They came to Snowbird Saturday from seven countries, sporting the latest in lycra fashions and climbing techniques. The world's best rock climbers took on the Cliff Lodge's fancy, $155,000 artificial wall during a competition that resembles both a gymnastics meet and tryouts for the role of Spiderman, but may actually be about the most intense 15 minutes in all of sport.

"I'm in awe," said Snowbird owner Dick Bass, himself a renowned mountaineer. "This technical climbing is pure, and I love it. A standard is being set here. To think that a person can have that kind of strength and stamina and courage and focus . . . that to me is amazing."Meet director Jeff Lowe describes the sport as " . . . an exceptional athletic achievement: near absolute control of mind and body in a spectacular setting."

And by the end of a long day in the International Sport Climbing Championship, the invitational field of 39 was reduced to the top 10 men and five women for today's finals, starting at 9 a.m. The remaining 15 climbers are guaranteed part of the $17,400 purse.

The only local entrant, Salt Lake's Merrill Bittner, failed to qualify for the finals. Considering the profiles of the finalists, that was no disgrace for Bittner or anyone else.

Contestants had 15 minutes to climb as high as they could on the wall, using tiny holds for toes and fingers. Protected by a rope system, their efforts usually ended before the time limit with falls - actually, slipping only a few feet before the rope caught them.

An unofficial speed-climbing competition, which may become part of future ISCC events at Snowbird, will follow today's contest. The champion will be determined by combined climbing heights for the two days.

As of late Saturday night, officials still had to verify the semifinal results. A look at some of the projected finalists:

- Jean-Baptiste Tribout, 25, France. Tribout was the first climber to go above the wall's overhang Saturday, but was visibly angered when he finally fell. A consistent climber, he places high in almost every competition.

- Christian Griffith, 23, Boulder, Colo. He's credited with introducing European ethics and tactics to American climbing, competing abroad every year. He won the recent Phoenix Bouldering Championship.

- Didier Raboutou, 26, France. He's won three major international meets in the last two years and is described both as the "Peaceful Force" and "Rambo 2." Raboutou has climbed on the international circuit since its inception.

- Mark leMenestrel, 21, France. He's quickly established himself as one of the world's best and is racking up plenty of endorsement contracts, needing only to win a competition to complete his rise to the top.

- Scott Franklin, North Conway, N.H. Considered the top American sport climber, Franklin is the only American to have climbed a 5.14 difficulty route. He recently placed fourth in an international meet in France.

- Ron Kauk, Yosemite, Calif. An excellent technical climber, Kauk has dominated national competitions recently. One of the most influential American free climbers, he became famous for climbs in the Yosemite Valley in the mid 1970s.

- Patric Edlinger, France. A legend in his home country, Edlinger has climbed extensively in the United States and handled more difficult routes than anyone in the world. He's returning to competition after two years off.

- Lynn Hill, New Paltz, N.Y. A semi-professional climber and rock-climbing instructor, Hill is acknowledged as the top female climber in the world, ahead of Catherine Desteville. She's won the difficulty competition in almost every event she's entered.

- Catherine Desteville, France. Fast and powerful, she has a rivalry with Hill that makes for great competition.

- Isabelle Patissier, 21, France. Patissier owns four third-place finishes in major competitions and, more recently, tied for first with Andrea Einsenhut in a meet in France. Earlier, she actually won a competition by climbing barefoot.

- Luisa Jovanne, 26, Italy. She's spent the last four years practicing free climbing in Italy and France with Heinz Mariacher and is good on difficult routes.