Reach for the stars

Slipping into his Spiderman outfit, Mike Wilson investigates artificial wall climbing, the latest leisure craze from France, soon to be on the ascent in Scotland.

In this bicentenary year of the French Revolution, it is perhaps more appropriate than usual to reflect on the other ‘Revolutions’ which the French have exported in the course of the last few decades. In the world of rock climbing, there has always been a pervasive Gallic influence, from the very first ascents ofAlpine peaks to the much more recent creation ofcompetition climbing.

In France, rock climbing is incredibly popular. It is enjoyed by families; its most accomplished participants, such as Patrick Edlinger and Catherine Destiville, are media celebrities; and there are natural or artificial climbing walls within easy access of most cities. towns and villages.

In British rock climbing circles, there has always been a traditional resistance to many of the more colourful sides to the French style, and it was only a few months ago that the relatively conservative British Mountaineering Council was forced to concede to the inevitable establishment ofcompetition climbing with its attendant television coverage, sponsorship and fashion-conscious rock gymnasts by sanctioning a competition which was held in Leeds in May.

Ironically, the international grand prix circuit ofcompetition climbing is currently being led by Britons Jerry Moffat, John Dunne, Ben Moon and Simon Nadin who are not only very talented and highly

motivated but probably on the dole.

If any are sponsored, by equipment manufacturers for example, the rewards are minimal in comparison to the riches available on the continent.

Duncan McCallum, one ofthe top Scots, hasn’t the same need to seek sponsorship, either from businesses or the Government working in the film industry satisfies most of his budgetary requirements. However, while he might be more fortunate than others in being able to structure his work commitments so that he can devote a relatively large amount of his time to the sport he has just returned from six weeks climbing in the South of France —- he knows that he is not devoting enough to reach the very top.

‘Frankly, climbing has progressed so rapidly in terms of technical difficulty, that only full-time involvement would provide the time to develop the necessary techniques. The modern, top-class Rock Climber has to work out in the gym, use fingerboards to strengthen the

hands, maintain a fairly strict diet

and operate a climbing programme which is sufficiently extensive but takes account of the need for rest between strenuous days on the cliff or artificial wall’, he remarks.

A consequence of the phenominal improvement in standards is a change in attitudes towards safety. Although some people might prefer to climb solo, without any protection at all (Catherine Destiville being a casein point). most climbers use protection to ensure that ifthey are leading a route they will not hit the ground should they fall. On less

difficult climbs, there are generally enough natural fissures on the rock face to accomodate the wide variety ofclimbing hardware which can considerably reduce the distance of any fall.

However, on the more difficult routes, with less substantial holds and sometimes no natural locations to place protection, the ethical boundaries of the sport have had to change to accommodate the likelihood that a climber might fall over a dozen times before a sequence of moves is perfected.

Enter the French again, this time with the practice ofpreplacing protection bolts. Easy to clip the rope into, these bolts are permanently placed onto the rock face. Unlike traditional protection, they are not taken away at the end of the climb. Thus was born, about seven years ago, sport climbing.

‘Hand in hand with the advent of bolts on limestone cliffs mainly in the South of France was the realisation that straight ascents just could not be done. It was increasingly obvious that new, hard routes had to be checked out before a climb was attempted. Virgin rock needs to be cleaned of loose rock and lichen, and as standards rise, so the number of obvious hand and foot holds diminish,’ continues McCallum. ‘Sport climbing is essentially the same as rock climbing, but anything goes to allow you to work out how to get to the top of a route. A sport climber can abseil down the route to inspect it, practice moves on individual sections, and top-rope the climb where the rope is secured to


the top of the cliff to provide complete safety when rehearsing the whole route. Sometimes this process can take days.’

The Brits initially resisted sport climbing, just as they later resisted competition climbing there was a strong body of opinion which could not accept scarring the environment, whether with bolts or the advertising hoardings which have to accompany the competitions.

Therefore, it is fortunate that, for practical reasons, competition climbing now uses indoor. artificial walls almost without exception. ‘Although natural rock climbs were at first used for competitions, it was very quickly realised that a much more controllable medium was needed to create competition routes that were sufficiently difficult and did not provide an incentive to cheat’, says McCallum. ‘Therefore, the French came up with a system of bolt-on holds which are fitted onto a blank surface, probably a panel, and fitted into position on an overhanging structure.‘

By using bricks or a material known as a Bencrete, which affords a more authentic texture, indoor artificial walls in Scotland do not yet incorporate the most sophisticated technology that is available in competitions. However, this does not exclude their value as a source of winter training for those experts unable to travel to warmer climes or as a safe environment for beginners to learn the sport. Just as natural crags will have routes which will appeal to different abilities, so too will indoor artificial walls.

As sport and competition climbing each threaten to be next year's trendiest sports, a number of new, artificial walls are about to be constructed throughout Scotland. Most will be so low providing so-called ‘bouldering problems’ that ropes will not be needed; others might be like the walls at Meadowbank Sports Centre or Heriot-Watt University: tall, but again entirely safe due to the provision of top ropes.

However, before you make tracks for your local climbing wall, a word ofwarning: fluorescent lycra tights have had their day; this year, climbing colours will be a little more subdued.


Those walls which require climbers to be roped will insist on a suitably-qualified person to be in attendance. It is worth phoning the centres to get full details. not only about eligibilty to climb but also about availability of the wall since some are out of action when other sports are using the same location.


I Kelvin Hell Sports Centre

Argyle Street, Glasgow, '

357 2525,£1.20. Alow wall, for short bouldering problems. An estimated 15.000 people used it in its first year of operation.

I Langside College 50

Prospecthill Road.

Glasgow. 649 4991. A tall.

brick-built wall, with top ropes.


I Meadowbank Sports Centre London Road.

1 Edinburgh,6615351.

£1.75. A tall, brick-built wall. with top ropes. Harnesses are also

provided on the evenings when tuition is available to the general public, namely Monday and Thursday.

I Heriot-Watt University Riccarton Sports Centre. Currie. 449 51 1 1 ext 3000. A tall, more modern wall that uses a wider variety of natural holds than the brick-built ones. Top ropes are provided. but not harnesses.


Clubs enable access to any number of

Mountaineering ' 7-30Pm- i opportunities, including EDINBURG" Rock Climbing. Sonic , I Edinburgh JMcs Contact I Shops are handy for regularly hire arttftcral Stuart Murdoch on 0383 advice, as well as gear. walls. ! 721971. GLASGOW I Jacobite: Contact Allan . mmpon

(H‘sseow Robertson 0“ 0506 r 261 Sauchiehall Street. I ISSOOWJMCS Contact 844815 I 332 4814 Morrison 0" 334 I Edinburgh I Graham Tiso 129

' MOUMGIMOYIW Club Buchanan Street, 248 I Lamond Mountaineering Contact Tim Featherstonc

Club Contact Chris Roper

on 556 7034 on 228 2090' I Highrenge 200 Great

I Glasgow Langside ! FORTH VALLEY , 3rd. 332 5533- Mounteineering Club Meet .' I pom. v..." I Graham mo 115/123 chry WednCSday at the "ounlalnnflng Club Rose Street, 225 9486 Climbing Wall at Contact Mike Newbury on I "empon Waverly

Langside College at 5 0506 842193.

1 l 4877. l

Market. 557 0923.

The List 8— 21 December 1989 89