Film and TV

Speed-Climbing Film Stokes Controversy at Rock-Climbing Film Festival

Reza Alipour, aka the "Asiatic Cheetah," celebrating a speed-climbing victory.
Reza Alipour, aka the "Asiatic Cheetah," celebrating a speed-climbing victory. Courtesy of Reel Rock
Reel Rock 13, an annual rock-climbing movie festival, is coming to Denver November 15-16. And one film in particular, Up to Speed, is already stoking some pre-fest controversy.

Up to Speed focuses on speed climbing. Following the International Olympic Committee's vote to include climbing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this particular branch of the sport has attracted attention, both positive and negative, from traditional climbers. Some say that its inclusion will help climbing appeal to a wider range of people; others argue that speed climbing is not real climbing. 

Zachary Barr, a climber himself, serves as the head of production at Sender Films, the studio that produced Up to Speed. Before his work on the film, Barr was skeptical of speed climbing, and he worried about how its inclusion in the Olympics would influence the larger sport for generations to come.

"It angers real rock climbers; it's so offensive to them," says Barr, while sitting in a climbing gym in Louisville. Despite Barr's initial qualms, he and his team went forward with making the film — in part, he explains, because of the sport's expected growth.

"Tens of millions of people will see climbing for the first time. And NBC [the network covering the Olympics] is going to be showing speed climbing," says Barr, who adds that fast-paced speed climbing could be very entertaining for the prime-time audience.

The larger climbing competition will include twenty men and twenty women from across the world battling it out in three climbing categories: speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering. But medals will only be awarded for overall performance, not in each category; that means climbers will have to become competitive in all three to succeed.

click to enlarge Speed-climbing World Cup in France. - COURTESY OF REEL ROCK
Speed-climbing World Cup in France.
Courtesy of Reel Rock
While the film may not stop the hate, Up to Speed will give haters and others a chance to learn about the unorthodox climbing discipline that many of their peers are trying to master. It chronicles talented climbers, like Adam Ondra, who are trying to get better at speed climbing so that they can qualify for the Olympics.

Local climbers have already been weighing in on the film. John Brosler, is just 21 but has been climbing competitively for ten years, and has dominated the American speed-climbing circuit for the last few. He won the past five speed-climbing national championships and currently holds the national record for speed climbing.

Watching Brosler at a climbing gym in Boulder, it's easy to see why some traditional rock climbers might take issue with the sport. He shoots up the wall, climbing fifteen feet as quickly as possible. The speed-climbing track is the same across the world, so holds are in the same spots each time. Brosler has been climbing this same route for six years. "It does get boring after a while," he admits.

Still, Brosler loves the rush of competition and recognizes why the film was made. "Speed climbing gets a bad rap from climbers. It is very different," he says. "But now it's part of the Olympics, which is very cool. The film is really going to help with the growth of climbing."

Reel Rock 13  is at the
 Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, Thursday, November 15, and Friday, November 16, at 6 and 9 p.m. each night. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.