From Cakes to Medals

Ray Wood | 30 July, 2021

The first Olympic climbing champions will be decided at the Tokyo Games over four days, starting on Tuesday 3rd August (9.00a.m. BST). But how did rock climbing become a competitive sport in the UK?

It turns out its roots were outdoors and not without controversy. Mick Lovatt was involved from the start and competed until 2000 becoming British team coach ’99-2001. He recalls: “I was one of the Malham Catwalk regulars, including John Dunne, Ian Horrocks, Mark Leach and Paul Ingham. The banter and competitiveness was intense and you had to grow some thick skin."

The eighties climbing world was certainly testosterone fuelled. A cursory flick through David B. A. Jones book, The Power of Climbing (1991), shows that of the 46 UK climbers highlighted only two were female.

Lovatt recounts: “The first comp we informally arranged was at Malham around 1986 to see who could climb Free and Even Easier (7a+) the fastest. There was only six of us and the prize was a plate of cakes from the cafĂ© at Beck Hall. It’s where Dunne famously said ‘I can taste those cakes already’ as he tied-on. To be fair he won it. It was reported in the mags as much as a piss-take as anything else.”

“Shortly after that we cordoned off New Dawn (7c) and had a timed race up it. It was filmed but I’ve lost the cassette. You can imagine that us taking over the crag didn’t go down well and the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) got involved after complaints. John Dunne saw that comps could be the next big thing in climbing, set-up the International Sports Climbing Association (ISCA) and sought sponsorship. In 1988-ish Dunne turned his attention to Tilberthwaite Quarry in the Lakes as the stage for the next competition and manufactured a route. The local climbers didn’t like this, ‘coming over here and chipping our crags’, so the event didn’t go ahead.”

Lovatt added: “However, it did show was that there was an appetite bubbling under for competition climbing. Everyone knew about the Eastern Bloc speed climbing competitions and there had been a lead climbing comp outdoors in Italy at Bardonecchia in 1985 and Arco later.” In 1988 the BMC decided to support climbing competitions, as long as they were held on artificial walls and not on natural crags.

Graham Desroy of DR Climbing Walls picked up on this undercurrent of demand and organised the Yorkshire Open Indoor Climbing Championships at the Leeds University sports hall. Taking place April 1st-2nd in 1989 on 35-foot high purpose built walls this became the first indoor climbing competition in Britain, as the World Championship event planned for February was put back to May.

Entry form for the first ever British indoor climbing competition.
Entry form for the first ever British indoor climbing competition.

In a Yorkshire Evening Post news item prior to the event, Graham said: “The qualifying standard is E5 6b for the Open and E3 5c for the others [categories].”

He went on to add: “One point I want to make is that the competition won’t be run under UIAA rules—it will be Desroy rules, OK?”

The newspaper reported: “Sponsorship is still being sought, although Graham has so far received backing from Centresport of Leeds and equipment manufacturers Millet, DMM, Troll and Asolo.”

Mark Leach won it just ahead of Ben Moon by 25 seconds to reach the top and pick up a cheque for £150 while Claudie Dunn won the women’s category. Prophetically, Leach said afterwards: “Climbing is at a crossroads between a hobby and a sport.”

For Desroy the competition formalised and acknowledged the spirit of competitiveness seen at the crag. This was at a time when the boom in sport climbing was viewed by some as a harmful trend, robbing the activity of risk and adventure. Around this time Pete Livesey wrote in Rocksport magazine: “Whether you like it or not the spectre of rock climbing competitions are with us. The European phenomenom of ‘sport climbing’ has swept all before it and forced the UIAA to legitimise competitive climbing.”

In May 1989, the first official UIAA International Grand Prix event took place at the Queen’s Hall in Leeds. A sister company of DMM International, Climbing Events Ltd, was created to organise the competition. Memorably, it was won by Jerry Moffatt (UK) and Robyn Erbesfield (USA) with Simon Nadin (UK) and Nanette Raybaud (FR) winning the series of seven competitions to become overall World Champions.

Programme for the first ever World Cup climbing competition.
Programme for the first ever World Cup climbing competition.
Photo of Graham Desroy used by DR Climbing Walls for the 1989 Yorkshire Open press release.
Photo of Graham Desroy used by DR Climbing Walls for the 1989 Yorkshire Open press release.

As for the Juniors, Ben Bransby, then aged 11/12, applied for the British Open at Birmingham in 1991 but they said they didn’t have a junior category. However, they let him come along to demonstrate for potential future inclusion. It didn’t go too well. Bransby remembers: “They put me on the men’s lead route and I got stuck somewhere around the third bolt unprepared to dyno for an out of reach hold. I stayed there until I ran out of time. Think it was 11 minutes back then. It must have been so painful to watch.”

“The following year (’92) I applied for the British National Series and they said they’d created a Junior category. We were put on the women’s routes. There were only four of us and I won the series to became the first British Junior Champion. The next year we had our own routes as juniors and there was a female category won by Eve Prickett.”

Ben Bransby being handed his winning trophy by Jerry Moffatt at the Foundry in the 1992 British Junior National Series.
Ben Bransby being handed his winning trophy by Jerry Moffatt at the Foundry in the 1992 British Junior National Series.

So what about bouldering? Jerry Peel and Mark Radtke organised what was probably the UK’s first bouldering competition, the Burnley Boulder Bash, in 1991. And again it was outdoors. Mick Lovatt recalls: “Word got round that if you were interested then turn-up in Skipton Central Car Park at a given time on June 1st and we’d find out the details. Loads of cars turned up.”

“Jerry was standing on his car bonnet reading the rules and format, 30 problems and you were allowed three tries with 10 points for a flash. Two problems were top-ropes because they were high balls. We had no bouldering mats back then. The last thing Jerry said was ‘the crag is Crookrise’ and everyone raced off in their cars. Ben Moon won it, Dave Pegg second and Desroy third. I came fifth.”

Busy scenes during the Burnley Boulder Bash at Crookrise in 1991.
Busy scenes during the Burnley Boulder Bash at Crookrise in 1991.

A domestic indoor bouldering competition, Boulder for Fun, took place on Newcastle’s Berghaus Wall in November 1991. Two indoor bouldering leagues (IBL) consisting of five comps in the north of England and three in the south also appeared.

Indoor climbing has evolved dramatically over the intervening years, both in terms of the style of movement and the design of the walls. As a competitive sport it now finds itself at a defining moment in its history with the combined disciplines of lead, boulder and speed at the Tokyo Games. Look out for DMM athlete Kyra Condie. You can read about her Olympc qualifying journey and overcoming idiopathic scoliosis along the way here.