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Last week, I rocked back and forth on my heels beneath the Project wall in Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado. It was morning: the air was still clinging to the coolness that remained. Yellowed and dying leaves rattled in a breeze. I closed my eyes to take it in, trying to clear my head. My mind felt stuffed; I had yet to have coffee.
I was there for an interview. I had promised a friend I’d help him out with a video he was working on for the city of Rifle to promote the park and the city itself. For tourism, local economy, et cetera. Evidently the park remains largely a mystery even to the locals, despite offering some of the best limestone in the country.
My friend conducted his interview while a potato-sized mic hung from a small boom above my head. Around us, the wall was quiet. One other party came for a quick warm-up pitch and then left.
Where is Rifle Mountain Park?
Describe the rock. What makes Rifle unique?
Who can climb here?
Why do you like climbing?
That last one wasn’t on the list he’d sent me. I was unprepared. I hesitated.
“Pass?” I said with a laugh. Too big of a question. Too many answers floated to the surface, and they all were cliché.
But why do we climb? What is it about our sport that makes it so special? As an editor, it’s a question I’ve posed to others over and over again. The answers are almost always unsatisfactory. Simple. Abbreviated. Asking a climber why they climb is like asking a 5-year-old what makes ice cream so good. Love is inexplicable.
But, given climbing’s debut in the Tokyo Games, let’s try reframing the question. Why should other people care about climbing? Or rather, why does climbing deserve a spot on the Olympic stage?
That’s a question climbers, national federations and the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) have been attempting to answer and to explain to the International Olympic Committee for a long time now. In fact, those conversations began long before 2016, when it was first announced that climbing would debut in 2020.
Here’s the quick history: The first international comp was in 1985, in Bardonecchia, Italy. For about 20 years, a mountaineering club sanctioned more comps. The IFSC formed in 2007.
“One of the first decisions we [made] was to go to the Olympics,” Marco Scolaris, president of the IFSC, told Shauna Farnell for the GoPro Games, in 2017. Shortly thereafter, the IFSC was nearly successful—climbing was on the shortlist for the 2012 Games. In the end, it didn’t make the cut, obviously.
On paper, several factors went into the IOC’S eventual stamp of approval. Climbing met three specified criteria for new sports, which essentially amounted to novelty, youth appeal, and lifestyle-supporting values. Other sports that also debuted were skateboarding and surfing… sports that are certainly unique and bound to draw a younger crowed. Also, the fact that the 2020 Olympic Games were to take place in Tokyo was fortuitous for climbing, since the sport has been gaining popularity there for years. The host city would have a vote, so it mattered what Japan thought of climbing.
After over 30 years since the first international climbing competition, climbing has finally made it to the big stage.
Does everyone remember reading Franz Kafka in high school? The Metamorphosis? If you don’t recall, go back and give it a read, it’s brilliant. For some reason or another, I recently thought of Kafka and was inspired to read another one of his shorts: The Rescue Will Begin In Its Own Time. I’ll spare you the details. It’s another gem, but see for yourself.
One quote from that story still haunts me. A father is attempting to cut a loaf of bread, but the knife won’t go through. His onlooking children are surprised. He said:
“‘Why should you be surprised? Isn’t it more surprising if something succeeds than if it fails?’”
Woof. I mean, what a view. But, who could argue with it? Hell, wasn’t it Buddha that said rule number one is life contains suffering? By my reckoning, it sure does.
But it’s for that reason that I think all the players in our community, from the IFSC to the V2 crusher to the parents dropping their kids off at practice to the Adam Ondra’s… OK Ondra is one of a kind, but you get my point. Everyone should pat themselves on the back. Because it is our shared enthusiasm, our inexplicable love for a sport that is quite frankly, utterly pointless, that allowed climbing to debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (in addition to the factors above). We needed the tenacity and passion of a community. And it is due to this success that our sport will continue to grow. That others will join our ranks, foster that same passion, and the metaphorical pie that is our community gets larger, deeper, and better for all.
What we’ve done here, it’s a massive success for our sport, and it’s come after years of failing.
Back to those initial questions, as to why I like climbing and why others should care, too. Here’s another abbreviated, unsuccessful pass at the answer, to add to everyone else’s previous attempts: Like trying to slice our daily bread, things rarely work out. Climbing is a physical manifestation of that.
We try, we fall. We try, we fall.
But then sometimes we reach the top of a boulder or a sport climb or the speed wall. For a moment, we remember why we tried in the first place. We remember that if you keep at it, we may actually reach our summit. That feeling, which is all too often desperately needed in everyday life, is afforded in such a literal way in a totally weird, outlying, fringe sport. It’s soulful.
See what I mean? Cliché as shit. But damn do I love it. And I couldn’t be more stoked to have witnessed it get to where it is.