It might seem like an activity for super-fit adventurers – our cover star Bear Grylls is a fan – but climbing has many forms and they’re accessible whatever your level of fitness. ‘Climbing is a very inclusive sport,’ says Rob Adie, climbing walls and competitions officer at the British Mountaineering Council (thebmc.co.uk). ‘It’s open to people of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels, young, old or with a disability, anyone can have a go. You’ll surprise yourself at how much you can do with a little help.’
Climbing, and mountaineering in general, is enjoying a boom in popularity in the UK. The number of climbing walls has doubled since the ’90s – there are now over 400 to choose from – and a recent Sport England Active People Survey found 301,300 people in England aged 14 and over go ‘mountaineering’ at least once a month (this includes activities like hill walking, indoor climbing and rock climbing) – a big increase on the 2013 figure of 256,100. ‘Climbing is a full-body workout that builds strength, stamina, flexibility, balance and coordination,’ explains coach Jez Tapping, head of climbing at the Westway Climbing Centre in London. ‘It’s also a cardiovascular workout, and it’s mentally challenging, developing your analytical skills.’
So how do you go about doing it? If you’re new to the sport, the BMC is your one-stop shop for all things climbing related – where to find your nearest wall or club, what kit to get or where to climb outdoors. We’d advise starting on an indoor wall before venturing out into the wilds. Book yourself a beginner’s session and once you’ve been shown the ropes (pun intended) and can safely belay, you’ll be able to climb with a partner or, if there’s an automatic belay machine, on your own. A session typically costs around £10, less if you join a club. Wear comfortable, lightweight clothes and shoes specifically made for climbing – most walls lend or hire them. Many centres also have bouldering walls. Bouldering is a good way to get to grips with it if you’re starting out or don’t have a head for heights. The walls are much lower and bordered with thick crash mats so you can climb them without the need for ropes. Walls are graded for difficulty, so you can measure your progress by which walls you can complete. If you get the bug, ask your climbing centre about competition teams.
‘If you enjoy climbing indoors, chances are you’ll love the outdoors too and, for many, it’s a natural progression,’ says Tapping. ‘That said, many people just love climbing walls indoors and it’s fine to stick with that.’ Climbing outdoors might mean scrambling over steep terrain, tackling craggy rocks, bouldering, or scaling then abseiling down sea cliffs. The easiest way to start is to go with someone who’s experienced, or join a club that has access to the correct equipment. Many clubs have huts in prime locations near crags, and routes on well-known climbs will be roped out for you. Instructors at local climbing centres will know the best places to go, or why not head to The National Mountain Sports Centre at Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia (pyb.co.uk)? It’s ideal for indoor climbers taking their first steps outside. Or, to find your own guide, visit mountain-training.org.
The International Olympic Committee officially declared sports climbing a new Olympic sport, which will feature in the 2020 Games. Athletes will take part in three disciplines: lead, speed and bouldering. And we’re already shaping up for success. ‘The GB junior climbers are incredibly dedicated, training hard and doing well in Europe at the moment, with regular top 10 finishes in most categories,’ says Adie. ‘We’ve got high hopes for the Tokyo Games.’ For Team GB it could be the new cycling – you read it here first.