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Wild Weekend: Experiencing the indoor high

Mark Woods

Climbing indoors used to be perceived as the equivalent of snorkelling in the bathtub. Similar sensation but none of the excitement or thrills of testing yourself in a true physical environ. 

But the interior version of the sport has grown at a rapid pace in recent years and those rugged adventurers are just as likely to be found swinging from a wall in the middle of Govan as a crag in the lofty reaches of the Munros.

Govan ? Surely, the only climbing around those parts is to the upper tier of Ibrox Stadium ?. Think that and you would be mistaken because this part of Glasgow has long been associated with the noble activity and tucked inside a converted church is the west of Scotland's major indoor climbing hot-spot.

"We get a newer breed of climber in here," explains Neil Mackay, who helped set up the Glasgow Climbing Centre five years ago when the frustration of travelling to Carlisle to find adequate training facilities spawned a business idea. 

"Newcomers tend to take up climbing indoors as a way to keep fit all year round. A facility like this exists to learn the basic techniques and use it as a stepping stone into the outdoors. But many people now choose not to go onto the next step."

The growth has been such that in Scotland, half of all climbing takes place within such controlled environments, despite the still relative paucity of facilities in comparison to England. Greater numbers than ever are hitching up their boots and harnesses, attracted perhaps by the positive physical benefits. 

It was a movement which arose from the shipyards in this same area over five decades ago, when the workers took up an activity which has previously been confined to the select few.

"Some of the earlier pioneers used tools which has been crafted in Govan," recants 85 year old Tom Weir, a former President of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. "Like using two axes instead of one for example. The challenge was to find higher and more difficult climbs than had ever been achieved before. And that made the sport more popular and attractive."

Nowadays, climbing, at least indoors, is less about conquest and more about fitness. It has never quite attained "fad" status, but the number of participants is increasing.

"There is a lot of people coming into the sport who instead of coming to the gym, they take up climbing," notes semi-professional climber Neill Busby. " In the old days, you had to train outdoors. It's been a major benefit to have indoor facilities and the sport has definitely progressed over the last decade."

If outdoor climbing pits man (or woman) against both the natural environment and geography, then inside, the tests can be equally arduous, perhaps even with an added mental examination. Alternative routes between floor and summit on the wall vary the degree of difficulty in order to cater for both experienced and beginner practitioners.

In fact, some of the paths set out require the highest level of technical competence and skill. I watched several climbers hang inverted over the floor, clambering across an overhanging wall which was tilted back to a 45 degree angle. Progress is slow as the next move is plotted and executed with fine detail.

"You do need dedication definitely," adds Busby. "I've been climbing five years and that's how long it's taken me to do to some of the hardest things indoors."

The path of development puts climbing debutantes on a slab surface which is sufficiently slanted to permit standing before moving onto a vertical plane. Instructors reckon two hours worth of training will allow an utter novice to begin their ascent with only the most basic equipment required. And the benefit of starting indoors is the start-up costs which are relatively inexpensive in comparison to the tonnes of supplies utilised in the open air.

"All you really need are shoes and a harness for around £100," says Mackay, standing in front of a wall full of steel clips and buckles. "In the mountains, normally you need to go hill walking in the first place before reaching the spot you want to climb. That means you effectively need to buy two sets of equipment."

In fact, most venues hire the rudimentary gear to casual users to further increase accessibility. But you have to bring your own nerve and watching  several human spiders clamber their way across an almost flat surface is no less tense for the thick mats which are ready to catch any fall.

Participants have the choice of three varieties of the sport, each presenting their own unique hurdles. Bouldering is a form of training for some and an activity in its own right for other. An individual pursuit which requires sensitivity of touch to negotiate a chalk-marked path from top to bottom with just fingers and toes as propellers.

The less dextrous can turn their hands to roped climbing, either protected by a partner at the top of the wall, or belaying which attaches the climber to the slope in an umbilical manner, manoeuvring between a series of protruding bolt ends which provide intermittent relay stops.

It all takes patience to develop a physique and mental application which, according to Mackay, only comes with practice.

"The training walls build up finger strength which is key to becoming a good climber. In the earlier stages, you learn technical skills and balance. At the other end , it is about more strength and power to weight ratio which is why many top climbers keep their weight down."

One such athlete is Glaswegian Paul Savage, whose fortunate sponsorship by a climbing shoe manufacturer enables him to concentrate almost full time on the sport.

With the harshness of the Highland winters prohibiting serious training for up to four months of the year, Savage spends much of his time in Sheffield which has become Britain's centre of excellence. He admits that while indoor climbing cannot replicate the outdoors, it can be a beneficial substitute.

" I'm training basically to do the hardest route I can find outside. So inside, I'm practising certain moves with a view to going back out and doing the hardest thing possible. To use the hard core facilities, you need good basic strength. You have to be super warmed up and really ready for it. You can't just rush into it otherwise you risk incurring a serious injury. Plus it's a lot safer - outside there is the danger aspect."

There is also a fairly healthy competitive scene across Britain, although Scotland presently trails its southern neighbours in the rankings. Birmingham is the venue for the forthcoming World Championships and Scotland will host regional heats in the British Championships. Points are scored for technique and height in what must be a high pressure contest.

But for most people - men, women and schoolkids alike - who I encountered in Govan, the primary concern was metabolics rather than medals. "It's more exciting than lifting weights," adds Mackay. "You get strength, mobility, stretching and it uses most of the muscles in your body. The forearms and fingers might bear the brunt but everywhere feels it."

Sunday Herald, October 99

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