Is Europe Taking America’s Lunch on the Rocks? Yes…and No.

Is Europe Taking America’s Lunch on the Rocks? Yes…and No.

To wrap up the discussion from last week about the perceived superiority of European sport climbers compared to American sport climbers is this guest post by Urban Climber Editor Justin Roth:

I think the reason American (and North American … are Canadians included in this?) climbers on the whole are “behind” (I actually don’t think they’re behind in any true sense, but since that’s the premise of this and Peter Beal’s posts, it’s where I’ll begin) is the same reason American climbers are behind Euros in the competition world: Culture.

Kilian Fischhuber recently told me that he felt American climbing culture valued first (or just hard) ascents on rock far more than it does good comp results. The reason behind this, he suggested, was that comps are much bigger affairs in Europe. If you’re in the finals in a major European comp, you end up on national TV, which is of more value to sponsors than a report from the field of a 5.14d first ascent. The visibility and history of European comps are different than in the States, hence, you have more Euros (Patxi Usobiaga, Anna Stöhr, Fischhuber, etc. … ) who focus on and do well in comps. Our best climbers (especially the men, like Sharma, Woods, Robinson, Graham, etc. …) focus on rock and so don’t have great World Cup records (not to mention the fact that we only have one World-level climbing event in the States at the moment — another aspect of the cultural divide). So the culture of climbing in the US isn’t as interested in comp results as is the Euro culture — the results, then, should come as no surprise. (Of course, things are changing, comps are becoming bigger here, but that’s another discussion.)

So what does this have to do with American’s being “behind” Euros on the sport front? Well, first, if you count Sharma as an American climber (being that he more or less lives in Spain these days), you already have someone performing at roughly the same level as the top Europeans, like Ondra and Usobiaga. But he’s not just repeating 5.14d in a few tries, he’s putting up 5.15 FAs (the American climbing culture loves FAs — maybe it’s part of that frontier mentality, always blazing new trails. …). Sharma (and Graham?) aside, another cultural difference between the US and Europe, I propose, is that the roots of sport climbing, bolting climbs, and even climbing for numbers, go much deeper in Europe. In the US, bolting has been, and in many places still is, considered taboo. It’s seen as destroying the natural environment, leaving your mark on a wild place that should be preserved for others, or even a form of cowardice (gear takes more guts and more ingenuity, right? Ever heard of the Bolt Wars?). This is mostly because we have so much terrain here in the states that accepts gear. Our culture puts trad climbing up on a bit of pedestal, and looks down on those who “number chase.” Euros, with their relative dearth of trad climbing areas (except in the mountains), do not have the same historic gear-climbing culture. And being that they have loads of steep limestone, and that their climbing history is older and more pervasive than ours (am I going out on a limb when I say that, per capita, many more people climb regularly in Europe than they do in the United States? And that many generations of a family climb, and climb together?), given this, it’s not a shocker that more of the general populace would climb at a higher level on sport routes than in America.

You could easily flip the scenario and ask: why are Europeans behind Americans in the trad game? Why aren’t more Europeans putting up super-hard big-wall routes, like Tommy Caldwell in El Cap? Why did the American climbers Matt Segal, Kevin Jorgeson, and Alex Honnold crush the standard on grit when they went to England recently? Probably due to the unique American cultural emphasis on two things: gear-protected climbing and highball bouldering. In short, holding two cultures up next to each other and saying this one is “behind” the other is this or that regard is to take things out of context. It’s certainly no big deal to do this, but I think it reveals maybe too glib an interpretation of micro trends in the reported (with emphasis on reported) ascents. And you know, some of the American youth competitors these days may well be climbing in the upper 5.14 range, but, mostly due to culture, they haven’t yet had much chance to get out of the gym and onto real rock.

So basically, I’d say two things: 1) American climbers may be “behind” Euros in some specific instances. That is to say, they may not be making headlines with big numbers on sport routes at the moment. But such a comparison is not apples to apples, and when taken into a larger context, things look a bit different. In the larger context, it’s clear that Americans have been and continue to do amazing things on other fronts — hard, high boulder problems are going up here and abroad under American tips; and Americans continue to do hard trad climbs. And 2) cultural differences can be seen as a reasons for any such differences in aptitudes. There are counterexamples all over the place, but on the whole, I think what each culture values can been seen as a reasonable explanation of why each culture’s climbers climb the way they do at the level they do.

Maybe the real question is: why are so many of the America’s best climbers attracted to Europe? Graham has flirted with ex-patriotism for years now, Sharma just bought a house in Spain, Woods, Jon Cardwell, Joey Kinder, Sean McColl, and Robinson have all made extended visits to ol’ Europa (heck, many are there right now, or will be soon…). So I ask you: what gives? Is American stone losing its luster? Or is it all part of the cycle?

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37 Responses to Is Europe Taking America’s Lunch on the Rocks? Yes…and No.

  1. Adrian September 28, 2009 at 9:15 am #

    Very nice article. I think the author is right on the money when referencing the cultural divide between Europe and America. I feel like as a whole, Europe has embraced climbing into its mainstream and allowed it to flourish more. Many strong Euro climbers of this generation have grown up with climbing since birth, their parents immersing them in the culture from a very young age. It’s an interesting topic. That said, and after experiencing both cultures, I wouldn’t really advocate that America rise to the same level of comp craziness found in Europe simply to “catch up” so to speak.

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  2. TimS September 28, 2009 at 9:58 am #

    I think the current trend for American visits to Europe is due to the better quality of the sport climbing here. From what I can see climbers such as Graham, Kinder and Cardwell had pretty much climbed out rifle and repeated some of the other hard testpieces, as well as putting up a few of their own at out of the way crags. In Europe (S of France especially) there is so much limestone you could walk 20 mins from the road and develop a whole new crag if you wanted to (look at the Petzl roctrips in Millau for example). Or you can spend weeks working through well established classics on some of the best limestone in the world. As the trendsetters for the newer generation (Woods and Robinson) are now into sport climbing, I can only see the number of American visitors increasing.

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  3. smitty September 28, 2009 at 10:04 am #

    I kept waiting for the author to touch on the real reason why the Euros are eating our lunch at the crags, but he never did. As a climber with 30+ years invested at the crags, the big difference I notice in the demographics from years past is the almost complete absence of younger climbers. They’re all bouldering. We basically lost a generation of climbers, most of whom would have excelled at climbing, who instead got sucked into the bouldering fad and spent their formative years learning to disdain anything taller that 15′ and are now basically stuck there. Part of that is because of the admittedly excellent bouldering in the States, also we really don’t have a single sport crag in the States (except maybe the Red in Kentucky) that compares even to an average crag in Europe, let alone Ceuse or Rodellar. But the best boulderers from previous generations would never have dreamed of being just bouldering specialists, bouldering was viewed as training, not an end in itself.

    I also don’t really buy the “cultural” angle as an excuse, look at the Stonemasters from the ’70’s, almost all of whom came from middle class homes in LA or SF and excelled because they adopted the counter-culture climbing lifestyle, there’s nothing preventing the current generation from doing likewise except lack of passion and dedication. Yeah we have guys like Caldwell and Honnold pushing free climbing on El Cap, but the vast majority of people repeating El Cap free routes are…Europeans. 2 of the free routes on El Cap had first free ascents by five-foot-tall girls. C’mon guys it can’t be that bad…

    So yeah from my perspective it’s sad not to see the current generation not step like previous ones have. I read a post on a bouldering blog (b3bouldering.com) a few weeks ago where the blogger wrote that the next step in the progression of climbing from bouldering was gym climbing! Thankfully a lot of the top US boulderers are starting to rope up, hopefully we’ll start to see the pendulum swing the other way because of their example.

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  4. justin roth September 28, 2009 at 10:20 am #

    in some ways, i totally agree with smitty. i think bouldering has pulled young, strong climbers away from route climbing for the time being. but i also think that’s part of the cultural divide i’m talking about — bouldering is more center stage in american climbing culture, and thus it’s not a shocker that more and more top climbers are psyched on it. but as you’ll see in the new movie “Progression,” sharma has taken his bouldering prowess back to the roped realm, with stunning results. i think that’ll be a trend: as more americans bred in gyms or raised on bouldering grow up, they’ll start to try other types of climbing and will likely break through to whole new levels. (not sure the stonemasters example goes very far in proving or disproving the cultural angle. …)

    also, alex johnson this weekend told me that she was very psyched on europe these days. i asked her why. she said, “the culture.” more laid back, more communal. from my experiences in germany, france, england, greece, and italy, i can say that seems to ring very true. maybe it’s not just the stone, but the mindset of europe that draws our top guns. … just a thot. …

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  5. chris schulte September 28, 2009 at 10:37 am #

    for me, european climbing means great stone, short approaches, vacation food, new sights, and most importantly: a climbing culture that supports the success of the participant, no matter the level of experience. Of course, being human, I’m certain that there are scuffles and rivalries amongst european climbers, but every time I’ve been (for a total of 4 winters), I’ve seen and heard (and felt) the positive vibe that the average climber puts out to anyone who shares in the pursuit. Never been hated off a boulder in europe.. Comp climbing may be huge there, but competition outside is replaced with encouragement, something that american climbers could learn to utilize.. good times tend to result in good performance.

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  6. mb September 28, 2009 at 11:08 am #

    Not really a fair comparison, as you are comparing America (1 country) to Europe (many countries) If you took any individual country in Europe and compared it to America I doubt we would be “behind.”
    Another stupid meaningless comparison by people who have nothing better to do than blog.

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    • smitty September 28, 2009 at 11:52 am #

      What difference does that make? France is smaller than Texas, they all climb in each other’s countries and they’re all on the same currency. Trust me there’s way more difference in the US between the coastal metro areas and the fly-over states, than there is between the countries in Europe.

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  7. Team Ramrod September 28, 2009 at 11:53 am #

    The area occupied by the one country of the United States is 3.79 million square miles, while Europe is 3.93 million miles squared. While Europe may be composed of many countries, it is not significantly larger than the US.
    It’s all about the motion in the ocean, not the size of the boat.

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  8. sweatpants September 28, 2009 at 11:55 am #

    way to contribute MB.

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  9. eurotrip September 28, 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    i think justin roth should check more than 8a.nu before saying no euro´s do first ascents. 🙂

    looking at the latest posts on Hot flashes on climbing.com I see robert jasper doing a solo first free ascent of the eiger, canadians doing FA´s on baffin, Swedes doing FAs in greenland and a german/austrian team doing FFAs in canada.

    Nicolas Favresse and his friends have done a lot of first ascents and FFA´s around the world, check patagonias tin shed for a film from patagonia and UKClimbing.com for a report from baffin.

    Leo Houlding and a team have just completed a new route on baffin too. a film will be out soon.

    I guess some euro´s can do hard trad too..

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    • justin roth September 28, 2009 at 12:33 pm #

      to quote myself: “There are counterexamples all over the place, but on the whole, I think what each culture values can been seen as a reasonable explanation of why each culture’s climbers climb the way they do at the level they do.”

      generalizing for the sake of discussion — if we looked at every counter-example in a discussion so amazingly broad, we wouldn’t be able to say anything. there are americans climbing hard sport, and euros climbing hard trad, but what are the larger trends in those two cultures? that’s the discussion.

      of course, to deeply address the question of differences between american and euro climbing cultures, one would need many hundreds of pages…and a whole lot of free time.

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      • eurotrip September 28, 2009 at 4:17 pm #

        fair enough, but I don´t feel that europe is all about sport. Obviously if you go to europe to sport climb at ceuse, rodellar and santa linea you´ll find people into sport climbing.

        how about the brits in general? they really get their panties in a bunch if someone bolts anything, even top rope anchors (or thats how it seems to an outsider). Although it seems they have a thing for hard if-you-fall-you-die-or-mangle-yourself-routes not just hard routes.

        Here would Dave MacLeod be the prime example. He´s hard as nails on boulders, ice, mixed, sport and trad. I´ll venture as far as saying he´s probably the best all round climber in the world.

        In addition to him there is a bunch of great trad climbers, allround climbers and what have you.

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  10. Matt September 28, 2009 at 12:44 pm #

    Something I don’t see mentioned, but perhaps it falls under the “culture divide” is the accessibility and population density that exists in Europe. It seems that every valley in Europe is not only accessible but has some form of public transit to get you there. One of the issues you confront in America is a lack of development in the mountains which leads to extremely long approaches for those interested in crag development. The obvious exception is the Red, which I would stack next to any crag in Europe. The red also has loads of young talent and it is just a matter of time before they start busting out really big grades. The projects at the chocolate factory? Remember too that most of the development at the red didn’t get into full swing until the 90’s with porter.

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    • Narc September 28, 2009 at 12:50 pm #

      I agree about the Red from a climbing perspective, but it certainly falls short when it comes to other factors like rest day activities and the like.

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    • smitty September 28, 2009 at 1:56 pm #

      “It seems that every valley in Europe is not only accessible but has some form of public transit to get you there.”

      Three of the best sport crags I’ve been to, Ceuse, Rodellar and Gorge du Tarn, have no public trans. You need a car in Europe unless you’re just going to one crag and staying there, and even then you’re basically stuck in the campground.

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  11. Joe Kinder September 28, 2009 at 1:56 pm #

    There is LOTS more to challenge you in Europe, and WAY better stone. (Speaking of limestone sport climbing). The standards ARE higher here and it is the best place to learn, be humbled and adapt to another standard. I always say it is easiest to improve when you are surrounded by people that are better than you.

    Great post.

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  12. peter b September 28, 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    My response to Justin’s comments are at my blog. Needless to say I disagree.

    http://www.mountainsandwater.com/2009/09/is-europe-taking-americas-lunch-on.html

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  13. OBdizzy September 28, 2009 at 3:09 pm #

    (continuing with what Matt said)
    So, speaking with the limited perspective of someone who is not very psyched on sportclimbing, and has never been off the North American continent, it seems kind of simple why we don’t have higher sport climbing standards in the USA; most of our good sport area are 100s of miles from large population centers. If you can manage to live in BFE Utah or Wyoming(or Kentucky) there’s awesome stone, but most of us are a really long way from any quality routes and if you’re pumping plastic, the action is close to the ground.

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  14. justin roth September 28, 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    My response to Peter’s response is up on Peter’s site: http://www.mountainsandwater.com/

    And I’d just like to add that I entered this little discussion in the first place for the main purpose of spurring/continuing debate. I don’t take too seriously any one viewpoint, especially on something as sprawling and subjective as this topic. Peter, Narc, and most of the commenters have valid points and none of us are “right” in any grand sense — this topic is too slippery to tackle with an off-the-cuff blog post; if you want to get to the bottom of things and come to any larger, truly defensible position on how and why one community stacks up against another, you’d have to do a little research (imho).

    All this is to say: It’s all in good fun. Ultimately, and to quote the Narc, “We have to do something until the next time we can go climbing, don’t we?”

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  15. Luke September 28, 2009 at 5:43 pm #

    Brit vs Euro perspective:

    http://www.ukclimbing.com/forums/t.php?t=374303

    “The Brits in the late eighties and early nineties were pretty much on top, but that has changed badly.”

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  16. thedirtbag September 28, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

    This seems like a topic for Freakonomics. Justin hints at economics of professional climbing altering the trajectory of respective climbers on different continents. Climbers also dictate the emphasis of climbing companies. I’m not saying our actions are controlled by the man, but every community has a certain herd mentality. It seems like every US generation migrates across the pond for a while.

    Just to add a little data, a german climber (I forget his name now) was out at Index last trying what could potentially be considered one of the most sand bagged routes at one of the most sand bagged cliffs in the country. Homeboy absolutely walked it on his first real red point burn. Made 5.13++ R look like 5.10. He then went struggled up a single ptich 5.11 crack and ended up climbing past dark. Go figure. I guess it’s what you’re used to.

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  17. Schurr September 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    Ultimately an interesting discussion to be sure. I would venture to say that the cultural difference argument goes pretty far on this one. Having never personally climbed in Europe (although i have spent time there and the cultural difference towards any sort of athletic activity is pretty evident) i can only go on what many of my friends who have made the euro-trip have said. But i can comment on cultural conditions in the U.S. We can’t all live in Boulder or Salt Lake (the first two examples that came to mind) or other places where there is a relatively vibrant and mainstream climbing community. I live in Bishop, which has a great and vibrant climbing/mountain culture, but you would never know it if you are not part of it. There are a great many people here who still don’t understand what climbing even is. I still get asked where i am taking my mattress when i go bouldering. Climbing culture is just not mainstream in most places in this country. I mean have you ever been to Slade, there aren’t even enough locals there to fill a decent sized restaurant let alone local climbers. So good luck trying to build a large community. Not bashing the Red, in fact i love the place it’s where i learned to climb and there is a small but thriving community of climbers there. Best crag ever i feel is a good description of the Red but that’s just me. I would also venture to say that if you were to scour the crags and boulders of this country you would find plenty of people sending hard who just don’t care if it gets noticed or have no interest in the comp/pro scene. I think that because the climbing culture in Europe is so much more in the lime light that we just hear more about them. I mean come on i live in Bishop and people here still give you dirty looks or ask you if you were doing dry wall work when you have chalky hands. But long winded and rambling diatribe aside i think it was the great Alex Lowe who once said “the best climber is the one having the most fun” so really when it boils down to it who cares, let go climbing

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  18. justin roth September 28, 2009 at 7:28 pm #

    oh, and it’s jon cardwell. always ef that up…

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  19. Philip September 28, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

    In response to: “Our best climbers (especially the men, like Sharma, Woods, Robinson, Graham, etc. …) focus on rock and so don’t have great World Cup records (not to mention the fact that we only have one World-level climbing event in the States at the moment — another aspect of the cultural divide). So the culture of climbing in the US isn’t as interested in comp results as is the Euro culture — the results, then, should come as no surprise.”

    In the two years that America has hosted a world cup (and basically the first two years that most Americans bothered to compete in one at all, the US men held 2/6 and 3/6 of the top six spots. Both years an American woman won the comp, going 1-2 last year. The results do come as no surprise to me, the surprise is how on earth this is an example of Americans climbing poorly in the international competition scene.

    As for the sport climbing arguments: It’s quite possible that the hardest route in the world is not only in the US, but FA-ed by an American (Jumbo Love). On the same token, it’s possible that the strongest route climber in the world right now is American (Sharma). Sure, overall there are more European climbers who can consistently pull down in the 5.14d – 5.15 range, but I would hardly say America is far behind.

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  20. mb September 28, 2009 at 11:34 pm #

    It does make a difference in the comparison, and size certainly does not matter (in this sense). The great plains, roughly a third of the country, have no climbing at all. The population density in Europe and proximity to climbing is much greater, as is the population as a whole (750 mil. in Europe, 300 mil. in the U.S., and they have the rock to produce tons of hard routes. Accessibility and population combo meal.
    Regardless, America schools any country in Europe, even though the food is better there. The crags in the US are way more unique, varied, and not just about big numbers (ever try a 12a in Indian Creek? Not really on the same level as the 12a’s in Rodellar, yeah, it’s overrated a bit over there, particularly at the newer sport cliffs (as it is here)).
    That said, there are many strong euros right now and the sport is more developed in most European countries.

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    • chris schulte September 29, 2009 at 9:48 am #

      indian creek vs. rodellar?
      that’s one heck of a comparison..
      as far as unique and varied, sure:
      ’cause we don’t have any good crags.

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  21. peter September 28, 2009 at 11:43 pm #

    Let’s get down to the nitty gritty:

    8a originated in europe and is therefore responsible for their dominance.

    Also, would anyone else like to discuss how Jens has been “quoting” people who all seem to talk exactly like he does? Don’t tell me it’s lost in translation – they’re english quotes!

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  22. kytoe September 29, 2009 at 6:48 am #

    Interesting discussion I’ll add a few points to:

    As already touched on, quality limestone crags of any ability are readily available in Europe. Not so here, but quality bouldering does. Boulder problems are often compared to a standard at Hueco, but comparing most lines to a given grade at Rifle doesn’t translate. Sport climbing doesn;t seem to really have a culture in the US at this point, and many routes I hear described are broken into bouldering language: a v65 followed by a v8, etc.

    European climbing culture doesn’t involve dirtbagging by choice or for extented periods of time. With so much near civilization, why sleep in your tent to extended periods of time? You may be able to pull your hardest sends when you are young and psyched and living on $5 a day but that gets old quick.

    And yes, the concept of any one person in a crew sending (climbing or bouldering) is slowly catching on the US but mostly there is still loads of ‘politive’ energy at crags that is really thinly disguised jealousy and disbelief when someone outside your fishbowl just warmed up on your project. It’s really cool when you are in Ceuse and the 40 year old pregnant mother of 2 just warmed up on your project and then ahppily gives you detailed beta and encouragement. As a whole, Europe is a more positive place to climb with less cliques and wankers.

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  23. Troussier Marco September 29, 2009 at 8:27 am #

    A different game?
    And if a lot of euro climbers would play a different game?
    Comp is gymnastic (nothing less, nothing more). But this is also culture. I don’t know top french climbers dreaming about risk (and the value it gives you for example in the Us or part of UK) as a Brit and some US climbers.
    After all Sharma was both a champion and a great climber and he still have a kind of record with 9B and many other amazing climbs. Ondra’s venue would never change that.
    About comp, here in France you can have a comp at age of 10/11 (now in bouldering also)and you can have support for that (from clubs for example). But after the Legrand/Chabot era there was a gap in France too. Then spanish came and win it was part of a new cicle.
    It’s also true that, entering a national team, you have more support, and entering a team on your early age (and at least ten years, for the best of them), you can pretend to be the best….But think about Ondra and he’s score card in 8a.nu over the past five years…..
    This is a new “evolution/revolution” that could be the norm tomorow.
    Thinking Europe as a unique country is also wrong. Uropean are fighting all to gether. But it’s true that you have the same spirit and culture in France, Italy, germany, swiss and Austria.
    To finish…why so few french climbers are trying the “big game” of freeing routes in El cap (not to mention soloing, wich is a very different question). When Caldwell say that, freeing Mescalito is a goal for ten years, you have a part of the answer (geograpy and culture)
    Last it’s so easy to travel to comp in Europe (with or without official support), that we can understand that the best climbers from US would prefer to go the cliffs fall of fixed quickdraws. A new culture becoming a new norm in the US ?

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  24. God September 29, 2009 at 9:39 pm #

    Whether I agree or not, I do have to say that was probably one of the best written climbing “articles” I’ve read in a long time. Why can’t all Urban Climber articles be of this caliber? I would pay $10.issue if all issues had writing like this. The post was very well written, thought out, and informative. I actually enjoyed reading something written by an employee of a climbing mag? Hasn’t happened in a LONG time.

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  25. flat_lander October 3, 2009 at 12:58 pm #

    I’ve noticed that this entire conversation has been dominated with a discussion of male climbers. Oddly enough, I think the differences between America and Europe are high lighted when discussing female pro’s.

    The top pro women are all KILLING hard trad (Rodden, Davis, Rands), but I never hear a word about hard female trad climbers from Europe.

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    • Troussier Marco October 5, 2009 at 9:15 am #

      True
      Catherine Destivelle went on sport climb (and comp) after doing alpine climbs , and she went back in the mountain, with several “trad” climbs but mostly alpine, new route on the Drus, Eiger/Grandes Jortasse/Cervin solo ascent in winter.
      Recently, Stéphanie Bodet did some climbs on El cap (Free rider ? )

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  26. Cyril Vion October 13, 2009 at 4:30 am #

    Hi, talking about european trad climbers, there are quiet a lot of them. Unfortunately (or fortunately), many are totally unknown.
    If I consider my colleagues at the guide company in Chamonix, I can mention a minimum of 10 guys who can climb some stuff like 5.12+/5.13 on trad multi piches routes. Out of them, one had an article in Vertical (european climbing magazine) and this is it. None of them have a website, almost none of them have sponsors, …
    I think there are a lot more climbers who are kind of pro and deal with mass media in the US compared to Europe.
    To me, the top guns are at the same level on both side of the ocean.
    But in Europe, the density of strong sport climbers seams to be more important, and this leads to a very strong dynamic at the bottom of each cliff. This might be one reason why americans sport climbers are attraced in Europe. What I said before relating to sport climing is also true for trad climbing. And this is certainly the reason why European trad climbers are attracted to Yosemite and Utah.

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