This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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VAIL — Chris Danielson spent an hour on the one hold.
One of the world’s top competitive rock-climbing routesetters, Danielson dragged his step ladder up to the climbing wall at the base of Vail ski area, pulled out a power drill, tilted and spun the red triangle just so and stepped back to stare. His arms moved through the air as he imagined how the world’s top climbers would navigate his elaborate challenge. Then he would repeat the process.
The roar of thousands of spectators on June 14 and 15 signaled approval for Danielson’s careful assemblage of complicated climbing problems for 110 international male and female athletes competing in the 12th annual International Federation of Sport Climbing world-cup bouldering contest at Vail’s GoPro Mountain Games.
As rock climbing preps for its Olympic debut in Tokyo next year, alongside youth-luring newcomers surfing and skateboarding, climbers and spectators alike are maneuvering through a new realm.
Climbers are learning new skills in an Olympic format that combines three disciplines: short bouldering problems (such as those displayed in Vail), longer lead climbs and speed-climbing. Spectators are learning the ins and outs of seemingly hectic competitions that give athletes mere minutes to study and ascend difficult problems.
And Danielson — a world-renowned routesetter from Boulder who works with USA Climbing and travels the globe advising rock gyms, designing competition walls and serving as one of only a handful of IFSC International Chief Routesetters — is guiding both the aspiring Olympians and the crowds with his meticulous arrangements of plastic holds.
“The best-possible scenario for a competition and for us as routesetters is to connect to the athletes and the spectators in an emotional way,” he said. “Not only are we trying to do our job of creative ranking for the athletes, but at our core we are wanting to emotionally connect everyone in the crowd with the athletes. When that happens, we know we’ve done our job.”
Thousands gathered on the grassy lawn next to Vail’s Gondola One on June 14 and 15 to watch the climbers, roaring as lithe athletes reached the top of the problems and swung by one arm to face the crowd, pumping their fists as they dropped to the bouncy floor.
The first day of qualification saw two rounds of climbing, with athletes given only five minutes to solve one of four highly difficult, yet short, problems. In boulder competitions, the athletes can try each problem as many times as they want in the five minutes but lose points with each attempt, unlike lead competitions, where a single fall can knock a climber from contention.
At the height of the contests, as many as eight climbers at a time are on the stage, scaling all eight problems. When a climber finishes a problem, they leave the venue and rest for five minutes before returning to climb another route they have not seen before.
The field of 110 athletes was whittled to six men and six women in Saturday’s final, the last competition of the six-stop, 2019 world-cup bouldering season. The problems — four for men and four for women — varied with sloping holds, dime-sized ledges that seemed incapable of supporting weight and complex arrays of overhanging features requiring gymnastic contortions. In the finals, the climbers have only four minutes to ascend each problem.
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Danielson said his team — all climbers themselves — labors to sculpt challenges that will vex all the athletes, from the European veterans to climbers from countries that are relatively new to the scene.
“We try to put ourselves in their shoes and their mind-set,” said Danielson, who was among seven routesetters at the Vail competition but wasn’t the chief because international climbing rules do not allow routesetting bosses to hail from the host country. “A lot of this job is calculating and assessing both physically and mentally what the climbers are going to experience.”
His primary job is to challenge the athletes in a way that tests their skills and tenacity. Few climbers reach the top on their first try. Most take several attempts as they figure out which hand and foot to put where and when. The crowds, having watched previous climbers work through each problem, often know the secret sequences, giving them an insider’s perspective.
There is a growing army of up-and-coming climbers scaling podiums as competitive climbing heads to the Olympics next year.
“In the last couple years, we have seen the level of talent broaden and balance out,” Danielson said. “What’s really exciting is that a lot more people are seeing climbing for the first time and the athletes are showcasing not just the top performances, but the approachability of the sport. The basic fundamentals of climbing is the same for everyone, and that’s why it’s pretty cool it’s an Olympic sport. Walking, running, swimming and climbing. These are natural things we all did as kids. Everyone understands the fundamentals of starting at the bottom and getting to the top.”