climbing wall illustration

Climbing: why not take a vertical journey?

An ode to the joys of travelling up walls

When was the last time you jumped? I’m not judging. There’s nothing inherently good about jumping. Only that I’d imagine a lot of people have kept their feet firmly planted on the ground for quite some time. Beyond stairs and lifts, most of our lives are decidedly horizontal. But we can choose to go up too. It’s worth remembering that.

What better way to explore the possibilities of vertical travel, than wall or rock climbing? The purest form of ascension. Lifting yourself higher with only the aid of your own hands and feet. It’s a sport too, if that makes it sound more appealing. And a sport that’s seen a surge in popularity over the last few years. Biased as I may be, having been a regular climber for a good decade, I’m certain that its time in the cultural spotlight is well earned, and not simply the result of novelty or riding the latest trends.

For those feeling crushed by city life, stuck in a maze of buildings, climbing offers an escape. A chance to rise above the maze. For those pressured by work and obligations, climbing is a release. No expectations, as many attempts at the problem as you like, with nothing to compete against besides your own limits and the wall.

Some might find the lack of competition disappointing; I find it a relief. It’s nice to be able to succeed without someone else needing to fail. At the highest levels, people will compete, but down among us mortals, it’s all of us against the wall. The shared struggle is part of what makes climbing centres such welcoming places. From my experience, asking someone for advice will usually cause them to offer all the tips you may need and then some more on top.

Sports that aren’t zero sum games aren’t uncommon. Sadly, most of them tend to be rather straightforward. Without a human opponent to struggle against, the unpredictability and excitement that makes competitive sports so engaging is lost. When your opponent is the wall, with its abundance of varied challenges, you have the best of both worlds.

With some experience, you’ll come to find that improving your climbing requires developing a combination of abilities. Strength, endurance and flexibility are the obvious ones, as is technique, your balance, coordination, the efficiency of your movements. Finally, the special one, puzzle solving. A climb is only as hard as the moves you need to perform to get to the top. Figuring out the easiest moves is a special kind of challenge. Especially on harder routes, if you can’t find the moves, you’ll fail to reach the top just as consistently as if you weren’t strong or skilled enough. It’s this testing of the mind as well as the body that can make a well-set route its own small adventure.

Climbing walls at gyms aren’t left to get stale either. If you attend a centre often enough, you’ll soon see a dedicated team of setters tearing down all their hard work to put up fresh routes with new puzzles to solve and new adventures to go on.

Once you get the hang of solving climbs, any vertical surface presents possibilities. I don’t recommend climbing up the front of someone’s house, but the point is you could. The path was always there. Wall or rock climbing helps you see that up is an option. Our lives aren’t horizontal; we have three dimensions to work with. There’s freedom in looking up and seeing paths open to you, even when you choose not to take them.

This freedom you can take with you into the rest of your life. In the abstract, when you find an obstacle, instead of going through or around it, maybe you could go over. There are always more options. Knowing that they’re there is the first step to finding them.

illustration of a person climbing a wall
Amelia is an artist born and raised in North London. She has grapheme synaethesia and is drawn to colour, often using watercolours or oil pastels in her work. She's also an experienced climber. Find more of her work @sunflowersingaillac

Lateral thinking and cat burglary aside, climbing is a wonderfully fun time and great exercise for the whole body, with just as much excitement as any traditional competitive sport.

If you don’t have a friend who’s been pestering you to join them on a wall somewhere, most places offer beginner lessons to get you started. Which might be a good idea either way if you’re worried about picking up your friend’s dubious belaying technique.

Should you try it out a little and decide climbing is for you, I’d recommend shopping around a bit. Check out the climbing wall centres in your area. They all have their different strengths, and the personality of the route setting changes from place to place. My favourite haunt is the Castle, near Finsbury Park, but I have friends who swear by the Arch, the Stronghold, or one of the many other gyms with similarly succinct names. From the time I’ve spent in those places, I’d say such preferences need little justification.

And this is all without mentioning climbing outdoors on real rock. Besides the fresh air and views you couldn’t reach on the average hike, the cracks, crevices and ledges of a cliff or boulder have a completely different quality to the purposeful resin holds at the gym. Nature never planned for you to climb a cliff and that makes the exercise of finding moves that no one prepared for you earlier all the more rewarding. On top of that, there’s no roof. You can go as high as your ropes and abilities let you.

I’d suggest every climber head out to try a real crag at least once if it’s at all possible. While you’ll usually find me in the gym, working on my carefully curated set of climbs, my trips outdoors have given me some of my best climbing experiences. I can’t say I regret any of them, even the times it rained.

Sadly, for those interested in getting started, Camden itself is largely bereft of climbing gyms, and certainly hasn’t any cliffs. The Better Gym in Swiss Cottage (closed at the time of writing) is quite small. While perfectly adequate for a first taste, it lacks the size to foster the same kind of community found in a full-sized gym. North London as a whole, though, has an abundance of places in bus or tube range to try, Arch, Castle and Stronghold included.

Admittedly, climbing isn’t for everyone, few things are. But even if you decide climbing isn’t your thing, there’s no need to stay divorced from verticality. Look up sometimes. Think of walls less as restrictions and more as paths to higher places. And why not try jumping once in a while, just to remind yourself that you can?

If you enjoyed this article, check out loads more here: Camdenist.

JOURNEYS

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