I’ve been climbing on and off for about 6 years, almost exclusively in gyms. Climbing is by far my favourite sport and it can really challenge you in a number of different ways. I started off about age 14 at a taster session at the Link Centre Swindon which is a multi-purpose sports site. From that I progressed through lessons to their supervised teen sessions and finally climbing as an individual. At the moment I climb with my university club, Aston Mountaineering.
The reason I love climbing is that you can train core endurance, muscles, grip, mental strength, flexibility and the ability to ignore heights. Undoubtedly strength will help you climb better but the majority of climbing is all about technique. Everyone has a different style of climbing but being efficient and not wasting energy will always be better than simply powering through a route. It’s also a very social activity and most of the time in a gym is actually just spent talking to other people. At the same time once you’re up a route it’s a solitary challenge and whilst other people can offer advice it’s up to you to conquer it.
This brings me onto the mental side of climbing, which is something you can’t find in many other sports. Once you get past the initial beginner climbs you start to find routes where you really have to think about individual sections and find the right techniques as well as sheer determination to get through. Lead climbing (explained below) is great fun and intensifies the battle between fear of falling and your conviction to finish the route. I wouldn’t say I’m totally comfortable with heights but you learn to tune that factor out and concentrate purely on what you’re doing.
I think it’s healthy to forget about everything else in your life now and then and live purely in the moment. Mental battles aside, climbing with friends is a lot of fun as you challenge, encourage and motivate each other and it’s a great feeling watching someone improve thanks to your help. Here’s a quick breakdown of all the different types of climbing:
- Really at it’s most casual; outdoor walking. Taking a walk in an area like the Lake District is quite a strenuous activity and is something I hope to do in the future
- Scrambling. This is midway between walking and bouldering, something I think everyone has tried on big rocks at beeches
- Bouldering. This is climbing no more than a few metres high, fantastic technique and strength building and fun to play games with. Indoor centres have thick crash mats and outdoors you can use portable mats
- Top Roping. This is where a rope is already set up and you just tie in one end and away you go. If you fall the only drop is the rope stretch
- Lead Climbing. This is where you clip the rope into pre bolted clips as you climb. Beginner climbers will usually take several months / about a year to get to this point. If you fall whilst leading you can end up dropping several metres
- Sport Climbing. This is the equivalent of leading but outdoors. Bolts are already in the wall and you need to place the clips
- “Trad” Traditional Climbing. This is the oldest method of all. In traditional climbing you place the protection, which means as you climb you need to find places in the rock where you can wedge in clips and you really have to trust your gear and placement
For a look at typical equipment here is my collection built up over the years:
So this is a 30m Mammut rope, Black Diamond harness, Anasazi Verde shoes, Red Chilli chalk bag, belay plate and an auto belay (GriGri original). To start off climbing all you need is a harness and shoes that can be rented from any gym for a small fee – I climbed for over a year just on rental equipment. If you’re still regularly climbing after that then you can set about buying things bit by bit, all of my gear bar the rope is from Cotswold Outdoor (I think they still do a discount for students too). Basic harnesses and shoes start at about £30/£40 each and great quality stuff can be found for less than £100. I highly recommend you try lots of shoes on in a shop before dropping any money, as it’s a slightly different fit for everyone and you want it as tight as you can comfortably get.
Indoor climbing routes vary between specially treated rock / concrete mixes that mimics outdoors and moulded plastic holds. Almost all routes at a gym will be made from these plastic holds. Here’s an overview:
- Everyone’s favourite, the jug! This is the best type of hold possible as you can easily get your entire hand on it and rest, clip, do pull-ups or read a book off it. Very rare once you get to advanced routes
- Probably the next best once you get the technique, the sloper. This hold requires your whole hand to be practically wrapped around it but gives you a lot of leverage
- Pockets. The name pretty much summarises this one, and they come in different sizes e.g two finger, mono (just one finger!)
- Pinches. Working our way now to holds that everyone hates, a pinch requires a lot of hand strength
- Crimps. Usually followed by expletives when first encountered, these holds put your entire bodyweight on your fingertips. Exercise caution
Some other features of an indoor wall are volumes, sidepulls and undercuts. Volumes are big objects that usually require an arm around to get anything off and sidepulls and undercuts (as the names suggest) are only useful when used in a certain position. Climbing technique that you can pick up on day 1 would include matching, footswaps and bridging. Matching is getting both hands on the same hold, footswaps are swapping feet between the same hold and bridging is used when climbing corners where you bridge out between the two perpendicular walls. Traversing (sideways climbing) is a great way to practice using different holds. And now here’s some pictures from Swindon & the Wye Valley (4 year old pictures), Birmingham Redpoint and Birmingham Creation. Thanks for reading and I hope you will consider trying climbing one day.