Getting high

Speed climbing is what is says on the tin: climbing at speed. The objective is to climb a standard wall with a height of 15 metres as quickly as possible. Speed climbing is actually one of three disciplines – the others being ‘bouldering’ and ‘lead’ –  that together comprise Sport Climbing. This combined category will be included as an Olympic sport for the first time in Tokyo, 2020.

The history of Sport Climbing is relatively brief. It seems to have developed from Sportroccia, which was the first international competition for climbers held in different locations in Italy from 1985 to 1989. This led to the first World Championships in Frankfurt in 1991, since which there has been a Sport Climbing World Championship event held every two years.

The inclusion of speed climbing as one of the disciplines in Sport Climbing has always been controversial. Many climbers regard the techniques required to climb at speed to be at odds with the skills that are needed for genuine outdoor climbs. Like in the picture at the header of this post.

The controversy is such that even though Sport Climbing will be in the Olympics for the first time in 2020, a new format is being proposed for the 2024 Olympics in which Speed Climbing is separated as a discipline from the other two categories.

Anyway, leaving the controversy aside, climbing 15 metres doesn’t sound too daunting until you look at a picture of what it entails…

For experienced climbers a wall like this isn’t particularly challenging, but speed climbers have the additional task of competing against both an opponent – who is simultaneously completing an identical course – and the clock. The current world records are 5.48 seconds for men and 6.995 seconds for women. Just to put that in perspective: the men’s record corresponds to a speed of almost 10 km per hour. Vertically. With not much to hold onto.

The women’s world record was actually set very recently by the Indonesian female climber Aries Susanti Rahayu – nicknamed Spiderwoman. You can see her record breaking climb here.

The men’s world record is held by by Iranian climber Reza Alipourshenazandifar in 2017. (Performance here.)

Like my recent discussion about marathon times, what’s interesting about speed climbing from a statistical point of view is trying to assess what the fastest possible climb time might be.

The following graphs shows how the records have fallen over time for both men and women.

Though irregular, you could convince yourself that the pattern for women’s records is approximately following a straight line. On the other hand, notwithstanding the lack of data, the pattern for men seems more like a curve that could be levelling off. These two observations aren’t mutually consistent though, as they would suggest that not too far into the future the women’s record will be faster than the men’s, which is implausible – though not impossible – for biological reasons.

This illustrates a number of difficulties with statistical modelling in this type of context:

  1. We have very few data to work with;
  2. To predict forwards we need to assume some basic pattern for the data, but the choice of pattern – say linear or curved – is likely itself to affect how results extrapolate into the future;
  3. Separate extrapolations for women and men might lead to incompatible results;
  4. As also discussed in the context of predicting ultimate marathon times, an extrapolation based just on numbers ignores the underlying physics and biology which ultimately determines what the limits of human capacity are.

Maybe have a look at the data yourselves and write to me if you have ideas about what the ultimate times for both men and women might be. I’ll post any suggestions and perhaps even add ideas of my own in a future post.

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