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Jeff Lowe & The World Cup—An Interview

Posted on: October 5th, 2011 by The AAC

With the Boulder World Cup approaching fast and The American Alpine Club an IFSC World Cup Partner, our rockstar-intern Ben Mitchell-Lewis caught up with Jeff Lowe, famed alpinist and organizer of the original World Cup events held in the United States. Jeff is a wealth of information on the subject, their talk led from early fundraising and organizational snafus to Lynn Hill’s climb up the Nose and back again. Jeff’s ongoing project, Metanoia, is a film documenting his historic 1991 climb up the North Face of the Eiger.

Learn more about Jeff and his work at his website, jeffloweclimber.com.

[World Cup Climbing Comp Details, how to get tickets, and a sweet prize from The AAC here.]

The conversation with Jeff was brief, but he offered up numerous anecdotes about the early days of competition climbing, and many opinions on the current state of climbing. The interview, edited slightly for length, follows:

What was your role in the early World Cup events?

JL: Well, everything! I was in Europe a lot—going to trade shows for Lowe Alpine—and while I was over there I saw a few of these World Cup events. At that time, they were climbing on real rock, and they were cutting down trees and manufacturing some of the holds and chipping others off the rock—which was pretty alarming to me. Soon after, I was at the Mountain Summit at Snowbird [Resort, Utah], which was a meeting about preserving mountain environments. I realized it was a perfect venue for a World Cup-style event, so during a break in the meeting, I went and found the owner and pitched the idea. I wanted to have the competition on an artificial wall and not have the natural disaster that the Euro cups were creating. The owner was very interested, but said I would have to go through their architects. That was alright with me, so I met with their planners and we built the wall from scratch in about a month. We surfaced it with crushed rock and were ready for the event pretty quickly. I invited most of the world’s best climbers, and most of them came. We lost some money at the event—I knew we would—but it was really great. The UIAA decided to use it as a test event for future World Cups in the U.S., and they provided some judges.We put the athletes up in a four-star hotel and the food was great. People still tell me today that it was the best comp they’ve ever attended! We really did it right. There was a $17,000 purse, with cash prizes all the way to tenth place. We even paid some expenses for the athletes to get to the event—we really wanted to respect them and make it a great experience for everyone. That was in 1988.

Now, in 1989 we had a full World Cup. We lost money on that one too, but not as much.

In 1990 we had three regional events—Boulder, Berkeley, and Seattle. Those were Sport Climbing Championships, not World Cups. Then the World Cup was the finals for those three—it was also in Berkeley. I left to climb the Nameless Tower before the Berkeley event (the only one of the events we ran that I didn’t personally oversee, although I’d hired the best and most experience event operator in the U.S.—Jim Waugh—and all reports were that he did a great job.) and while I was gone we lost some funding, and after trying to regain ground for several months after I returned, we went bankrupt. We were on the right track though, over three years we had raised almost $500,000—close to $100,000 of which went directly into the pockets of the event winners—and our sponsorship funding curve indicated we would reach the break-even point within the next year or so. But I had exhausted my personal funds and in the conservative economic climate that resulted when Iraq invaded Kuwait, money for such marginal uses had dried up completely.

Why do you think there no World Cups have been held in the United States since then?

JL: Attracting sponsorship is more difficult than people think! I don’t think people really understood how much sponsorship we had for those events, and how expensive they were. When we went bankrupt, I think it scared people away from trying to host a World Cup! Even back then it cost about $220,000 to put on a WC and it was hard to raise that. We tried to get help in other places, but it just couldn’t quite get off the ground. But now that there’s been lots of smaller regional events in the last decade or so—a sort of grassroots style of competition—there’s been a buildup and I’m glad to see we’re back to hosting a World Cup. It’s heartening that The North Face is a prime sponsor of the up-coming Boulder WC, as they had to cover $75,000 of un-paid bills from the 1990 WC at the Greek Theater in Berkeley!

Do you think competition has changed other disciplines of climbing over the past 22 years?

JL: Oh, absolutely. The ability of climbers in those early competitions was raised because of the head-to-head nature of the competitions. People that trained for the events were able to bring those skills to the mountains and big cliffs and raise the bar. Lynn Hill’s climb of the Nose was certainly a result of the time she put in training and competing at such a high level. People’s onsight and flashing abilities went up, and just the change in attitude, the fact that people would look at new cliffs and just climb, really opened up routes in the mountains and on the big walls. People like Lynn Hill, Ron Kauk, Jim Karn, Steve Hong, and others pushed the limits in sport climbing and on big routes all over the world.

Those early events also really introduced more people in the United States and all over the world to climbing than ever had been before. In 1988, we had a one-hour broadcast on CBS, and coverage in Sports Illustrated, Outside, and all the climbing magazines. We had an hour special on NBC the next year too, and after that, we had coverage on cable. Without all this awareness, I don’t think we would have fostered a Chris Sharma.

Are any climbers that competed in those events still in the news today?

JL: All the people already mentioned—Lynn Hill, Kauk—are still doing great things and if I looked at an early roster, you’d recognize lots of the names. But that was more than twenty years ago, and that’s a long lifespan for an athletic career. The fact that lots of these guys are still climbing hard shows that climbing, for the truly committed, is a lifestyle, not just a sport.  It can last a lifetime.

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