High Drama Book Review: History and Intrigue Dominate

Competition climbing wasn’t always a thing.

People used to just try hard on real rock and rain mattered. But like sport climbing, then bouldering, then gyms… love it or hate it, the trend has taken root and is here to stay.

Comp (short for “competition”) climbing is a sub-discipline of the sport that takes place indoors and puts athletes into structured events designed to “see who’s the best,” or something like that. Kinda like the tennis or golfing version of climbing.

Since lead, speed, and bouldering were admitted into the Olympics for 2020 2021, I was curious: Why did it take so long for the sport to be included?

I also wanted to know more about what comp climbing is about, and to some extent, who is interested in this anyway?

“If given the choice between going bouldering or watching a world class climbing comp, I’d rather watch the climbing comp,” says John Burgman, one of the leading voices on the sport.

Wait. What?

“People can’t wrap their head around that,” he professes.

John has been tracking comp climbing since 2014, regularly writes on the topic for Climbing Magazine and Climbing Business Journal, and is a frequent guest on Plastic Weekly, an indoor and competitive climbing industry podcast. 

He also recently released High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, in early March, to cover the topic in more—well, much more—depth.

The final of the girls’ sport climbing at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires on 9 October 2018.” Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons


Anyways, a few weeks ago I didn’t know much about comp climbing. Now I do.

Working through the fast-paced historical account, a few things stood out: 1) The story is fraught with tales of intrigue and 2) John loves history. 

He must have interviewed dozens of key players from the annals and frankly, only Sauron and John know how he managed to keep track of the details. After awhile, my head began to swim like soup trying to follow all the names, places, feats, and spectacles.

Still, John has a ceramicists’ touch to smooth out a vast quantity of material to make something appreciably easy on the eyes, that’s readable and entertaining.


John tracks the story beginning in late-80s:

“One hazy afternoon in 1987, a young California rock climber named Jim Thornburg met up with a longtime friend, Scott Frye, to carry out an ambitious plan.”


The duo loaded up their car with epoxy and rocks gathered from Tuolumne in Yosemite, and headed towards a quiet on-ramp at the back of Lake Temescal reservoir northeast of Oakland. Their plan was to glue holds onto the girders, and in doing so, they created some of the earliest artificial climbing routes in The States. 

Contrast those humble beginnings to today’s super-mega 50,000+ square feet climbing gyms, and you get a sense of how things have grown.

“America’s largest climbing gym is now open in Englewood.” Photo by Helen H. Richardson of The Denver Post

Said another way, climbing has evolved. Fast

While the book covers 30 years of the sport, it feels like 3 or 5 generations have passed in that time. If you read too quickly, it’s like Robin Williams’ Jack all up in here (points to head), or Lisa’s colony of small beings.

From a trad-only ethos that peaked with the Stonemasters to gym-only super climbers of today, there’s a veritable cast of characters that have helped develop the sport.  

You’ll recognize names like Lynn Hill, Jeff Lowe, and Alison Osius, will probably have heard of people such as Hans Florine or Mia Axon, and may not know about (but should!) the contributions of folks like Kynan Waggoner, Jackie Hueftle, and Scott Rennak, among countless others. 


Heck, just take a gander at the Olympic roster to see evolution in action.

In 1989, Robyn Erbesfield (now Erbesfield-Raboutou) and Didier Raboutou met while competing at the Second International Sport Climbing Competition (ISCC) at Snowbird, organized by Jeff Lowe. The event was also the second ever World Cup event in the U.S. (following the first iteration of the ISCC the year prior, where the Finals route was rated in the low 5.13s). If the last name sounds familiar, that’s because Brooke Raboutou, their daughter, is on the inaugural Olympic team, while their son, Shawn, now boulders V16.

“Many people feel that sport climbing will eventually be included in the Olympics,” suggests a recap of the event in a Climbing article at the time. 

Prescient. But it would still be a long road to 2020, with a lot of history to be made along the way. 

You can buy John Burgman’s High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing on Amazon. 

Please note: Amazon affiliate links were used in this post.

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