By Susan Greenwood Cover image: Alex Messenger / BMC
If you were to take Emerson up on his urge for you to ‘live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air’ there are many ways to do it that do not include the fear, tactical considerations and exertion of rock climbing.
Even those deep within the sport admit that to the untrained eye, it looks a rather pointless pursuit. French climber Lionel Terray famously referred to his fellow enthusiasts as ‘conquistadors of the useless.’ Climb up, rappel back down, walk away. “You get to the top of a wall, there’s nothing up there. Yeah, the end result is absolutely useless,” commented Yvon Chouniard, whose love of the environment and climbing rocks led him to create outdoor brand Patagonia. Yet this is a format that is increasingly appealing to humans. According to the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC) 25 million people are climbing regularly worldwide while the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) estimates that the number of indoor walls in the UK has risen from 300 to 400 in the past five years. Increasingly climbers and their feats – Tommy Caldwell freeing the Dawn Wall, Margo Hays in Siurana, Alex Honnold, Adam Ondra, Shauna Coxsey – are breaking into the media mainstream reflecting a public appetite for the challenge, discipline and adrenalin rush that climbing can offer.
Academic literature frequently points to the benefits of exercise on our physical and mental health. A study led by Hannah Forbes at the Manchester Centre for Health Economics published in March, found that exercise had a significant impact on how well people felt, while relaxation increased levels of happiness. If you also factor in the positive benefits of being close to nature – a 2015 study of New Zealanders directly linked wellbeing with access to nature – rock climbing looks like a rather good bet for upping your endorphins along with your muscle tone. Kelly Aikins, an osteopath, Patagonia ambassador and yoga teacher who runs Alpine Yoga in Chamonix and a clinic in Geneva said: “The combination of strength, power, and endurance, with the addition of aerobic training accessing climbs (depending on what kind of climbing you’re doing), makes it a very well-rounded workout. It uses most major muscle groups, as well as many finer ones.”
Just as your body gets fitter, climbers and coaches alike point to the positive effects of climbing on mental wellbeing. Kelly again: “Numerous studies support the benefits of spending time in natural settings on everything from stress levels to glucose tolerance, and activities that present challenges and require focus keep us grounded in the present moment. There is an unlimited potential to progress in climbing, and whether you climb a 10m sport route or a high-altitude peak, the feeling of accomplishment is amazing.”
In his training book ‘The Rock Warrior’s Way,’ climber, author and erst-while philosopher Arno Ilgner sees climbing as an opportunity for the mental training and the accompanied freedom that we usually associate with yoga and meditation. “Your goal is to live fully within the challenge rather than try to escape it,” writes Ilgner. “Avoid the fight-or-flight mentality and embrace the effort as an opportunity for learning. You’ll keep your conscious mind quiet … you’ll focus on the journey not the destination.” In a world where Instagram climbers pull their bodyweight on one finger, where grades are demolished weekly and the Olympics stamps climbing definitively as a sport not a soulful dance with granite, Illger shows a way to not only breathe the benefits of a day in the mountains but how to keep those benefits with us in Carrefour on changeover day.
To access the fantastic climbing on Morzine’s doorstep you’ll either need a mate who already knows the ropes or you’ll need to get to grips with your knots (and your biceps) indoors first. Vitam near Geneva is a great place to start or Bloc Trotters on the outskirts of Annecy is a cute indoor bouldering gym (climbing low walls with no ropes.) If you’ve done all that already and you’re heading outside, here are some options:
Families or teaching mates: Elephant Rock in St Jean D’Aulps.
You’ll definitely not write home about the routes but there’s good wall time for kids, the walk-in is short and you can use the lower walls for teaching mates the basics.
Good little walk-in, pretty secluded and lovely climbs with moves that flow. A great place to get into the vibe of climbing.
Intermediate: Turbostyle near Mieussy.
It’s polished. It has big moves. The grades are incomprehensible. But as you move into the intermediate stage you need to start dealing with unwanted challenges other than the moves themselves! That said, there’s a lot of routes here.
Advanced: Foron, Col d’Encrenaz.
Overhanging, epically steep walk-in, easiest grade is 6A. But you can climb here even when it rains and in terms of polishing your overhang technique, this is the place. Make a weekend of it and camp in the field at the base of the crag.
And if you feel like getting away… here are some of Susan’s favourite climbing trips:
Just because you’ve been doing something for a while, it doesn’t necessarily make you good at it. Unless you’re Climb Catalunya. The climbing options and support are impeccable, accommodation perfect and now this trip throws in yoga because, although strong shoulders are a must for climbing, a hunchback isn’t.
The Lake District may not have the sun of Spain or the sea views of Sicily but that’s why British climbers are nails. This trip combines top rope coaching if you’re a newbie or bring your partner if you’re leading. Yoga is in four sessions over the long weekend.
Are you a woman wanting to climb but without the guys? While climbing is pretty egalitarian, some people just get on better with their own sex. In which case check out this retreat in legendary Rocklands, South Africa. No rope skills required as it’s all about the bouldering so be prepared to be strong, powerful and totally chilled with daily yoga weaved among the rocks.
Kalymnos is where climbing egos go to flourish or die. But there’s a reason for that – the climbing is insane. Lots of companies run coaching courses out there but Climb Mediterranean combine theirs with yoga to help you come to terms with either your successes or failures.