"Competition and hard routes on rock: a contradiction ?"

For many years, the competitions were dominated by French southerners and Aix-en-Provence was "the capital of rock climbing", as the French magazine 'Vertical' called it. The last few years, we've noticed the arrival on the competition scene of rock climbers from regions with little or no tradition in climbing. We see strong rock climbers from the North of France (Norman, David Caude, and especially the young European and French champion, Alexandre Chabot, who lives in Reims, a city more known for its Champagne than for its crags.

We can rightly wonder about this geographic shift of origin of strong competitors. We could, at first, attribute it to the massive construction of artificial walls in parts of the country that had, until now, no tradition of climbing. The rock climbers came, logically, from other regions, while, since many years, the French climbing scene was separated by the dichotomy Paris/South of France. The climbing network, certainly, widens and will still widen. One could retort that artificial walls, even beautiful and high, are not enough for forming our climbing elite and that only the subtleties of the rock can create the technical reportoire required for the good rock climber.

Climbing is still the best training for climbing, artificial climbing is the best training for competitions. And if the French are often proud of their results in the world championships, they must surely be more discreet about their performances on rock, as if the practice of the one necessarily excluded the other one. For example, François Legrand is not anymore efficient in competition, while exactly he is now extra strong on rock (just see his 8c+/9a's: Robi in the Sky, Ghetto Booty...). So, in comparison, Alex Chabot, the champion of Europe and second in the world cup, show a quite modest level of 8b (he has now climbed an 8b+ with UFO in Calanques) after work while his main rival, Yuji Hirayama, climbs as hard on sight (8b+ with Mortal Kombat).

We must say it's rather strange. It's not a question of saying that Alex Chabot isn't strong, quite the contrary, but his results in competition actually seem to distant him from the rock, proof once again that to marry these two practices seem very hard, maybe destined to failure. Are we in an impasse? When will the French try to catch up in rock (our hardest routes are almost all done in Mount Charleston...) and also in bouldering (it's Fred Nicole who opens the hardest blocks, even in Bleau, where many problems now are down graded by Americans). Is the training for World Cups so specific that it inevitably forces the climber away from the rock? The example of the Japanese Hirayama seem to indicate the opposite.

Apparently many French competitors only go to the crag to be photographed, since real rock, still, always make the best setting for a good image for the media. So, for a long time now, the French are no longer the best (were they ever?) at opening extreme routes, except for the isolated case of the never repeated 9b, Akira (dangerous to try), or on the other hand, with a mass of 8c+'s which count as many ascents as manufactured holds. This way, it becomes very easy to get sponsors, as well as many foreigners delighted to climb "hard routes" very quickly. Take, for example, the Bindhammer-brothers who take longer to climb one 8b+ in their Frankenjura than one 8c+ in the Gorges du Loup...

There are, hence, two things to be wished : - That many climbers come to attempt the rare hard, unrepeated routes in France (Eaux Claires, Alps, Gueberschwihr...) and to confirm, or not, the grade. That again, the Frenchmen propose credible hard routes, which are not routes like some competition final or combinations between two routes, but many major lines, real new references for the future of the difficulty in climbing.

Florent Wolff