Sport climbing aims to hit new heights in a post-pandemic world

Climbing was set to make its debut at the Tokyo Olympics this year, but with the games postponed, the sport's caretakers hope all the hard-fought gains to bring scaling steep ascents to a whole new level aren't lost.

With Tokyo games delayed, climbers hope gains scaling steep ascents to Olympic level not lost

Quebec climber Vincent Bonnet practises his moves in Keene, N.Y. under the supervision of other members of the Alpine Club of Canada. The Quebec government now allows outdoor climbing again, but climbers are discouraged from leaving their own region. (Submitted by Paul Robitaille)

The year 2020 promised to be a banner one for the sport of climbing.

Following decades of work by the community to build up the sport at both the recreational and competitive levels, climbing was set to make its debut at the Olympics in Tokyo this summer.

But the pandemic stopped the momentum. The Olympics are delayed until next year, and the federation responsible for climbing in Quebec says there are growing concerns, especially at the grassroots level, about the sport's ability to remain on the upward trajectory which got them to the Olympics in the first place.

In Quebec, climbing gyms remain shuttered indefinitely.

"We're just praying for them to open as soon as possible," said Matthieu Des Rochers, sporting director for the Fédération québécoise de la montagne et de l'escalade.

"We had to cancel every single event for the rest of the season."

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games staff prepare the test event of speed climbing at Aomi Urban Sports Park on March 6, just weeks before the summer games were postponed. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

Outdoor climbing OK now, but inaccessible

Climbing is on the list of approved activities released last week by Quebec's minister responsible for sports, Isabelle Charest.

But the green light came with restrictions. Climbers can only practise on natural sites, outdoors. Des Rochers says for Montrealers, that means travelling out of their region — and that's not allowed.

Paul Robitaille, president of the Alpine Club of Canada's Montreal section, says his members welcomed the news as a good first step, but they aren't jubilant.

"There were some people who were like, 'Oh, la grande region de Montreal goes as far as Tremblant,' sort of thing, jokingly. But other people said, 'No, we can't put other regions at risk,'" Robitaille said.

Paul Robitaille, president of the Montreal chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada. says the club had to cancel trips to Keen, N.Y., so it's searching for alternative sites within the province to use this summer. (Submitted by Paul Robitaille)

Complicating things further, Robitaille's members traditionally use a site in New York state as a launching point for their expeditions, and with the border closed, it could remain inaccessible for some time.

"We cancelled the majority of our outings as a club right away, and we've just been waiting to see what happens," he said.

Robitaille said the club is considering alternative sites for excursions in the Laurentians this summer. But with so much uncertainty, he's yet to go as far as to post any planned outings on his website.

Rebel spirit, within the rules

Des Rochers says rock climbers have always been known for their "rebel mentality."

He said the attitude's been, "I want to climb higher; I want to go to a space where I'm not supposed to go, and I want to do a thing that people think it's just crazy to do."

Des Rochers says some still practise the sport this way but overall, things have changed — but and in this pandemic, as the sport gradually reopens, now is not the time to fully embrace that side of it.

Toby Harper-Merrett, a vice-president with the Alpine Club of Canada, which has 15,000 members across 25 chapters in Canada, agrees.

"Climbing is not an extreme sport of only dudes with no shirts on. It's pretty broad. It's a pretty diverse community, and it's one that's very inclusive and accessible," he said.

Harper-Merrett trusts climbing enthusiasts will return to their sport responsibly and within the rules set forth by the government.

"I would encourage people to get outside and get climbing — that's great, do it. Get on a rope with your friends if that's what you normally do, and do it pairs, and stay apart from other climbers at the crag, and enjoy yourselves," he said. "There's nothing better than that."

And while 2020 didn't go as planned, Harper-Merrett is confident climbing will keep growing because there's too much enthusiasm and love for the sport for it not to hit new heights.

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