This weekend, the world's best rock climbers from 14 countries are coming to Snowbird for the International Sport Climbing Championships. Never has a local hotel wall received so much attention.

Sport climbing, the latest craze in outdoor activity, is taking hold locally - partly because of the glamour associated with this weekend's event. Local climbing experts envision a climbing gym being built in the Salt Lake Valley someday, making sport climbing even more accessible than it already is - thanks to the rocks at Storm Mountain, the base of Mt. Olympus and the granite of Little Cottonwood Canyon, three of the more popular sites.Sport climbing resembles traditional climbing in that high-tech safety ropes are used and the object is to go as high as possible. Otherwise, it's a sport all its own - complete with Lycra outfits, computerized scoring and elements of gymastics. "It's a whole different thing," Lynn Hill, America's top woman climber, has said. "It's not really climbing."

The competition will be on the 115-foot, artificial wall on the Cliff Lodge, built especially for events of this kind. In June 1988, North America's the first climbing event of this kind was held at Snowbird; this time, the contest is an official stop on the 1989 World Cup circuit.

Last year's ISCC winner, France's Patrick Edlinger, is missing this week, but most of the big names in climbing will compete for the $5,000 first prize. The French are the clear favorites among the men, led by Didier Raboutou, Jean-Baptiste Tribout and Jacky Godoffe. Frances' women's team features 1988 ISCC winner Catherine Destivelle, plus Isabelle Patissier and current World Cup leader Anne-Francois Rayboud.

America's best hopes are in the women's event. Hill, who injured her elbow in a fall earlier this year, missed the first three World Cup stops but is expected to make a comeback at Snowbird. Robyn Erbesfield won this year's first World Cup event and Jennifer Cole and Alison Osius are in the top 10 of the season standings. Ron Kauk, Jim Karn and Dale Goodard are the top U.S. men.

Wall climbing is considered a pure challenge, because competititors are isolated, not allowed to watch others take on the course and having no idea how how anyone before them has gone. To update the wall following last weekend's qualifying, French experts Antoine LeMenestrel and Fabrice Guillot were brought in to set the tiny hand and foot holds, making the course as fair as possible, while still very challenging. The course will also be changed between the semifinals and finals.

"They're completely different courses this year," noted meet director Jeff Lowe. "The moves are far more varied. The person who ends up winning is going to have gone through several different styles of climbing."

Since the first international event was held in Italy in 1985, the sport's popularity has exploded, overcoming initial resistance from those who claimed climbing and competition did not mix. About 12,000 attended a competition last summer in France, where the "rock stars" are genuine celebrities and receive endorsement contracts rivaling those of tennis players and bicycle racers.

In the United States, sport climbing is the newest major factor in the climbing industry, according to Lowe. Locally, REI store manager Kelly Davis says, "That seems to be the way climbing's going. For years, people were looking for that kind of challenge. We've never had so many young kind who come in and want to learn; it's because they hear about these competitions."

Climbing outfitters sell panels allowing the customer to build his own wall; Salt Lake's Merrill Bitter, who just missed qualifying for this weekend's event, has his climbing wall in his garage. Other stores like International Mountain Equipment (IME) have demonstration walls, and REI plans to built an outside wall.

Gyms like the Portland Rock Gym and the Vertical Club in Seattle provide entry-level participation in the sport. Climbers can hit the wall during their lunch hour, not unlike jogging or bicycling. Could the Salt Lake market support a climbing gym? "I'm sure it'll happen," says IME's Scott Roach. "I'm not sure when."

Maybe fairly soon, because the World Cup competitions are increasing the popularity of the sport - and the competitions seem here to stay. Lowe, involved in many aspects of mountaineering, is producing a national series of events this year, convinced that sport climbing's rise will continue. "It's like being involved with ski racing, in the early days," he says.

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(Additional information)

1989 schedule May 20-21--Leeds, Great Britain

June 16-17--La Riba, Spain

July 13-16--Bardonnechia, Italy

August 18-20--Snowbird, Utah

Sept. 21-24--Vratza, Bulgaria

Oct. 2-8--Yalta, Crimea, USSR

Weekend schedule:

Friday

11:15 a.m.-7 p.m. - Men's and women's difficulty semifinals.

Saturday

11:15 a.m.-1:45 p.m. - Women's difficulty finals.

2:15 p.m.-4:30 p.m. - Men's and women's speed climbing competition.

Sunday

11:15 a.m.-4:15 p.m. - Men's difficulty finals.