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A Beginner’s Guide to Climbing Comps

It’s a hectic, exciting and busy world, the climbing comp circuit. And if you’re new to climbing – or just totally psyched for the first ever inclusion of climbing in the 2020 Olympics, and want to read up on how it got there – it can be pretty confusing trying to figure out what it all means. If that sounds like you, then this is the absolute beginner’s guide you’ve been looking for. 

Climbing Comps – What’s it all about?

Comps (competitions) vary hugely between small, grassroots climbing competitions at your local wall, where the stakes are low and there’s a strong social element, right up to the elite professional climbers you’ll see at the top end of competition climbing. Right now is a hugely exciting time in the pro climber world, as climbing gets its first ever inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. This is a huge deal, and has pretty much everyone on the edge of their seat. It’s going to be electric. 

How do climbing comps work?

There are three main categories: boulder, speed and lead. 

Boulder – short, physically demanding routes of approximately 6 moves. Climbers are scored on the number of attempts it takes to complete each problem

Speed – a timed climb up a wall of standardized 15 metre height where the only goal is to finish as fast as possible.

Lead - a longer climb on ropes. Each competitor gets one attempt at each route, and is scored on how high up the route they successfully complete within the 6 minute time limit. 

Historically these disciplines have been competed in separately, but the Olympic committee has taken the somewhat controversial decision to demand that all athletes compete in all three disciplines in 2020. 

Who’s in charge?

The governing body for international climbing competitions is the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC). Follow them on Twitter and Instagram for the latest news, or subscribe to their Youtube channel for the highlights and live streaming of comps. 

The British Mountaineering Council hold national comps on a regular basis, and there are various Youth and Senior comps that are mostly open to all levels of climber, blending the competitive with the social. They do a fantastic series of Youth Climbing Comps and host the BMC British Bouldering Championships – this year was in Sheffield on 6/7 July, where a few Castle route setters were spotted.

You can read all about BMC competitions on their website. 

When and where are comps held?

It varies on the type of comp. Most climbing walls will host their own local comp at some point, which is focussed on fun and competing with your friends – the Castle hosts several of these each year. For more serious, larger scale events, the IFSC website has a diary of upcoming events. The summer season tends to include the World Cups and World Championships, whereas the winter months tend to be when the local and grassroots competitions take place.

Some exciting comps to look out for this include, but are not limited to, these world cups:

The IFSC Combined World Championships – Tokyo, Japan, 20-21 August (Olympic Qualifying Event)

The IFSC Climbing Worldcup – Kranj, Slovenia, 28-29 September, Lead.

The IFSC Olympic Qualifying Event – Toulouse, France, 28 November – 1 December 

Climbing at The Olympics 2020

Competition for the 2020 Olympic Games is fierce. The GB team is able to boast several strong athletes, but only 20 men and 20 women will compete, and each country will be allowed up to two male and two female competitors only. That means that some countries will necessarily not be represented.

The other controversy is for the first time, competitors will have to compete in all three disciplines (boulder, speed and lead) – all of which require different techniques. In fact, it’s been so controversial that already the decision has been made for Paris 2024 to separate speed out as its own category, though competitors for lead and bouldering must still compete in both events. 

Comp climbers – who to watch

For the GB Team, there is good news for 2020. Shauna Coxsey MBE, 11 time World Cup Winner, has qualified for the Tokyo Olympics - beyond exciting.  


Why are comps important?

Climbing comps are entertaining, exciting ways to push the sport. Just as watching your mates climb is fun, it’s even more enjoyable to watch an athlete at the top of their game tackle some of the most demanding climbs that require strength, resolve and ingenuity to complete. 

Mike Langley, Castle Climbing Development Manager, who is also a commentator for the IFSC comps, says:

“Working for the IFSC as a commentator is a real honour as you get a unique insight into climbing at the highest level. Not only that but I always get to see and discuss the boulders and routes on the stage right before a round starts and admire the level of difficulty. Chatting with organisers, route setters and all the world class athletes always gives me ideas to bring back to the Castle”.

Read Mike's blog all about the early part of the summer comps here: IFSC Road Trip Part 1: Lead and Speed Villars, Chamonix and Briançon