The Impact of Isolation

Like many fans of climbing, I tuned in to watch ABS Nationals this weekend. LT11 streamed the three rounds of climbing and I was surprised to find that the qualification round took over 9 hours! Qualifiers consisted of 5 boulder problems that climbers had 4 minutes each to attempt. Because of the onsight format, climbers had to wait in an isolation zone, which prevented them from watching the other competitors. This means that the person who climbed last had to wait for everyone else to climb ahead of him. With 124 competitors in the male category, the last person to climb waited nearly 9 hours.

9 hours in isolation

The wait time in isolation must impact the performance of the competitor. To help validate this gut instinct I had, I charted the competitor rankings after the qualification round versus their starting position. The results clearly show that competitors climbing sooner tend to perform better.


The y-axis and the dots are the rankings – the lower the better. The x-axis from left to right is the starting position; essentially time. The blue line is the trend line, which shows that better rankings are favoured by earlier start times. The most relevant plots are the ones below the 20th rank line because they are the climbers who advanced to the next round.

80% of the climbers who advanced to semi-finals started in 50th position or less

This kind of makes sense considering that the climbers in isolation longer are further susceptible to fatigue, anxiety, loss of focus, and even boredom. Furthermore  the condition of the holds for the 124th climber is going to be much different for the 1st climber despite the multiple brushing/cleaning breaks through the round. The crowd size near the end of the qualification round was nowhere near as large as at the beginning. That’s less cheering and psych that some competitors thrive on.

This is just a high-level look at the impact that isolation time has on competitor performance. The chart above assumes a random selection for the start list and doesn’t account for climbers’ abilities. In other words, it’s possible that by chance, the “better” climbers just happened to start earlier, which would also explain the distribution in the chart above.

This is something to discuss for future ABS National events if the competition wants to give an equal opportunity for every climber to perform their best.



The Waterfall Experience: Part 3 – Rescue

Conny, José, and I are huddled up on our tiny ledge next to the raging waterfall that had beat us to submission the day before. We spend the next few hours watching as help assembles itself. A police car arrives at the valley bottom; the first sign that help is on its way. Shortly after that, another police car. Then a fire truck. Then an ambulance. By noon there is probably a dozen vehicles and a large crowd of people staged below.


The Waterfall Experience: Part 2 – Escape

My mind is reeling as I envision the alternate reality where the tail end of the wet rope slips through my frigid right hand. I look down again at the rock slabs through the spray and picture myself tumbling to the valley bottom where it’s warm and dry. A shield of goosebumps attempts to protect me from the frightening thought; or perhaps it’s the intensifying wind. My consciousness returns to the present moment and I tense with anticipation. I hear José bellow out a low guttural scream. Round 2 with the waterfall begins.


The Waterfall Experience: Part 1 – Escalation

Let me tell you about the time I got stuck in a waterfall. I tend to tell this story around campfires and usually preface it with: “It was the worst experience of my life.” It begins with a trip to Peru in 2004. My adventure buddy, Conny Amelunxen, was guiding a 12-day trek through the mountains surrounding the infamous Machu Picchu. I was invited to tag along and help setup and take down the expedition. Afterward we had 7 days to kill in the tourist city of Cuzco before flying home. Three or four of those days were spent partying at Mama Africa with some Australian girls we had met earlier in the trip. Conny and I needed to break the habit of sleeping all day and being reckless all night so we devised an adventurous plan to rappel down a waterfall in one of the nearby valleys. The plan was simple: taxi to the farming town closest to the waterfall, porter some horses to ride to the top of the cliff, drop a couple ropes down, do 3 or at most 4 rappels, then taxi back in time for drinks. We eventually got those hard earned drinks – 2 days later…