Indoor bouldering is rising in popularity across the country, not only as a way for climbers to stay in shape and work on technique in between outdoor adventures, but also as a workout in its own right. I was very excited to check it out for myself at an introductory session at one of London’s top dedicated bouldering centres, courtesy of Never Stop London.
There I was, half way up a 15-foot wall, hanging on with my fingertips to a black lump, with a look of intense concentration on my face. It was at this point that my legs stopped shaking, I guess because I forgot where I was and was concentrating instead on doing a little side-step hop on a tiny black blob on the wall to swap my feet.
Tricky business! Now I see why my climber friends compare climbing to a kind of moving meditation. Your mind has to be fully focused on the task at hand, or you risk finding yourself on the crash mats below, or worse if you’re outdoors!
I finished the route (or ‘problem’, as climbers say) and climbed back down (or, ‘down climbed’ in climber-speak) to be greeted with a couple of pats on the back by my fellow classmates. All first-time climbers are advised to take an ‘introduction to bouldering’ session before climbing independently. Technically, I suppose, I’m not a first-timer, as one of my best friends climbs and he’s taken me climbing indoors a couple of times before. But going climbing with a mate, no matter how knowledgeable and experienced they are, is not the same as taking a structured lesson to make sure you have all the basics covered. So despite having been before, I lacked the confidence to go climbing by myself, though I’d often thought about it.
I finally decided to book myself in to an intro session, so I started looking into the various options that are available in London. I decided to go for bouldering, which is a type climbing without ropes, to a maximum height of about 20 feet. Bouldering is arguably the most accessible type of climbing, because it needs minimal equipment. For lead or top-rope climbing, you need ropes, harnesses, an array of carabiners, and also a partner to climb with. All you need for bouldering is climbing shoes and some chalk.
No sooner had I psyched myself up (and even managed to rope in a friend – excuse the pun), I got the news that #NeverStopLondon were hosting a bouldering intro session! It was like the stars had aligned!
If you haven’t heard of them before, #NeverStopLondon is an initiative by outdoor clothing and equipment company The North Face. #NeverStopLondon community manager, Jen Slater, explains: “The North Face is all about inspiring people to explore. Sometimes that’s difficult in a city, so we created #NeverStopLondon. A community for London explorers, who are keen to escape the city and experience the outdoors. We offer weekly Mountain Athletics sessions to help our group train for their goals, monthly workshops to teach them valuable outdoor skills and events like trail runs in the countryside or the bouldering introduction class, to give our community a taste of adventure.”
On arrival at The Biscuit, The Arch Climbing Wall’s indoor climbing centre, I was greeted by Jen, who is a familiar face on my Twitter and Instagram feeds (she goes by @eclecticcake and also has her own blog), but who I somehow had never met in person before. It was an absolute pleasure to have her there, as she immediately put me and everyone else at ease. Her love of bouldering was infectious and she did a great job making sure everyone was enjoying themselves, even going so far as curating a small collection of smartphones to take photos with (thank you, Jen!).
There was a group of 14 of us and in fact the session had been so popular that we were the second group of the day! While we waited for our session to start, I had a bit of nose around the centre. The Biscuit is one of the three climbing centres run by The Arch Climbing Wall and it has 12,000 square feet of bouldering surface. The original home of The Arch Climbing Wall, The Biscuit is so called because it is one of the units of an old biscuit factory in Bermondsey (the Garibaldi, the Bourbon and the Twiglet were invented here!). The interior of the high-ceilinged building is covered in an array of walls forming artificial rock faces, all covered in multi-coloured lumps or ‘holds’. Series of holds of the same colour form each problem and the colours correspond to the grading system. That is, the holds that comprise each problem are colour-coded according to its difficulty level, or grade. There were walls at various angles, ranging from ‘slabs’ that are less than vertical and slope away from you, through perfectly vertical walls, ‘overhangs’ that are more than vertical and slope towards you, all the way to a ‘roof’ that is fully horizontal. There are also a couple of free-standing artificial rock formations that resemble big boulders – they’re called The Islands. Thick crash mats cushion the base of all the walls. One part of the building is dedicated to stretching and training, with Olympic rings, an overhanging ‘ladder’ of horizontal bars (I totally went up that one!), ‘campus’ and ‘finger’ boards, which are used to build finger strength (not for newbies, unless you fancy straining your finger tendons), as well as a ‘circuit wall’ made up of every type and colour of hold available. A veritable playground for the urban monkey!
We each got ourselves a pair of rental climbing shoes, which we were told not to put on just yet. The reason for this being that they are super tight and not very comfortable! Climbing shoes are designed to keep your feet as snug as possible in the shoe, with minimum empty space, and some bouldering models are actually designed to keep your toes curled up at the front. This allows you to grab the rock (artificial rock, in our case) and support your weight better as you climb. More experienced climbers can squeeze their feet into some teensy sizes! Getting into those shoes is probably a bit like what the evil stepsister felt like when she tried on Cinderella’s glass slipper.
Our instructors for the day, Dom and Sean, ushered us to an upstairs studio space for a quick warm up. This consisted of some familiar jogging on the spot and mobilisation, and some very unfamiliar forearm stretching. Dom explained that your forearms are put under a lot of strain when climbing, so you need to put in the effort to warm up and stretch them properly to avoid injury. Once we were all warmed up, we made our way to the wall. Dom and Sean took us through some ground rules about how to behave in the centre. For example, being aware of where everyone is, especially in the vertical space. Climbers in the middle of working on their problem at a height are not in a position to be held responsible if they fall and land on someone, so if someone falls on you, it is your fault. Generally, etiquette rules here are common sense health and safety, which also aim to make The Arch Climbing Wall a safe and inclusive environment, where everyone looks after their fellow climbers as well as themselves.
Now that we knew how to behave, it was time to put our shoes on. “First things first” said Dom. “Let’s learn how to fall.” Though at first this may sound counter-intuitive, falling is a skill to learn, just like any other aspect of climbing technique. Even if you don’t have a full-blown fear of heights, you probably have an innate fear of falling – it’s a survival instinct. Getting comfortable with the idea of falling and practising proper falling technique early on, means that it’s less likely this fear will be debilitating. As someone who has in the past spent several minutes frozen and shaking on – I kid you not – the children’s wall, I was totally on board and taking notes.
Thankfully, this time I did not find myself frozen in fear. The instructors very helpfully demonstrated the problems before we each took turns trying them out. Each problem has a designated starting hold and to successfully complete it, you must demonstrate control by using both hands to grasp the final hold at the very top before down climbing. There are multiple ways of solving the same problem and depending on, for example, how long your limbs are, you may decide to skip a hold or take the holds in a slightly different order. The important thing is that you solve the problem in your head before you grab the first hold, by visualising how you are going to move from one hold to the next. In this respect, climbing is as much a mental workout as a physical one. I’m not a very good strategist, usually preferring to just dive in and sort things out once I get there, so this is definitely something I need to work on!
After doing three or four problems each on a slab, we then moved on to the overhang. As you can imagine, this type of climbing requires some unique skills. In general with climbing, your legs should be doing most of the work, because your arms will fatigue much quicker than your leg muscles, which are larger. When trying to cling on to a wall face that slopes towards you, you can’t support your bodyweight on your feet in the same way, and the instinctive thing to do is to bend your arms and pull yourself close to the wall as you climb. That’s a no-no. The way to do it is to save your arm muscles, pretending instead that you’re a gibbon and swinging about with outstretched arms. This is as weird as it sounds. Dom told us that if you’re not feeling silly doing it, then you’re doing it wrong! I have no issues with feeling or looking silly, so I did my best, though I clearly was still using my arms a bit too much, as my forearms were rock solid by the end. Definitely massive room for improvement all round!
Having officially graduated from our introductory lesson, we were let loose in The Biscuit. I wish I could have stayed longer, but at least I managed a couple of problems with some of the people I met during the day. You don’t need a partner to go bouldering, so you can just turn up at the climbing wall by yourself. As much as this independence is a good thing, I’d still prefer to go bouldering with a friend. It might be a confidence thing, and I am sure that you could meet people there, but I’d really value having someone with me, at roughly the same level as me, so that we could help each other with problems (and go to the pub with afterwards too). The same thought must have entered the minds of Never Stop London, as they are planning to organise regular bouldering socials in the near future! These will be a great opportunity for novice climbers like me to meet up and train together in a friendly environment. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for details as they come up (note that participants will cover their own costs on for the bouldering socials – prices for The Arch Climbing Wall can be found below and on their website).
I had a fantastic time monkeying around at The Arch Climbing Wall and I am so glad I got a chance to participate in a proper bouldering lesson. I feel a lot more confident now that I have some basic knowledge and techniques under my belt. Thanks to Never Stop London, I will be adding bouldering to my fitty repertoire!
Who’s it for: Anyone! If you’re new to bouldering, then you should take an introductory lesson (most climbing centres offer these) and there are also improver sessions at The Arch Climbing Wall.
How much: Introductory lessons at The Arch are £20, single admission is £7.50 (off-peak) or £10 (peak) – membership and multi-pass options are available – and shoe rental is £3.
Where is it: The Arch has three centres, two in Bermondsey (The Biscuit and Building One) and one in Burnt Oak (Arch North).
More information: http://archclimbingwall.com/ ArchClimbingWall.com and Facebook.com/NeverStopLondon https://www.facebook.com/neverstoplondon