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IFSC Road Trip Part 1: Lead and Speed Villars, Chamonix and Briançon

Mike Langley with fellow commentator

I have been working at the Castle since 2004, for many years with the route setting department and currently as a Climbing Development Manager. Since 2016 I took on an additional role with IFSC (International Federation of Sports Climbing) as sports commentator. It started as a one-off job for the Climbing World Championships in Paris as cover for Gaz Parry and turned into and exciting part of my professional life allowing me to both draw upon my experience in climbing and route setting and providing me with plenty of learning opportunities from the international climbing scene. This year I decided to stay in the Alps for the three world cups taking place in a trio of iconic climbing towns: Villars, Chamonix and Briançon. 

Villars: Lead World Cup

The first lead world cup in Villars was hosted on some incredibly engineered temporary free-standing structures outdoors. The weather was extremely hot, and the workdays involved making qualifying highlights, three feature videos about the event, athlete interviews and three live streams for Speed finals, Lead Semi and Lead finals. During the setup for the filming, when my rope skills were called upon to help set up a cable camera I got deep fried by the sun; not the ideal start! Commentating on Speed is tricky enough, without a heat stroke... 

Speed finals consisted of 32 names most of which are a nightmare to pronounce for an English speaker. For example, men’s world recorder holder is Reza Alipourshenazandifar - by the time he is at the top in a potential 5.84 sec you have just about swallowed all the letters of his name and the race is over!

If you think the commentator’s day is over once the live stream is finished, you’d be wrong. After the live stream you head back to the OB truck and prepare a voice-over for the highlights and other material for TV packages and head home at around 2am. It’s a big change of scenery from working in London day to day, that’s for sure!  

Next morning it was up early getting ready for the Semi-finals in Lead. The sun was out and the wall was hot enough to bake a Castle Brownie on! Last climber out in the women’s was the usual suspect - Slovenian superwoman Janja Garnbret. I fully expected for Janja to come out and stroll up the route despite the conditions as she normally does. What followed was one of the most epic moments a semi-final round has ever seen. She topped the route that no one else could after her chalk bag fell off at the first quick draw. Imagine trying to onsight a route around the F8b/+ range in conditions as hot as the Castle last week with no chalk! It was like winning a Formula 1 race with a car that only has three wheels. 

You can watch her wiping her hands of sweat and “phantom chalking”, and watch her official post-climb interview

The lead finals were next and it’s amazing how as always, these massive events totally hinge on the route setting! The final became one to learn from rather than one to remember for the climbing as it consisted of many climbers falling at the same move or multiple tops of the route. As always, I get to have in depth conversations with the international setting team over a commiseration beer. This exposure to the best setters in the world always provides so much information to feed back into the Castle’s route setting and wall design. 

Chamonix: Lead and Speed 

After Villars it was time to move onto France and the legendary alpine town of Chamonix just 2 hours’ drive away. The Chamonix event is held under the epic alpine scenery of Mont Blanc right in the heart of town with a crowd of over 10,000 psyched climbers lining the historic square.  

The event was much less challenging from a commentating perspective. The only real challenge I had in Chamonix was finding shady spots to park my van for my two greyhounds that came with me on this trip. Finding cooler temperatures to park in has become a dark art. So, if you ever need any info on how to keep your beers cool in the car when in Chamonix whilst you knock out Mont Blanc give me a shout! 

You could say the highlight of this event was that I got to interview possibly the greatest climber of all time Adam Ondra for a nice piece about the set routes. Imagine me getting into route setting jargon, technical know-how and generally geeking out with Adam. I say ‘imagine’ because you’ll notice there is no video - the camera guy forgot to press record!!! He is still kicking himself now. 

Meanwhile the speed finals were massively affected by the wall texture as the wall had been re-painted to make it look fresh for the big stage. At the Castle we are the kings of the re-furbished wall project so I could tell what had gone wrong! Another lesson learnt on the road and how easy it is to make a mistake! 

Briançon: Para Climbing World Championships, Lead and Speed 

After Chamonix the roadshow continued its theme of stunning French outdoor sport areas in the town of Briançon situated in the Haute Alps. The town where I sit writing this and catching up on what’s happening back at the Castle. 

Just before lead and speed world cups Briançon played host to the Para Climbing World Champs and it was awesome to see so many of the athletes who climbed at the Blokfest/ Castle Para festival in June there and even winning gold medals! 

The lead finals provided us with a great show – check out the highlights... 

If you ever needed evidence that climbing is a rapidly growing sport check out the crowd warm up just before the lead finals started – this was filmed from the commentary position. Who said climbing was a niche sport, look at that crowd!!! Who would have thought so many Iceland football fans were in Briançon! 

Just before we head back to the UK, I will take the opportunity to swing by the bouldering competition “Tout a Bloc” in L'Argentière-la-Bessée. A trip down memory lane as ex-Castle managing director Audrey Seguy took a bunch of route setters (including me) to compete here back in 2008.  


Then a two week break back in London before WCH in Tokyo and Youth WCH in Arco. It is not always easy juggling Castle work, commentating, traveling, and personal life but, although it does not always feel like it, it is a privilege to be able to share my knowledge and insights with all those watching IFCS live streams around the world, be part of incredible international climbing community and keep on learning.

Check back at the end of August for part two of this series - The rewards and challenges of being an IFSC commentator.

Mike Langley works full time as Climbing Development Manager. He started at the Castle in 2004 on reception and has made a lifestyle career in the climbing industry since. 

Image credit: Mike Langley and Charlie Boscoe, @TheCircuitClimbing