Indoor climbing is gaining popularity across Canada, as shown by the fact that there are now more than 30 indoor rock climbing facilities in the nation. Rock climbing enthusiasts can practice such techniques as top roping and lead climbing at the indoor facilities.
After a year and a half as a partner in a Vancouver law firm, Jackie Levesque is climbing walls. But not at the office. Two or three times a week, the 37-year-old lawyer heads to a local climbing gym, straps on a harness grabs a rope and scrambles up 30-foot-high walls. For months, Levesque had declined friends’ invitations to try the sport because she had always been afraid of heights. But two years ago, she finally agreed to attempt an easy cliff at a popular climbing area in Squamish, 50 km north of Vancouver. “I got halfway up and I was terrified,” she recalls. “But I liked it anyway, so I continued climbing. I got serious about it the minute I started.” Levesque soon joined an indoor rock climbing gym. Now, she spends most of her spare time scaling artificial walls and groping across steeply angled overhangs, setting her sights higher and higher. Says Levesque: “The feeling of accomplishment when you have successfully completed a climb is very fulfilling.”
Levesque is one of a rising number of Canadians who are discovering the thrills of an offbeat new sport. “Indoor rock climbing is definitely growing everywhere,” says Keith Haberl, an administrator at the non-profit Alpine Club of Canada in Canmore, Alta. Sports climbing which differs from mountaineering in its emphasis on physical challenge originated in Europe more than a decade ago, but only got off the ground in North America in the late 1980s. Five years ago, there were only one or two commercial gyms in Canada. Now, there are more 30, as well as hundreds of artificial walls in schools, recreation centres, fitness clubs and even private homes across the country. Age does not appear to be a barrier. “We have introduced the sport to people in their 50s,” says Ed Fischer, co-owner of The Edge Climbing Centre in Vancouver.
On one recent Sunday afternoon, Johanna Householder Pedari took her daughter, seven-year-old Carmen, to Joe Rockhead’s Climbing Gym in central Toronto. “It’s safer than climbing trees,” Pedari said, craning her neck as she watched her daughter and a playmate, six-year-old Niko Navi Block, work their way up the wall for the first time.
For most climbers, indoor gyms offer a way to train in the winter and on rainy days. “They can’t get to the crags,” says Haberl, “so they go to the gym down the block.” But the gyms are also attracting a lot of people who would never dream of testing their skills on a real cliff. Some climb to keep fit. “For people who like a physical challenge,” says Haberl, “it is more fun than running in circles on a track.” Many others are turning to indoor climbing as an inexpensive and novel alternative for children’s parties and even stag nights. “It’s an adventure,” says Fischer. “People can test their skills; they can push their limits.”
Few indoor training walls are higher than 30 feet. But, to a novice, that may still appear as daunting as Everest. “It is not a sport for people who think badminton is an adrenaline rush,” says Haberl. But he emphasizes that as long as climbers take proper precautions it is not as dangerous as it may look. “It’s kind of like a big monkey bar,” he adds. Still, any sport in which participants must first sign a waiver deserves to be taken seriously. “You have to be focused all the time,” says Fischer. “One mistake even though the sport has become very safe can cost somebody their life.” On the other hand, Fischer maintains that rock climbing, indoors or out, is much safer than driving a car. “On a busy week in the winter, people take hundreds of falls and they get caught safely in a rope.”
There is more than one way to get to the top. The easiest is “top roping,” which requires a trained, responsible partner, or “belayer.” The climber knots one end of a rope to a “sit” harness that wraps around the waist and thighs. The other end of the rope which hangs from anchors at the top of the wall is controlled by the belayer. The climber, wearing special soft-soled shoes, ascends the wall by gripping and stepping on a series of artificial rocks, known as holds. Meanwhile, the belayer stands ready to trigger a braking device in the event of a fall.
“Lead climbing” is a more advanced, and riskier, technique. In “leading,” a climber carries a rope up the wall, attaching it with special clips known as quickdraws to anchor points at regular intervals on the ascent. Ambitious climbers who want to build endurance practise a manoeuvre known as bouldering a series of short, strenuous moves performed at difficult angles, without the benefit of a rope but no more than four meters above the floor. Indoor bouldering rooms are cushioned with thick foam pads for safety. “The idea is to climb until you fall,” explains Fischer. “It is the only way to get better.”
Like ski runs, climbing routes are graded according to their level of difficulty. A standard system used throughout North America rates them from 5.0 (relatively easy) to 5.14 and higher (for experts only). Artificial mountains may lack the grandeur of their natural counterparts but they offer a lot more flexibility. Indoor climbing walls, constructed from a variety of materials including plywood and sanded epoxy or steel and fiberglass, ingeniously pack a variety of climbing experiences, from straight verticals to precipitously angled overhangs, into a relatively small space. Because the walls are riddled with thousands of holes, the holds can easily be moved around to suit different climbers.
Climbing is a matter of strength, technique, and concentration. “Getting up a wall is not a matter of connected chin-ups,” says Fischer. “It’s a matter of moving your body up efficiently. Body position is extremely important.” Beginners are taught to keep their weight over their feet and to push with their legs rather than pull with their arms. It is also important to relax, experts say, and not to grasp the holds too tightly. The sport involves most of the muscles in the body, particularly the toes, fingers, and forearms. But the emphasis on upper-body strength does not appear to hamper women, who are turning up at climbing gyms as often as men. “Some of the best climbers are women,” says Brooks Hogya, co-owner of Slipstream., a B.C. wilderness climbing company. “It has more to do with balance and finesse than with strength.” It also demands concentration and patience. Says Jim Sandford, a B.C. climber who plans to compete in a World Cup this fall: “The most important muscle is your brain.”
Most climbers see the sport as a way of challenging themselves. “The thing I really like about it,” says Levesque, “is that you compete with yourself.” But the popularity of competition climbing is rising. A number of Canadians, especially teenagers, are starting to make a mark in organized indoor climbing competitions. In a recent competition one of 40 scheduled across North America this year a 14-year-old Vancouver girl took the women’s open championship. “The kids are taking over the scene,” says Sean Fader, a coordinator for Canada’s National Sports Climbing Committee, who has high hopes that this new sport will eventually become an Olympic event.
But some of the fiercest competition is between outdoor climbing and its indoor sister sport. Backcountry purists argue that there is no sense of adventure in climbing artificial walls. “It’s like riding a bike in a gym,” says Hogya. He argues that indoor climbers cannot learn how to deal with weather changes, falling rocks, and crumbling surfaces. “It is very different in the wilderness,” says Hogya. “Some people take skills from indoors and they get into trouble.
Others insist that indoor gyms are giving wilderness climbing a boost. “In the old days, if you wanted to do a hard climb,” Fischer says, “you had to quit your job and go live in a tent near crags for a few years. Now people can train in an indoor centre a few times a week and become really good climbers.” Besides, he adds, “We’re not trying to compete with nature.” And there is no arguing one point: indoor walls have made climbing accessible to a wider range of people even those who live hundreds of kilometers from the nearest rock face.
Like surfers, climbers use their own special jargon to talk about their sport. Some of their favorite expressions:
Pulling the plastic: Indoor wall climbing.
Tying into the sharp end: Graduating from top roping, in which the climber’s rope hangs from an anchor at the top of the wall, to the more advanced lead climbing, in which the climber attaches the rope to wall anchors.
Flash: Climbing a wall without falling on the first try.
Redpoint: A personal accomplishment climbing a difficult route without falling, after one or more unsuccessful attempts.
Beta: Tips, clues or any other information on how to climb a difficult route.
Onsight: The best kind of flash bottom to top without falling, on the first try, without the benefit of beta.
Bucket: A very large handheld, or rock outcropping. Also known as a jug.
Dinner plate: A relatively flat hold.
Downclimbing: A useful skill reversing the moves on a climb that proves too difficult.
Hangdogging: Dangling from a rope after a fall.