Climbing is more of a challenge than I believed possible - but it is great fun!

Climbing - Liz Collyer and Fraser Watson
They say that what goes up, must come down, but sometimes rising to the top in the first place is not that easy – as I was to discover last month when I travelled to Haverfordwest Leisure Centre to try out their indoor climbing wall.
My visit followed the news that climbing is to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, although on this particular day, my goal was purely survival rather than building towards a place with Team GB in four years’ time.

Liz loves her role . . . indoor and out!

There to meet me was qualified instructor Liz Collyer, who has run regular classes at the Centre since the wall was erected back in May 2015.

 “It’s a sport I love and it’s getting bigger all the time,” Liz told me, as I nervously glanced towards the ascent I was soon to try and conquer.

 “And hopefully it (climbing) being in the Olympics now will provide a huge boost to clubs in the UK.”
Of course, competitors in Tokyo will be using the natural outdoor environment for their climbing disciplines, but as Liz explained, the majority are more comfortable starting out with a roof over their head.

 “It might not be too well publicised but the UK is saturated with indoor climbing walls,” she said.
 “I do run outdoor sessions at Wolf Rock in Treffgarne during the summer, but indoor climbing is a safer environment to start in and can be the beginning of progressing to outside, whilst some people simply prefer to exercise inside – gym goers are often the same.”

Climbers from eight to 80 catered for

Reassuringly, I learnt that Liz was also used to catering for climbers of all ages and abilities as the Leisure Centre holds ‘Cheeky Chimps’ classes, for children aged 8-12 years, while open sessions include members well into their 60s and 70s.

 “All beginners only go up a little way at first and we don’t force anybody to climb higher than they are comfortable with,” continued Liz, “but fear of heights is an irrational thing and most of the time, the more people practice the more confident they become.”

 “And in Cheeky Chimps we rotate things and have side games to keep it challenging and fun for the youngsters.”

Safety awareness is vital

Before I was to find out if I found the sport ‘challenging and fun’, I went through one of the most important parts of any climbing tutorial.

 “It’s vitally important to go through all the kit and safety gear and demonstrate how it’s used properly,” said Liz, “and the safety ropes we use can hold a minibus but people need to know they can relax when they’re on the wall.”
Speaking of which, I was slightly perturbed to find out the height of this particular wall was only 10 metres, with a further two metres of overhang. At this particular moment, it appeared double that!

Degree of difficulty increased

Thankfully for me, my first climb appeared fairly simplistic, a chance to get used to the dynamics of the wall by following the easiest of the colour coded routes.
However, it was after successfully negotiating the first few metres that Liz’s words about understanding the safety equipment came to fruition. On my way back down, I was hesitant to lean back and relax for fear of coming loose. Of course, in reality I was perfectly safe – but the sudden sweat beads suggested otherwise.

Girls better focussed on technique

On a more positive note though, I had remembered one important tip from my only previous climbing experience, on an indoor wall for juniors whilst on holiday as a youngster in France, where I’d attempted, badly, to go up the playfully named ‘Kilimanjaro’ route whilst using my arms as the driving force, so this time, I tried to ensure my direction and drive came from the legs.
“It’s a common mistake for beginners – and dare I say it with boys” explained Liz, because girls tend to take their time, concentrate on technique, and be more methodical. So I always joke that when people are accused of climbing like a girl, it’s not actually derogatory.”

Loss of balance – and pressure on the abs!

As the session wore on, the routes, not to mention the physical exertion, became significantly harder – and it was on my fourth climb where a momentary loss of balance saw me briefly reconstruct a scene from the film ‘Cliffhanger’, albeit without the charisma of Sylvester Stallone.
But over time, I became more comfortable and composed, although I admit to avoiding glancing back over my shoulder for fear of losing concentration - what certainly wasn’t comfortable however, was the burning sensation in my arms and abdominal muscles.
 “Climbing really tests your core strength – especially on the overhangs,” said Liz. It is a physically demanding sport – and I always say the best way to get used to that is to keep practicing on the wall.”

Intriguing insight

But the demands are mental as well – even when firmly attached to a safety harness, I found keeping focus when having two feet balanced precariously on a small ‘rock’, anything but easy.
Indeed, it was with some relief, not to mention fatigue, when I returned to ground level having scaled the 10 metres for the final time of a thoroughly enjoyable session.
But whilst I won’t be putting my hand up for Tokyo selection just yet, I was grateful for the intriguing insight I had been given into a sport that I now know is considerably more challenging than I had previously given it credit for.

And finally . . .

 “I love it (climbing) and it’s great seeing the reaction of people as they improve and get better,” said Liz, “especially since some might be nervous but once they get off the floor the nerves often disappear.”
And with the sport now elevated to Olympic status, expect many more both inside and outside of Pembrokeshire to ‘get off the floor’ between now and 2020!
And rightly so, as irrespective of your sporting background or previous experience, the sport is well worth a go.
But for beginners planning their first session, I offer a word of warning - don’t plan on using your arms much afterwards.