New heights Indoor climbing has become lifestyle sport in its own right
PUBLISHED: 08:33 10 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:31 20 February 2013
As a new climbing wall opens in Yorkshire Terry Fletcher discovers how it's become trendy for the upwardly mobile
Not that long ago the popular image of a climber was of a bearded bloke with big boots and a bobble hat battling into the teeth of a howling gale. Todays reality is younger, trimmer and, trendier, quite possibly a woman and increasingly likely never to have laid a finger on a rock face. A boom in indoor climbing walls has transformed the face of the sport and created a new generation with little need for the great outdoors.
Indoor climbing has become a lifestyle sport in its own right with artificial walls popping up everywhere from city centres to cruise ships. The first walls may have developed as a way for climbers to keep in shape through the dank days and dark nights of the British winter but over the last five years they have become sophisticated vertical gyms for those who want to add an exciting edge to their fitness routines with up to a third of customers never climbing outdoors.
Andrew Reid argues that walls have changed the demographics of a previously male-dominated sport. Were now getting about 60-40 men to women and its moving towards 50-50. Thats a big change. People are finding that climbing is good for flexibility and balance and gives a lithe physique, not the big muscles you can get from weights. Its also very sociable, not like sweating away on an exercise bike with your iPod in your ears. People get bored at the gym but here theres a feeling of bonding.
It also appeals to the modern interest in extreme sports, even just indoors. Climbing has its own language, its own culture. It doesnt matter what grade you climb at. We all go through the same experiences.
Today Id say 90 per cent of new climbers come to the sport via walls. Some will go on to climb outdoors but for a lot of them the wall is an end in itself. Theres room for all of us, he said.
Harrogate Climbing Centre, Hornbeam Park, Harrogate. 01423 815024
And the transformation began in a narrow corridor in the heart of Yorkshire almost half a century ago. In 1964 Don Robinson, a physical education lecturer at Leeds University created the worlds first purpose-designed climbing wall there. It was just a low brick wall with holds chiselled out and the occasional bit of rock embedded in it. By todays standards it was laughably primitive, computings Sinclair ZX Spectrum to the modern multi-media laptop, but in its day it was revolutionary and credited with catapulting a generation of university rock jocks towards the top of the sport.
Over the following decades designs became more sophisticated and walls began appearing in schools and leisure centres. Guiseleys council-run creation was considered so state of the art Everest mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington was drafted in to open it. Bradfords Richard Dunn Sports centre housed another highly-rated variation.
The walls had a startling effect of standards, allowing dedicated climbers to keep fit during winter and emerge even stronger in the spring. But most walls remained relatively low and were used to devise short problems of eye-watering difficulty or long stamina-building traverses.
Then in 1991 walls went commercial with the opening of the privately-owned Foundry in a redundant factory in Sheffield. This was essentially an indoor crag with interchangeable holds that could be rearranged into an almost infinite number of new climbs constantly posing fresh challenges. Yet they were still essentially training venues for experienced climbers. The Leeds Wall, opened a dozen years ago, is dominated by ferocious overhangs that rival Kilnsey Crag as the steepest climbing in the county.
But the arrival of private money has helped to create a new market and the new breed of climber. John Dunne, one of the worlds leading performers and managing director of the newly-opened 400,000 Harrogate Climbing Centre, says the key was making climbing more accessible to a wider and younger age group. With their close supervision and fixed protection the walls have removed much of the risk, as well as the discomfort, associated with climbing outdoors so that parents are happy to let their children go. Walls have even become a fashionable venue for youngsters birthday parties, something that would be impossible outside.
He said: We can start children as young as five. Half our business now comes from kids clubs, birthday parties and school groups. One of the big changes is that walls in the 70s were often too hard for beginners. They could be very intimidating places. We have easy-angled climbs with big holds for people to start on. They progress quite quickly to harder climbs and, because the routes are graded, they can measure their progress and compete against their friends.
There are still plenty of genuine existing climbers who come to train but Id say a quarter of our clients never climb outdoors. They use it like a gym and never think of going to a crag just as people will go to a gym and use the treadmill or the pool but never run or swim outside. Walls have definitely changed the sort of people who come climbing but I think the sport is healthier than it has ever been.