What is Speed Climbing?
Updated: Jan 20
Speed climbing is one of the fastest growing sports in North America; however, few people actually know/understand what it is.
Even among avid rock climbers, it is often poorly understood and sees relatively little participation from the greater climbing community. It is often detached from the climbing community for a number of reasons 1) few individuals have access to a regulatory speed climbing wall, 2) some individuals think that it lacks the “spirit” of climbing, and 3) most new climbers have never even heard of it. The purpose of this article isn’t really to discuss the subjective merits of speed climbing; instead, we hope to provide a broad overview of speed climbing as a sport, so that the average climber can know, understand, and participate in future events.
So what is speed climbing?
Essentially, it is a race. Success in it is not based on the difficulty of the grade (in fact, the route never changes), the volume of climbing, nor the finesse with which routes are ascended. It is all about athletes getting to the top of the route (the “end” of the race) as fast as they can – by any means necessary. Generally, in speed climbing competitions, two climbers go “head to head” in neighboring lanes; literally racing to prove who the faster climber is.
Here are a few other things that you might want to know about it:
The route is standardized
The speed climbing route literally never changes. This allows competitors to prepare for the event around the world, and not have to adjust to competitions based on the whims of individual route setters. For some, this is a major drawback to the sport of speed climbing; however, most people view this system as a way to keep things standardized and fair. The route is incredibly dynamic and utilizes only 2 different types of holds the whole way up. You would have a hard time climbing it statically!
The wall is 15 meters high, with 3 meter wide lanes
Some gyms around the world occasionally build the route at 10 meters in length, and this is usually to adjust for logistical limitations. To be considered a standardized route, capable of hosting speed climbing competitions, the course has to be 15 meters tall (almost 50 feet!). Generally, there are two climbing lanes and a pair of climbers will race side-by-side next to their opponent.
There is no official grade
Technically, the standardized speed route has no grade. The International Federation of Sport Climbing (which governs speed climbing) refuses to release an official grade because they want to keep the focus on speed – rather than the difficulty of the route. That being said, most individuals argue that the route could be rated somewhere in the 10b-10c range, making it quite doable for most moderately experienced climbers.
It has a big (Olympic) future
The 2020 Olympics (set to be held in Tokyo) will be the first Olympic Games that will host climbing as an event. For many in the climbing community, this is a major landmark and signifies the mainstream acceptance of climbing as a sport. It will be an important component in the Olympic future of rock climbers. Each competitor at the 2020 Olympics will have to compete in three disciplines: bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing.
In addition to it being incorporated into the Olympics, more and more speed climbing clubs/teams are popping up every year in gyms all around the world. It is becoming especially popular with many youth teams appearing around the United States. It might not be long before climbing is a sport that can be found in local high schools.
There are world records to break
As of this writing, the men’s world record is held by Reza Alipour with a time of 5.48 seconds. Reza moves at a vertical rate of almost 9 feet every second… What? The women’s world record is held by Yiling Song with a time of 7.1 seconds.
Those are some fast climbers! Any climber that can come close to breaking those world record times might be a candidate for a sponsor, international fame, eternal glory (in the rock climbing community, of course).
Is Speed Climbing For You?
So what is speed climbing? It’s a race/event where climbers get to show off their speed and agility rather than strength or endurance (which is perhaps more typical of climbing competitions). Above, we have explained the basics of it. Its routes are standardized, so if you’re interested in it, the first step involves finding a gym that has a speed climbing wall (preferably one that meets international competition regulation standards). If you choose to enter a speed climbing competition, be prepared to race side by side with some very fast climbers. If you can power your way up this 15-meter wall in five seconds or less, you might be a candidate for some serious climbing recognition! And with climbing set to be on the Olympic stage, a world record time might actually get you some serious international fame.