Climbing’s varied disciplines offer a world of potential challenge
Text & main photography by Derek Cheng
Climbing is one of the most accessible and exciting adventure sports around. It pushes you beyond your limits, enhancing your strength and flexibility, and teaching you to handle fear, all while bringing you regular rushes of adrenaline and dopamine.
Yes, it can be dangerous. But modern equipment has mitigated the risk for most of its varied disciplines to a point where, once you know what you’re doing, it is incredibly safe.
It is also a sport that offers huge variety: from climbing a small boulder around the corner from your house, to a session on plastic holds at the climbing gym, to weaving a line through hanging stalactites in rural China, to alpine walls 1,500m high, way above the snowline in a glacial valley.
Most importantly, you don’t have to be Superman. It’s a rare sport where egos don’t have to collide (though, inevitably, they sometimes do), where pros encourage newbies, and where everyone shares in the camaraderie. You may be afraid of heights. You may have a beer gut. You may feel breathless after climbing a dozen stairs. But none of these are reasons not to try a sport that can challenge, empower and liberate – and deliver plenty of fun in the process.
The most basic form of climbing is bouldering – climbing a large rock that is usually no more than a few metres tall. No ropes are used. Instead, crash pads – thick, dense mats designed to cushion the most severe of falls – are placed under the climber. Bouldering is very social and a gaggle of upraised friends’ hands will usually guide any faller into the gentle bosom of a pad.
Boulder climbs are called problems, as they usually involve working out how to this handhold and that foothold to move higher. Problems tend to be short, with just a handful of intense moves, often extremely technical or physically demanding. Experienced boulderers tend to excel in explosive, dynamic (jumping from one set of holds to another) movements.
Sport climbing is the most popular discipline of climbing. A sport climb uses pre-placed protective bolts every few metres from the bottom to the top. On natural rock, these are drilled for your convenience by the hardworking, often unsung heroes who spend endless hours developing areas. The climbing walls or gyms found in many bigger towns and cities are most often used for sport climbing too.
A sport climber is kept safe through multiple pieces of equipment. The climber wears a harness to tie into a rope, which is also connected to the harness of a belayer, the person responsible for catching a fall by preventing the rope from running freely any further.
Many beginners start by top-roping: a method that minimises the falling-risk with a rope threaded through an anchor – usually two bolts – at the top of the climb and down to the belayer. They always keeps the rope tight, so the climber never really falls, but rather dangles on the end of the rope.
After top-roping, learners graduate to lead climbing where, as the climber moves up, they use a quickdraw (see gear definitions overleaf) to clip the rope into the protection bolts. A fall will pull the rope tight from the climber through the bolt, which will often have been below the climber, to the belayer. By leading, the climber is taking more responsibility for protecting themselves as they move higher.
Climbers also ascend routes that have no protection bolts in them. In this case, the climber places their own traditional protection (see below) into cracks and crevices in the rock face. This is called trad climbing. The safety of the route depends on the solidity of the rock and how many good placements for trad protection there might be. Trad climbing allows climbers to access terrain that is not bolt-protected, such as on high-alpine adventures in remote mountain ranges. It is considered a bolder form of climbing, as the climber cannot rely on the security of a pre-placed bolt.
Where to learn
Climbing gyms are a great introduction to the sport. Many offer both bouldering and roped climbing, using plastic holds. You can become familiar with equipment, and learn how to tie knots, belay and lower climbers, all under the supervision of trained gym staff.
Most gyms have drop-in prices as well as monthly, or even annual, memberships. Many run courses as well as offering individual access. Here are some of the biggest gyms in Asia:
Bangkok: Rock Domain Climbing Gym is the city’s newest and largest centre, with a bouldering area and 11-metre top-rope and lead climbing wall. Open seven days a week: www.rockdomaingym.com
Beijing: The Ole Climbing Gym offers a 12.5m-high climbing wall and a bouldering room with a variety of challenges, including a 45˚ overhanging wall: www.ole-sports.org
Hong Kong: Bouldering gyms include Attic V, www.atticv.com.hk; Go Nature, www.gonaturehk.com and Just Climb, www. justclimb.hk. The YMCA has both indoor and outdoor walls: www.ymcahk.org.hk and www.kpcc.ymcahk.org.hk (shown below) respectively.
Kuala Lumpur: Touted as the largest climbing gym in in Asia, Camp5 in northern KL has over 400 routes from bouldering to top-roping to lead climbing. http://camp5.com
Manila: Several centres around the city cater for boulderers and climbers, with the Power Up chain most visible. www.facebook.com/Power-Up-Climbing-352641928079307/
Shanghai: The Shanghai Stadium Rock Climbing Center is the biggest in the country, with eight climbing walls ranging up to 20m, as well as a large bouldering area: www.rockclimb.cn/abstructen.aspx
Singapore: Onsight Climbing Gym, the biggest indoor gym in Singapore, offers bouldering and a 15m-high speed climbing wall with over 100 routes: onsight.com.sg
Taipei: Has a number of bouldering-only or sport climbing gyms: taiwanrocks.net/category/gyms/
Taking it outside
There are an abundance of famous destinations in Asia to rock climb, many with routes for the newbie:
Yangshuo, China – Renowned for karst limestone towers that rear up from verdant plains, Yangshuo is brimming with climbers in spring and autumn. Its popularity is understandable, with cheap living, great food and culture, and hundreds of bolted sport climbing routes in locations close to the city.
Thakhek, Laos – Famous for an enormous roof feature, Thakhek also offers many vertical and slabby routes for beginners. Accommodation is in huts in the jungle, or at the family-friendly Green Climbers Home.
Tonsai, Thailand – These massive beachside cliffs have long been a favourite destination, especially at Christmas, with rustic bungalows in Tonsai and resorts in Railay catering to all income brackets. While the beginner routes tend to be slippery, due to heavy traffic over decades, they are still worth a try and the location is hard to beat – perfect beaches, a chill vibe and a bustling bar scene.
Li Ming, Yunnan, China – While most Asian climbing is on limestone, Li Ming offers soaring sandstone cracks and traditional lines on crags above a mountain hamlet with a cheap accommodation and delicious food. Visit in spring or autumn. AA
Climbers tend to fall. A lot. It part of the risk/reward ethos of the sport and learning to be comfortable with falling (within reason!) is essential. This also necessitates reliable and well-tested gear, with ropes, harnesses, carabiners and slings all rated to withstand huge loads.
Shoes – Generally worn very tight, to allow a lot of weight to be balanced on the tips of your toes, and enhanced with sticky rubber to maximise friction. There are shoes to suit different types of climbing but unless you want to climb something specific, it is best to start with general, low-performance shoes, then buy something more aggressive as you progress. Make sure they are tight enough to be uncomfortable to walk in, but not unbearably painful.
Harness – A climber is connected to the rope via a harness, worn firmly above the hips. It should feel comfortable, but tight, like a belt. A harness has small loops on each side for securing gear needed for the climb, such as quickdraws.
Chalk bag – Being an unaccustomed height off the ground can quickly grease your palms with sweat. Virtually all climbers wear chalk bags filled with the magical white stuff to keep their digits dry. Get a bag that completely seals so you don’t lose any if your bag tips over.
Belay-device – There are many different kinds that all do the same thing: lock off the rope to keep it from running freely in the event of a fall. Some, like the ATC, require you to hold the rope in a certain way at all times. Others, like the Petzl Grigri, lock off automatically, but these are not full-proof. Whatever you use, follow directions carefully.
Rope – Many beginners consider buying a single rope (half ropes and twin ropes are thinner, and designed for use in alpine and winter environments). A sensible first choice would be one about 10mm thick and 60m long (unless you know you will be climbing routes longer than 30m). Professional climbers tend to use thinner ropes: fatter ropes last longer, but are also heavier and may not feed as easily through a belay device. If your rope ever sustains visible damage, such as a rip in the sheath (the outer layer), buy a new one. Most are strong enough to hold dozens of falls from a lead climber.
Quickdraws – These comprise two carabiners connected by a length of webbing or sling, and they are essential in safely linking the rope to the protection, whether that is bolts or traditional protection. Each carabiner and sling are rated to withstand a force of 22 kilo-newtons, or around 2,300kg. A lead climber clips one carabiner into the protection bolt, and clips the rope through the other. When leading, a climber usually has at least a dozen quickdraws, depending on how many bolts are on the intended climb.
Traditional protection – There are many different types of trad protection but the two main ones are camming devices – or cams – and wires. Cams are spring-loaded devices with a trigger and four lobes, and are placed inside parallel cracks. A fall will cause the lobes to attempt to open which, if the cam is well placed, will mean they bite into the rock to arrest the fall. Wires, also called nuts or stoppers, are trapezoid-shaped devices that are wedged inside natural nooks and crevices in the rock. Properly placed trad gear is as secure as protection bolts.