High Drama Book Review: Climbing Gyms Grew Alongside the Sport

High Drama by John Burgman
Image: Chicago Review Press/Triumph Books
Image: Chicago Review Press / Triumph Books

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John Burgman’s new book High Drama is a meticulously researched, lovingly written account of how climbing got into the Olympics. As climbers get ready to vie for gold, the audience is right to wonder, “Where did this crazy sport come from?” Anyone can conceptually understand rock climbing, but these competitions on fake walls are materially different than those carefree images from Moab or Yosemite.

For me, the best part of reading High Drama was learning the grueling origin of competition climbing on artificial walls in North America: the cinematographic breakthroughs of Bob Carmichael; the logistical travails of Jeff Lowe’s first big comps; and the incredible efforts so many people put into a single event. There were no gyms at that time, so organizers had to build the walls from scratch, and they weren’t into bouldering yet, so those walls were tall! Lowe’s vision was decades ahead of its time, but as John observes, it all came full circle. I am glad Jeff lived to see major climbing competitions thrive, possibly into the kind he had envisioned back when some folks still climbed in swami belts instead of harnesses.

As a climber since the 90s, I must admit my bias. I experienced an earlier era of comp climbing. Back then it was a smaller endeavor, driven by passionate people with little history and experience to stand on. That’s one of the reasons I value this book. In those days, you could not find this information. The world wide web hadn’t boomed yet and word traveled slow, if at all. In reading John’s book, I am amazed to learn so many simultaneous efforts took place across a splintered landscape. The climbing community in America was truly local and grassroots at that time. If an event didn’t appear in Climbing or Rock & Ice, it practically didn’t happen.



John has reached into that past and brought readers a colorful story of the people, places, and events that pushed climbing forward. I’m especially glad he included major developments and innovations from the business side of indoor climbing. Routesetting, holds, volumes, climbing wall design – all these elements grew and developed alongside the sport. Those stories of the industry are forever intertwined with the stories of the athletes that performed using those products, and the audiences that demanded them.

Excited to watch climbing at the Olympics? Reading this book will add depth to that experience. Couldn’t care less about the Olympics, but been climbing on plastic for years and curious where it all came from? You’ll have a great time and learn a lot from this book.

High Drama is a labor of love, and it took the author years to research and write. For that I would like to thank him, on behalf of our small, dedicated industry. John took the time to learn and tell our story, and we are grateful for it.

To stock this book in your gym’s retail shop contact orders@ipgbook.com or call (800) 888-4741. You can buy individual copies of High Drama here. Use code CBJ30 to get 30% off, and CBJ is donating the kickback.

—Scott Rennak, Publisher of Climbing Business Journal

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