A Climbing Competition Primer

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It’s competition season and with it come a rash of new competitors eager to showcase their climbing prowess. But even gifted climbers can fail to overcome their competition without effective comp strategy and tactics. In the helter skelter, pressurized atmosphere of a climbing

Climbing competitions are controlled chaos!

comp, it’s easy to get caught up in the action and allow it to control your day. To compete effectively you’ve got to prepare well, both mentally and physically, create a plan, and then execute on game day.

Types of comps

First things first. Let’s describe the different types of climbing competitions as each requires a somewhat different set of tools. There are a number of variations on two basic competition schemes: redpoint and on-sight.

A redpoint format means that you can make multiple attempts at the same route or boulder problem, but no points are awarded unless you complete the route from bottom to top without falling off, weighting the rope, or using an illegal hold or wall feature. You can usually choose from among all the routes available, try as many as you like, and watch your competitors’ attempts. Your final score is usually the total of your three, five, ten, etc. best scoring climbs. You will usually not be permitted to work a route or boulder problem, if you fall off you’ll be lowered to the ground where you’ll need to wait your turn in line for another attempt. Variations include specifying which routes or problems you can try, giving you a time limit to work and send each, and allowing you to work the routes.

An on-sight format allows you a single attempt at a particular or specified series of routes or problems within a limited time, say five minutes per route. You’re usually not permitted to watch

On-sight comps allow you a single attempt at each route.

your competitors’ attempts but rather those yet to climb are kept in “isolation” until it’s their turn. If a series of climbs is offered you’ll be given a time period to attempt the first, then a rest period of the same length of time, followed by an attempt at a second climb, another rest, and so on until you’ve attempted all the routes in the series. Competitors are usually given a short period of time (10 minutes or so) before the climbing begins to “preview” or look over the routes. An attempt is scored by how far you progress on each route; each hand hold carries a certain point value with holds higher on the wall being worth more points than those that are lower. Your score for a particular route is the score attributed to the highest hand hold you control.

Strategy and Preparation

Preparing well for a redpoint comp is somewhat different than for an on-sight comp as each favors a different set of mental and physical skills.

Redpoint comps place an emphasis on making a high number of difficult attempts on a given day. Stamina is thus a desirable attribute. You simply must be able to perform at a consistently high level over an extended period of time to do well in a redpoint competition, and from previous posts we know that the best way to improve stamina is through use of continuous intensity repetitions.

Redpoint comps reward the ability to quickly learn and then execute sequences. Since you may not be allowed to work sequences mid-route, this includes being able to watch others and copy or adapt their methods to your own climbing. How can you improve your ability to learn and execute sequences? Practice watching others climb routes and then attempt the flash. If you don’t get the flash ascent, keep trying the route or problem from the beginning.

On-sight comps require highly developed local aerobic and anaerobic endurance systems. An on-sight attempt almost always takes more time than a redpoint of the same route because the climber has to feel his way through all the sequences, adjusting here and there as he climbs. The longer you’re on a route the more you’ll tax both energy production systems: aerobic and anaerobic. Raise your local aerobic threshold through continuous climbing and anaerobic endurance through four-by-fours. And remember that most on-sight comps include at least one round of multiple routes climbed in series with limited time. Multiple routes climbed in series require the ability to recover between the climbs within limited time constraints. Thus recovery, trained with the same exercises, is highly important.

Mentally you must be able to see movement in advance and adapt to unexpected circumstances. Reading routes is a skill and has to be practiced; practice on every new route you approach. Try to

Maintain your focus!

on-sight frequently so you learn to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. In addition you’ve got to be able to stay calm and focused under the pressure of a single attempt. There is no second chance here. Ask people to watch your on-sight practice attempts to simulate the stress a crowd can induce.

Game day tactics

On comp day you’ll need to keep your head, stay focused, and avoid the common mistakes many competitors make.

Redpoint: Be sure to warm up well, take your time, and work your way up through a few easier then moderately difficult problems. Get a few scores on your card even though the points may not be as high as you’d like. Once warmed up start into the harder grades but be sure to limit yourself to a few attempts at a particular route. You simply must fill out your card to have any shot at placing, and many competitors fail here by getting tied up on a particular route for too long. It’s better to fill your card up with moderate climbs than to only complete a few hard climbs. Once you’ve got a full tally of climbs you can begin to eliminate the lowest scores, and in this way consistently improve your score over the day.

On-sight: During your preview make written notes. Look for crux or tricky sections on each climb and write down descriptions you can review later before you climb. Stay loose and relaxed in isolation – bring a book, iPod, etc. and get warmed up just prior to your turn (a climbing order will be posted so you’ll know when your turn is approaching). And don’t get sucked into climbing games while in iso! This is the easiest way to tire yourself out before your attempt(s). You’ll usually have plenty of time to climb so it’s a good idea to look the route over again before leaving the ground. Then, with plan in mind, be open to changing your envisioned sequences as you climb. The climb will almost certainly be somewhat different than how you pictured it!


Comps are a great way to keep you focused on climbing especially through the long, dark winter months. Even if you can’t see yourself as competitive, climbing comps provide the opportunity for shared camaraderie in a fun atmosphere. Good luck and we hope to see you on the podium!

One Response to “A Climbing Competition Primer”

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