• Lead
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    In competition climbing, Lead involves athletes attempting to climb as high as they can on a wall measuring more than 15m in height within six minutes. The climbers use safety ropes and clip the rope to quickdraws along the route.


    Lead involves athletes attempting to climb as high as they can on a wall measuring more than 15m in height within six minutes. The climbers use safety ropes and clip the rope to quickdraws (equipment that allows the rope to run freely while leading) along the route. When a climber attaches their rope to the top quickdraw, they have completed the climb. If a climber falls, the height (hold number) attained is recorded. There are no re-climbs. If two or more athletes complete the climb or reach exactly the same height, the fastest to do so is declared the winner. This is a demanding whole-body activity and dynamic climbing techniques are greatly important. To prevent athletes from gaining an advantage from watching others scaling the bouldering and lead climbing walls before them, each climber is kept away from the climbing wall in “isolation” before their turn and given just a few minutes to examine the wall and routes prior to starting.

    The last event will be lead climbing. Here, climbers will get just one attempt to climb as high as they can on a route. If a competitor falls, he/she will be safely caught by the rope and a designated belayer, but his/her attempt in the round will be finished. As with bouldering, there will a qualifying round and a finals round.

    Basically, each handhold will be worth one point, so the scoreboard will reflect the highest scored handhold reached by each competitor. (The route at the Olympics will likely include anywhere from 40 to 60 scored holds in total.) For example, a competitor who reaches handhold number 35 before falling would score 10 more points than one who fell at hold 25. The best result would be to reach the top of the wall. In an ideal lead event, only one competitor would do so.

    As with the boulders, the lead routes will not be at any climber’s physical limit. There are grading systems for assessing a lead route’s difficulty. In the United States, this is done with the Yosemite Decimal System, which ranges numerically from 5.0 to 5.15, and with alphabetical designations used above 5.10 to further differentiate a route’s difficulty (such as 5.12a compared to 5.12b). However, much like bouldering, lead routes will not be graded at the Olympics. Much of the challenge will come in compartmentalizing the magnitude of the event itself while also doing the requisite problem-solving and sustained hard movement that lead climbing entails. Lead routes often feature geometric volumes intermixed with features that have outdoor aesthetics—such as stalactites, bulges, prominent arêtes (outside corners), and headwalls. Finding places to clip the rope into the quickdraws (see—Glossary) while working over and around such features provides an added challenge.

    Scoring can get quite detailed, specifically related to whether a competitor has a firm grasp of the handhold (known as “control” in judging parlance) before falling, or whether he/she merely touched the handhold in a glancing manner. In such cases, partial points could be awarded. But because these situations can be highly subjective, there will be a panel of judges closely monitoring every competitor’s attempt, and there will also be the option for competitors to appeal any scoring decisions.

    Any unintentional failure to clip the rope into a quickdraw—or any intentional skipping of a clip—will result in the end of a competitor’s attempt. Gripping or stepping on any item on the wall not designated for hand or foot placement—such as grabbing the quickdraws or accidentally stepping on signage placards—will result in disqualification as well (this happens more often than you might expect). Certain sections of the wall can be designated as “out of bounds” too, and failure to adhere to such boundaries would likewise cause a DQ.

    Lead climbing has a competition history too storied to fully explore here, but one of the key points of origin was an outdoor contest on the limestone cliffs above Bardonecchia, Italy, in the mid-1980s. It was eventually agreed that outdoor crags were not ideal for large-scale, formal competitions—the massive crowd and the abundance of competitors put undue stress on the landscape itself, and unforeseen technicalities such as sudden changes in weather or damage to the rock face made it difficult to maintain level playing fields. But the rise of an artificial climbing-hold industry and the emergence of climbing gyms around the world helped lead competitions survive in a new context. The first large-scale international competition in the United States took place on the side of a hotel in Snowbird, Utah, in 1988 and continued for many years. A vibrant World Cup circuit appeared in Europe as well, eventually giving rise to the formation of today’s governing bodies at the national and international level.

    Content courtesy of John Burgman, Climbing Magazine

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