Climbing has gone from niche sport to worldwide sensation. What is its dizzying appeal?

In the past few years, people of all ages have taken up indoor climbing, and new centres are springing up across the UK. Why do so many people, young and old, want to spend their free time hanging off a wall?

It’s a Saturday morning in Southampton, and I am four metres from the ground, clinging to a wall and suddenly remembering that I am scared of heights. Everything was fine while I was moving, but now I have climbed as high as I can and I can’t find a foothold to start back down. My heart is hammering and my whole body is cold. I could just let go and fall to the heavily padded floor; but although that wouldn’t hurt, it’s somehow unthinkable.

” How did I get here ?” I bleat to myself, followed by:” And how do I get down ?”

The first question is easy enough. I am here to find out why so many of us are falling in love with indoor climbing. According to the Association of British Climbing Walls( ABC ), there were a million visits to indoor walls in 2017, about 100,000 of us climb regularly, and the numbers are growing by 15 -2 0 % a year. The athletic will get another boost in 2020, when it builds its debut at the Olympics. In 2015, pushing for it to be included, the International Federation of Sport Climbing estimated there were 35 million climbers worldwide.

I’ve tried it once before- two decades ago, in a cavernous former pumping station in north London, but then climbing was a fringe activity, and venues were few and far between. Little had changed since the 1960 s, when the first walls were created so that outdoor climbers could get some practice when weather or lack of time maintained them from their usual haunts. Numbers have exploded since then. From Stirling to Surbiton, Liverpool to Lyme Regis, there are now 500 or so walls in Britain where the public can ” pull plastic”, as it is sometimes known.

Enthusiasts with big homes and deep wallets are even installing their own private walls. David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, put one in the barn of his Yorkshire home and said he used it to teach his children” fear management “.

But Southampton’s Boulder Shack is a converted warehouse , not a politician’s outbuilding, and it’s all about fun rather than dread. When I visit, service centres is hosting” goat yoga”, which turns out to do just what it says on the tin. While a couple of dozen men and women do the downward dog or child pose, pygmy goats share their room, occasionally leaping on to a back for a better position. The organisers describe this as” an amazing style to unroll”, which is surely only true if you’re one of the goats.

‘ Now, how do I get down from here …’ Phil Daoust scales a wall. Photo: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

Keegan Wilson, 44, who has volunteered to show me around, works for Ordnance Survey. He has been climbing on and off since his 20 s, when he was initiated by a brother who operated a climbing centre. He is more of a regular now that back difficulty has forced him to give up his beloved football.

Like most indoor climbers, he focuses on “bouldering”- tackling walls of no more than five metres, with no special safety equipment- rather than roped climbing, where lines let you go higher, but with considerably more faff. If that sounds like a soft alternative, it’s not: the hand- and footholds for bouldering is gonna be little more than bumps in the wall, and that wall sometimes tilts back on itself so that it overhangs the floor. Sometimes it’s essentially a roof, and merely Spider-Man would feel at home.

What’s the attraction?” You have to be really focused, present, in the moment ,” says Will Leigh, a 40 -year-old confectionery developer who has been climbing for a couple of years.” That voices a bit wanky, but what I mean is, you’ve got to focus on not falling off, there and then. I find it really hard not to think about work and life and all those things. The wall is the one place where you don’t even have to try to switch off. You’re just there .”

” Bouldering gives you an excellent workout without you really knowing it ,” concurs Wilson.” For me, at least, this is because your intellect is focused on the new challenges of the climb. There’s a lot of problem-solving, a lot of working out where to put your hands and feet. And you want to avoid falling! The mental side confuses you from how much all the different muscle groups are running. It is only when you stop that you realise how much you have exerted yourself .”

Climbers talk a lot about “problems”, their word for the often tricky roads that they try to follow up, and sometimes along, walls, using holds of simply one colour- sticking faithfully to greens, say, and not so much as touching the blacks, reds, blues, oranges and pinks. Possible solutions are known as “beta”.

” It’s not just about working your body, though that’s where the most obvious benefits are ,” says Tiffany Soi, 32, an impressively toned competitive climber who also runs specialised yoga class.” For a lot of people, it’s very much a therapy .”

Reassuringly, she says,” You don’t need to be a great athlete to get started. All kinds of body shapes, types and heights find that they quickly make progress. That’s quite a positive feedback response, and it’s encouraging and addictive. When people tell me they’re scared that they won’t have the muscles, I say:’ Just trust me. Come and try because you will be surprised .'”

That was Leigh’s experience.” I’ve never been a really sporty person ,” he says.” I was too busy behind the bike sheds when everyone else was playing football. But about two years ago I went bouldering with some friends and I was hooked straight away. You make really quick progress, and within a few months you can be climbing things that you didn’t think you’d ever be able to climbing. That, for me, was a real pulling .”

Like a lot of climbers, he now feels compelled to spread the word.” I’ve likely become a bit of a bear who runs round telling people that they must try climbing ,” he says.

What else lies behind the boom?” People are looking for more than fitness ,” says Natalie Berry, 26, a competitive climber and editor-in-chief of” They’re looking for people to hang out with, and in the same way that there’s a social facet to CrossFit and parkour, this is something you can do with a group of friends .”

” It’s an environment that’s very welcoming ,” concurs Leigh.” There is some competition, like at all sport places, but if you’re fighting you are able to ask for help. If you want to be on your own, you are able to stick your headphones on and nobody will talk to you- or you can have a conversation with the person next to you .”

Keegan Wilson with his daughter Melody. Photo: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

And then you’ll probably go for a coffee together. In Southampton, there are excellent lattes, falafel and mango chutney toasties and raspberry and lemon cake.” A plenty of the new walls have discovered that a good coffeehouse can bring people to the facility ,” says Berry.

It helps that climbing is somewhat cheap: you’ll typically pay PS8-11 to use a wall on a one-off basis, and you don’t need to buy or hire much equipment. For bouldering, you’ll get by with a pair of painfully tight shoes and a container of powdered chalk to improve your grip. For roped climbing, you might want your own harness, but little else unless you are venturing outside.

A luck few even find love through the athletic. It happened for Soi, who satisfied her husband on the climbing circuit; for Gabrielle Bourret-Sicotte, a 24 -year-old postgraduate student who met a boyfriend at the Oxford-Cambridge varsity climbing competitor; and for Justyna Sowa, 29, a PR and podcast host, who encountered” the love of my life” at the Arch centre in Bermondsey, London.” We started to chat ,” she remembers,” and we exchanged numbers, to’ make sure we could climb together soon ‘, in a very cheesy style. And now you can’t separate us. It’s become our date night- Saturday night at the climbing gym- because I don’t see watching a cinema as something that brought you closer to your partner. It’s just over a year now, and we’ve been on climbing trips to the Peak District and Tunbridge Wells. Our vacations are based on being closely connected to boulders .”

Sowa had a nasty autumn three months ago and fractured her elbow.” I was afraid because our relationship was built around climbing:’ What happened when I can’t climb any more ?'” But they’ve got through it, and soon she’ll be back on the wall. In the meantime, they’re training for a marathon together.

Women, including with regard to, say they find the wall more welcoming than the gym, with its often macho and/ or sexist vibe.” For a girl it’s non-pervy, it’s super-friendly, super-chilled ,” says Sowa, who started climbing a year and a half ago and relishes the style that flexibility can trump brute force.” You find muscly gym guys coming in and thinking they’re going to crush it, but it doesn’t happen for them .”

” I don’t feel at a drawback being a girl in the sport ,” concurs Bourret-Sicotte, who has been climbing for two years.” If tall strong guys do the climb with a one-arm pull-up, I can do it by throwing my leg into a split and balancing on a hold. My years of gymnastics and synchronised swimming have really helped my flexible, and that is so important in climbing. So although I am short and relatively weak compared with others, I’ve got a leg-up in other areas .”

When I eventually unfreeze and make it back down to ground at Boulder Shack, I find a lot of little groups standing in front of problems , nodding their heads and gesturing towards holds.” The climbing community is fantastically open and friendly ,” says the ABC’s chair, Rich Emerson, who runs centres in Bristol and Glasgow, and has been climbing for 40 -odd years.” That’s one reason it’s growing. You’ll get teenagers climbing next to 20 -year-olds climbing next to 40 -year-olds climbing next to 60 -year-olds, and they all get on, sharing information and looking after one another .”

Gabi Xiberras, 51, an assistant head at a Manchester high school, ensure similar benefits for young people. She has been climbing for just two years, but ferrying her 14-year-old son Joe to and from sessions since he was nine. He is now a member of the junior GB Climbing Team.” It is a great athletic ,” she says.” I wish I’d detected it year ago. And I am so impressed with how it develops young people, learning to deal with pressure, experiencing success and failure and coping with challenge and frustration in a friendly and supportive environment. It is a athletic that boys and girls can do together and that all can excel at .”

On my own brief foray, I share a wall with two seven-year-olds: Wilson’s daughter Melody and her friend Bastian. Tune has been climbing since the start of this year; Bastian since another friend’s birthday party two years ago. They are both, inevitably, vastly better and more confident than me.” I find Melody’s fearlessness and energy inspiring ,” Wilson says.” It pushes me on to want to do more .”

That, for him and so many others, is what it really comes down to.” The competition, like running, is with yourself ,” he says.” How much can you climb? Can you do the more difficult roads? Can you defy gravity and carry yourself up the wall one more time ?”

That’s all a bit theoretical for Melody. She doesn’t even pause when the Guardian’s photographer asks her why she loves climbing.” It’s just fun .”

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