I’m not a big fan of sports. Football? No thank you. Tennis? Have you seen my hand-eye coordination? Gymnastics? You’ve got to be kidding. In all honesty, I am at heart quite a lazy person. So how on earth did I end up getting into a sport as resilient, challenging and scary as rock climbing?
I’ve been climbing on and off for seven years now, and I think it’s a sport everybody should try once. Even if you’re scared of heights, it’s got to be on the bucket list. There’s something very rewarding about looking at something that seems utterly unclimbable, and surprising yourself as you clamber your way to the top.
Climbing is quite an unconventional sport for many reasons. It can be very competitive – it’s even going to be in the 2020 Olympics – but it’s not like athletics or rugby where there’s a clear winner. There are so many types of climbing and so many styles that it’s hard to tell who’s the best. The UK’s best climbers may be able to fly up the hardest route at their local climbing centre, but struggle to get a metre off of the ground on a real rock face outside. There’s so much variation, which means there’s something for everyone.
Today, the best climber could arguably be a 48-year-old man, or a 17-year-old girl. How many sports can say that? Steve McClure has climbed the UK’s hardest sport route at grade 9b. To anyone who is unfamiliar with climbing grades: that’s pretty damn hard, with the scale only currently going up to 9c. Only a handful of people in the world would even attempt a 9b. Whereas Ashima Sharaishi, a 17-year-old from New York, has been bouldering (this is when you climb shorter walls without needing a rope or harness) grades higher than any other woman has achieved, while also being the youngest, male or female, to do so. She conquered her second 9a+ (just a grade below McClure) during her spring break in grade eight. Not too shabby, right?
Perhaps people like Sharaishi are the reason why increasing numbers of women are trying out the sport. We all need somebody to aim to be like, don’t we? And for the next generation of climbers, maybe the five-foot-one teenager ticks the box. “I never really questioned if I was weaker than the guys,” she told Huck magazine earlier this year. “I always thought I had the same strength, and I knew I was capable of showing what was possible.”
Nowadays, everyone seems to be hitting the gym, living off of protein shakes and raving about quinoa. That’s fine for some people – don’t get me wrong – but me? Not a fan. Climbing, however, is a full body workout that is also actually fun. You’re having to support your whole-body weight, while battling endurance through longer climbing sessions. And what’s cheaper: a loyalty card at your local climbing centre, or a David Lloyd gym membership? Exactly.
But screw the physical side – what about the mental side? Climbing is one of the best things you can do to sort your head out. It doesn’t matter how stressful your shift at work was, or how many essays you need to write for university, as soon as you’re alone on the wall nothing really matters. Nothing makes you feel more content than literally being above the world, away from distractions, and simply climbing.
Southampton has the Boulder Shack as its local climbing wall. Primarily a bouldering centre, the place mostly consists of smaller walls with squishy mats to land on – and there’s a slide. This is also headquarters for Solent University’s climbing club.
“I climb because I love the social aspect and challenging myself to try new things and push myself,” says Emma, who joined Solent’s climbing club this September.
There is also a climbing centre in Romsey, as well as plenty of outdoor opportunities in the south of England. Portland is considered climbing Mecca, as well as Dancing Ledge further afield in Dorset.
“There’s nothing better than climbing outdoors,” says Andy, a student, who has been climbing for 11 years. “I like going to the local wall but you can’t beat being on real rock – it’s much more intimate, and I always push myself harder outside. Nothing ever compares to the view at the top of a crag you’ve been dreaming of sending for months. Climbing gyms are good places to meet other climbers, obviously, but I find climbing projects outside much more rewarding.”
Climbing can be considered a dangerous sport, but if it’s done properly you can have plenty of freedom without any safety concerns. Set your equipment up correctly – even if that means getting an induction course at your local centre – and you’re good to go. There are some insane climbers out there – Alex Honnold for example, who is probably the most famous climber, known particularly for his free soloing. This involves climbing walls, sometimes thousands of metres high, without any safety equipment. And we’re not talking about easy step ladders here – he’s climbed some of the hardest routes around the world. One wrong movement and splat. But actually, climbing is statistically safer than badminton. Concerns aren’t necessary because, essentially, this sport is about being in control. Find what you love about it, and you’ll never look down.