• Speed
    The Fastest Way to the Top!

    The Fastest Way to the Top!

    Pits two climbers against each other in head-to-head competition. Both climbers are secured to safety ropes and attempt to scale a 15m-high wall, set at an angle of 95 degrees, faster than their opponent on identical routes. Winning times for the men’s and women’s events tend to be around six to eight seconds. A false start results in instant disqualification.

    Speed Climbing

    The climbers will engage in one-on-one speed “runs” (aka “heats”) up a 15-meter-wall on two identical, side-by-side climbs. The route will be the exact same route that has served as the standard speed course in competitions for almost 15 years, a collection of red, amoeba-shaped holds placed in a standardized sequence. Although this route has never been assigned a difficulty grade, most estimates put it at approximately 5.10b—nowhere near the physical limits of the competitors. (See Glossary for more about climbing grades.)

    Since each competitor will be climbing the same course for every “run,” their tactics will be fully memorized, demonstrating a skill that has been fine-tuned through countless hours of rote practice. To win each run, a competitor will have to reach the top of the wall and slap a buzzer before his/her opponent does; the goal is to climb as quickly and efficiently as possible, which usually involves frog-like leaping or dyno’ing (see Glossary) between the holds. The time it takes a competitor to reach the buzzer will not be a determining factor—to advance, he/she merely has to be faster than their opponent. Fast races and record-breaking times are more like icing on the cake. False starts in speed climbing can be fairly common and result in a disqualification.

    Given the bracket tournament structure, the competitor who wins his/her run will advance to the next heat until eventually there will be just two competitors going head-to-head for the coveted first-place spot. A good sports reference would be the NCAA’s March Madness: Many head-to-head matchups pared down to a “final four,” and eventually to a thrilling final two and then a victor. Meanwhile, on the safety side, the competitors will be attached to an auto-belay (see Glossary)—essentially a long, mechanical tether, like a giant seat belt. If they fall or when they reach the top, they will be lowered safely back to the ground. In the past, speed climbers had belayers (see Glossary) securing them via a more traditional climbing rope, but given how hard it was to keep up, eventually specialized auto-belays were developed

    The climbers will be aiming for really fast times. The men’s world record is 5.48 seconds (held by Reza Alipour of Iran; watch it here.), so expect the best times in the men’s division to hover around—or below—6 seconds. The women’s world record is 6.964 seconds (held by Iuliia Kaplina of Russia), so the fastest women will likely clock low-7-second runs. The women’s world record was broken twice last season, so there is a good chance that new world records will be set in Tokyo.

    Even though modern competitive speed climbing is unique and quite different from the other Olympic climbing disciplines or outdoor rock climbing, an argument can be made that speed climbing—in a broad sense—is the oldest form of climbing: Who can get up the mountain the fastest? That question has formed the basis for not only the speed event at the Olympic level, but also such things as quickly ascending the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite, which has its own world record (held by Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell) at sub-2-hours on the 3,000-foot climb. And head-to-head speed climbing races have been around for nearly 50 years in some form or another, including appearances in the early X Games.

    Content courtesy of John Burgman, Climbing Magazine.

    Current American Records

    7.19 – Emma Hunt

    5.60 – John Brosler

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