Master of Rock

Posted by Alex Messenger on 02/04/2008
The Arco Rockmaster. Photo: Messenger.

It’s the Wimbledon of climbing - and we won. Summit was there.

If there was one event that I’ve always wanted to win, it’s this one,” grinned Gaz Parry. “It really stands out. It was the second competition ever, and you only get to come if you’re invited. You’ve got to be climbing really well, and on top of that, be very lucky.”

Gaz was wanting no more. He’d just won the Sinc Rock Bouldering Contest, part of the Arco Rock Master festival in Italy, the so-called Wimbledon of climbing. But if winning took him by surprise, the invite wasn’t entirely unexpected - Gaz was on form, he’d just come first in another invitational-only bouldering event, the Nissan Outdoor Games at Interlaken in Switzerland. And in the IFSC Bouldering World Cup series he’d made 20th in Fiera di Primiero, Italy, 7th in La Reunion, France 19th at Sofia, Bulgaria and 5th at Erlangen, Germany. He hadn’t been slacking outside either, ticking Font 8b both at home and abroad.

Arco Rockmaster is a legendary event, the oldest and most famous climbing competition in the world. It was first held in 1987 on the cliffs dominating the centre of the small mountain town of Arco, and the year after moved to its new home - a permanent outdoor wall below those same cliffs. Over 6000 spectators make the pilgrimage each year for two packed days, comprising of three events. There’s the classic Rock Master, which sets the ten best competition climbers in the world against each other in a mix of on-sighting and redpointing, the Sint Roc Bouldering Contest, and finally the speed competition - a head-to-head sprint between the fastest in the world.

Calling it a competition doesn’t fully do justice to the sheer spectacle of the event however. Climbing competitions in the UK are often dusty affairs, tucked away in the corner of an exhibition hall, watched by fellow competitors and a few bemused bargain shoppers resting their feet. This was something very different. This was thousands of climbing-fit beautiful young things taking over an achingly chic Northern Italian mountain town for the weekend. And the town welcoming them with open arms, bars, and gelateries. Climbing made as truly fashionable as British marketeers can only dream of.

The crowds pool from all over; Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic. In fact, judging by their compulsory tanned and lean appearance, everywhere apart from Britain. They come to see the very best climbers in the world chalk up, pull on to the steep competition wall and battle it out. To see them follow its arc into the cobalt sky before being rudely jettisoned in front of a roaring crowd. And the climbers don’t disappoint their fans, digging deep, screaming, giving gritty performances to analyse over that evening’s small beers and large pizzas.

The competitors include Patxi Usobiaga and Ramon Julian Puigblanque from Spain, some of the very best in the world, yet operating off the English radar. What have they ever done on grit? Anything they want to. Paxti has on-sighted F8c, and numerous F8b+s, he is by any definition, a true climbing machine. But whilst they might stand a chance of going unnoticed at Stanage, the same doesn’t apply here, not with their posters adorning every shop window, and certainly not with the creation of the Arco Rock Master Legends Award.

The Arco Rock Master Legends is Arco’s way of bringing a dash of the Oscars to their Wimbledon, a way of celebrating global climbing achievements. Not all climbs of course, the focus is on the European style - safe and hard; sport, competition and boulder. This year was the second year of the Awards, and there were two categories, the Salewa Rock Award (for sport climbing or bouldering) and the La Sportiva Competition Award (for the most impressive competitor last season). Patxi Usobiaga (27) won the former, David Lama (17) from Austria the latter, with all nominees heralded at a glitzy ceremony, presided over by a glamorous Italian TV starlet.

Just because you’re a legend at 17 doesn’t meant that you’ll get an easy ride at this competition though, not in this company. And after much screaming it was Ramon Julian Puigblanque from Spain who was crowned the male Rock Master, and Angela Either from Austria floated her way to the top and the female title. But as far as team UK was concerned, all this was just a very tall sideshow; we all knew that the main event was the bouldering, and the main man, Gaz Parry.

Gaz wouldn’t have seen too much of the Rock Master on Saturday. His day began at 10am, when, alongside his fellow competitors, he got 80 minutes to work the four problems (all around the Font 7c-8a mark). Then, due to the August temperatures, a long sleep before the competition started at 11pm. Yep. 11pm on a Saturday night, and not a kebab in sight, just a well-behaved crowd of thousands assembled to cheer the boulderers on.

From the very outset Nalle Hukkataival from Finland was outstanding. He flashed the first three out of the four problems with shocking ease. However our Gaz wasn’t idle either, he flashed the same number, just with a bit more noise. And so, at the final problem, it was Gaz and Nalle lined up alongside local hope Gabriele Moroni, and each had a chance of winning. It soon became clear that Gabriele was outclassed; this was to be Lancashire versus Finland.

All three dashed themselves against the plywood boulder, taking turns to inch higher into the warm night. One had to beat the other in front of the crowd, performance now was everything. Lancashire and Finland both fared well, but both got to a sticking point trying to get a small hold on a hanging arête. Gaz would try to reach the hold from a crimp under the roof, while Nalle tried to get the arête itself and hold this with his left hand. Ultimately, however, neither got the problem, it was to be a draw. The crowd sighed.

The organisers were a wiley lot however, they wanted a winner, and suddenly announced that both climbers would have one more go, whoever got the highest would win. Gaz went first. From his crimp under the roof, he changed sequence, and held the arête Nalle had used with his right hand. Then, trying to reach through with his left, he plopped off. Next, Nalle tried again. Getting to the same point, he once again failed to hold the arête. It was over, Gaz had won. The crowd roared their approval. Five thousand accented voices chanting his name into the inky night.

A day later and Gaz was still grinning. “I knew he’d do that,” he explained. “I just knew it, and I knew that by changing my sequence I’d beat him.” Spoken like a true Rock Master.

Visit www.rockmaster.com for full results and event information. Article by Alex Messenger based on original report from Niall Grimes.

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