately compete. There are brackets for even the lowest grade ranges (typically a V0-V2 bracket exists in all comps), and no matter how strong a climber you are, you’ll find a ton of other climbers that are on your level. You have a chance at doing well and maybe even winning your bracket, regardless of your skill. I’ve met several people at comps who have only been climbing for a couple of months. So even if you’ve only just started out as a climber or you climb mostly lower grades, don’t get the idea that you aren’t good enough to enter a competition. You are.
Age, also, is never a limiting factor. You don’t need to be in your twenties to enter a competition. Even if you’ve started climbing later in life, or picked the sport back up after a long hiatus, there’s no reason not to give comps a go. In fact, many competitions include a category for older climbers. In the Southeastern Climbers Coalition’s Float the Boat comp, for example, which just happened this past week, there is a “Rock Gods” bracket, where all the competitors must be 45+ years of age. If you’re older and don’t see many climbers your age at the gym regularly, entering a bracket like this is a great way to meet other older climbers, too.
On that note, climbing competitions are simply an excellent way to make friends and meet new climbers. If you’re a regular gym goer on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, you probably only see the same group of people at your gym each week. At a competition, you’ll have the opportunity to meet tons of climbers you’ve never crossed paths with before. Moreso, the categories are broken down by grade (or sometimes age or other factors), so during your climbing slot, you’re climbing with and meeting other climbers who are close to your skill and experience level.
Climbing competitions are also a great motivator. Having a “time limit” to try to decipher a problem and having to look at problems in terms of point value and decide which you should work on are both excellent ways to change up your traditional climbing process. Everyone’s different, of course, and some people don’t send as well under pressure, but you might find that climbing in the framework of a “competition” gives you the mental boost you need to climb just a little bit harder.
There are tons of wacky things you can get up to at comps outside of the pure climbing, too. From unique events like Climb Nashville’s Hotter Than Chicken competition (where competitors get extra points based on how many hot chicken strips they can eat), to the crash pad wrestling, slacklining, dance parties, music festivals, costume competitions, yoga clinics, and other activities that happen at comps around the country, most climbing competitions are more about the climbing community coming together and having a good time than they are about climbing hard routes. Even if you don’t send a single route the entire comp, chances are you’ll enjoy some good food and good times, and make some good friends, too.
The bottom line is that climbing competitions are made for climbers. All climbers. V1 climbers and V15 climbers and 65-year-old climbers and climbers that only started climbing three weeks ago.
If you’ve been looking at comp flyers and thinking “Nah, that’s not for me. Maybe in a few years when I’m stronger,” give it a second thought. You might be surprised.
Feature image Eddie Fowke/IFSC
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.