My inspiration for having a go at indoor climbing came from watching footage of a breathtaking solo ascent by Alex Honnold.
The renowned American climber scaled a famously challenging 1,500ft vertical rock face in Mexico in just three hours, becoming the first person to do it alone.
This fantastic achievement led me to tackle the rather less intimidating walls at The Arch, which operates indoor climbing centres in Vauxhall and Bermondsey.
The Arch has a range of colour-co-ordinated walls designed to cater for all levels of experience, from complete beginners to gravity-defying experts. Specialising in free climbing, which is climbing without any harnesses or safety ropes.
After signing up for an introductory session at the Bermondsey centre for £20, I was introduced to the core skills and techniques of climbing and all the safety aspects to free climbing.
Importance of the introductory class
If you’ve never been to a climbing wall before the first time could be both intimidating and exciting. An introductory course is required before climbing on your own, and in the early stages, a supervisor or experienced staff member will guide you through essentials to climb.
After being shown around the centre, I was then introduced to the walls and levels. For example, green denotes the easiest climbs, and white the hardest. Having an experienced staff member encouraging and helping you get through the climb helps enormously, a great boost for confidence.
The most important way to improve your climbing is to continue practising. It’s easy climb but not use the right techniques, but doing it right will help you become a better climber in the long term.
One walk-in session costs £10 or memberships are available from £55 per month.
Equipment and techniques
The requirements for climbing indoors are having comfortable and flexible bottoms/shorts, t-shirt and your own climbing shoes. The latter can be rented from the centre for £3 or can be purchased in stores such as Decathlon or online. Chalk is also advised as it gives you a better grip; this can be purchased online or the centre at the cost of £1.50.
The climbing shoes are always one size less than your usual, this is so your toes can curl which is better for climbing.
The main techniques while climbing are route reading, which is analysing the route you will take before starting the climb.
Keeping your arms straight makes it easier for you to stretch for the next hold, making your climb easier. Twisting your feet changes your whole climb, it gives you the options to change directions rather than facing one way only.
Novice climbers have many falls, but The Arch has soft surfaces so when you slip from the wall your landing is likely to cause any injuries.
The most challenging aspect of learning to climb is to keep control of yourself and to stick to the techniques, such as route reading and keeping your arms straight otherwise you end up giving up as you run out of stamina.
Free solo climbing is the hardest form of climbing. Therefore, beginning this level straight away can feel difficult but a great way to begin the sport. Later on, you can begin climbing mountains with harnesses comfortably, but it takes years of practice to tackle daunting rockfaces Honnold style.
Alex Honnold once said: “My comfort zone is like a little bubble around me, and I’ve pushed it in different directions and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fall within the realm of the possible.”
The sport suits extreme sportsmen and women who have no boundaries, and for the ones who enjoy taking the sport a step further such as climbing mountains without harnesses etc.
How fit do you need to be to start climbing indoors? I noticed a range of heights but most people at The Arch were in reasonably decent shape.
It is tremendously hard to climb if you are overweight, and having good upper body strength, particularly in the arms, is a real advantage.
Indoor climbing is a great way to master the art safely, especially at The Arch where you learn how to free climb right away.
I’m a person who tends to enjoy the security of walking on solid ground and not having to use my hands to get from point A to point B.
So when a friend who does indoor rock climbing (or bouldering to give this particular form its proper name) began asking me to come along and give it a go, I initially declined.
But he was nothing if not persistent, and I eventually gave in. Even then, I thought it would be something I’d have to endure for an hour or so then never have to do it again. But how wrong I was…
To my surprise, I actually found myself having fun. Yes, it was difficult and physically demanding but, at the same time, also very enjoyable.
No strings attached
The venue for my introduction to the sport was The Climbing Hangar in Chelsea.
As a first-timer, I had to fill in a waiver form and watch a mini-tutorial video. After that it was just a matter of putting on some special climbing shoes and we were on our way.
The Climbing Hangar has three levels, each filled with colourful grip rocks. In the middle of one is a climbing column which is a good change of pace after scaling the many strangely-shaped walls.
Before arriving, I’d envisaged being festooned with a variety of ropes, clips and harnesses in order to make our way up these obstacles.
But that turned out to be not the case as your feet are never higher than three metres off the ground. In addition, the floors are padded so it’s all perfectly safe.
Also, rather than climbing upwards, we traversed sideways along the walls, with the main challenge being to figure out where to put your hands and feet next in order to get from one end to the other.
Each route has a different colour indicating how difficult it is. Every few weeks the routes and colours will change, so regular visitors face fresh challenges.
Starting off at beginners’ level, I grabbed the closest rock and proceeded to move to my left-hand side.
My friend was watching me while cracking jokes such as “Don’t look down!” (I was half a metre off the ground) and “You’re an absolute rock star!” which didn’t help, but I spent at least two minutes without touching the ground on my first try alone.
After that my confidence grew and I began to genuinely enjoy myself. We moved onto the harder walls, a few of which I conquered.
Easily, the most fun part was when the grip rocks were so far apart, the only way to grab onto the next rock was by jumping and trying to catch it. After my third attempt I caught it but didn’t grip properly and fell.
Two more tries later, I got it right. The leap made me feel like superhero… well, a semi-super hero.
Another of my misconceptions was that climbing is all about upper-body strength, but there is so much more to it than just that.
For example, it’s important to remember that whenever you can, you have to push with your legs rather than pull with your arms. I suppose it’s basic common sense as legs are a lot stronger than arms, and it’s all about spreading the energy used across the whole body.
The amount of aching I experienced the next day told me that I got a really good workout in my first experience of bouldering.
I have to admit I discovered a lot of muscles I never knew even existed through this pain, but that’s fantastic because I would never have exercised them at the gym.
Where and how much
The Climbing Hangar is only one of climbing centres in London. Just to name a few, there’s also Vauxwall in Vauxhall, the Castle Climbing Centre and Geckos Climbing for Kids which are both in Stoke Newington and Westway Climbing in White City.
The costs for one session usually range between £7-£10 depending on the centre and the time you go.
There are also membership packages. It’s well worth the price and I recommend it to anyone of any age and ability.
If you need any more incentive to try rock climbing, then a lot of these places offer taster sessions which are cheaper than standard prices.