At the base of an indoor climbing route he has scaled hundreds of times, Jordan Fishman clips a carabiner to his climbing harness, dusts his hands with chalk, and readies himself for liftoff. With all ten fingers he clutches the first hold and leans back to extend his arms, twists his torso to bring his right hip against the wall, plants the ball of his left foot on a pedal on the floor behind him, and cranes his neck to stare at his target: a circular button nearly fifty feet overhead. A bystander counts him down: "Three... two... one... go!"
Fishman launches his body up and to the left. As his foot leaves the pedal, a giant, wall-mounted stopwatch begins to run. It takes Fishman just eight and a half seconds to hurl his body up the 15-meter route, slap the sensor at its apex, and stop the timer.
I am standing, astounded, at the base of the wall. With me is professional climber Alex Honnold. Best known as the subject of the Oscar-winning film Free Solo, which documented his ropeless ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan, Honnold is equally renowned in the climbing community for scaling vertiginous cliffs at palm-sweat-inducing speeds; in June 2018, almost a year to the day after free soloing El Cap, Honnold and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell set an all-time speed record of 1:58:07 on El Cap’s Nose route, a 3000-foot high, 31-pitch route that takes many climbers two or more days to complete.
Honnold, in other words, is a speed climber of a different sort. The way he ascends big walls is more akin, physiologically, to running a marathon . What Fishman does on the 15-meter indoor speed wall is more like the 100 meter dash. Regardless, game recognize game. "Pretty classic," Honnold says with a smile, as Fishman returns to the base of the climb—high praise in the laconic world of climbing. "Eh," Fishman shrugs, "I slipped a couple times."
A two-time Youth National Speed Climbing Champion, Fishman, who is only 16, is one of the fastest speed climbers in America, with a personal best of 6.38 seconds. That puts him in good standing to compete for a spot on the US climbing team at 2024's Summer Games . The sport will make its Olympic debut in 2020 in Tokyo. There, athletes from around the world will compete in three disciplines: Lead climbing, wherein climbers scale tall, overhanging walls with a rope they use to anchor themselves along a route; bouldering, in which competitors strive to complete relatively short but arduous climbs close to the ground; and speed climbing, Fishman's specialty: a race between two climbers up identical 15-meter walls.
Of the three disciplines, speed climbing is the oddball. Lead and bouldering routes change from competition to competition, forcing climbers to think on the fly as they approach each sequence of holds anew. But the speed route has been the same for more than a decade—right down to the shape, size, position, and even texture of the wall's 20 hand holds and 11 foot holds. Because the route is standardized, climbers can practice it year-round, ingraining in their minds and muscles the the sequence of moves that will get them to the top as fast as possible.
It also means that—unlike in lead and bouldering—there are all-time speed records . The fastest time belongs to Reza Alipour—a charismatic Iranian climber with arms and legs visibly larger and more sinewy than most speed climbers, who are already an uncommonly brawny and sinewy set—who set the world record in 2017 with a time of 5.48 seconds.
Alipour owes much of his dominance to an astounding sequence of movements that he performs at the start of each climb. The Reza, as it's come to be known in speed-climbing circles, involves skipping the route's fourth hand-hold. The feat requires explosive power and spectacular coordination to pull off, but it shortens the path that a climber must travel from the base of the wall to the top. It's essentially the Fosbury flop of speed climbing: For the athletes like Fishman who can pull it off, the Reza can shave tenths of a second from their overall times.
Speed-wall techniques like the Reza can feel foreign to more traditional climbers, who tend to prize efficiency of movement and the careful placement of hands and feet over the brute power and relative imprecision that speed climbing demands. A climber like Honnold might take a more circuitous route, relying largely on his legs to ascend and keeping his hips close to the wall to preserve energy. (Indeed, when Honnold tries the speed wall, it takes him nearly 30 seconds to reach the top. His best time of the day: 22.3 seconds.) Speed wall climbers, in contrast, rely more heavily on their upper bodies, and keep their hips as square as possible to maximize their power output while minimizing their movement from side to side.
As a rule of thumb, traditional climbers seek the path of least resistance up a wall, while speed climbers like Fishman look for the most direct one. "If the path of the climber's center of mass is long, the time at the end will also be high—even if they are very quick," says Pierre Legreneur, a biomechanist at Claude-Bernard University in Lyons, France. A former French national speed climbing champion, Legreneur is confident that Alipour's record, while impressive, will come down considerably in years to come. Other time-saving moves like the Reza might be hiding along the route, waiting to be discovered by the the right climber with the right set of skills. Plus, he says, it's a young sport. The more attention it receives, and the wider the variety of climbers who attempt it, the lower the time will creep. "I think the current limit," he says, "is around 4.50 seconds."
Look to up-and-coming climbers like Fishman to do it. Speed records, by definition, belong to future generations. "Someday, somebody might climb the Nose in an hour, just like somebody will climb the speed wall in sub-five," Honnold says. "I'm like: Why not? Don't limit your vision."
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