I love watching climbing competitions. If there are no new competitions being live streamed, I’ll go back and watch old competitions to see me through the dry spell before the season starts again.
At first glance, climbing competitions can be a bit confusing. There’s a lot going on. Lots of people climbing lots of different things. There are points, times, tops, zones, multiple rounds and often all these things are going on at once. So, I’ve put together a little guide that will hopefully clear up the confusion and allow you to sit back and enjoy the show.
Quick note here, this guide covers World Cups and World Championship competitions only. I plan to put together a separate guide to sport climbing at the 2020/2021 Olympics and another guide to paraclimbing competitions, as these events are largely similar but also slightly different to World Cups and World Championships.
Who Organises the Competitions?
There are many different climbing competitions hosted by many different establishments. From local competitions to international championships. There are hundreds of the things!
The competitions I’m talking about here are organised by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC). To quote their website directly:
“The IFSC is an international non-governmental non-profit organisation whose main objectives are the direction, regulation, promotion, development and furtherance of climbing competitions around the world.”
These are the big guns of competition climbing and many other competitions base their formats on the events run by the IFSC.
When, How Many, Who, and Where?
Competition season runs roughly from early April to late October/early November.
Each season consists of a number of World Cups in each of the three climbing disciplines (speed, lead, and bouldering). In the 5 years or so that I’ve been watching, the number of World Cups per season has been between 6 and 8 per discipline. Sometimes they will feature individual disciplines (e.g. just bouldering). Sometimes they will feature two disciplines (most commonly speed and bouldering).
Additionally, every other year, there is a World Championship that features all three disciplines, (speed, lead, and bouldering).
The competitions are divided into men and women, and both genders follow the same format.
There are some familiar locations that have hosted IFSC competitions for years (Chamonix, Munich, and Vail to name but a few) but there are new venues regularly added to the calendar. It really is a round-the-world trip for the athletes.
Bouldering (starting with my favourite)
Anatomy of a Competition Boulder
Here is a boulder from the World Championship in Hachioji (2019)
The “Start” label and four pieces of tape indicate which holds the climber should use to start the boulder and how many points of contact they must have on each hold. In this case, they begin with 2 hands or 2 feet (or 1 hand and 1 foot) on each of the 2 start holds, marked with pink tape on the right-hand side. The most obvious way to start this boulder would be with 2 hands on the higher hold and 2 feet on the lower hold but it’s not always that straightforward.
Roughly halfway up the boulder you find the zone hold. In this case, the zone hold is indicated by the “Zone” label and the green tape. Specifically, the zone hold here is the smaller red hold, not the bigger round beast of a hold it’s attached to. As we will discuss in the scoring section below, the number of zone holds a climber reaches contributes to their final score.
And finally, we have the top hold. The one every competition climber dreams of getting their hands on. It’s not enough to simply tap the top hold as you fly past it or fall to the floor. A climber is only deemed to have topped the boulder when they have both hands in control on this hold. In this case, the top hold is the black hold (not the red hold it’s attached to) in the top left corner, marked with a “Top” label and pink tape.
Bouldering uses a 4-tier scoring system:
Tops – getting to the top of a boulder (most important)
Zones – reaching the designated zone hold, roughly halfway up a boulder
Attempts to top(s) – the number of attempts needed to reach the top(s)
Attempts to zone(s) – the number of attempts needed to reach the zone(s) (least important)
Let’s use this scoreboard from the World Cup in Chongqing (2019) as an example.
Although Janja (1st) and Akiyo (2nd) both climbed all 4 boulders, giving them both a score of 4 tops, Janja wins because she only needed 8 attempts to get them compared to Akiyo’s 12 attempts.
If they had both taken the same number of attempts to get 4 tops, they would have been separated by number of attempts to get the 4 zones. In this case, Janja also has fewer attempts to zones so is again ranked above Akiyo.
Jessica is 3rd because she has 1 fewer top than Janja and Akiyo. Petra (4th) beats Futaba (5th) because she has 1 more zone. And Katja is 6th because she has no tops and everyone else has at least 1.
In the final, if two climbers are tied on tops, zones, and attempts then whoever did better in the semi-final round wins.
Each bouldering competition has three rounds.
All climbers attempt the same 5 boulders, which they have not seen before. They have 5 minutes to climb each boulder and 5 minutes rest in between boulders. Climb, rest, climb, rest, repeat.
The top 20 climbers progress to the . . .
All 20 climbers attempt a new set of 4 boulders, which they have not seen before. Again, they have 5 minutes to climb each boulder and 5 minutes rest in between boulders.
The top 6 climbers progress to the . . .
As a group, the climbers have 2 minutes to preview each of 4 new boulders, so 8 minutes in total.
Boulder 1 is then climbed by all 6 climbers, one after the other (although the climbers do not watch each other's attempts), and so on for boulders 2, 3, and 4. However, in this round the climbers only have 4 minutes to attempt each boulder.
By the end of the round, the climbers are ranked from 1 to 6, the top 3 make the podium and get a shiny medal of gold, silver or bronze.
A Good Place to Start
This is one of my favourite bouldering finals and I’d highly recommend it if you’ve never watched a bouldering competition before. Due to a tie in the semi-final round there are 7 climbers in the final rather than 6 so there’s even more climbing to watch. This event brilliantly showcases the different styles of the climbers themselves and features a great range of boulders from the daringly dynamic to the darn powerful.
Anatomy of a Competition Lead Wall
Here’s the route from the women’s lead final at the World Championship in Hachioji (2019).
Lead walls must be at least 15m high. They can be a range of angles, but they often start off close to vertical, have a steeper section in the middle, then finish with another less overhanging section at the top.
The climber starts at the bottom and has to climb to the top, clipping the rope through all the quickdraws (the things that stop the climber from dying when they fall off) in order along the way. The climber tops the route when they clip the final quickdraw at the top of the wall.
For this particular route, the climber starts on the blue holds at the bottom right, heads up and left to the blue pointy holds, before traversing back right again on the big round holds, then finally heads back up and left again to the big quarter circle at the very top left-hand corner of the wall.
There is a slightly different procedure for working out the scores for the qualification round as it’s the only round in which climbers climb 2 routes. The maths is complicated and frankly not integral to enjoying watching a lead climbing competition! Let’s just say I had to ask my husband, who has a PhD in astrophysics to help me work it and leave it at that.
Every lead climbing route is made up of a series of numbered handholds. The first hold is hold 1, the second hold is hold 2 and so on until you reach the top hold, which is simply called “Top”. The route in the image above has 45 handholds so the first 44 are numbered 1 to 44 and the last hold is the Top.
Whichever hold the climber reaches gives them their score. So, if they reach the 23rd hold they get a score of 23.
If a climber reaches a hold and then uses it to move towards the next hold before falling off, then a plus is added to their score. So, if they held the 23rd hold and lunged in the direction of the 24th hold, they would score 23+.
In the final, if 2 climbers achieve the same score, whoever did better in the semi-final round wins. If they are also tied in the semi-final round, whoever climbed the final route in the quickest time wins.
The climbers have a maximum of 6 minutes to complete the route. If they are still on the wall when the 6 minutes runs out, their score is taken from the last handhold they used within the 6 minute time limit.
Each lead competition has three rounds.
Each climber has 1 attempt to climb each of the 2 different qualification routes; they watch a demonstration of each before attempting them.
The top 26 climbers progress to the . . .
The climbers have 6 minutes to observe the 1 route en masse. They all then have 1 attempt to climb the route.
The top 8 climbers progress to the . . .
This takes the same format as the semi-final.
A Good Place to Start
This may not be the most well-rounded of lead climbing finals but it’s worth watching for the showdown between Jessica Pilz and Janja Garnbret at the end. There are more climbers in the final than usual due to a tie in the semi-final round. If you want a quick and exciting introduction to lead climbing, skip to 51 minutes to just watch Jessica and Janja battle it out. It’s a humdinger!
Speed (not my area of expertise! I had to do some homework for this one)
Anatomy of a Competition Speed Wall
All speed climbing walls in IFSC competitions must meet a very specific set of criteria. The walls, holds, timers, and technical equipment must all be made by specially licensed manufacturers in order to ensure as much uniformity as possible between speed walls across the world. When you’re dealing in hundredths of seconds, every detail counts.
All speed climbing walls are 15 metres high and 5 degrees overhanging. They all have 2 lanes (labelled A and B) next to each other that are 3 metres wide. And they all feature the exact same holds, in the exact same places on the wall.
Climbers are attached to automatic belay devices (sort of like seatbelts) that catch them when they finish the route (or fall) and lower them gracefully back down to earth.
The times are recorded using touch pads. The timer starts when the climber lifts their foot off one touch pad at the bottom of the wall and stops when they hit the second touch pad at the top of the wall.
Fastest wins. Simple.
Each speed competition has two rounds:
Each climber runs once in lane A and once in lane B. There’s some slight complication if false starts or unsuccessful runs are involved. But put simply, the climbers are ranked according to their best times out of the two runs.
The top 16 climbers progress to the . . .
This takes the form of a series of knockout races. Here are the results from the World Cup in Chamonix (2019) as an example of how this works.
The climbers are paired up based on how they qualified from the previous round. They run head-to-head knockout races (with the slowest climbers being eliminated) until there are only 4 climbers left.
The last 4 climbers compete in 2 semi-final races (the middle column in the scoreboard above). The losers of the semi-finals race for the bronze medal in the small final. The winners of the semi-finals race for the gold and silver medals in the big final.
For a long time, I had no idea what the “small” and “big” meant in terms of speed climbing finals. I honestly thought it had something to do with the climbers’ height for longer than I care to admit.
A Good Place to Start
The women’s final (although the finals for both genders run concurrently in speed climbing competitions) of the World Cup in Xiamen 2019
I picked this one because this is the first time a female speed climber clocked a time under 7 seconds. It’s wonderful to see the absolute joy on the face of Aries Susanti Rahayu as she looks up at the timer and realises what she’s achieved. Skip to 56 minutes 23 seconds for this particular moment.
Overall Season Scoring
For each World Cup of the season, the top 40 climbers receive a score between 100 points (for 1st place) and 0.5 points (for 40th place).
If there have been 5 World Cups in the season, each climber adds up their scores from all 5 events. If there have been more than 5, each climber drops their lowest score (highlighted in the example below) and only adds up their highest 5 scores.
For example, if hypothetical climber, Grippy McPinchstrength, had a good lead climbing season their score would look like this:
At the end of the season, the climber who has the highest total number of points is crowned overall World Cup champion and gets a big shiny trophy for their efforts.
The Finer Details
What I’ve tried to provide here is a detailed but hopefully not too overwhelming account of how climbing competitions work. For the sake of brevity, there are rules and finer details that I have not included, generally because they don’t come up very often. If you have any questions or have spotted something crucial that I’ve missed do feel free to drop me a comment below.
If you want more information on the subject, I’d recommend checking out the IFSC website, where you can find scores of previous competitions, the schedule of upcoming competitions, and a full copy of the rules of competition climbing. Additionally, you can watch several years’ worth of competitions on the IFSC YouTube channel.
Feel free to comment with your favourite climbing competitions of all time. As you can probably tell, I’m always happy to chat about this stuff!
Published 18th March 2021 (I will endeavour to update this post as and when rules change)