With the grace of a dancer, an athlete’s grit and plenty of all-important grip, a climber deftly scales a tricky buttress.
As he holds himself with the poise of a pilates expert and skilfully manoeuvres into his next foothold, he’s showing all the confidence of someone climbing safely indoors.
The ‘rocks’ in his expert grasp look like big bright lumps of Plasticine, although mercifully they’re made of sturdier stuff.
And the buttress is a projecting section of wall designed to give the Spidermen and women at indoor climbing centre Hi Rock the sort of challenge they might find outside.
The Hayling Island facility opened last year and joins the many indoor climbing walls springing up all over the country.
There is an increased demand for the walls, designed to emulate the cliffs and rocky outcrops of the great outdoors and give customers a realistic climbing experience.
Once used by mountaineers as training between their outdoor challenges, the walls are increasingly being used as sports and fitness facilities in their own right.
‘We get lots of children and parents here. It’s great for families because it’s a much safer environment. And it’s really good exercise, you’re using a lot of muscles you wouldn’t ordinarily use, so people treat it like a gym,’ says Peter Swift, an indoor and outdoor climbing instructor and Hi Rock manager.
‘And I think it’s much more interesting than a treadmill. You have to use your brain to work out the best route. I always say it’s like a puzzle and because of that you don’t always realise you’re exercising.’
As Peter speaks, the climber on the wall continues his ascent with ease and expertise. Although he’s enjoying the controlled indoor environment – with ‘rocks’ placed carefully and reassuring crash mats underneath – it’s clear he has the ability to tackle nature’s less predictable crags and crevices.
Peter points out the technical skills required for advanced indoor climbing. ‘You don’t have to be particularly muscly. If you’re doing it properly you shouldn’t need all that strength. Look how he’s twisting his foot and leg around, it’s about positioning, planning and choosing the correct route.
‘But mainly it’s about getting your centre of gravity. People instinctively stick their bums out as they climb but that puts a lot of strain on your arms. You should have your body over your legs. A lot of climbers also do pilates and yoga to help them with posture.’
Achieving that type of poise means moving carefully and a good climber never clambers. ‘We tell the children that come here to climb like a ballerina or move like a ninja. We also tie bells to them and see if they can get up there without making too much noise. That’s a good way to learn,’ explains Peter.
The highly technical sport of mountaineering has been gathering more participants over the last few years and statistics released by Sport England show indoor climbing is likely to overtake its outdoor counterpart in popularity over the next 12 months.
Next year the IOC will decide whether climbing will become an Olympic event in 2020 and there are already many indoor competitions around the world.
Even an experienced outdoor climber like Peter finds challenging routes on Hayling’s seven-metre wall.
The wall features different coloured ‘rocks’ which are used as hand and foot holds. These are bolted in and wisely made from tough synthetic materials rather than Plasticine. They can be moved to create new routes.
Mick Cooke, 55, a keen outdoor and indoor climber, works for company Entre-Prises UK and supplied the wall to Hi Rock.
He’s delighted with the facility in the sports hall at The Hayling College and points out one of its best ‘geological’ features.
Indicating a protrusion on the wall, he says: ‘That’s what we call a macro feature and it emulates the tufa system which you get on limestone. It’s like the stalactites and stalagmites you find in caves but forms on the side of cliffs. That sort of thing would be a magnet for climbers outside. It’s pretty challenging.’
Mick, who has been climbing for over 20 years, is in a great position to witness the boom in climbing walls. ‘I’d say they’ve become more popular in the last few years, especially in the south of England where there aren’t as many outdoor climbing opportunities as the north,’ he says.
Last year the company built three climbing centres in the south. But about 80 per cent of its work involves putting walls in schools.
Some facilities, including a climbing room at the Peter Ashley Activities Centre at Fort Purbrook, are devoted to bouldering, a technical form of climbing which involves moving across the wall. This is performed closer to the ground, without ropes and relies on positioning and balance.
Activities manager Kenny Cruickshanks says: ‘It’s excellent training for outdoor climbing and more people are using it as exercise because it’s so accessible.’
At Hayling there is a traversing wall which offers a form of bouldering. But most people are scaling the heights in pairs with ropes, harnesses and belay devices for safety. ‘It’s a great activity to do as a pair because you really have to work together. The person belaying is there to make the climber safe,’ explains Peter.
It’s a sociable activity and brings all kinds of people together. Those using the wall are an assorted bunch, from families to a marine.
There are different climbing grades for people to follow making the centre suitable for complete beginners and people with decades of mountaineering experience.
‘I love the fact that this makes climbing so accessible. It really hasn’t been in the past,’ says Peter.
But as good a climbing experience as centres can offer, they can never emulate nature. Peter warns against using a wall and then heading straight for the cliffs.
‘Rocks move and nature is unpredictable,’ says the expert, who has climbed all over Europe. ‘We run courses teaching safety and best practice but you should have someone to introduce you to outdoor climbing if you’re going to do it safely.’
Hi Rock is hoping to run outward bound courses, taking people to bigger centres like Calshot and to great outdoor climbing spots.
But if people wish to stay within the Hi Rock walls, they’re still getting a great challenge and workout, says Peter.
‘I love climbing outdoors. But indoor climbing is sociable, challenging and a lot of fun.’
HAVING A GO
A good climber pays attention to their centre of gravity. If they adopt the right posture, they aid balance and that puts less strain on the arms.
Judging by the fact that my fingers are bright red, my arms are aching after two seconds and I’m dramatically yelling ‘I don’t think I can hold on’ I haven’t quite mastered this.
Think Tom Cruise challenging one of nature’s most terrifying climbs at the beginning of Mission Impossible 2 and then imagine the polar opposite.
Of course, at an indoor climbing venue like Hi Rock, you can feel like a movie hero (admittedly this is an effort) even when you’re a few metres away from a crash mat. But the technical challenges of climbing takes a little more time to master.
I’m on an easy route (basically I can grab anything I like, within reason) and I make it to about three quarters of the way up. That’s good for a first climb, apparently, but I think they’re being kind.
I quickly realise this is a great and badly needed workout and have a go at the traversing wall.
This demands a technical form of climbing with no safety rope, but you’re very close to the ground. Good job as I’m jumping off every few seconds. My instructor explains there’s even technique in the way you grab the holds.
It’s fun, it’s a challenge and really good exercise.
To find out about sessions at Hi Rock, call (023) 9246 6241 or visit hi-rock.co.uk
The original aim of Hi Rock was to stop young people climbing the walls with boredom and get them scaling the heights for real.
Police officers on the island took note of teenagers hanging around shops and decided to give them a challenge.
Sgt Neil Goodyear says it’s been a great way for young people and the local police force to get to know each other. ‘We have been trying to build relationships with those who might be more tempted to get into trouble. We wanted to engage with them and get them doing something constructive.’
PC Debbie Surridge, a climbing instructor, came up with the idea for the community wall – a joint venture between the police, The Hayling College and Hampshire County Council. It is now enjoyed not just by the youngsters but many members of the community.