Outdoor Climbing Competitions
How to Enter the World of Competitive Rock Climbing
Climbing makes its Olympic debut in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, and the sport is growing exponentially. Even if you don’t have the skills to join the ranks of the first climbing Olympians, you might still enjoy the challenge and motivation of entering an outdoor rock climbing competition.
How Outdoor Climbing Competitions Work
Outdoor climbing competitions exist for bouldering, sport, traditional, and ice climbing and often coincide with a climbing festival. Expect a party atmosphere with food, music, costumes, camaraderie, swag, and if you’re lucky, a dance party.
Like indoor events, outdoor competitions vary in structure and scoring. Some comps determine the winners based on volume: the number of clean climbs in a certain time period. Other comps attach point values to climbs/problems and base scores off the point total of your top climb x the number of climbs in a certain amount of time. Some award prizes for both. And still others might be based on speed—whoever reaches the top cleanly in the shortest period of time wins.
Outdoor competitions tend to use the honor system for scoring. It is often up to the climber and belayer to honestly record their scores for routes they have climbed clean. Many bouldering comps require a witness (or two) to sign off that the climber has cleanly climbed a problem. Some comps even have scoring apps to streamline the process.
Most competitions begin with a climbers’ meeting to put all competitors on the same page: go over rules, pass out score cards, address any weather concerns, and do whatever the particular comp does to create tradition and psych. They end with awards ceremonies, bonfires, live music, and dance parties. Ideally, everyone leaves smiling and with all their toenails.
Training for Your First Climbing Competition
So, how do you train for your first climbing competition? First, take into consideration scoring and time frame. Just as you train differently for a 5k versus a marathon, you need a different focus for a five-hour rock climbing competition where your top six most difficult climbs are scored, compared to a 12-hour competition with volume-based scoring.
For endurance competitions, practice climbing multiple easier routes without stopping, or run laps on the same climb. Increase the amount of time climbing and the difficulty of the climbs as you approach the comp date. Most competitions use a red-point format, so practice completing a climb or bouldering problem without falling. If you do fall on a climb, lower to the bottom and start again just like you will in the competition.
Outdoor climbing competitions will usually have onsite services like trained medical staff and plenty of snacks, but make the same preparations you would for a day at the crag.
- Bring a first aid kit. Tape your fingers beforehand and bring extra tape to reapply as needed. Other medical supplies for common climbing injuries are also a good idea.
- Pack water and snacks to eat on the go. Avoid full meals, which take time to prepare, eat, and digest.
- Check the weather and pack extra clothes in case of rain or fluctuating temperatures. Volume-based competitions wear down the rubber on your shoes and strain your rope, so consider bringing back-up shoes and gear. Don’t let gear failure undo all the hard work you put into training!
Make sure your shoes excel at the type of rock you will encounter. If the comp bases scoring on volume, then you can sacrifice some aggression for comfort. Odds are, you will climb the majority of your routes/problems below your max, so you will not need extra grippy shoes.
In volume-based competitions, you waste precious seconds taking your shoes on and off for each climb (your time and the time of other competitors waiting to attempt a route). That’s why it’s better to choose shoes that you can stand to wear for the duration of the competition. When scoring favors a set number of routes/problems, you will have more time in between climbs and can afford to take your shoes on and off.
Also take into consideration the terrain and weather. If the rock features microscopic footholds or you find yourself on smooth, wet rock, you will want to sacrifice comfort for grip and bring your aggressive shoes.
Make sure you have the most appropriate belay device for the type of climbing. Take into consideration weather conditions, safety, and what you feel most comfortable using. The time it takes for you to set up your belay device for each climb will make a difference in a volume-based climbing competition, so perhaps leave your GriGri at home. [Link to Article 17 on How to Choose a Belay Device]
What is the shortest length of rope you can get away with? Do you need to buy a new one? If you are planning to put in 100+ sport climbs, use a rope you are willing to retire afterwards. If you are competing in a volume-based competition, you may not have time to take care of your rope as you normally would by avoiding rope drag, keeping the rope out of dirt, and switching which end you tie into every climb.
Also consider how you plan to transport your rope. If the routes are all relatively close together, you can get away with carrying the rope in your arms between climbs and flaking at the base each time. However, when competitions cover multiple areas with strenuous approaches, a rope bag will pay off. Some climbers even use laundry baskets or IKEA bags for quick transport.
Top U.S. Outdoor Climbing Competitions
Check out a few of the most popular and unique climbing competitions around the nation to find a good fit for your goals and experience level.
Where: Lander, WY
- Sport climbing competition held in conjunction with the International Climbers’ Festival
- Scoring: Volume based; points awarded for red-pointing routes
- Five-day festival includes yoga, group trail runs, pull-up competitions, a bouldering competition, an adventure film festival, live music, and clinics
Why: Rodeo-themed point bonuses add to the fun, including the Barrel Racer bonus for red-pointing one route at every wall, and the Steer Wrestler for red-pointing all routes of a certain grade.
Where: Hound Ears in Boone, NC; Stone Fort in Chattanooga, TN; Horse Pens 40 in Steele, AL
When: Three separate weekends in the fall
- Series of three bouldering competitions at three premier Southeastern boulder fields
- Winners are determined by highest scores with 10 most difficult problems scored
- Gendered and unisex categories, including Junior (12 and under), Hard Person (35 and up), Stone Master (45 and up), and Star Chaser (all ages)
Why: Raises funds for two organizations dedicated to maintaining climber access: Southeastern Climbers’ Coalition and The Carolina Climbers’ Coalition.
24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell
Where: Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Jasper, AR
When: End of September
- Competitors must qualify based on their performance in the comp the previous year or gain entry via a lottery due to this festival’s popularity
- Primarily sport climbing, with scoring bonuses for trad climbs, and separate awards for trad
- Winners ride a slip-and-slide to receive awards; winners chosen based off number of climbs in 24 hours and point totals
- Four days of bonding with fellow climbers, including a movie night, a 12-hour competition as well as the main 24-hour competition, costumes, “the Kevin Bacon bacon bar,” a spaghetti dinner, fireworks, live music, a dance party, a pancake breakfast, and “lots of goat poop”
Why: Hell is a climbing experience like no other. The send-off alone is worth the entry fee. In 2018, a local high school marching band helped psych up competitors.
Hueco Rock Rodeo
Where: The American Alpine Club’s Hueco Rock Ranch and Hueco Tanks State Park, Texas
- 40+ categories. The category you choose decides which part of the state park you climb in—backcountry (with a guide) or North Mountain (without)
- Scoring: Top 6 problems scored
- Festival includes a beer run, Reel Rock viewing, yoga/climbing exercises, karaoke comp, and dance party
Why: There’s world-class bouldering at Hueco, and a world-class climbing community there, too.
Motherhood keeps Sarah Boles grounded, but the wilderness keeps her sane. She holds degrees in news editorial-photojournalism and Spanish from TCU and served as the sports editor for a weekly newspaper before continuing her education in order to teach and coach middle schoolers. Sarah rediscovered her passions for the outdoors and storytelling after becoming a mom, leading her to the role of editorial manager for the nonprofit, Adventure Mamas Initiative.