Hanging upside-down, hands and feet engaged with coloured holds on the artificial rock surface, his bristling carefully sculpted moustache made him look more than a little ridiculous. But this was a dedicated climber, and different rules apply. Preposterous as his facial hair was, there was no denying his climbing prowess. None would dispute that he was truly a silverback of the vertical world – and he had the moustache to prove it.
Coloured holds, indicating varying difficulty, spread across a stretch of fake rock winding around a repurposed factory floor. The walls reach no more than fourteen feet, ropes and headgear are not required – this was Bouldering and uninhibited movement is central.
Bouldering attracts a mixed crowd, but it’s easy to spot the experts. Gym goers muscle their way to the top, using their upper body strength in a frontal assault. Climbers tend not to have bulk, they carry only what is necessary. Watching an expert negotiate a wall, looks effortless. The exertion rises from their knees, focusing the body’s energy, and the arms grasp and swing in considered feline motions. They pick their way across a surface following a careful, considered route. Much in the way of most martial arts, it is all about optimising energy.
Climbers have to always carry their own body weight and do so using only fingers and toes. This develops dense muscle and strong sinew over a period of years, the strength of finger and tendon growing much slower than muscle. Climbers don’t do unnecessary weight – like a man with a low baggage allowance – they have to pack carefully. A high strength to weight ratio is essential in a climber.
It was an architecture student named Nick that drew the parallel for me. He commented, after training one day, on the similarity of build between climbers and martial artists. Technique is central to each, while strength and flexibility are also beneficial. He felt there were parallels and practiced each intensively.
Nick was right, but he could have gone further. Climbing toughens the sinews and strengthens the body. Unlike the gym it conditions the body from the fingertips down. It develops a strong back and core, exercising whole muscle groups together. It is, in this sense, a highly complementary practice, but, perhaps more importantly, it is fun.
Climbing gives a huge amount of satisfaction. The challenge of scaling a rock face to a coloured scale of difficulty is adsorbing. Like a videogame, it draws you into the challenge, as you move between levels and gradations of difficulty. Bouldering can take up hours of time and push you to your physical limit without you actually being fully aware of what is happening. Much in the way a PlayStation can swallow time and energy, so too does climbing, but, whereas the latest Halo game is unlikely to reduce your body fat and increase upper body and core strength, climbing certainly will. Although be warned side effects may include the growth of ill-advised moustaches.