Reaching New Heights

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Imagine a solitary person walking out onto a soft, padded, stage in front of thousands of people. The crowd is oddly silent, even tense. He turns his back on the audience and looks up at the back wall, covered in pieces of plastic—some small, some large and oddly shaped—up its entire 60-foot height. None of the handholds look like they would be secure. Like his competitors, he has only briefly seen the wall before—six minutes is the usual standard.  Binoculars to see the highest holds are common, and so are climbers moving their arms and legs in what looks like a bizarre modern dance, as they make the moves they anticipate they will need high on the wall. After this observation period, climbers are moved into isolation; they are not permitted to watch their opponents climb. The next time they see the wall, it will be as they step onto the stage to ascend as high as they can.

The higher the climber climbs, the closer the wall slopes to horizontal. The climber, pausing occasionally to clip the rope into carabiners, moves onto the horizontal, becoming completely inverted. As the climber moves across the wall, his fingers give out. There is a loud bang and a rattle as he plummets towards the ground, and the rope jerks him upwards. Saved by the rope, carabiners, and his belayer (the person in charge of feeding him rope as he climbs and stopping the rope if he falls) he is now sitting in his harness in midair, one hand on the rope extending towards the ceiling to steady himself. He yells down to the belayer, “Lower!” and the belayer responds with, “Lowering.” The climber descends to the floor as the belayer feeds rope out.

This is the sport of lead climbing, and appropriately, this is called the “difficulty” event, at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Championships. Climbing has many categories, including lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. Both lead and bouldering are about working out, then executing a successful sequence of climbing moves. In speed climbing, there is only one objective—be the fastest to the top of the wall. For training, or recreation, it is possible to “top rope” as well. In top roping, the rope runs from the climber, up the wall, over chains or carabiners, and down to the belayer. Unlike a lead climber, who clips in as they go along, a top-roped climber will never fall farther than a couple of feet.

Bouldering and speed climbing

If you take the harness and the rope off the climber, and shrink the wall to only the most challenging moves, what do you have? Bouldering—a sport consisting of short routes, called problems, that involve gymnastics fit for a contortionist and moves that require lots of strength.

Outdoors, bouldering can be done on anything that will afford purchase, from the outdoor boulders the sport was named after, to buildings like UVic’s Common Block, an activity that is banned on campus. Part of the challenge of bouldering is deciding which route to climb and for how long—the boulders vary in difficulty, but all amount to the same score. Standard strategy is to do the simplest problems quickly and not spend too long on a difficult problem where you can’t reach the top. Bouldering has been a formal competitive activity since 1998, making it a newcomer on the sport-climbing scene. However, bouldering’s combination of strength, gymnastic movement, and the lack of required gear (all you need is a pair of climbing shoes and maybe some chalk) has made it very popular, especially for those learning to climb. Both lead climbing and bouldering are about strategy, but the last form of sport climbing is completely different.

On a 15-metre-high climbing wall,  two identical courses of large neon-coloured holds have been set side-by-side: the set-up for a head-to-head race. On the flash of a light and the tone of a buzzer, two climbers will sprint up the speed-climbing course as if someone were dragging them up the wall. Competitors don’t need to worry about clipping in; they are climbing top-rope for maximum speed.  The course is standard between all competitions, and is set by the IFSC, the primary federation for competitive climbing. Before each event, the IFSC certifies a competition’s rock-climbing walls,so that they qualify for world-record purposes. The current world record for men’s speed climbing is 5.88 seconds, held by Stanislav Kokorin from Russia. The women’s record is 8.33 seconds, held by Alina Gaidamakina, also from Russia.

Climbing facilities

Indoors, many recreational climbing facilities lack the space for lead climbing and only offer bouldering and top-roping. Competitive climbers, though, in lead and speed, require well-designed facilities that have space for lead falls, and sufficient height to put up a speed route. Bouldering is more forgiving; you can build a safe bouldering structure in someone’s back yard from plywood. Height is not a necessity for this sport, and crash pads (thick foam pads) can be placed beneath the climbers to protect them if they should fall.

The most facilities are in Europe, where the sport started in the 1980s. European audiences love watching sport climbing; international competitions are held almost exclusively in Europe.

But here on the Saanich Peninsula, one climbing gym is trying to bring the sport to North America. The Boulders Climbing Gym (usually called just “the Boulders”) located at Stelly’s Secondary School, is a world-class facility in our back yard, big enough to train for lead and speed.

A Boulders history

The Boulders began in 1995 with a single teacher, Peter Mason, who loved to climb. He believed in climbing as a tool to teach students self-confidence and determination, so he spearheaded the construction of a small climbing wall (now called the “old gym”), to teach students throughout the ’90s. The old wall became more and more important to the secondary school—for gym classes and for a climbing club. It was eventually renovated and became an indoor wall, so use was no longer weather-dependent.

In 2005, with funding from the Government of B.C., an expansion to the climbing facility was completed, including the addition of much more wall space and dedicated bouldering areas. The Boulders programs that taught students to climb ,and the partnerships with community groups using climbing for confidence and team building, also expanded.

By 2009, the Boulders felt the space crunch again. Drawn by the quality of their facility and programs, many diverse climbing groups were using the gym. Most nights it was packed solid. The climbing teams were feeling a space crunch, too; travelling around the world to compete in sport climbing, they needed a higher facility to train for lead and speed. Expansion was the only answer.

In December of 2011, the Boulders opened the new gym, a world-class building with lead-climbing walls 18 metres, or almost 60 feet, high and an IFSC standard speed climbing wall with IFSC standard rock-wall holds. It is one of just a handful of facilities of this type in North America. “We have had athletes travel from across B.C. to train at our facility on a permanent basis. Also, teams from other gyms, as well as individual competitors, have travelled to do some extra training at our facility,” said Sebastian Powell, manager of the Boulders. Cementing its place as a world-class facility, the Boulders hosted the World Youth Climbing Championships this past August, which was the first one to be held in North America. These championships were judged by speed and difficulty. Over 470 athletes attended, an estimated 2 000 people watched, and the official IFSC website called it “an unparalleled success.” Spectators watched from outside; the new gym has a garage door that opens up most of one entire wall, allowing people outside to watch climbing events happening inside. On a warm summer’s day, it also provides welcome sunshine and fresh air to the climbers.

Programs and training

The Boulders offers climbing programs for all ages; their team, Slate, meets once a week on Sundays, for children aged six to nine. Team Bedrock practices after Slate, for ages nine to 12. For climbers over 12 years of age, there are two teams: Sandstone, that meets once a week, and Limestone, that meets twice a week. The Sandstone and Limestone teams are for those of all skill levels. More competitive is the Granite team, which is specifically for those who have “decided they would like to pursue competition climbing as far as they can,” according to the Boulders website. Both the Limestone and Granite teams offer cross training: additional physical activity that increases fitness and stamina on the wall.

Or, if you’re in high school, you can simply take climbing as a high school credit. Stelly’s Secondary School, besides using the climbing gym for physical education courses, offers a Climbing Academy Program. “Like all other courses kids take in school, they are in the academy for one block a day,” said Powell in an email interview. “They climb three times a week and then do cross-training twice a week.”

The academy has proven it can produce successful, talented athletes, placing members on the Canada Youth Team since 2007, according to Powell.

If you’re of university age, though, these programs won’t get you out climbing. If you know how to climb, the facility is open weeknights and on weekends for public drop in. The facility isn’t open during the day on weekdays, because the high school uses it.

If you don’t have a friend to help you belay, the Boulders has a space dedicated to bouldering. If you want a belayer, UVic’s Outdoor Club runs a weekly carpool to the Boulders on Thursday nights—check their Facebook page for details.

And if you don’t climb, or have never tried? “Take an introductory course, where [you] will learn the safety systems for top-rope climbing in our facility. This includes how to put the harness on, how to tie a follow-through figure eight, and how to belay,” says Powell. According to the Boulders website, “lessons [are offered] most evenings and weekends—fill out the general lesson form or call us.” Lessons can also be arranged by talking to someone at the front desk.

Climb on

If the Boulders is too hard to get to, UVic’s Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA) will offer a climbing wall after its opening, projected for 2015. While the contract to build the wall is currently out to bid, the Vikes manager of operations and infrastructure, Michelle Peterson, was able to provide some details by email. The plan allows for a 70-foot climbing tower, said Peterson, but they typically are not that high. “This space will be used for a combination of lead and top-roping,” Peterson wrote. She said CARSA will not include a speed wall, but rather, “We will be building it with the beginner-to-intermediate climber in mind.” In addition, there will be dedicated bouldering space.

Access and fee structures have not yet been established, though UVic students will have the first right to use the space. “Priority will be given to UVic students,” wrote Peterson, “but there will be opportunity for community use as well.”

UVic’s decision to build a climbing facility is a sign of North America’s growing interest in climbing and acceptance of climbing as a sport. In conjunction with the Boulders’ world-class facility, UVic’s climbing wall will reinforce Victoria’s reputation as an epicentre of sport climbing on Vancouver Island.

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