Up to speed
Filmmaker Zachary Barr looks into sport of speed climbing, once considered a fringe activity.
Take an in-depth look at the world of speed climbing in the new episode of Reel Rock above and read on for more.
From its origins in competitive climbing in Russia over 50 years ago, speed climbing is now an indoor rock climbing discipline that sees two climbers sprint, jump and Hail Mary for the top as they race side by side, bringing out fierce competition between the athletes. The fast-paced action is a thrill-a--second and it is no wonder that competitions draw participants and spectators from all over the world for its go-for-glory vibe.
As a spectator sport, it appeals to the mainstream because it’s simply easier to understand than sport climbing or bouldering. The fastest person wins – that’s it.
Speed climbing also appeals to the next generation because it’s powerful and has an energetic electricity that's contagious to competitors and fans alike. It’s been called addictive. Some even call it – due to its simplicity -- the purest form of climbing. The sport's growing appeal has been recognised by the International Olympic Committee and it will feature for the first time in Tokyo.
As a contrast to sport climbing, which is a contemplative aerobic affair, with speed climbing there’s no time to breathe during a run up the wall. It’s a pure anaerobic event, where the body taps into raw power in the muscles. Like swimmers sprinting in a pool, who know that turning their heads for a breath will slow them down, so do speed climbers, who exert maximum effort and keep their heads pointed toward the top while executing flawless technique.
Competitors’ hips are kept as square as possible and there's very little side-to-side movement. Like a rocket propelling into space, they launch off the ground and carry momentum up the entire route. They make big leaps from one hold to another, hands in a flurry while their feet claw at the holds and smear on the wall.
There are strict rules to the sport however. These are governed by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC). There's only one standardised route essentially. This was designed by French climber Jacky Godoffe who in the early 2000s moulded the holds and set the path taken by climbers today.
The course is 15m high – a little over three storeys -- and contains 20 handholds and 11 footholds. The wall overhangs five degrees. The route has a rating of 5.10 and it takes an experienced climber about 30 seconds to reach the top. Experts do it in fewer than 10 seconds.
Iranian climber Reza Alipour Shenazandifar, nicknamed The Asiatic Cheetah, set the world 15m record of 5.48s in April of 2017. In April 2019, YiLing Song from China set the women’s record at 7.101s.
Speed climbers build power in their legs so they can explode from foothold to foothold. Pushing off and carrying momentum up the entire route is crucial. As is knowing the subtleties of each move so that it’s retained as instinct. Some speed climbers do as few as 10 laps a day in training, while others do 100 – all this is for muscle memory, to quicken reflexes and to optimise body position against the wall.
Since competitors do the same route again and again and year after year, the passage has become streamlined. Everyone avoids hold 16 -- it’s like an appendix; it’s there but few people know why. Some also avoid hold four, which requires launching through the air with precision so that when hold five is reached, momentum is carried through. The move is named after its inventor Reza Alipour and is known simply as 'The Reza'. This sequence has become widely adopted.
The sport attracts top athletes who bring “a level of explosive power beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” renowned climbing competition commentator Charlie Boscoe says. “It’s absolutely incredible.”