An alternative to CrossFit? We tried indoor rock climbing in Dubai

Life is tough when you’re at the top, but the real challenge is getting there

Steven Bond

Published: Updated:

Life is tough when you’re at the top, but the real challenge is getting there. We wanted to find out more about getting in shape with indoor climbing, so we spoke to the man behind Dubai’s Rock Republic climbing wall

Over the years, we humans have managed to convert absolute necessities into fun pastimes. Eating is probably the greatest example. The countless generations that preceded us all anxiously targeted the same goal; pack in as many calories as possible. Now food more about thriving than surviving, and as for calories, we run and hide. Then take travel. Unless you had goods to sell or wars to wage, the idea of trekking to another country was slightly preposterous – but not nearly as weird as climbing on rocks.

indoor climbing shutterstock
indoor climbing shutterstock

It’s tough to say when climbing transitioned from transitory necessity to fun leisure-time pursuit, but the history books tell us that fearless individuals began summiting vertical obstacles as far back as the late 18th century, with the first ascent of Mont Blanc. Why? Because they could. The crucible for climbing’s evolution was the European Alps, with pioneers still mapping routes (also known as “problems”) to this day, but the sport has worked its way to most corners of the globe – even where there are no rocks, hills or mountains to clamber up.

That’s the beauty of indoor climbing. Instead of ropes and other (typically very expensive) rock climbing gear, you just need a sturdy wall, some plastic holds, appropriate footwear and a little chalk to keep your hands dry – and with a little dedication, it’ll get you in incredible shape. It’s even been said that traditional “hard core” climbers are panicking that climbing is gaining popularity so fast, becoming the trendy new crossfit-style workout (…sorry guys, it looks like the secret’s out). To find out a little more, we spoke with Pete Aldwinckle, general manager of Global Climbing, which is the regional representative of Walltopia. Or to put it simply, he’s the guy behind the Rock Republic climbing wall in Dubai.

indoor climbing shutterstock
indoor climbing shutterstock

So how did indoor climbing take off?
I think you have to look back at the history and the context. Outdoor climbing has grown up in Western Europe, North America and Australia and has spread out through developed countries, because people just want to try something different and something counter to traditional team sports. But it wasn’t until the ‘80s that people started building climbing walls – just homemade to start with – and then in the mid-90s the professional builds started. These warehouse projects would sometimes be found in the corner of a gym but were really just for “climbers” but there was a realisation that the demographic had changed. The hardcore outdoor climbers were small in number relative to the “Fitness First” type of people who were looking for alternative form of fitness.

Who can we expect to see doing it?
Now, 20 years on, the market has completely changed. Gyms now are filled with people who would never be considered climbers and would never climb outside, but would go to an indoor climbing wall in the same way that someone might go to crossfit. But it’s worth mentioning that indoor climbing isn’t really the same as outdoor rock climbing, it’s a very different experience. There’s some crossover, which is typically outdoor climbers who go to the climbing wall for fitness – because it’s too cold and wet (Europe in the winter) or too hot (the Gulf in the summer).

Can we just show up and get started?
[Considering there are two types of indoor climbing], with people climbing with ropes and also “bouldering”, the answer is slightly different. With bouldering, you can jump on the wall and start moving around the holds without any preparation or coaching or anything else because the safety issues are minimal – if you fall off, you fall onto a big mat. So just have some common sense to make sure you’re not above somebody and you’ll be fine. But to progress, it’s helpful to receive a small amount of coaching, like our “Introduction to Bouldering” course, which is about two and a half hours long.

What if I’m not very strong or in not good shape before I start?
If you’re particularly obese then you may need to lose some excess weight first, but if you’re generally active or if you’ve done sports before and just got out of shape, we can get you started on the holds. The nature of it is, you can come down any time and there’s no need to exhaust yourself every time and, on the easy problems, you’ll get the buzz of getting to the top. The two things that are important are “have fun”, which is about having a smile on your face, and “be safe”, which is all about common sense. If you want to progress, you won’t need a coach to explain that losing a couple of kilograms will help you with the routes you couldn’t do before. But you don’t even need to be able to do a pull up, because basic technique will overcome that.

What about climbing with ropes?
Rope climbing is slightly different. The consequences of falling off are potentially fatal because if you’re 15 meters above the ground and the person managing (or belaying) your ropes doesn’t know what to do, or you’ve not tied a knot correctly, then you’ll get hurt. So if you’re going to be climbing with ropes above four and a half meters, you will need to take some professional coaching or climb supervised for a while. With any kind of indoor climbing, I’d describe it as basic gymnastics and flexibility, combined with sudoko. It’s amazing to see how ladies approach bouldering problems (routes) with experimentation and strategy in their hand and foot movements whereas guys will try and grunt and heave there way up the way. Ladies tend to be a lot more cerebral when it comes to climbing.

So what are the health benefits?
All round conditioning – it is a physical activity – and you’ll feel the benefits right from day one. There’s a lot of balance involved and as you progress, you’ll realize it’s incredibly savage (meaning good!) for your core muscles. The development of core muscle strength is one of the first thing that happens; people don’t seem to notice it but just get really strong in the stomach and back, along with improved flexibility and balance. You don’t see fat climbers. The adrenaline created by the success, and the intensity of the workout, means it’s like doing sprint training but with more satisfaction of having achieved something. You do also get strong, but without growing big muscles. Climbers develop very efficient muscle, unlike guys at the gym with big pumpy muscles. Climbers can be as strong, but be less bulky and more toned. Even some of the best climbers in the world can look a bit geeky with their shirts on, but once they’ve warmed up you’ll realize they’re as strong as an ox – with almost no body fat. You’ll also do a lot of lifting with your legs, so without realizing it you’ll end up doing hundreds of one-legged squats.

Can I compete in indoor climbing as a sport?
There traditionally wasn’t a competitive element to climbing, but there is a International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) and it’s Olympics managed as it comes under the auspices of the Olympics committees for conduct and drug testing. It’s been listed for Tokyo games and ice climbing was showcased at the last Sochi Winter Games. At the highest level, competition is a huge part of climbing and it’s done on indoor walls, so you don’t have to worry about the weather and you can set the routes and the conditions, using the same problems in different competitions – for bouldering, lead climbing (with ropes) and speed climbing, which uses identical routes in every competition.