Do Tall Climbers Have the Advantage?

This photo reminds me of the story of David and Goliath (photo from Ukclimbing.com).

Chatting with one of my taller climber buddies recently, we both hit on a shared nerve: short climbers complaining about, or using as an excuse, their lack of height and reach. Admittedly, some rocks favor a taller person with more reach. However, what doesn't often get noticed or said is that other rocks favor a shorter person, with less reach. And what never gets acknowledged is the shorter person's most important advantage: lower weight.

Take a look at the photo above. It's from this year's Arco Rockmaster, in Arco, Italy, an annual gathering of thebest competition climbers in the world.

See the guy on the right? That's Ramon Julian Puigblanque. You'll notice right off that Ramon Julian is short, really short. The difference is so striking in the photo it's enough to make you laugh. Ramon Julian clocks in at a whopping 5 feet, 2.5 inches tall.

Yet his dominance of the competitive circuit this year is enough to conjure images of David versus Goliath. He has absolutely dominated world competition climbing in 2010, and pretty much done the same outside as well. On the sport cliffs of Spain, for example, he's climbed and on-sighted a fat pile of routes from 5.13b to 5.15a.

Ramon Julian's two closest competitors, Paxti Usobiaga and Adam Ondra, are six inches to nearly one foot taller than he is. So how does he do it? How can he be so damn good, and yet so damn short? My answer? Weight, and secondarily, technique. Ramon Julian is exceptionally light, and he simply makes up for any lack of reach with perfect technique and total comfort in moving dynamically between holds, all of which leverages his low weight ideally against the challenge of climbing, reachy or not.

A recent live broadcast of the European Championships highlighted Ramon's skills really well. As the commentator himself confirmed, the route setting favored a climber with longer reach. Watching Ramon negotiate the route's sequences, it was obvious he was maintaining extra tension and stretching to his maximum between holds. Yet he somehow controlled the route, shaking and resting in the steep final roof, only narrowly missing the finishing jug. Paxti surprisingly only made it perhaps a third of the way up the route, stymied by the technical bottom half. And though Adam Ondra made it a good bit further, he still failed to come close to Ramon's highpoint, pumping out in the roof a number of moves from the top. Ramon's dominance was self-evident.

Next time you're stretching desperately to that just-out-of-reach hold, think of little Lynn Hill freeclimbing the Nose, and of 5' 2" Ramon crushing his 6' tall competitors. Theses inspiring climbers are using what they've got, shaking their money-makers, and getting to the top.

Zachary Lesch-Huie


  1. Ha, I bring up Lynn Hill all the time with Melissa, who's like 5.3. Funny, but it never seems to motivate the way I had hoped. Regardless, nice post. I think I read somewhere that the idea body for a climber is like 5.8 and 130 pounds...something like that. While that might be a wanker for us taller/larger folks, I'm glad there's a sport where smaller folks have a better chance. It certainly helped me in high school when I weighed like 120 pounds...no way i was gonna be a football star with that build!

  2. Zachary Lesch-HuieOctober 29, 2010 at 3:27 PM

    I agree, it is kind of refreshing that climbing is pretty equal opportunity so far as height is concerned.

    All this talk about body size and capability makes me wonder about the question of gender, and why women aren't cranking at the top end of the bouldering scale. Why shouldn't they be? Next post...

  3. And going back a bit further there were of course the famously short Joe Brown and his even shorter partner Don Whillans (5ft4in)

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  37. You can't answer a question like that with a single counter example. All you have proved is that height isn't a requirement. Compare with basketball or even tennis and take a look at a more balanced viewpoint such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Height_in_sports rather than just an opinion piece based on a "shared nerve".

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  40. Men do tend to be heavier but they are also stronger so your question over why women shouldn’t be the best is void. The fact of the matter is, at the climbing wall, a tall person can grab the next hold easy, a shorter person can’t reach so he to use extra technique and strength to get to the next hold