One of my earliest climbing heroes was Alex Lowe because he was one of the few climbers out there who could perform at a high level seemingly in every discipline. Lowe was a notorious training fanatic, and a climbing glutton. It didn’t matter what kind of vertical terrain was in front of him; he’d eat it up. He was successful not just because he was a natural athlete but because he worked hard, endured pain and had discipline. His wholesale enthusiasm for the sweeping vertical world greatly inspired me. It revealed to me what I believe to be climbing’s most appealing asset and its greatest gift: the sheer diversity of its challenges; the gargantuan spectrum of vertical experience.
In addition to his manic “dawn patrol” skis, his Olympic-grade VO2 max, and his unapologetic coffee addiction, Lowe was famous for once saying, “The best climber in the world is the one who is having the most fun.”
Since then, this cheerful, charitable phrase has become THE mantra universally recited by every daisy-chain-wearing, slab-climbing, ledge-manteling gumby out for a day of fun in the sun—whose ear-to-ear grins and consistently jovial attitudes toward belly-humping up and over the tree limbs growing out of the 70-degree mountain-goat breeding grounds that they call “rock climbs” has certainly, more than anything else, advanced our perceptions about climbing’s unlimited potential.
Water parks are fun. Disobeying your parents is fun. Sex, drugs and loud music are fun. But do these vapidly blissful states of mind automatically bestow superlative greatness in one of the most technically challenging enterprises to ever grace human existence? Fuck no!
In fact, there is nothing “fun,” per se, about high-end core climbing. Climbing hurts like a motherfucker. It’s extremely painful, scary, humbling and humiliating. On any given day, it’ll beat you down like you owe it money. But that’s why we love to climb, I suppose.
Still, the idea of there being a “best climber,” or best anything, in the world is inherently fascinating to the left hemispheres of our lizard brains. People seem to agree that Reinhold Messner was probably the best climber to have ever lived because he put up truly cutting-edge rock climbs, often solo, in the early 1960s (including the world’s first 5.11d), and was the first person to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen—a stunt the French elegantly call “closing the loop,” but I prefer to call “going full retard.” Also, he did this at a time when people really believed that if you went above 8,000 meters without oxygen tanks, you’d die.
Since the height of Messner’s glory, our sport has become increasingly specialized. Now you can call yourself a climber without even ever having touched real rock! Which certainly explains why the OIA always reports that there’s, like, 4 billion of us in the U.S. alone (and growing!). Some climbers only boulder, or only sport climb, or only do competitions. There is increasingly less crossover as today’s “best climbers” focus on doing one discipline really well, because that singularity of focus is what it takes to perform at the cutting-edge—and subsequently what it takes to be recognized, get sponsored, and so on.
However, I feel as though there is no longer as much celebration for those climbers who do it all really well ever since Alex Lowe died on Shishapangma in 1999. The all-arounders are out there, for sure. But I think if you asked most people nowadays who the best climber in the world is, their answer might be someone like Adam Ondra.
Certainly, specialization has its benefits, and its place, in climbing. But I also hear a lot of new-school climbers denouncing trad/ice/alpine—more as an affirmation of What We Do and Who We Are, rather than they care that people go actually trad, ice or alpine climbing. Urban Climber tried to manufacture a micro-culture around this concept—that the new-school climber could be ignorant about mountaineering, or even climbing outdoors, and that this could be a point of pride.
I see, and sympathize with, this outlook because I see it as reaction to the old-school climbers who have been way more aggressive in denegrating the sport, boulder, and comp disciplines as being illegitmate or even somehow less rich in experience.
But what the old-school climbers think doesn’t really bother me (not caring what old people think is—like waterparks, drugs and sex—also great fun). What is most worrisome to me is that the new school will become too comfortable in their specializations, and won’t actively seek out the thing that makes climbing the greatest sport in the world: its diversity of challenges and experiences, on all vertical mediums.
It all comes back to what what our community values about climbing—what’s best and what’s not. These complex mores and values, however, can be distilled down into the embodiement of the person who we consider to be the best climber in the world. So, who is that?
In the Olympics, the winner of the decathlon gets the title of the best athlete in the world. Likewise, I propose a Climbing Decathlon to determine, each year, who is the world’s best climber.
This is how it would work. There would be 10 categories: Trad. Sport. Boulder. Free-Solo/DWS. Ice. Sport-mixed. Boulder Comp. Sport Comp. Big-wall. High-altitude mountaineering. Each climber who wants to compete would have one year to log their best ascents in each category. At the end of the year, a panel of judges would rate the routes climbed—taking into consideration style of ascent among a host of other TBD factors—and determine the winner. The winner will get the title of being the Best Climber in the World, and $1 million!
OK, so I haven’t figured out where the $1 million will come from yet. But I think this is still a pretty good idea. Maybe some big airline company would sponsor it as climbers fly all around the world trying to log their hardest ascents in each category.
Yeah, you could criticize me by saying that any idea that hinges on “only” needing $1 million to work is an inherently bad idea. And you know what? I would agree with you. But I’d still like to see this happen. It’d be better than 8a.nu, that’s for fucking sure.