How Competition Climbing Rose from Rare to Everywhere
As the sport is poised to enter the Olympics, a veteran climbing writer delves into its past in 'High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Competition Climbing'
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On a hazy night in 1987, two renegade climbers in Berkeley, California, quietly set anchors underneath an on-ramp to Highway 13. They rappelled down incrementally, gluing stone knobs they had collected from an excursion in Yosemite to the concrete pillars rising up at stark vertical angles.
Through several nights of undetected effort, the climbers, Jim Thornburg and Scott Frye, embellished the highway’s partitions with bulges, depressions, indentations, and protruding chips—an urban simulation of mountainside cliffs. With their ingenuity, East Bay guerilla attitude, and some very strong adhesive, Thornburg and Frye transformed these highway pillars into the first artificial climbing wall in the United States.
So begins High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Competition Climbing, John Burgman’s new chronicle of a sport that became some people’s obsession. The author is a former Climbing magazine editor, and the book’s slightly intimidating 400 pages recount how climbing has evolved from a passion of dirtbags to an Olympic sport in just a few decades.
Burgman says he was inspired to write a history of competition climbing after he searched for one in 2014 and only found bullet points on USA Climbing’s Wikipedia page. He spent five years researching and reporting High Drama.
The indoor climbing industry now boasts more than 600 gyms and about 7.7 million participants in the United States—a shocking ascent for a once niche sport. Burgman’s book comes at the right time: as fans anticipate climbing’s Olympic debut in Tokyo next year, there is excitement as well as a need to reexamine climbing’s evolution. After all, the sport’s grassroots origins might seem to clash with rapid commercial growth and arenas like the Olympics.
It’s clear where Burgman stands: he’s an advocate for the sport’s mainstream acceptance as well as a historian and a believer in presenting climbing as a significant athletic progression and not merely a trend borne of rebellious passion.
“I write about competition climbing the same way I would write about pro basketball or pro baseball,” he says. He builds his case not through arguments but by rich descriptions of noteworthy athletic feats. Some, like Ashima Shiraishi’s effort to spring for an overhanging handhold during the 2018 Bouldering Nationals, are displays of Burgman’s able sportswriting: “She tried doggedly to lunge for one of the handholds above the lip … she hung in a horizontal position to recompose herself,” he writes. “If she grasped it, she would be on her way to her first national championship.”
Burgman clearly wants readers to understand the dedication and effort that many have poured into climbing since its start. “There has to be a lot of blood, sweat, and tears from different people through a lot of years to bring the sport to the prominence of the Olympics,” he says.
What will happen to climbing after the sport makes its debut next summer at the Olympics? Will millions more people hang out at climbing gyms around the world on weekday nights (once that’s allowed again)? Will sponsorships become the new normal for professional competitors? We don’t know those answers yet. But there’s no better time to pick up Burgman’s history of climbing and its plucky athletes. As gyms stay closed during the pandemic, his book is the next best way to stay immersed in the popular pastime.