The history of the University Bouldering Series (UBS) of Canada
as seen by: David Albert-Lebrun
Since its inauguration in winter of 2012, the UBS has been a collaboration between a few dozen people. In its first four years, it grew large thanks to all of these people and the enthusiasm of the students who took part in the competitions.
I want the UBS to live on, and that is why I have decided to give it another shot. The ultimate goal to grow the university climbing community has not been forgotten. I have started by incorporating the UBS as a non for profit corporation to ensure that all of our goals focus on the students and the climbing. We want to make this competition a positive experience for all, including the gyms.
To tell the story of the UBS properly, I need to go back to the fall of 2008 when I enrolled at the University of Guelph. Although I had been told the school had a climbing gym, I had never seen it, and although it was not my main reason for choosing Guelph, I was very excited about it. During frosh week, my friend Chris and I went down there almost every day to see if it was open yet. The anticipation was killing us! We would walk down the steps towards the dungeon that was the University of Guelph Climbing Club (UGCC), only to find a locked door. Having no windows, we still had no idea what awaited us.
UBS Vol. 1 - Original marketing material
At the time, I had no idea what it took to run a climbing gym, especially a student run climbing gym. When the climbing gym finally opened, we discovered what would become my home for the next four years. The two converted squash courts, no taller than 20 feet, the smell of sweat, chalk, and climbing shoes, the most comfortable dirty couches, the fountain of youth (the best water fountain on campus that sometimes stopped running in the winter due to the cold). Most importantly though, we met the people. The people who ran the gym became family.
It’s important to understand what the UGCC was and is, because it really shaped what the UBS would become. That first semester I climbed at the gym 2 to 3 times a week, sometimes for over 4 hours at a time. I would be lying if I said I climbed that whole time, the truth is, sessions at the UGCC were long hang outs with friends. The gym being in the basement meant no cell phone coverage, which meant no distractions. As I grew closer with the staff, I was able to start setting my own problems, and find out when they would secretly be opening the gym on the weekends, then I started going 4 times a week.
At that time, I remember asking the co-pres of the club: Lauren Watson (now owner of Ground Up Climbing Centre in Squamish, BC), if there were climbing competitions for universities. I was told that Guelph organized 1 comp a semester, just for its members. I was also told that once, back in the day, they had organized a comp for all nearby universities to which the University of Waterloo showed up and crushed everything and everyone! This was the seed that would eventually grow into the UBS.
UBS Vol. 1 - Original marketing material
In my first semester I climbed in the UGCC competition which was a mix of bouldering and top roping, with a top roping finals. In my second semester I started volunteering at the UGCC as a staff member, and also took part in the reading week bouldering trip down to Horse Pens 40, Alabama. In second year I was put in charge of inventory and joined the executive team at the UGCC. In third year I was put in charge of finances, and in my last year, I was told I would become co-president. I was told and not elected, because it turned out that everyone on the executive team was graduating except my good friend Ali and me. This would also mean that we would have to create a whole new executive team and train everyone. This was no joke as the UGCC was and still is a very large climbing club with over 300 members, that runs separately from the university’s athletic facilities and that only uses ATC’s as belay devices. This type of belay device, unlike the grigri, is not foolproof. It requires proper focus and training to be used correctly.
Becoming co-president of the UGCC was the perfect opportunity to try and organize a climbing competition for all universities. Luckily for me, my co-president Ali Sutherland was more than eager to help. I knew from the start that if we wanted this to be successful, it would have to happen in a bigger climbing gym. The UGCC was already breaking fire code every time we hosted a comp for our members. The logical thing to do was to contact the local climbing gym: The Guelph Grotto.
UBS Vol. 1 - "Under the belly" at the Guelph Grotto Climbing Gym
In the summer of 2011 I discussed my idea with my friend Kevin Allen (previous co-pres of the club and now co-owner of Toprock Climbing in Brampton, ON). He said he knew the manager of the Guelph Grotto and would ask for me. The manager at the time was Maxwell Summerlee, Kevin gave me his business card and told me Max was more than interested and had had a similar idea himself.
Max, Ali and I met for coffee at the end of the summer. We were all super motivated and came up with the University Bouldering Series (UBS). We figured this could just be a one-time competition, but also hoped it would grow into something more. We agreed that ultimately, climbing should become a university varsity sport, and we were going to push for that. The competition was built using Max’s experience at the Grotto and our experience at the UGCC. We wanted it to be competitive yet beginner friendly, we wanted there to be a team component unlike usual bouldering comps, and most importantly we wanted it to be fun with an encouraging atmosphere.
The first semester flew by and the competition came together nicely. Ali was on top of everything and kept us organized, while Max turned out to be the perfect ally. He had all the contacts and all of the experience we needed. His setting skills were unmatched and he was surrounded by a killer team. On top of that, Dave Perozzo, owner of the Guelph Grotto, was allowing us to use his facilities almost free of charge. Sponsors and prizes came together, the UGCC sponsored the event by purchasing the shirts for the competitors, and I asked old club members to come volunteer on day of. This was going to be the best competition, we planned to charge poor university students only 15$ to participate, and to ensure that university climbing clubs would grow, we would charge only 10$ if the student was part of their school’s club. This came with a free t-shirt! The icing over that cake was CLIF bar deciding to sponsor the event with more bars than we could digest. The cherry, would come from Dave; as we planned a night out at the bar post-comp, and students would be coming from all over, he agreed to let climbers sleep over at the Grotto. Max agreed to supervise the drunken climbers. This was unheard of and to my knowledge, hasn’t been done since.
UBS Vol. 1 - Original marketing material
We advertised the competition everywhere we could think of. At the time, my girlfriend (now wife), was attending McMaster University and was part of their climbing club. I had witnessed firsthand the energy that club had, and got in touch with Liz, their club president. Liz was amazing and really brought her troops out. McMaster and their team really defined team spirit, and still does to this day. I wouldn’t be surprised if they inspired other schools to build their clubs to be like them. By the time the competition came around in January 2012, more than half of the participants were either from Guelph or McMaster and so the rivalry was born. Twelve other colleges and universities attended that first volume.
The first UBS was a success and demonstrated sufficient interest for future comps. Max did all the prep work regarding setting, which gave Ali and me the opportunity to host the comp and to participate. Many people asked when we would organize another competition, this motivated us to officially create the UBS. It also forced us to look at the UBS as a business. Up until then, we had just been organizing a one-time comp relying on the generosity of the Grotto and the UGCC. We could not expect all gyms and clubs to do the same, so a model was born, the UBS became an entity of the Grotto, and the prices had to be increased. Mostly because we wanted to keep providing T-Shirts to all, and cash prizes to the open competitor winners.
UBS Vol. 4 Finals - The McMaster Climbing Club in all it's glory
From here on out the UBS grew quickly. Students were keen to attend, and Grand River Rocks and Climber’s Rock jumped on board hosting volumes 2 and 3. I went to college in Nova Scotia for a year which made attending the competitions difficult, and Ali left the team to go travelling, but we made it work. Once the system was put in place, the gyms knew what we offered and the competitions became easier to organize. The biggest difficulty was sponsorship which, aside from CLIF bar, was never constant. At the end of the second season, Max came up with a model for a team finals, hosted by the Guelph Grotto. This event was my favourite memory from that year. The atmosphere was electric, the DJ played the music loud, teams sent up one climber at a time to try a problem, each climber getting less time than the previous climber, but benefiting from his or her team mate’s attempts. Max lost his voice on the microphone that night.
UBS Vol. 4 Finals at the Guelph Grotto
Every season following, we added a new climbing gym to our list of hosts, and tried adding more competitions to the series. Climbing competitions are an interesting thing, although they bring a large number of newcomers to the host gym, bring joy to many climbers, and help the climbing community grow, they also cost the host gym a lot of money. Most of the time, if not all of the time, climbing gyms will lose money from hosting a competition. Closing parts of the gym off days before the competition means a loss of income, not to mention paying for the setters who spend hours coming up with exciting problems and then have to rank them. In addition to that, the fee the competitors pay need to cover the costs of operation for the organizers, such as the UBS. This will include things such as: prizes, advertising, designers, t-shirts, web-hosting… etc. We did not make much money from the UBS, we mostly just tried to stay afloat and save money to provide better prizes at the next comp.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, having more than 4 comps in one season is too much. Students can only afford so many competitions, and you cannot forget that students still need to go to class and write exams sometimes… Unless you’re my friend Lloyd (aka Wonderbread) who skipped a midterm to participate in a UGCC competition, showing up 30min late and still kicking my butt.
UBS Vol. 4 Finals - University of Guelph takes home the win
In 2015, I moved from Toronto to Vancouver through my job. This opened the door to starting comps out west. It also left Max alone to deal with the 5 or 6 comps happening in Ontario. Even with the help of amazing volunteers, this took its toll on Max. The west coast had its first competition in March 2016 which was a great success, in large part thanks to Climb Base 5. Unsure as to how students would respond and how many would show up, Climb Base 5 took that leap of faith with us. It was great to see so many attend and compete in the end. Much like the first ever UBS, people asked when the next one would be, and I did not have a good answer.
For the UBS to keep going, it will need a lot of energy, motivation, and good consistent sponsors. In the summer of 2016, unlike previous summers, Max and I did not find time to plan the upcoming season. We knew that the UBS also needed to make some changes to adapt and evolve for the community. With both of us planning our separate weddings and working full time jobs, we did not have the time, and we decided it would be best to take a hiatus. On top of that, I was planning to go travelling for 14 months, which I did from January 2017 to June 2018.
It is tough to say how the UBS will rise again, I know that the interest is there, and I still believe that climbing should be a university/college varsity sport.
Here's to giving it another shot!
Anything to keep the UBS alive and the university climbing community growing.
UBS Vol. 1 - Maxwell Summerlee - David Albert-Lebrun - Ali Sutherland