Will Gadd
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

"Where’s the hard part?”

It’s one thing to be deliberately mocked by some mutant climber, but the kid wasn’t trying to be insulting or sarcastic. She was genuinely puzzled about why I, a four-time rock climbing National Champion, couldn’t climb a new boulder problem she had simply floated up. 

The crux involved hanging my full body-weight off holds with roughly the same horizontal surface-area as pencil erasers. I thought this was difficult. But this 15-year-old girl trained with intensity and dedication four days per week and didn’t even know how strong she was. She was also on several high school sports teams, an honour student and a direct sign of the ongoing revolution in action sports. 

If you’ve watched any skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, or other action sports videos lately, you may have noticed that the formerly impossible isn’t even making the latest video edit, and the tricks put up by random hordes of youth on YouTube are at an insanely high level. The original Kranked mountain bike videos from just 20 years ago were considered so extreme that sponsors pulled out, rather than be associated with such radical stunts as riding off a six-foot drop. The latest mountain biking drop in the Red Bull Rampage video is more than 10 times higher. When Tao Berman first paddled off a 100-foot-high waterfall in Alberta’s Johnston Canyon, it was considered insane. High school students have now run it, and the world record waterfall-drop is more than 200 feet. 

The tricks that won the first X Games freestyle snowboard event wouldn’t even score today. In every action sport, standards are now so high that even the sky is not the limit — wingsuiters and speed flyers are punching holes in the atmosphere in entirely new ways. And, occasionally, holes are punched in the ground as well.

“Why are standards exploding so quickly?” This is a discussion I hear, and regularly participate in, as I travel around the world and hang out with other action sports athletes. Because in every sport I see, or am involved in, standards are accelerating at a much faster rate than traditional sports.

For example, if you watch a basketball or hockey game (or other mainstream sport) from 20 years ago, it still looks reasonably fresh (more skin ink, nicer jerseys — but a jump shot is a jump shot and a soccer pass is still just that). The world-record marathon time has only dropped from 2:12:00 to a shade under 2:03:00 in almost 60 years. Clearly action sports are in the midst of a mind-boggling leap forward.

I initially assumed the reasons for the leap were primarily technological — fat skis allow for more radical on-slope moves and suspension changed everything for mountain biking. But can technology fully explain why top skiers are hucking double-back-flips off 50-foot cliffs in the middle of terrain once considered, “you fall, you die?” And hard-tail mountain bikes are increasingly used for stunts, seemingly a technological regression. Yes, the new gear is better — but technology doesn’t begin to explain the standards leap. I think the reasons are even simpler: manmade terrain, progressive instruction and communication.

When I started ice climbing, I was lucky to get one or two pitches of climbing in over a day. We would walk for hours, for minutes of actual climbing. Today in Ouray, Colorado, you can park your car and be climbing in less time than it takes to put on your harness. There’s a whole gorge of ice climbs made from tapping into a local water line, and the ice is awesome. Thousands of people climb there, perfecting their technique in a safe environment. (I don’t think there were 1,000 ice climbers globally when I started.) And every major city in the world has a climbing gym (or three), regardless of mountain proximity. 

Across every action sport, manmade terrain brings the mountains to the masses. Terrain parks in urban ski areas, whitewater play parks popping up from the United Arab Emirates to Calgary, foam pits for practising aerials (all modern aerial tricks in sports from mountain biking, to snowboarding, to freestyle motocross are learned using foam crash pits) — the obscure and difficult to practice are now neither. Learning advanced skills in a controlled environment makes acquiring those skills a lot safer, but the really big push in progression comes from the number of people now exposed to these sports. An Olympic runner is selected and trained for a decade or more — from the first elementary school running race to the nationals to international competition. And every single kid tries running races. If there were 10,000 climbers in Canada when I started climbing I’d be surprised; now almost every single kid gets to try climbing in a climbing gym at some point, and the future of the sport will be based on a much larger genetic talent pool. Chris Sharma, who dominated rock climbing for a decade, started climbing in a gym.

The second component is instruction. Around the world’s most populous countries, instructional programs have codified the formerly crazy into progressive steps, like traditional ski instruction. Now, my town has adult and kid-specific clubs and programs for kayaking, free-ride skiing/snowboarding, mountain biking (both XC and free-ride), a couple of junior climbing teams and a whack of other programs that simply didn’t exist when I was young. And while these programs are strong in mountain towns, you can get most of these programs in Toronto or New York as well. In these programs, kids receive progressive instruction from basics to backflips. The qualification level for the climbing Junior Nationals is now higher than it was when I won the Nationals 20 years ago. Parents travel with their kids, and climbing is a legitimate activity instead of a hobby undertaken solely by daredevils with a death wish. 

 Manmade structures and progressive instruction from the youth to adult level explain a lot of the progression, but perhaps the biggest push toward innovation at the top level comes from communication.

When I was mountain biking a lot, I would come across an image of a new stunt in a magazine, months after the actual event. I would try to duplicate what I saw, but it was like putting together fossils from a toe bone. Conversely, the recent footage of Graham Agassiz and Andreu Lacondeguy dropping their line in Red Bull Rampage went global within hours. If you’re contemplating a 10-foot drop on a mountain bike, it looks a hell of a lot more doable if you’ve seen someone stick a 75-foot drop. A single backflip seems achievable if doubles are now routine. I can watch the latest “world’s hardest climbing route,” and learn from the absolute best in the game in a way I never could when I first tied into a rope. The biggest technological impact in action sports manifests in the form of inter-sport communication — not gear development.

And now YouTube, Facebook and Instagram communicate world standards far beyond the small circulation of a niche magazine from 20 years ago. A kid in suburban Toronto sees a mountain biking video in a mass-media commercial or on YouTube, and that kid may be the next world-champion rider. (Or climber, or skier.) One reason Europeans dominated skiing for so many years is that they simply had more mountains with more people living in those mountains. Today, the mountains have come to the people, there is organized instruction from the youth to adult level and a sport’s current “ceiling” is readily available to be globally analyzed before being smashed like the glass — not concrete — that it is.

I recently overheard two teenage climbers talking about the sport they loved. The conversation went something like this, “It’s not like it used to be. Now everyone is climbing. It’s a sell-out.” 

I hear the same thing from my older generation, and I have to laugh. While standards and numbers have risen dramatically, I still see the same expanded eyeballs, total stoke and ear-to-ear smiles in home GoPro videos — and increased recreational-user numbers is the only thing that can trump a resource extraction economy in wild areas. 

When I finally hung the pencil erasers on that boulder problem, that 15-year-old girl didn’t ask what took so long, she cheered for me as I had for her. Action sports are just fine, and the only thing I’d bet on is that standards keep rising quickly for years to come. The first “marathon,” in 540 BC, reportedly took Pheidippides around four hours to run, and he died. There is always room for improvement.