The first climbing wall I ever encountered was at 36 Cowlishaw road, Sheffield.
I threw my mate, Neil, a puzzled look as we pulled up outside the house. He had promised me a ‘savage bouldering session’ as the weather in the Peak District was atrocious. The possibility of climbing on anything close to ‘real rock’ was out of the question.
“Fancy a brew?” Gavin asked, welcoming us into the kitchen. Putting on the kettle, Gav explained that he shared the house with another climber called Bungle. Gav was dressed in board shorts and a muscle vest, an outfit that seemed completely at odds with the cold and wet Yorkshire morning. As he squeezed a teabag against the side of the mug I noticed his hands were caked in climbing chalk. Neil and Gav were in deep conversation, I guessed about climbing. Terms and names of climbing routes were batted back and forth as they exchanged views on grading and certain ‘crux’ moves. I had only just begun climbing and the terminology was all new to me. I sheepishly slurped my brew and tried to keep up with the flow.
“Where d’ya climb in London, Mile End?” Gav asked in a thick Yorkshire accent. I told him. I was just starting and hadn’t managed to get myself over that way. Neil explained to Gav that he had only ever taken me climbing ‘outside’, as most of the climbers I met referred to it. “Nice one” Gav said, when Neil told him what routes I had led. I could feel myself blushing. I had read about Gav in climbing magazines, he was one of the new breed of sport climbers, inspired by the French style of climbing which was way more glamorous than the trad climbing that the UK was synonymous with. Sport climbing was the ‘skinny-jeans-and-Vans’ to the ‘baggy-cords-and-Hush Puppies’ of the traditional British scene. This much more rock ‘n’ roll sort of climbing involved tackling routes that were once considered to be too hard or too dangerous – and entailed the use of a new generation of gear – bolts, friends and other bits of stuff sneered at, I presumed, by the greybeards in woollen socks.
“Sport climbing was the ‘skinny-jeans-and-Vans’ to the ‘baggy-cords-and-Hush Puppies’ of the traditional British scene.”
A muffled sound – I thought it must be the music of a noisy neighbour – came blasting up from the darkness as Gav opened the door to what I assumed was his cellar. Rage Against The Machine’s first album at full volume in a darkened cellar wasn’t exactly what I pictured when Neil mentioned a ‘savage bouldering session’. As we descended into the darkness I had imagined something a little less intense. At this point, I would have hardly been surprised to find some poor soul being waterboarded down there.
In the main room of the basement a small table lamp provided what little light there was. Sat in the corner was a figure – another guy dressed in board shorts, his face obscured by his hoodie. Must be ‘Bungle’. On his feet his climbing shoes were half on, a clear indicator that this was a real hardcore climber. He sparked up his rollie, turned off the music and we exchanged pleasantries. Neil had explained sometime back the etiquette regarding ‘rock shoes’. They needed to be as small as one could possibly bear so as to make sure your feet didn’t slide about as they grew sweaty, because serious climbers never, ever wore socks! Socks were a serious faux pas – stylistically as well as technically.
At this time, Sheffield was considered to be the climbing capital of the UK. All the hardest routes and boulder problems were in close proximity and the strongest climbers lived there. If you wanted to climb hard, you moved to ‘Sheff’. Legend has it that Gav and Bungle, two of Sheffield’s finest denizens, once applied to be on ‘Gladiators’. The selection process included an 800-metre run that had to be completed in a certain time followed by twenty pull-ups. The story goes Gav and Bungle failed because they couldn’t decide which arm to use for the pull-ups.
The cellar was about 12 feet by 12 feet. Through the haze of chalk dust and the faint light of table lamp I could see two old mattresses lay on the floor. A wooden frame was attached to the far wall. It bisected the room in two, coming up from the floor at an angle of about 35 degrees. Two sheets of plywood hung from the frame. It resembled a ceiling in a cramped loft. Rough textured climbing holds hung from the ply sheets at regular intervals, each caked in chalk dust, Gav stood cleaning one with an old toothbrush. This seemed to me to be about as far away from ‘Great Outdoors’ as it was possible to be.
Fast Forward twenty years. The instructor at The Castle, the North London climbing centre constructed in what I think is an old water works, is asking me a question. “Have you ever climbed on real rock?” I remember the first time I was asked this question. It was in this same place, over over a decade ago. When the place opened it was a humble scene, catering more or less for a small coterie of hardcore London climbers who were finding it hard to keep in shape for the crag. Now, of course, the place is bursting at the seams. Once, the only girls were the ones with their boyfriends who were referred to disparagingly as ‘belay bunnies’, but now there are lots of women who kick my arse bouldering. There are kids barely in their teens – who I know would have trouble tying a figure-of-eight knot – dealing with bouldering problems I could only dream of tackling. Where once a warm up consisted of a few laps on the traversing wall and a quick stretch, now there are what appear to be full on yoga classes being conducted on every available floor mat. Even some of the dedicated boulderers that I once climbed with are at it.
These days days bouldering has developed into a sport in its own right – with its own grading system and etiquette. There are climbers and there are boulderers though of course there is massive crossover – indoor climbing centres like The Castle and Bristol’s excellent Climbing Academy providing much-needed context for climb-specific training and technical development. There’s no longer the stigma attached to ‘coming out of the closet’ and finally admitting to yourself and your mates that you prefer to ‘just boulder’ rather than climb routes. These days it’s reached the extreme that there are a breed of climbers who have only climbed indoors.
When I was asked the question whether I had climbed on real rock my first reaction was to scoff dismissively. I was obviously a real climber. But then I realised indoor climbing like bouldering has evolved into something in itself, a recreation that provides both mental and physical exertion. Looking around the Castle I realise that a great deal of the ‘punters’ had never climbed on ‘real rock’. It’s enough for them to climb indoors. Why bother with the braving of the elements and burning the gas and spending the cash to get out there and get on it for ‘real’. I’m not sure how I feel about that, in reality, but when I think about my own climbing I realise that I too have become an indoor climber. I hadn’t been on a climbing trip for ages – not even a weekend in the Peak. I was enjoying the social aspect and using the ‘wall’ as other people use the gym. At least at the climbing wall there are not as many preening teen gods – let alone the wall-to-wall TV screens with Jessie J gyrating. Last time I climbed at the Castle there were still a few familiar faces and I was reassured to see a few folk still wearing socks and climbing boots.
Some things, I hope, will never change.