IFSC Commentator Charlie Boscoe reports on the next two events in the Austria Climbing Summer series: the Lead competitions...
A few weeks on from the two Austria Climbing Summer Series Boulder events we had a couple of Lead events in Imst, host of many World Cups back in the day but none since 2016. The wall there is absolutely massive and with the IFSC reducing the time limit for Lead from 8 minutes to 6 a few years back, a wall as big as Imst didn't seem to have a place in the modern climbing landscape. As it turns out, time was barely a factor in any of the finals, so maybe the legendary overhang of Imst aren't so obsolete after all…
The events were only three days apart, with the first taking part on Monday 3 August and the second on Thursday 6. There might not have been much time between the two events but the weather couldn't have been much different, with torrential rain during the first event ruling out us getting much atmosphere. Arriving at the venue I was keen to see the action but there's nothing more psyche-killing than pouring rain, and it felt strange to be tucked in a room beneath the wall to do the commentary - there certainly wasn't much crowd ambience to feed off!
Luckily the action on the wall was good, with the men's final being particularly enjoyable. On the women's side we had 2 Swiss and 6 Austrians (the Austrian Climbing Federation were given permission to invite 4 climbers per gender from both Germany and Switzerland to all the Summer Series events), and I was particularly looking forward to seeing regular World Cup finalist Anne-Sophie Koller (SUI) in action again having not seen her climb for almost a year.
The route for the women was well set but the bottom was possibly a little too easy, meaning that we saw everybody complete at least 44 moves before falling. Personally (and maybe I'm biased because I have to keep talking throughout the attempts) I like it when the routes kick in quickly and we don't have to wait too long for the thrills and spills, but the upper section of the route delivered them in spades even if the lower part was a little slow. As it turned out, Anne-Sophie looked a little off the pace and ended up 5th, with Julia Fiser (AUT) (who seems in excellent shape both indoors and out this year) taking bronze, Christine Schranz (AUT) in second and 2018 Lead World Champion Jessy Pilz (AUT) living up to expectations by winning. She actually got the same score in the final as Christine but countback to the qualifying scores gave Jessy the win. She didn't quite look like vintage Jessy (and, honestly, she hasn't since the second half of 2018) but a win is a win and she looked pretty chuffed with the result.
Over on the men's side I thought the route was brilliant, with lots of different ways of doing the moves and plenty of opportunities to be cunning, or screw things up. I wouldn't say that Sascha Lehmann (SUI) went as far as screwing up, but the one-time World Cup winner certainly didn't deliver the result he was hoping for and ended up down in 6th, just ahead of Christophe Hanke (GER) who looked strong on the route but was eventually marked down after he'd stood on an advertising sign. Why - in the 21st century - we can't find some way of getting advertising onto a climbing wall without having it stick out and be a potential cause of problems is beyond me. Same goes for bolts...
Moving on (before I start ranting), Georg Parma (AUT) continued his exceptional summer by picking up 3rd, Martin Tekles (GER) had all sorts of mini-epics on the route but battled his way to 2nd, and Jakob Schubert (AUT) did what he so often does by topping out and showing everyone else how it's done. Even Jakob looked like he struggled on the last few moves so they really must have been hard, and after the event I overheard a conversation between him and Chief Route Setter Jacopo Larcher where Jakob described the last handhold for the left hand as "voll scheiss", which made me giggle.
For event number two the sun was beating down and the wall looked magnificent with the snow-capped peaks of the Tirol behind it. Sadly the sun didn't last long because the finals didn't start until 8.30 p.m. but the cameramen could but miss for the first hour or so of the broadcast and we got some great shots. The action was superb too, with a small but vocal crowd adding to the atmosphere nicely.
In the men's event Jakob did his usual thing by winning, the only surprise being that he actually fell off before the top. In second was Christoph Hanke and Austrian youngster Mathias Posch took third. Down in 6th was Sascha Lehmann, who - as my co-commentator Danaan Markey correctly diagnosed at the time - was simply too strong and perhaps got a little over confident entering the roof section. Sascha looked really rusty on the wall and I think that the situation in 2020 is going to really mix things up as some climbers take longer than others to climb themselves back into form. You can stay reasonably strong in lockdown, but some climbers might discover that their "off the couch" competition performance is better or worse than they'd realised. There could be someone who usually finishes mid-table in World Cups but suddenly finds themselves competing for medals because they can snap right back into things, and similarly there will be climbers who take a long time to re-discover their old level. I suspect Sascha might be in the latter category but for all of us watching on I hope I'm wrong. On another note, given that they brought Sascha to the Boulder and Lead events - and also had Petra Kilngler there for the Boulder - I imagine the Swiss team will be pretty disappointed with how the Summer Series has gone.
Jakob, in stark contrast, won three of the four events and was 2nd in the other, which is a good return by any standards. Global pandemics are no match for Jakob and it would seem that while other climbers might take a while to get going again, he's right where he's always been. During the last episode of the recent Netflix docu-series, "Last Dance", Steve Kerr said that the key to Michael Jordan was that he was always completely present; "People spend years in Buddhist monasteries just to try to live in the present moment. Michael was always right there". The quote reminded me of Jakob, who gets himself where he needs to be every single time. I've said for a while that I think he'll win Olympic gold and what I've seen this summer only makes me more confident in that prediction. Matching him is one thing for the world elite but being better than him when it matters most…Good luck with that.
Over on the women's side we coincidentally had the same eight women who'd been in the first Lead final, albeit in a different order, but the bronze medal went to the same woman - Julia Fiser. Julia already has a Top-10 World Cup finish under her belt but I think she's capable of making finals in the near future. This series, plus an excellent spring climbing outdoors, must have given her a lot of confidence and I'd love to see her kick on from here.
In second was Jessy Pilz, who looked decent on the route, but not the world-beater she looked a couple of years back. Jessy qualified for the Olympics at the first time of asking in Hachioji last year but her emergence as a contender in Boulder and Combined comps seems to have come at the expense of her Lead performance. She's had an OK Summer Series but given how many of the world's best weren't taking part, I suspect she'd have wanted more than one win from the four events. Still, form is temporary but class is permanent - don't start betting against Jessy in the big comps just yet.
Out in first (by miles, frankly, even if didn't show on the scoreboard) was Christine Schranz, who climbed immaculately and never looked flustered until just before falling. It was a hugely impressive performance from Christine, who grew up very close to Imst and has been competing in World Cups since 2006. She's made plenty of finals but has never been on a World Cup podium, which seemed incredible given just how strong she looked on Thursday. I'd love to see her take this form to the World stage and finally get that elusive medal.
As I mentioned earlier, I was joined for both Lead events by Irish climber/coach/writer Danaan Markey who was great fun to work with. I've always felt that anyone Irish has a head start in life because it's just such an appealing accent to listen to, but it only works for commentary if you're using it to say something useful. Danaan brought the accent and the analysis and I loved having him there with a joke at just the right moment, and some considered insight into the action at other times. He's been coaching the German team recently and whether he pursues coaching or broadcasting, I suspect he'll be just fine in the climbing world.
The Austria Climbing Summer Series isn't done yet - we've got a four-day Combined competition between September 23rd and 26th, but in the meantime there's the small matter of the IFSC World Cup coming up in Briançon. After the year we've had I'll believe it's actually happening when the first climber gets on the wall, but hopefully we can finally get the IFSC season underway - it's been almost 10 months since the last World Cup. The only potential spanner in the works for me is that Mike Langley wants to take me to some hardcore downhill biking centre he found last year on the morning of the finals. If we appear on camera before the final looking like we've been six rounds with Mike Tyson, I apologise in advance. Still, coronavirus, mountain biking accidents and everything else aside, it's a lovely thought that something resembling climbing normality might soon return. Now let's get those fingers crossed that we can actually go ahead, and hopefully I'll speak to you from the French Alps in a couple of weeks.
1. Jakob Schubert (AUT)
2. Martin Tekles (GER)
3. Georg Parma (AUT)
1. Jessy Pilz (AUT)
2. Christine Schranz (AUT)
3. Julia Pfiser (AUT)
1. Jakob Schubert (AUT)
2. Christoph Hanke (GER)
3. Mathias Posch (AUT)
1. Christine Schranz (AUT)
2. Jessy Pilz (AUT)
3. Julia Pfiser (AUT)