On The Ropes

Originally published in Time Out

Newcomers to the aptly-named Castle Climbing Centre regularly get the fear with their feet still firmly on the ground. First there are those gothic towers looming over Green Lanes: add a little lightning, and you’ll be waiting for the bus driver to turn around and make you walk the last half mile alone. Then, once inside, there are forms to fill out: ‘Do you understand that participation in this activity may result in your injury or death?’ Only a full YES or NO will do – nervously shaking hands make ticks that look like upside down crosses.

But venture further in and you’ll see there’s really nothing to worry about. Bathed in bright light, the walls are a collage of vivid colours all cross-hatched with ropes. The tunes are upbeat, and encouragement echoes off the high ceiling. Climbers, once known by their clay pipes and tweeds, are now young and upwardly mobile in more ways than one.

These days, indoor wall climbing is a serious sport in its own right, and oddball practices abound. Seasoned pros tut over holds that are too chalky, dusting them with toothbrushes before smothering their hands with chalk and starting over. Fingers are covered with surgical tape. Routes are endlessly named and numbered on blackboards: ‘6a: BO hands and feet – no smearing.’

So what do you need to get started? Well, nothing. The essentials (a safety harness and footwear that makes most bowling shoes feel handmade by Jimmy Choo) can be hired. Ropes are already up and running. And no, they don’t break – ever. Just bring a little willpower, and an open mind.

“The initial barrier first-time climbers face is mental, not physical,” says Audrey Séguy, one of many supervisors at the Castle who deals on a daily basis with the public’s fear of heights, and their scepticism of even the most advanced equipment. “If it’s properly used, equipment never fails, but trust takes time to develop. On our courses we start people off with easy walls, so that their brains can get past the shock before their bodies are exhausted.”

Lessons are run as either five-hour introduction courses on weekends or with ten hours spread over four weeks, but the principles remain the same. Instructors demonstrate the basics (forgetting to double back a single buckle on your harness can cause the thing to unravel at the most inappropriate moments), and before long groups are divided into pairs, with one feeding and taking in excess rope (belaying) while the other scrambles up the wall, imagining they’re being hotly pursued by one of the more attractive Gladiators – Wolf, for example.

Women are quick to progress technically

“What I find interesting is how men and women go into it differently,” says Audrey, who also helps run the hugely popular Women With Altitude sessions every Monday evening. “Men tend to start out with a lot more strength, powering up routes more easily than women. Women tend to have to use their legs, and so instinctively they pick up more techniques. And obviously, as both sexes progress, they meet at the level where women are getting stronger and the men are learning to climb with more style.”

And it’s not just an equal opportunity sport in terms of gender: kids love it (it makes climbing trees feel like chemistry homework), while old age offers no excuse at all. “Some people over 50 are at their best in terms of climbing performance. One of our climbers is over 70: if you have general fitness and the right attitude, there are no age barriers.”

And while the ease with which Londoners can now get started has led to an increase in the number of so called ‘white collar climbers’ (who substitute tedious after-office gym routines for evenings grunting at the wall), most people end up getting hooked for the right reasons. They arrive thinking about bicep benefits, or leadership qualities, but after a week or two – although their changing room banter continues to turn the air blue – they leave as climbers. You can see it in their eyes.

For Audrey, the rewards of indoor climbing for disillusioned urbanites are obvious: “No matter how horrible your day was, climbing focuses you so much that it’s physically impossible to think about anything else, and for one or two hours it lets you put everything completely to one side. I’ve never known any other sport that can do that.”