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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Boltukhova

Climbing: To Compete Or Not To Compete?

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

For one of New Zealand's top performing climbers, Cirrus Tan, there is no question. Learn more about the perspective and philosophy on competitive climbing from the reigning queen of the NZ National Combined Climbing Competition.

All photos courtesy of the author


I live in a far away place called New Zealand. The climbing scene is quite different here compared to other parts of the world. For many years, climbing has been viewed as an outdoor hobby, rather than a competitive sport. I feel like we are about 5 years behind in terms of climbing development, coaching, and facilities. Nevertheless, I got into climbing about 12 years ago, and have latched onto it ever since! 

Photo by Break the Resistance

Lucky for me, there was a climbing wall at my high school which caught my eye. That was the beginning of it all! I fell into my first competition quite early on. The school team needed one more female climber to be in the ‘mixed’ category, so I put my hand up. At that stage I was keen to represent my school in a sport, and this was the first chance I had. Much to my excitement, our team ended up winning the competition!

I never excelled at team sports in school (poor hand-eye coordination) and I didn't like the idea of relying on teammates for an outcome of winning or losing. Basically, I am a bit of a control freak and I found comfort in climbing as it was all about how I move on the wall. I climbed through the crux because I read the sequence well and cranked hard, or I fell off because I didn’t focus on applying pressure through my feet. It was also the only time that I felt truly present and absorbed in an activity. Competitions were a great way for me to stay motivated and really challenge myself on climbs I've never rehearsed before. I liked combining the elements of strategy, mental preparation, strength and technique, all under pressure. 

Photo by Tom Hoyle

There seems to be quite a divide amongst competitive climbers vs outdoor climbers in New Zealand. There are very few climbers who compete at a high level, as well as excel in the outdoor scene. I think that comes down to the kiwi mentality too. We are quite relaxed and like to do things for fun. We don't like to boast about our achievements and show that we are training hard for placings in competitions. We seem to get more respect in the climbing community if our achievements are based outdoors.

But I liked competitions because I loved the challenge of it. How often do we get to truly test ourselves on new climbs against athletes at a high level? Because I committed to training for competitions, I found that training in the indoor bouldering gym for 2 hrs was more efficient than spending all day at the crag. This was a sad realisation, as I also enjoyed the social/exploration element of climbing. Due to this, I felt like I wasn’t cool enough to hang with the ‘real’ climbers anymore, and people stopped inviting me outdoors. I went through quite a lonely period, because I struggled to find climbing partners that wanted to train indoors with me, especially when outdoor conditions were good for sending. But for me, it was a case of priorities at that moment.

Photo by Eddie Fowke

With competition climbing, comes a lot of sacrifice. When I realised I couldn’t focus on climbing competitions and climbing outdoors at a high level, I was able to truly focus and felt confident in myself. I didn’t have anything to prove. For me, I won't always have the opportunity for competing. Competitions occur on specific dates and specific venues, so it is a big commitment for me to structure my year around them. Part of me also feels that as I get older and other priorities come up in my life, I may not be able to put as much energy into training and traveling. On the other hand, these outdoor climbs/boulders will always be there, waiting for my return. This focus led me to winning the National Combined Climbing Competition in 2019, and also winning the National Bouldering Series in Auckland and Christchurch recently.

I have climbed at many gyms/crags over the world, and I have seen a few differences. I noticed there was a larger population of strong female climbers internationally. For me, there aren’t many other strong female climbers that I can train with, so I found this really refreshing! I also found that there were more climbers that would do specific training for their climbing - not just climb!. Resistance training, mobility work, and psychology. This was also refreshing for me! As New Zealand climbing industry develops more and more, I’m sure we will continue to chase and close the gap on the international scene. 


About the author:

Photo by Eddie Fowke

I live in Christchurch, New Zealand. I won the National Combined Climbing Competition in 2019, and competed at a high level nationally in Lead and Boulder for over 8 years. Throughout my climbing, I have also been coaching alongside, with my philosophy around strength and conditioning for climbers. I have a strong connection to the female climbing community, and focus on helping female climbers get stronger so they can climb harder.

For online coaching or general chit chat, please connect with me via @chicksnchalk or check out my website for coaching and training videos, specifically for helping female climbers climb harder!


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