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N.H. Climbers Encouraged by Sport Climbing’s Olympic Debut

Daniela Allee
A climber tackling a route at an indoor gym in New Hampshire.

On a recent day at NH Climbing and Fitness in Concord, you could see climbers 30 feet off the ground, straining to get to the top of a route without slipping off. Chalk bags and shoes littered the floor while route-setters visualized the newest problems on the bouldering wall. Unlike climbers competing this week at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, these athletes were able to take their time and enjoy the mental and physical aspects of the sport.

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Sport climbing made its debut at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo this year. Three disciplines of the sport — speed climbing, bouldering, and traditional lead climbing — were combined in a decision that many people in the community thought was controversial.

Many climbers thought it was unfair to include speed climbing in the Olympics, because it isn’t a widely popular subdivision of the sport.

wide angle climbing
Daniela Allee
Climbers studying the routes before they make an attempt.

Speed climbing is unlike bouldering or traditional climbing, which both focus on patience and skill to get a climber up a route. Speed climbers try to scale a route as quickly as they can.

Jennifer Aquinio-Patzan, a climber at NH Climbing and Fitness, said she was surprised that competing in speed climbing was a requirement to qualify for the Olympics.

“It definitely doesn't show how much it takes to rock climb,” Aquino-Patzan said. “It’s all about the mindset.”

Lee Hansche, a prominent local climber and climbing guide, said he initially didn’t understand why speed climbing was part of the circuit.

“The number of climbers in the world is just a small portion of the population and then the number of people that speed climb is just a tiny population of that group,” Hansche said.

After he thought about it, he realized it’s something spectators might enjoy. Putting two climbers next to each other makes it look like a race.

“But watching these two [speed] climbers, it blows your mind,” Hansche said. “It looks like they're falling upwards.”

Hansche said he’s excited that climbing will get more attention. But he knows if more people are interested, that’ll mean more wear and tear on outdoor trails and climbing infrastructure. He said sharing information will be key to preserving resources for future climbers.

climbing outside
Samantha Coetzee
A climber on a route in Rumney, N.H. Education on outdoor conservation will become important as climbing increases in popularity.

“We just need to make sure that the new people in the sport are educated properly about the etiquette outdoors,” Hansche said. “We need to make sure that the people who are using [the outdoor resources] take care of it.”

Back at the gym, Aquinio-Patzan said she’s looking forward to the effects that a spotlight in the Olympics might have on the climbing community. She hopes to see a more inclusive atmosphere in the gym, with more non-white climbers and a diverse group of folks involved in the sport.

She’s a shorter climber, and seeing competitors that look like her on a world stage also has an impact.

“It's definitely fun to see smaller climbers do it, like Brooke Raboutou,” she said. “Seeing how she conquers that stuff.”

But the competition will change at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. The climbing disciplines will be separated. The speed event will be separate from a combined lead and boulder event. The number of medals awarded will jump from two to four, and 68 climbers will compete in Paris, compared to the 40 in Tokyo this year.

Men’s sport climbing wrapped up on Thursday with Spain’s 18-year-old Alberto Ginés López walking away with the gold. Women’s sport climbing medals will be awarded tomorrow.

Samantha Coetzee joined the NHPR team in 2020 as a weekend Board Operator and is now NHPR’s News Intern. A senior journalism major at the University of New Hampshire and New Hampshire native, Samantha is also the General Manager of WUNH, UNH’s student-run radio station.

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