On Thursday, the Harriman Institute held an event tracing the history of climbing competitions and the Soviet Union.

Competitions can be a touchy subject in the climbing community. Some people love them, some people feel that they entirely defeat the purpose of climbing. Personally, though I’ve never competed myself, I have no problem with the existence of these competitions. But love them or hate them, they’re probably here to stay: climbing will be an Olympic sport for the first time in Tokyo 2021. 

This long journey was explored by Professor Caroline Roeder, Istvan Deak visiting assistant professor of history, in the event hosted by the Harriman Institute.

We begin the story at a climbing camp in the Soviet Union in 1947. These camps were places in the mountains where people could go for a week or two to learn to climb. The story goes that the leader of one of these camps was looking for a way to get his unfit instructors into shape, and created a competition. Whether that was exactly how it happened isn’t fully verified, but what is certain is that the competition happened, and quickly caught on in neighboring camps. Within a year, an all-Caucusus championship was established, and by 1955, an all-Union competition was being held in Yalta, and by the 60s, mountaineering and alpine climbing competitions also emerged. To qualify for these competitions, people had to take a course at one of the climbing camps. 

Part of why the competitions caught on was in order to professionalize climbing: the Soviets put funding towards competitive sports, and so holding competitions was a way to secure more funding. 

In the West, for a long period of time, these competitions were mostly a rumor, as Western climbers were unable to travel to the Soviet Union to climb. But in 1954—the year after the death of Stalin and the first summit of Mt. Everest, John Hunt, the leader of the Everest expedition, travelled to Moscow to give a talk to Soviet climbers, including Evgenii Gippenreiter. Hunt and Gippenreiter quickly became friends, and the two helped facilitate Soviet climbers climbing in the West and Western climbers climbing in the Union. 

With British support, in 1958 the Soviet Union applied for International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA; the abbreviation is French) membership. It would take eight years of debate before they were finally granted membership. 

The first issue was concerns from the UIAA about political characteristics of the Soviet Mountaineering Association. 

The major issue, though, was the Soviet practice of climbing competitions. Many UIAA members strongly opposed this practice, with the Dutch delegation calling it, “against the spirit of alpinism.”

Finally, in 1966, after UIAA leadership changes and strong advocacy for Soviet membership by Hunt, the Soviet Union became a UIAA member. Once accepted, the Soviets promoted their competitions, inviting international representatives to watch USSR championships, and later opening them to climbers from other countries. 

The competitions were still resisted strongly by many UIAA members. Not only did they oppose the concept of these competitions, but the competitions were held on toprope—at the time called Russian-style climbing— rather than lead, which was looked down upon by many UIAA members as it eliminated the risk that a climber could take a significant fall.

Despite opposition by many, though, the competitions continued, slowly gaining popularity. Young climbers rather liked the idea of competitions, and the first competition outside the USSR took place in Italy in 1985. Soon afterwards, the UIAA recognized the climbing competition circuit, and in the 90s, they decided that all competitions would be held on artificial walls in order to prevent fragile environments. 

By 2007, climbing competitions had become enough of a fixture in the climbing community that UIAA created the Association of Sport Climbing to take over regulation of competitions.

Though competitions have become mainstream at this point, as evidenced by the addition of climbing to the Olympics, they’re still a subject of debate.

But at this point, the core of the debate over climbing competitions may not really be over whether they are “against the spirit of alpinism” as the Dutch delegation once claimed, but rather over the complicated debate between indoor and outdoor climbing. There are many people in the climbing community who feel that indoor climbing is inferior to outdoor. But there’s a lot of factors that go into why someone may climb more indoors than outdoors: indoor climbing is also more accessible, and typically requires less money, less (expensive) gear, and less time. At this point in time, competitions are by definition indoors events, as organizers are required to hold them only on artificial walls. Thus, opposing indoor climbing also means opposing competition climbing. Though the debate continues over whether competitive climbing is beneficial to the climbing community at large, the heart of the matter has perhaps switched from a struggle over political ideology to one involving the complicated fight between indoor and outdoor climbing. 

Mountain via bwog archives.