Thursday, August 8, 2013

Future of Climbing II: Psicobloc Masters Series

It's been a long time coming, it's the next big thing, and it's here!  Ten years ago, the climbing world changed when Chris Sharma demonstrated the purity of climbing over water in the artistic work of the Big UP Productions. Since then, we all had daydreams about sticking the “Loskot dyno”, performing a heroic cliff jump, or just hanging onto the wall with nothing to worry about except keeping your shoes and chalk dry. Some of us even booked tickets to Palma to gain that first-hand experience…

And today, a new kind of climbing competition is born, where boulderers can show off their power, lead climbers can display their endurance, and speed may ultimately decide the best climber! But that is just a small part of it. The spectators get what they come for: the easier-to-follow competition format, the beer, and the athletes taking entertaining falls. If people leave such an event happy and impressed, you know it was done right.

In my opinion, this was the biggest step for competitive climbing since the UBC competition in NYC’s Central Park and it is clear that there are people who care where this side of the industry (competition climbing) is headed. Despite some organizational issues, it was a hell of a job done in a short period of time (~2 months?) by the event organizers, - Mike Beck, Chris Sharma, Kevin Bradburn, and their Spanish connections. Needless to say, I had an incredible time hanging out with some of the best climbers in the world and furthermore got some great perspectives on what it takes to put something like this together directly from the event organizers. Here is my recap and here are some thoughts on what the first Deep Water Soloing competition meant to me and what could be improved for future events of this caliber.

The Invitation

In order to put on a big comp, you need big names. Chris Sharma is a good way to start the list, but he typically needs some competition. That is why the organizers invited a talented group of climbers from all over the world to secure their spots in the finals round. The time constraints meant that most international climbers could not make it to the competition, so they resorted to the other invitees. Ian Dory and I barely made the “cut”, but were still psyched to have made it. Unfortunately, this also meant that many other talented climbers did not make the invite list. This goes against some things that the United States typically stands for, but George Orwell has once written “some animals are more equal than others”… What I’m getting at is: how do you make the competition fair if some of the strongest climbers go straight into the finals while the other strong guys and gals have to earn their spot in the finals? In the end, it didn’t matter too much because we all ended up sessioning on the Walltopia wall, but I’m still giving props to Nicholas Milburn and Ryan Sewall for their qualifier performances.


The Format

I’ll just throw it out there that before the finals on Friday, Aug 2nd, no one knew exactly what was going to happen. Chris and Mike simply emphasized that we want to make this competition a big show, and that the head-to-head elimination style was the way to go. The scoring per round was simple: the guy or gal who got the farthest moved on to the next round and the time was used as a tiebreak. However, pairing us up was an issue that hasn’t been clarified until the day of the finals. Behind the scene, semifinals (or finals practice round) took place on Thursday, Aug 1st, and each of the finalists gave the finals route a few attempts. While the round didn’t matter in terms of making it to the finals, we still had to climb well to make sure we are well-seeded for the bracket. Similar to the tennis bracket format, we had match-ups. In tennis, there is just no way that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer or Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will face each other in the prelims. Similarly, they didn’t want to match Chris Sharma with Carlo Traversi or Sasha DiGiulian with Delaney Miller in the first round. So a bracket was put together based on the practice round.

The Results

One of those things about this comp is we know who won, but if you wanted to know who went against who in the match-ups, then here you go!  Enjoy my awesome fill-in-the-blanks skillz!



The Excitement

Climbing in this comp was pretty f**ing great! Most athletes were afraid of taking uncontrolled falls, so the practice rounds were crucial in making sure we all have the balls to go for it when it counts. The girls demonstrated that they won’t back off the challenge, and really showed that their balls are really quite large. In some instances I was only going for it because I knew that Delaney would commit to a heel-hook at 40 feet over the water...


photo by Giovanni Traversi

Everyone who was there seemed psyched to watch the finals. The atmosphere was typical of some of the biggest bouldering finals that I have been to, and people cheered when it came down to the wire. I like watching my buddies in the finals, but normally find climbing boring to watch, especially the rope comps. In that sense, this comp was definitely different. It was hard to look away when some good action was happening on the wall. Plus I was amped after watching Daniel Woods splash in a completely uncontrolled fall off the dyno the previous day and come out of the water with a black leg. That same Thursday evening, Jimmy Webb took a nose-digger on that same dyno and Nalle Hukkataival spun to his back. Since then, Dani Andrada changed the route to make the dyno a bit easier for the guys to avoid ties and time-based wins. Unfortunately, this meant that the falls wouldn’t be as uncontrolled and hence not as fun as on Thursday.

But we still got to see some great sports action, from Sasha speed-climbing against Delaney to Chris being the only one to top out the men’s route to Jon and Carlo racing side-by-side until the very last move. For the guys, it ended up coming down to strategy because of the high-paced running-late comp. Jimmy Webb may not have gotten as high as Chris, me, Jon, Carlo, or Ian (last move), but he got just high enough to win against his opponents. He took the deserved 1st place as the smartest climber in the comp. In the end, the organizers did a great job in terms of putting together this match-up bracket-style competition and it may very well be the format of the future.

Safety Last?

People who weren’t even there, those that haven’t even tried climbing over water, have been discussing the safety of climbing over water. Even if they might not have experienced it first-hand, they have a point. Safety is a major issue to address if we, as a climbing community, want to stick with this competition style and a challenge for the organizers to deal with.

Danger #1: The first day of the comp (Wednesday), I tweaked the previously-sprained ankle after jumping too far off the top and hitting one of the PVC pipes at ~8-9 feet under the water, used to create bubbles to break the surface tension for the ski jumpers. The second time I jumped off the top was straight under the wall and I hit the bottom at ~10-11 feet even though we were assured that only a professional diver was able to touch the bottom from 50 feet. The next time, I expect no PVC pipes. As far as hitting the bottom of the pool, the impact was never greater than hitting a crashpad at a bouldering comp and can be easily managed, yet has to be communicated properly to all of the athletes!

Danger #2: The wall was also set up in such a way that if someone were to do a crazy move out left, there was a possibility of hitting the poolside. While the possibility was there, it was really down to the setters to make sure that nobody does a move like that on the wall. This was just a possibility, not a probability based on the setting I saw, but something that must be considered in future events without a doubt.

Danger #3: The wall was simply too narrow to have a duel-style competition. Any awkward turnout of performing the sideways moves could have resulted in us acting as American Gladiators at mid-35-feet or worse, one person in the water and the other person falling on top. This didn’t happen, but there were a couple really close calls. In the 2nd round, I had to maneuver away from the path of Jimmy Webb as he accelerated towards me with a stunned look on his face. I’m just glad he didn’t go down head first as his shaggy Vikings’ helmet was already intimidating the s**t out of me. The solution to this danger is pretty simple: just make the wall wider.

Danger #4: There are, of course, inherent dangers of falling awkwardly into the water. I left this one for last as I believe it to be an attractive danger of this competition. The organizers actually planned on testing our balls in this new comp and wanted us to go big. This is the next step, people! If you’re not willing to sign that waiver, grow a couple and take a big fall, you likely don’t belong climbing 50 feet over the water. On the other hand, we all had a chance to practice falling into the water, and each fall we took was more and more controlled. In other words, it’s like learning how to land on a crashpad. A 15-foot awkward fall onto a crashpad is probably comparable to a 30-40 foot sideways fall into the water. In fact, most falls into the water will result in some bruising, but not much serious damage otherwise. Bouldering can be and has been less forgiving in the past. Either way, deep water soloing is still a dangerous thing, but that’s what the organizers envision! As I have said before, CBS proved to us that nobody cares what you do at 10 feet off the ground, they care about Chris Sharma doing a dyno on Es Pontas at 30 feet and Alex Honnold doing his sh********t 1000 feet off the ground. If we want our sport to rank up among board and roller sports, we’ll have to be more extreme than our current disciplines of bouldering, lead, and speed.

The Future

After all this, I am certain we will have another deep water soloing competition. The athletes were willing to climb. The spectators were eager to watch with record-beating 19,739 tuning in for the live broadcast, more than your typical World Cup event!  The only question is who will keep the ball rolling?

Finally, I’d like to thank the folks who helped me get to this comp, Mammut USA and Delaware Rock Gym!  Thanks, guys!