Climber Shauna Coxsey performs at the IFSC World Cup Mumbai 2016.
© Heiko Wilhelm
Bouldering

Get to grips with lead, speed and boulder climbing

Discover all you need to know about the world of climbing combined.
Written by Faye Brozek
6 min readPublished on

Climbing combined: the short version

The really short version is: it’s climbing up three different artificial walls, indoors. Most professional climbers usually specialise in just one of the sport's three sub-categories of lead, speed, or boulder. As the sport's popularity has soared in recent years however, a new triathlon format has forced some climbers – in only a couple of years – to become world masters in disciplines they've never even attempted, let alone competed in.

The origin story – the history of climbing combined

Rock climbing as a sport – and distinct from mountaineering – has been steadily building momentum since its roots in late 19th century Europe. The first purpose-built climbing wall is reckoned to be Schurman Rock at Camp Long in Seattle, which dates from 1939, but the first modern artificial indoor wall as we would recognise it was built in a corridor of the University of Leeds, UK, in 1964. The sport really started to mushroom in popularity in the 1980s with the proliferation of climbing gyms and high-level competitions around the world. The first-ever world championships were held in Frankfurt, Germany in 1991 and the sport’s first global governing body, the International Council for Competition Climbing, was formed in 1997, to be replaced by the IFSC in 2007.
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What are we watching, exactly? How does climbing combined work?

The three disciplines involved in the Climbing Combined event are actually quite separate and distinct from one another, requiring very different sets of skills to master:
Bouldering
  • Goal: To climb as many problems as possible in the fewest possible moves
  • Wall height: 4m
  • Time restriction: Four minutes for each problem
  • Skills needed: Power, flexibility, dynamism, technical
Bouldering is held on a wall of about 4m high. You climb without ropes, but there are mats beneath for climbers to jump down onto should the need arise. There are set problems (routes) and climbers have four minutes to complete each problem. The goal is to try and climb as many of these problems in the fewest number of attempts. Normally, there are two or three crux moves (the most challenging moves on the wall) to get through.
Speed
  • Goal: Two competitors and the fastest to the top wins
  • Wall height: 15m with 5° overhang
  • Time restriction: N/A. The current world record is 5.48s
  • Skills needed: Athleticism, explosive power
In speed climbing, the main goal is to climb a standardised 15m wall in the quickest possible time. Two competitors go head-to-head in a race to the top. As the route is always the same, this element of the competition can be practised well ahead of time.
Lead
  • Goal: Climb as high as possible in the time limit
  • Wall height: 15m with at least 7m overhang
  • Time restriction: Six minutes
  • Skills needed: Power, endurance
For lead climbing, an athlete's aim is to climb as high on the 15m wall as possible within the six minute time restriction. If more than one competitor reaches the top, the person who got there in the quickest time is deemed the winner. There are bolts on the wall that the climber clips their rope into as they make their way up. This acts as a safety system if they fall. With at least seven metres of overhang included on each route, athletes need power, endurance and technical skills to succeed in lead.

I want a go. What kit do I need for climbing?

Equipment requirements vary by discipline, but the main bit of kit you’ll need is a pair of climbing shoes. These differ from your average pair of gym shoes in two key ways. Firstly, the soles are extremely soft and grippy to help give you better purchase on the wall. Secondly, they’re worn extremely tight, to the extent that they force your toes to curl downwards and help you grip onto footholds. Most other equipment can be hired from your climbing wall or gym, at least until you’re sure what sort of climbing is the one for you. However, in light of the recent global situation, some locations may also ask you to provide your own hand chalk.

The tricktionary – what are climbing's key tricks and techniques?

Since speed climbing competitors repeat the same route again and again, it’s the best place for us to find a universal trick or technique. For example, many pro climbers 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'.

Names to watch out for

  • Domen Škofic – A Slovenian lead specialist who already has an overall World Cup under his belt, as well as several 9A+ ascents to his name.
  • Jain Kim – The South Korean lead climber and boulderer is one of the most decorated athletes in the climbing world, with multiple overall World Cup and World Championship wins in both lead and combined.
  • Janja Garnbret – The second Slovenian climber on this list. She’s won overall World Cups in lead, bouldering and combined and World Championships in lead and bouldering. She's the first (and so far only) climber to have won every bouldering World Cup event in a season.
  • Jessica Pilz – 2018 World Champion (lead) Jessy Pilz hails from Austria and can consistently be found on the podium at World Cup events in both lead and bouldering.
  • Marcin Dzieński – Poland’s Dzieński is an explosive speed climber with World, European and World Cup titles already safely in the trophy cabinet. If he can turn his hand to the other two disciplines, he could prove to be a real threat.
  • Petra Klingler – A Swiss boulderer with a World Championship to her name, Petra Klingler also has a background in speed climbing (she was Swiss champion) which could stand her in good stead in the combined event. On top of that, she’s also a hugely accomplished ice climber.
  • Shauna Coxsey – Britain’s most successful ever climber, Coxsey is the nation’s first-ever overall Bouldering World Cup winner and holder of the UK speed climbing record. She was on the combined podium at the 2019 World Championships.

Where can I see more?

If you want to see more action from the wider climbing world, including both sport and traditional forms, you have come to the right place.

Events

If you want to watch regular competition, the IFSC World Cup started in April, with eight events across China, South Korea, the USA and Europe currently scheduled. For more info, head to the IFSC website.

Part of this story

Shauna Coxsey

Britain's most successful competitive climber, Shauna Coxsey was also crowned the UK's first-ever Bouldering World Cup winner.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom

Jessica Pilz

Hailing from Austria, Jessica 'Jessy' Pilz is a top international climber in boulder and lead who loves exploring new places to climb.

AustriaAustria

Petra Klingler

A world bouldering champion from Switzerland, Petra Klinger's motto is 'never give up' – and it’s served her very well in her career.

SwitzerlandSwitzerland

Janja Garnbret

A hugely successful Slovenian climber, Janja Garnbret was crowned World Champion in both Bouldering and Difficulty climbing in 2019.

SloveniaSlovenia

Jain Kim

A talented and skilful lead climber and bouldering champion from South Korea, Jain Kim is one of the sport's most accomplished athletes.

South KoreaSouth Korea

Domen Škofic

Born to be an athlete, Slovenian climbing champion Domen Škofic loves nothing more than conquering the world's most challenging routes.

SloveniaSlovenia