Description of The Event . . .
. . .
Climbers ascended a 1.5 " diameter natural fiber rope, starting in a seated position on the floor with legs outstretched - the rope lying on the floor between them. The length of the rope varied - in Olympic competition it was 8 meters long except when the Games were held in the USA: then a 25 foot (7.62 meters) rope was used. In America the AAU and NCAA apparently sanctioned competition on both a 20 foot and a 25 foot rope.
Garvin Smith & Elmer Huckins
The climber leaned back and executed an explosive pull and surge upward, kicking the legs as he strode up the rope, using hands only. You were allowed to kick your legs - a smooth but energetic "stride" - but could not use legs or feet on the rope or to push off the floor. The first move gave the momentum for the rest of the climb. Coming down - not part of the contest - was hand-overhand. The climber never used feet or legs on the rope.
There was a flat plate, or tambourine, coated with lamp-black at the top of the rope that you were required to reach up and touch. When you got back to the floor, you showed the smudge on your fingers to the timers. Climbers were timed by manual stopwatch. This was a major problem, for it took several timers to time the event - and their times were averaged in some fashion. Lots of opportunity for human error.
Ironically, an automated electronic timing system had been developed in the mid 1950s by a graduate engineering student at Georgia Tech, but not adopted. If I remember correctly the device used a reconfigured electric wall clock, and the wood pan (with lamp-black) at the top of the rope was simply covered by a thin metal electrostatic shell.
Notice how Garvin Smith, a world champion from the 1940s and 1950s, leans back with an open body as he starts the climb from a seated position on the floor. The strength necessary to do this effectively is similar to the strength required to do a front lever on the still rings.
Photos courtesy Life Magazine
May 17, 1948
A Coach's Analysis . . . From the Late 1950s
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"Competitive rope climbing is truly an art and a skill by itself. It does not involve all the intricacies or maneuvers of apparatus work yet the art of climbing can be detailed and exacting in nature. A great deal of practice is involved to produce a champion rope climber. Since the record for climbing a rope 20' high with the hands alone is under 3 seconds it is easily understood why considerable practice is necessary for top performances. With all this in mind the following paragraphs explain in detail the techniques of climbing the rope for speed:
Start standing on the floor with the rope in front of the body about arms' length away. Grasp the rope with the arms straight out from the shoulders. The hands should grip the rope with the back of the hands facing the climber. Lower the body to a sitting position on the floor so just the back side of the thighs touch the floor. The rope should continue to be in a vertical position with the body leaning slightly backwards with the elbows bent a little. The take-off is the most difficult part of the climb and with this in mind the two-hand pull should be very forceful and strong. After the initial pull with both arms continue to lean back with your upper body and look up towards the tambourine during the climb. Pull one hand down on the rope and continue the pull until that hand is near the hips and at the same time reach straight up with the other hand for the next pull. Try to avoid sweeping across the chest to grasp the rope and always keep your palms away from your body. Avoid a straight L-position of the body during the climb but instead strive for an open L or almost open horizontal position of the body.
The legs add power and speed by kicking down just before the pull with the hand. The leg action should not be wild or exaggerated but instead should be smooth and controlled.
The number of strokes taken by the best climbers for the 20 feet is usually seven or eight and a reach. The reach should be made with a straight-up motion. When practicing, the reach should always be made with the same hand so strength and general timing is perfected to the finest detail. A good reach should be more than three feet and closer to four. Only the fingertips need to touch [the tambourine] and to pull beyond that height will add to the climber's time. The best exercise for rope climbers is climbing itself. Each time the climber works out he should be timed several times for speed." - Newt Loken & Robert Willoughby in the Complete Book of Gymnastics, 1959.
Training . . .
At practice, rope climbers would cultivate that beginning surge of power by doing consecutive muscle-ups on the high bar. I got up to 10 of those in a row (roughly the number of regular pull-ups I do now!).Georgia Tech Coach Lyle Welser used to say that rope climbers should climb a mile of rope a week! He also had the climbers run up and down the stadium steps to build endurance.