Now. It’s really happening. Snowbird, Utah, June 11-12, 1988. The first International Sport Climbing Championship: a whole new world in the United States. There had never been a big-scale international comp on these shores. A few regional bouldering comps, yes. This was different, a turning point—and a flash point.
Scott Franklin, a star from the East who’d climbed 5.14, been to France, seen current world standards; Ron Kauk, great Yosemite talent, who epitomized both all-around skills and a spiritual connection to the natural world; and Lynn Hill, top female climber in the country, who’d won several international events. Climbers from eight countries were here, a $17,000 purse in the offing.
Yvon Chouinard, a Yosemite pioneer and founder of Chouinard Equipment, and other heroes were out on the grass watching. Everyone, it seemed, was—in the strong mountain sun, at this high canyon arena; and the cameras were watching, too. Stars were to shine, opportunities to follow for … who knew?
“What do you do for a job?” I’d asked a nice woman staffing the event. She listed a bit of a hodgepodge, and mused, tilting her head, “I might like to get into this.”
I crouched among the 40 invitees, abashed but thrilled to attend. I’d seen a comp, in Paris; wondered at the time if I could even do that, go out alone under a spotlight and climb in front of all those eyes. Never before Snowbird had I been on an artificial wall. I had prepared by climbing at Smith Rock, Oregon, practically the country’s only sport-climbing arena, for 10 days.
Below, on the banks of Little Cottonwood Creek, which flows by the world-class ski resorts of Alta and Snowbird, were two commentators for CBS Sports. One was James Brown, well-known sportscaster, and one was a smiling “Spider Dan” Goodwin, event-wall designer, famed for scaling the World Trade Center using suction cups and skyhooks and wearing a Spider Man outfit. On-air reporting with Brown, he was surely thinking, Hell, yeah, I’d do more of this ….
The eventual telecast would open with a shot of Jean-Baptiste Tribout, age 25, a top French climber, moving up the 115-foot, $155,000 (according to John Burgman’s book High Drama) wall, which soared up one side of the luxury Cliff Lodge, a ski lodge. The wall was vertical concrete adorned with two shallow panels that presaged today’s volumes, while a 10- or 12-foot roof guarded the top. The program would swiftly cut to a demo sequence of Goodwin poised on the slab above the roof; per a script he panted, faux-pawed at the slabby holds, and croaked, “I’m just goin’ for a lunge!”—then whistled off, 60 feet, legs trailing. Dan had a mullet, as was common. He also had some guts, to take that fall.
Climbing before thousands of people, and against rather than with other climbers, was the opposite of the personal endeavor most climbers pursued or at least thought they did. Many regarded comps with skepticism or outright hostility. A few, like America’s Beth Bennett and the Canadian climber Peter Croft, declined the invitation to participate.
“I said no, and so they got me on the phone and started listing reasons why it would be perfect for me,” Croft says. “Every one of those reasons convinced me I should steer clear.
“One of the reasons I got into climbing was to get away from organized sports. I remember one person asking, ‘What if you thought you might win—would you go then?’ I told them I wouldn’t go even if I knew I would win. It sounded like climbing minus all the cool stuff.”
“You Americans are selling out too easily,” a British friend told Michael Kennedy, then editor of Climbing magazine, the night before finals. As Kennedy later wrote in the American Alpine Journal, the friend said comps would destroy the spirit of climbing.
Today, with events so established, with youth and national teams, great solid rosters of coaches and functioning governance, all barreling collectively toward the Olympics (someday we will be looking back at the pandemic), it is hard to believe comps were once complete unknowns. CBS Sports took a chance on the event, upon a pitch from Bob Carmichael, who for years had filmed the televised “Survival of the Fittest,” a sort of outdoor version of “American Ninja Warrior” that starred various climbers including John Bachar, and which Lynn Hill won four years running. Carmichael was a climber himself.
Americans were, at least, proud that Hill had won several events: twice at Troubat, France; at Arco, Italy; and in Bercy, near Paris, in 1987. Bercy had been attended by Chouinard and Kris McDivitt, early Patagonia CEO; also Jim McCarthy, then president of the American Alpine Club, which was trying to figure out how to help—and what to make of—the circuslike new genre. Making things exciting, Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle of France had each won events. Head and shoulders above the rest of the women’s field, they could generally be expected to jockey for the top two spots.
I had spectated at Bercy as well, having been climbing with Lynn at Buoux and Volx beforehand. At the event I felt as Jim McCarthy did in saying, “I expected to enjoy it. I didn’t know I’d be riveted.”
I can still see a dominating Didier Raboutou chalking while hanging one-handed from an overhang at Bercy. Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle cranked steadily and powerfully, with third place going to Isabelle Patissier, 21, whose featherlike style almost belied her burgeoning ability. The wall, gleaming and sculptural, seemed an artpiece. Even a meek onlooker, if a climber, couldn’t help looking at the holds and imagining what to do on them.
One of those philosophically opposed to the genre was the grandmaster Wolfgang Güllich, who from 1984 to 1991 added four different steps—8b, 8b+, 8c and his fierce 9a, Action Directe—to world standards. “Wolfie” attended the first professional comp, the Sport Rocchia in Bardoneccia, Italy, in 1985, on one-pitch lines chiseled into the walls above town. Güllich and his American pal Russ Clune partied the night before, and climbed in desultory manner.
“Wolfgang hated the overall atmosphere,” Clune says. “He eschewed competitions as anything connected to the spirit of climbing.” Güllich did a few routes and dropped out.
Many comp climbers themselves, according to Lynn Hill, at first resisted: “For various reasons, many of these climbers boycotted the first big competition,” she wrote in John Long’s Rock Jocks, Wall Rats, and Hang Dogs, adding that once the climbers understood such events to be “a separate game that neither demeaned nor infringed upon the natural rock”—and that there was money in it—most holdouts joined in the second Sport Rocchia, a two-stop event held in Arco and Bardonnecia.
At Snowbird, most climbers and industry people had never seen a comp. Many observers were sure that comps would be duds. Like watching grass grow.
Mostly they decried a loss of magic and obscurity, when we were but mavericks doing something rich and meaningful and opaque, up there in the far heights.
Comps arrived concurrent with a sea change, the advent of sport climbing … the old order flung to the wind. Tight (or cutout) tank tops, earrings for all, harlequin Lycra. Moves that were hard for themselves, not because you had to hang on and place pro.
Rap bolting, mostly considered sacrilege in the USA, caught on at Smith Rock, through Alan Watts and friends in the first half of the 1980s. In 1986, Jean-Baptiste Tribout visited Smith and established this country’s first 5.14, which he named To Bolt or Not to Be to show rap bolting as essential to progress. Europeans were climbing the hardest of anyone, Americans considered to be … in need of catching up.
As Jeff Smoot wrote in Hangdog Days: “Climbers swarmed to Smith Rock …. Even such stalwart traditionalists as John Bachar and Ron Kauk [both of Yosemite] visited, in 1987. Kauk and Bachar’s visit seemed to legitimize the top-down tactics that Alan Watts employed.”
Bachar left early. Not psyched. Kauk was intrigued, stayed and climbed 13a. His acceptance of the ethic was crucial. Sport climbing was to spread to American Fork, Utah; to Shelf Road, Boulder, and Rifle, Colorado; to the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
Leading up to Snowbird, each of these principals had a role in perceptions of change in America.
Lynn Hill, 27 and a former gymnast, had climbed and bouldered hard in Southern California, established trad 5.12d in 1979 in Colorado, and in 1983 with friends put up Vandals, the first 5.13 in the Shawangunks, New York, using the radical tactic of hangdogging.
Lynn traveled in Europe, and liked sport climbing, and upon consideration felt that some of the old rules had been contrived, yet that sport climbing suited some but not all areas. She continued to put up hard, hard-to-protect trad routes in the Gunks.
Scott Franklin, 22, was considered America’s top climber.
He had established Survival of the Fittest (5.13a) in the Gunks in 1985; in 1986 he soloed it, the first American to solo the grade. That same year he put up 5.13d trad routes: the Cybernetic Wall and Planet Claire (later upgraded by others to 5.14).
Franklin was the first American to climb consensus 5.14, with To Bolt or Not to Be, in 1987, and the first to establish 5.14, also at Smith, in 1988. In a time of seeing what would fly, when he thought a big flake on the route would make it too easy, he used M-80s to loosen it (hastening down away from the charge, a hilarious image no matter what your take) and hammered it off. He named the line Scarface.
Franklin says of Snowbird, “When I got the call from Jeff Lowe with the invitation, honestly I was kind of not that excited to go, but it was so interesting.” He was curious. He also felt the pressure of expectations, and that he had no choice but to attend.
Another young hopeful was Christian Griffith, 24, lanky and creative, with beads and feathers in his hair, who’d spent months in the U.K. and Europe climbing with the vanguard of Jerry Moffatt and Ben Moon. In the mid-1980s Griffith put up some of the hardest routes in the United States: Paris Girl (5.13a) on eight rap-placed bolts, Desdichado (5.13b/c) and Wingless Victory (5.13b) in the trad crucible of Eldorado Canyon. Some of the Eldo older guard surely thought he was the dark side incarnate.
Ron Kauk, 30, had established the historic 10-pitch trad climb Astroman (5.11+), with Bachar and John Long, in 1975, and Midnight Lightning (V8), still the best-known boulder problem in the world, in 1978. In spring of 1988, he opened the first bolted route in Yosemite in 18 years.
Bachar, famed (including in lay media) for his hard soloes and strict ground-up ethics, dreading European tactics that included pre-inspection, rehearsal and rap bolting, protested a loss of purity and adventure. He chopped the route.
An altercation followed, in the Camp 4 (Yosemite) parking lot, leading to the classic line in Mountain (U.K.) magazine, “A punch was thrown.” Kauk named the route Punchline, everyone was sorry, and you sort of have to smile, today.
The announcer called my name. This is it.
Focus. I put my head down, doggedly tried to ignore the cheers and motion, any voices I recognized.
“Uh, Alison,” the amplified voice said. “You walked past the wall.”
Laughter. Oh. I turned around, shuffled back.
Angels arrive sometimes. Who was she? “Oh, don’t pay any attention to them,” said a nice woman official.
I smiled and shrugged and tied in. O.K. Underway, I found I could concentrate on the holds and moves; and anyone in that situation tries extra hard. I still remember the first crux: the fingers of one hand slotting into a protruding pocket, the other hand wrapping around it, to gain the first roof (more an overlap). OK, getting a little somewhere. Higher, on wafers and chips, I tried and should have stuck with a foot tap to reach higher; got pumped, fell. But I was laughing. I had gotten over a hard move or two, climbed well enough, though you always replay those last moves in your mind. Shoulda coulda woulda … when you were probably lucky getting that far. I ended up eighth, midfield, and was happy with that.
Finals took place, as Chris Noble, a photographer hanging on the wall remembers, on a “gray and ininteresting” day. “Competitor after competitor fell relatively low …. Few even came close to the roof, which was meant to be the most thrilling, telegenic part.”
As the comp wound down, he recalls, someone in the control booth radioed Bob Carmichael, head of the film crew, “Man, this whole thing sucks!”
Carmichael said, “Don’t worry, someone will make it to the top.”
“Who? There’s only one guy left!”
That was Patrick Edlinger, a leading climber from France who’d previously visited the United States and styled our hardest routes. He started up the wind-scoured outer skin of the 11-story lodge, balconies stacked beside it, people hanging off them. As if by miracle, we competitors all got to stay at the lodge and enjoy restaurant meals using magical coupons called “Bird Bucks.” Thanks go to Dick Bass, resort owner and mountaineer, who climbed Everest in 1985.
Edlinger, 27, whose short, shimmering trajectory was limned beautifully by Ed Douglas for this magazine (see “Lone Wolf”), must have been feeling isolated even amid the Snowbird juggernaut. He was from Southern France, not one of the established northern crowd. He had recently repeated Tribout’s Les Spécialistes (8c / 5.14b) in the Verdon and downrated it to 8b+ / 5.14a. As Douglas wrote, “This act of arrogance from someone thought to be off the pace was insufferable.” Tension between the two peaked at Snowbird. What I remember is how Edlinger walked out wearing headphones, barely glanced at the wall, and started climbing.
A full post-Snowbird film shown at a trade show showed Tribout’s rapt face as Edlinger reached and then, with a lockoff, passed his high point. With minimal lip-reading skills, you could interpret a “Merde!” followed by a good-natured smile: Fair enough.
Edlinger reached the roof and began creeping up under it, each new hold eliciting a roar from the crowd of maybe 1,000. In the moment he turned the lip, the sun beamed through a gray sieve of clouds, sending planes of light onto … well, him. A benediction.
Carmichael recalls of the key move over the roof: “That hand slap by Patrick Edlinger was amazing, and my good friend and camera operator Tommy Rowe was focused on that hold when Patrick’s hand whipped into the frame and locked on. An epic shot. The coursesetters were freaking out because they had thought they made a course nobody could climb! …. God bless that godlike athlete!”
Edlinger topped out in a clear win, and he was always a beautiful climber to watch, with his graceful, angular style, tousled locks and aesthete’s sharp features and gravitas. That is why, apart from the obvious reason (no rope, eek), his 1982 soloing film “La Vie au bout des doigts” blew audiences away.
Snowbird, run by the climber-entrepreneur Jeff Lowe, was a financial loss. But it truly validated comp and sport climbing in this country.
Noble recalls, “After the event it quickly became clear there wasn’t money in the event budget to pay my invoice, but I had been a member of the 1987 Snowbird Everest Expedition, and I knew people at Snowbird who helped me, eventually, get paid from other funds.
“Oh, I never regretted the experience. I’m definitely glad I was there. The beginnings of anything are messy but interesting, and Edlinger’s mastery was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed—in climbing or anything else.”
Carmichael says today that CBS was “very pleased” with the program, and that Goodwin and Brown were a good announcing team. “Jim Brown loved the climbers, and it fascinated him.”
Edlinger also took first at the Arco Rock Master that year; over time he established 5.13s, soloed 5.13b, redpointed 5.14b and sent V10. He was to make early repeats of Ben Moon’s Agincourt at Buoux and Maginot Line, Volx, at 8c some of the hardest routes in the world. But Snowbird is the moment American climbers remember, for purity and promise.
Lowering amid pandemonium, Edlinger passed the balcony occupied by Michael Kennedy and Henry Barber, leading light in the 1970s, whose visionary climbs and soloes had inspired Patrick at 17. Midair, Edlinger pointed at Barber.
“For you!” he called out.
Barber called the moment “incredible.”
He says today: “I was not psyched about comps at all, mainly because the Euros (and others) were rubbing our noses in this new sport-climbing thing. I thought the comp was really cool, though, as long as it used this kind of venue … [not] marking up cliffs and such.” Barber objected to rap bolting, hold chipping and hangdogging, espousing “ground up” style. “Bachar felt the same way, so I am speaking for him here.”
Kennedy ultimately perceived the event as a community celebration, writing: “Many feel that [competitions] will only encourage more greed, selfishness and commercialism in climbing …. Others see competitions as the wave of the future, injecting new energy into a stagnant scene. But if, like Patrick … we can preserve a sense of our sport’s history and continuity, I don’t think we’ve got a lot to worry about.”
That sunbeam—I don’t know if I remember it or just the idea. I do remember walking up over the hill from the three-floor Snowbird Ski Area complex during the first round, and seeing Ron Kauk fall from above the roof and just keep on falling, though toward the end he visibly slowed. The bolts were spaced up there, and his belayer was probably trying to give him enough rope for the teeter-y slab moves. Kauk easily went 50 feet. That’ll stay in your mind—climber or watcher.
After Snowbird I went on to compete at the regional, national and international level until 1995, doing 20some international events in various venues. In a time of far fewer community gatherings than today, with neither cell phones nor internet, it was a way to meet more climbers and see them again. It was a reason, in the way that an upcoming trip provides an impetus, to try to be in shape. I remember moving up those carefully crafted, intricate routes, thinking, This is fun.
In 1992, my new husband and I traveled to Céüse, a looming hilltop cliff in Central France largely developed by Edlinger (see feature page 32). Mike Benge and I reached the top on a several-pitch route and were walking off the grassy plateau when someone approached from the opposite direction. The flying cornsilk hair …. Patrick smiled, face brightening.
“Snowbird!” he called out, gesturing at my … head?
I was wearing, in the strong sun, a visor imprinted with the green and blue wings of the resort’s logo.
“We were there!” we told him eagerly, and all three had a merry confab in the verdant high meadow.
Patrick was living more quietly by then. He had always valued time alone, focusing on movement and soloing and a kind of respect for the holds. The last few years he had hunkered down and developed the great cliff of Céüse, and I hope that was at least as satisfying as the arena. But I remember how his eyes lit up at the sight of my hat.
Some dozen years ago, I was disquieted by an image of Patrick pouch-eyed from time and wine. He was by then living in the Verdon. In later interviews he was open and honest about suffering from depression and battling alcoholism. He wanted to change, to renew himself, but whether he would have can never be known.
He was to die in 2012, at 52, alone in his home, in a fall on the stone stairway. But we all remember not only a sorrowful end. We remember how he climbed.
He and John Bachar, who died at the same age, soloing, in 2009, were the most visible climbers of their eras. Bachar had by then come to terms with the new direction of climbing. His protégé Kurt Smith says “time and fatherhood” mellowed him, and that his love for climbing stayed sure. I wonder, for both, how the privileges of renown balanced against the burdens.
Each inspired a generation.
I look back at all those comps, and the times when I pulled things off and others when I messed up. Like wasting an opportunity in Nuremburg when I made semis in 11th, and then came out and, reading the route my way—idiot—asked if I could start a bit to the left. Instead of maintaining or improving, I flamed and finished 14th—and it shoulda been one place lower. Lynn Hill, the dominant competitor of the era, in a fluke slipped off the first move.
On that same trip, in 1992, I also saw Lynn’s finest comp moment, in Lyon, France. In those days the best show around was when any women finalists tied for first and took on the men’s finals route as a tiebreaker.
The audience had just seen one after another of the world’s best male climbers fall—all over the route. Only Didier Raboutou and Simon Nadin reached the chains.
Lynn just kept climbing, past one crux and another and another, to a final dyno—and nailed it. Among men, she’d have been in the top three places, at least.
Awards dinners, dance parties. I saw fits of pique and acts of grace. In 1989 I watched Jerry Moffatt run out and charge the wall in Leeds, for his big win. Afterward, I spoke to Raboutou, congratulating him on second, yet I grimaced a bit in sympathy, since he, too, could have won.
Raboutou blinked calm dark eyes. “It is not a problem,” he said. “Jerry is a friend.”
These days events are faster and more dynamic, with more and better participants all the time. With four contenders on a stage at once for a Bouldering World Cup, you can hardly decide where to look. Happy dilemma.
Lynn Hill was second (tied with her friend Mari Gingery) at Snowbird ’88; Catherine Destivelle won. Nor did Lynn, recovering from a near-disastrous fall, take gold at the World Cup at Snowbird the next year: Nanette Raybaud of France did, and Raybaud won at Berkeley in 1990, the last World Cup on home shores until 2008. Lynn had no more chances at home, but nobody gets everything. She won some 30 international events (the storied Arco Rock Master invitational five times).
At Snowbird, French men ended up 1-2-3 on the podium. Scott Franklin, Christian Griffith and Ron Kauk all made finals. Kauk slipped off disappointingly low. The next year he would come back and look sure to win: blowing off with a hand over the roof. He said afterward that he had hesitated in his footwork “and loaded up my arms.” Knowing how fast and deft he’d been to that point, you had to shake your head. Shoulda.
Both he and Scott Franklin went on to some years of comps and travel in Europe.
The highest-placing American at Snowbird was the unknown Gunks climber Jason Stern, age 17, who climbed to fifth and then by choice largely flew under the climbing radar. Griffith was sixth, then Franklin.
Franklin was disappointed, though a finalist. He reflects: “It was certainly some fun times and good experiences, some success, some disappointment. If you go back and wonder what you would have done differently, I never would have done competitions … It’s not what drew me to climbing or what I climb for today.”
He recalls conversations climbing in the Frankenjura with Wolfgang Güllich, who told him, “Scott, you don’t need to [compete]. Just don’t go.”
“No, I have to,” Franklin said. “I have sponsors.”
“The people who follow your climbing appreciate your climbing and what you bring to it. They’re not going to remember your results,” Wolfgang said. “They don’t even care.”
Lynn Hill says that first Snowbird event was “a big deal for me.”
“It was the first international climbing competition in America and televised. Putting together this type of event back then was very challenging, and it was impressive that Jeff Lowe, Bob Carmichael and company pulled it off.”
I look back and with the perspective of the years I don’t care how anyone did. (Well, except it was pretty fun to see Lynn in Lyon.) We move on to other joys and cares. One of my childhood friends died of cancer, leaving a young daughter; a longtime woman climbing friend has entered hospice. I’ve met Quinn Brett, paralyzed in a fall on El Cap, who has returned, with help, to the high places; worked with Melissa Strong, who lost fingers to a woodworking accident and is back to bouldering. Comp climbing is just a reverie; and I wouldn’t have missed it.
It was a lot of fun, though often jangly and expensive and messy and squalid, traveling with gangs to World Cups in Europe, renting and sharing a caravan (trailer) or moldy house near Buoux for climbing on the trip. Or one of the best times was at home, at the first X Games, in Providence, Rhode Island. I roomed with Bobbi Bensman and Lizz Grenard, and they were wild and funny, and the organizers put us up, as opposed to all the usual scraping and piling in. Bobbi and I had trained together. She made finals, and so did I—barely, and then by luck (truth, not modesty) moved up a spot. Mostly, I remember the hijinks in the dorm, sneaking people in and out and being rebuked, and just … meals at the dining hall. The place, the ocean, the proximity to the other climbers. Hang time, as much as any climbing, is connection.
I met Susan Price through national comps, and we roomed and traveled together for national and several overseas events, then did many climbing trips—to the Red, the Potrero, Penticton, the Bow Valley … One year we were climbing at Rifle when Steve Schneider, an old friend from comps, pulled in from California. That year of the moldy house, Steve was in the middle of every spirited fracas, at home or a World Cup afterparty. His comrade Hans Florine became a lifer friend on that trip, too; he was truly responsible, making sure I had the info to find and join their group in the Frankenjura (in Wolfgang’s basement).
As we hastened to greet Steve, Susan turned and said, “You know, competitions brought us a lot.” ◆
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 266 (November 2020).