The basics of climbing

Climbing is a sport that is very much on the up these days. Barbara and Sebastian, both passionate climbers, let us into the secret behind its popularity. Barbara, who’s an instructor too, breaks the myth that strength is everything and explains why a healthy respect for heights is essential, while Sebastian reveals that what he loves most about climbing is the mental challenge it poses, and the fact that it’s all about focus and creativity – basically a great workout. Pics: Sebastian Freiler

Why do you think climbing has become so popular?

Barbara: I believe the reason is increasing body consciousness. Instead of working out with machines, people now want to exercise using only their own body. That’s why more and more climbing places have recently opened. The only equipment you need for climbing are shoes and chalk (for sweaty hands). For those climbing outside, the main attraction is surely their love of nature and the chance to be active outdoors.

Sebastian: Climbing requires strength, creativity and focus, which is a very appealing mix. With bouldering, an important factor is a sense of community. Most of the time you’ll go there as a group of friends and even go out for a beer afterwards. Bouldering is cool.

So what exactly is bouldering, as opposed to climbing?

B: Bouldering is climbing not far off the ground, without ropes. So you only climb to low heights and you’ll always jump back down onto a thick mattress. There’s often a problem, or sequence of moves, involved, which you will solve within your group. You all spur each other on. There are routes with all grades of difficulty, which means that people of different abilities can climb together.

With rope climbing, you’re secured with ropes and you’ll climb higher than you would with bouldering. You’ll mostly climb with a partner – one person is responsible for securing, while the other one climbs.

Then there’s alpine climbing where the challenge is to climb outdoors and only use a few anchors for securing. This demands a lot of concentration and care. Whenever we go climbing, we try to stay on the safe side.

When did you start climbing?

S: I started 6 or 7 years ago. I prefer climbing outside; we even spend our holidays climbing.

B: I started back when I was a kid at boarding school. But then I took a break and only restarted 6 years ago, when I decided to train as a teacher too and to turn the sport into my profession.

Do you need a lot of strength for climbing?

B: I would say technique is more essential. You can make up for so much with technique, even a relative lack of strength. I wouldn’t consider myself very strong, for instance. Plus, flexibility is crucial too. You should be able to pull yourself up via your feeds, which is why technique is so important. If you only use your arms to pull yourself up, you’ll run out of strength quite quickly.

S: Claiming to be too weak for climbing is simply an excuse ;-).

B: I teach a course for people with disabilities, called paraclimbing. I’ve seen all kinds of people climbing, even out of a wheelchair. There are really no limitations, as far as the body is concerned. In my opinion, everybody can climb.

Any special exercises you would recommend to complement climbing?

S.: I do a lot of stretching and mobility training on my days off. It’s important to build up the muscle counterparts.

B.: With climbing, you mainly use the muscles in the front of your body, which can lead to so-called “climber’s back”. To release the tension in these muscles it’s important to train the back muscles, so that the front can relax.

Is climbing dangerous?

B: With rope climbing there is of course a risk of injury. The possibility of failure and a dangerous outcome is exponentially higher. You really need to be experienced at climbing with ropes. So my advice is to learn the techniques properly and to practice a lot.

With bouldering, on the other hand, the risk is a lot smaller, and you basically just need to start.

How does climbing influence your daily life?

B: Climbing is my job. So I’m really happy that it hasn’t stopped me from enjoying climbing in my spare time too.

S: It’s a hobby and a challenge too. It sort of combines different elements: it’s fun, demanding and even mentally challenging.

Is there anything positive or negative you would like to share?

B: In my courses, I’ve seen people overcome their fear of heights, or simply do something they never thought they would be able to. That’s a very special thing to witness. Climbing requires you to use your mental strength. It’s about stretching your boundaries and strengthening your focus. Some people want to go beyond their limits, others prefer not to.

Height is an important factor and it’s good to maintain a healthy respect for it. There are some days when you feel more comfortable with it than others.

S.: Outdoor climbing is risky, so it’s essential to stay focused. You can easily reach your mental boundaries. That on its own is a challenge for me.

What was your most memorable moment?

S: My first day climbing. I had to climb up 40 meters and untie myself. Then tie myself to the ropes again and let myself down. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if my knot was correct or not and I felt a bit insecure – so my advice is to learn the techniques well :-).

B: Our holidays. One of the most memorable times was when we climbed the “Old Man of Stoer”, a sea-stack in Scotland, or at least tried to. We first had to build a bridge using our ropes, as this “old man” is in the middle of the water. When we finally got there and started climbing, the weather turned typically Scottish and the rain started pouring down, so we had to stop and get back to the mainland. A bit later, the sun came back out again – what a bummer.

If you weren’t into sports, what would you be doing instead?

B: Cooking and enjoying food :-).

S: I would take more pictures. I do carry a small analogue camera with me when climbing, but I rarely take any pictures. My goal is to focus on climbing without any distractions.

What are the best things about your climbing that you want to share with our readers?

B: Movement, flexibility, responsibility, mind and progress.

S: Challenges, fun and being outdoors.

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