Vince Anderson has come full circle in alpinism. A third-generation Coloradoan, he began his mountaineering apprenticeship at a young age, hiking to a fire lookout with his parents when he was younger than 5. He soon took to the hills, climbing and skiing as much as possible. His abilities bloomed and he realized he had genuine talent in the big peaks. In September 2005, he and Steve House completed the 13,000-plus-vertical-foot Central Pillar of the Rupal Face, on Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat, one of the world’s largest, most spectacular walls. The two were awarded the Piolet d’Or, France’s highest honor for mountaineering excellence. He’s also a husband and father of three young boys, and works as a fully certified IMFGA guide, instructor and examiner.
That title kind of grabs your attention, doesn’t it?
The reason I pose this question of the Ouray Ice Festival Mixed Climbing Competition is that I’ve been both a competitor and a route setter/judge in this event. So I’ve got a decent perspective from both sides of the game. To be fair, regardless of how you see the event, it is without doubt a proud display of incredible talent and athleticism and something with which is taken very seriously by spectators and participants alike.
I do feel that the whole ice-climbing competition thing has not just refined itself, but completely evolved from how it began with the first ice festivals in Ouray in the mid 1990s. Initially, Jeff Lowe’s idea was that it would indeed be an exhibition of state-of-the-art climbing skill and mastery of the actual sport of ice climbing.
To say that about today’s competition would not be entirely true. Yes, the participants are climbers. Yes, they are using ice axes and crampons (sort of). Yes, they are climbing ice. But, that’s about all the similarities that exist between competitive ice climbing and actual ice climbing.
It’s been an interesting evolution and perhaps a necessary one. The whole “purely an exhibition” thing lasts as long as the idea that a competitive environment is more interesting to spectators and participants. Having a real competition with awards, and all that goes along with winning, attracts more talented climbers, and, hence, generates more interest among spectators.
Real ice and mixed climbing involves not insignificant risk, however, and that is something that is not desirable in public, spectator-friendly event like an ice festival. So, in taking the (majority of the) risk away, the difficulty became much more of a technical and physical challenge. Though one may not need Superman-like courage, they will need Superman-like strength. That is the modus operandi of any organized sport, at least in our society.
No longer worrying about how to protect or safely navigate the frozen and overhanging obstacles, one can focus all of their attention pushing their bodies to their utmost limits without fear of serious consequence in the event of a fall. This is a game changer.
And with this, the abilities and athleticism of the participants began to quickly rise to heights only seen in other, more-mainstream, elite-level athletic competitions. As a result, the “ice climbing” part of the competition was no longer a limiter. Without fear of falling, ice climbing is not too hard for most seasoned climbers. let alone anyone with a background in sport climbing. Enter the non-ice climbing, sport climber.
These folks really changed the game with their incredible grip strength and gymnastic movement. To make the routes challenging for these folks, the routes must be incredibly steep and contain cruxes that involve much more than simply managing a pump: they have to be powerful and radically technical. The equipment, in turn, reflects this and has become incredibly specialized to suit these challenges alone. It would be quite a spectacle to see anyone go out and climb a traditional ice or alpine climb equipped only with what one would use and wear for a competition route!
The modern ice climbing competition route typically contains things like boundaries, dynamic moves and non-stationary obstacles; all things rarely or never encountered on real ice climbs.
The other up-shot to this is that watching these types of climbs can be much more exciting for any spectators. Real ice climbing, with its challenge in balancing risk with athletic ability, become much more of a chess match and we all know how much fun it is to watch a chess match, even one taking place amidst the frozen beauty of an ice pillar. The thrills, spills and much faster-paced climbing of the modern ice climbing competition route tends to offer much more excitement for anyone watching.
No doubt, many that excel at competitive climbing also excel at actual climbing, but as the sport continues to evolve and become more specialized, these types will be a much rarer breed. There is crossover in the athleticism required, but much less so in the mindset needed to approach each type of climb.
Where will this lead? Who knows, but for sure, as long as there is competition involved, risk will be mitigated and we can expect more and more circus-like tricks in the ice festivals of the future.
So, exhibition or spectacle? You decide, but either way it sure is fun to watch!