Is Climbing the Friendliest Sport Ever?

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I’m always impressed that, during the viewing period of major competitions, competitors help each other out by sharing beta, despite the fact that this could potentially harm their own chances of success. It goes further than that though: after the last world cup in Vail, Jan Hojer and Adam Ondra tried to persuade Nathaniel Coleman to take part in the China events as he had a good chance of getting on the podium in the overall competition. The fact that they were also vying for the top spot didn’t seem to have entered into the equation.

I love this about climbing. At the crag or down the local wall you regularly see groups of total strangers sharing knowledge and discussing the best way to do things. Many of the country’s top climbers live in Sheffield, and you’ll often see them chatting to, and climbing with, us mere mortals down at the wall. It seems there’s very little hierarchy in the climbing world.

Training for the British Bouldering Championships this year, it really hit home to me just how great the climbing community is. Keen to work on my technique, I spent a lot of time down at the wall learning to balance my way up slabs and jump for holds which looked impossibly far away. During this time, a lot of people helped me out with advice on my technique and useful tips on how to improve. Not just my friends, but everyone from strangers I tried problems with to the UK’s top competition climbers and the route setters themselves gave me tips on things to try, and information about what to expect on the competition day itself.

“Isolation was also a really friendly place to be.”

I had always thought it would be stressful, but I spent most of the time chatting to, and warming up with, a great group of people who were psyched for their own success, but also supportive of others too.

I used to have this image of sport being “every man for himself”, but I don’t think this is so true in climbing. I feel lucky to be part of something where people genuinely want to help each other out and see others succeed.

As for the comp, how did it go? Well I came 19th in the end, and I achieved my aim of making semis so I was really happy.

The comp wall at the Cliffhanger festival was a brilliant place to compete.

The brightly coloured walls and problems looked really appealing, and the open air nature meant it felt cool and breezy. The route setters had also done a fantastic job of setting interesting problems which divided the field well (not an easy task at all, I am sure). All in all, it was a brilliant weekend - roll on 2016!

1 ISLAND, 2 MONKS AND UNTOUCHED GRANITE

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“Why did James and I pick a small dot on the other side of the planet?”

Because Yuji told us about it. The last time Yuji proposed us a trip, we ended up in Kinabalu, the now oh so famous mountain where untouched granite will overwhelm the climber. The Real Rock tour has thrown Kinabalu into fame, but 5 years ago, when we went there, no climber could even put it on the climbing

Kinkasan is a small island not far from Fukushima, on the north east side of Japan. It has 26km circumference and is inhabited by two monks. From Tokyo it is a six hour journey. Yuji didn’t say that much more: Kinkasan’s coast is covered with granite cliffs, and there is a Shinto shrine on it. Yuji mentioned as well the damages made by the tsunami…

We began our journey with next to no expectations about the climbing, and a big question mark for the rest. 3 days in the trip and I know exactly why we came: for Japan. 

2 years ago we spent a week in this unique country and both James and I knew that we had to come back one day: how could I compare it? Well, the first time you taste wine, you have heard a lot about it. But you smell, and you only smell the alcohol, you taste and you can’t put words on it because wine is subtle, complicated and requests an education. You have to go back to it, learn to enjoy, differentiate and remember. Japan is maybe a little bit like wine.

There is this astonishing mix of modernity (the Japanese toilets and their multi jets, music and self cleaning options give you an idea of the immensity of your difference)  and spirituality, respect, focus.

We arrived at Base Camp, the gym that Yuji opened 5 years ago in Tokyo, and I oscillate between marvel and shame. I am a pro climber, and most of the boulders are too hard for me, the Japanese climbers around me seem to evolve so effortlessly, like flying cats on the wall. But then you realise: the world championship have just finished in Paris and in the bouldering competition, 3 of the 6 medals are not only Japanese, but from Tokyo, from Base Camp. Yuji and his company helps the athletes become professional and they often climb together. Shall I repeat that? Half of the world’s medals come from one gym! Surely there is no wonder that Yuji owns that gym… But that is only just the very top of the iceberg, because behind this 3 medals, there are a lot of other athletes with an incredible level. I have never seen so many good, extremely good boulderers in one place. And I am a former competition climber, trust me, I know what I am talking about.

“Why are they so good?”

The answer is surely complicated but here are a few elements: climbing has become very trendy in Japan, with over a 100 gyms in Tokyo. The Japanese body type is perfect for climbing; light, powerful and explosive muscles. The Japanese constant pursuit of perfection pushes the athletes to train hard, just like everyone around them simply accomplished every task with perfection.

It was dry for the crossing, and after unpacking our bags at the shrine we bouldered on a nearby beach for 1 hour before the rain came. With so much rock to see and so little time, we hiked out anyway along the coast to search out potential lines. The rain became heavier, we became wetter, and after 4 soggy hours we returned to the shrine, hopes high but spirits low. We’d been preparing this trip since September 2015, putting the team together, finding funding from sponsors, organizing the local logistics, yet it would all be in vain if the weather didn’t brighten up.

A morning of rain gave us the excuse to sit down and record some interviews, though truthfully we had little to say as we’d done little climbing. Toru, ever the silent optimist finally dragged me out to the closest boulder spot during a break between two showers, and we were surprisingly able to climb! Toru lived up to his reputation of boldness and brilliance, making the first ascents of two of Kinkasan’s boldest and hardest problems. Finally things were looking up. The forecast was good for the following days, and group psyche could not have been higher. We began to plan our upcoming adventure and our first trip to the other side of the island – the area with the highest concentration of rock, and the biggest cliffs, but had to cut them short as bad news broke.

With my thirst for climbing temporarily quenched, we left the island in limbo, happy, yet sad, but knowing we’d be back in less than 24 hours. We passed the day visiting some of the worst tsunami affected towns in an effort to better understand what hardships the local people had to live through, and how they are moving forwards towards the future. It is one thing to watch the news from the comfort of your lounge back home, it is another thing entirely to see it first hand, and speak to the people who have lost everything - houses, possessions, loved ones!

Suddenly our troubles with the rain seemed embarrassingly small, and we remembered why we were actually here in the first place.

Our personal climbing desires must come second to the larger goal of showing this place to the world. Rain or shine, we have to get out there. Hike around, document the potential, and if in the end we are lucky, open up some new routes.