Outdoor vs indoor climbing

Friday, 15 June 2018

Mark Cobb Cover I V O

Warming my fingers.
Muscles stretching.


A short ten minute walk in to the boulders. Squeezing the mats through the narrow gates. The first glimpse of the rock. Dry rock. No rain for a few days. Sunny but a cooling breeze. A rising level of excitement.

The first touch.

The rock is an old friend, welcoming me back. That feeling of anticipation. What will the day bring?

I love climbing outside. I have my favourites; Portland, Burbage, Robin Hoods Stride, Northumberland. The mention of each place brings up a series of pictures in my head and memories of routes completed and others still to do. I pore over guidebooks; digesting, assimilating, absorbing the routes, memorising names, grades, possible beta. Just recently I sat beneath Razor Roof, a font 6c+ bouldering route in Cratcliffe in the Peaks. I‘ve looked at it so many times, sometimes with a feeling of tension, maybe even nervousness. Could I do that route, could I reach the small crimps, could I manage the final slap to the lip? Usually there are people on it, maybe it’s damp or maybe I’ve just thought, no, I’m not good enough.

Mark Climbing

But this time I pulled on, flowing through the moves, each movement almost predestined, fingers and feet moving in a synchronised dance, the sequence imprinted in my brain from watching every YouTube video. Onto the crimps, surprisingly good and then slap! Missed the lip and plummeted onto the mat, face in the dirt but it’ll go! Straight back on! I know the moves, pull onto the crimps, lock that left arm and catch the lip this time. It’s good. Match the lip, feet up, mantle over using all available focus and ‘I’m not coming off’ and over! Amazing, I’ve surprised myself. Didn’t think I could do it. Euphoria. Ecstasy. Adrenaline flowing. I wipe the dirt from my cheeks, the chalk off my hands and onto my shorts.

Incredible. I’ve climbed it. I’ve looked at the guidebook again several times. Watched the videos. Now I’m thinking, hmmmm, the route next to it will go too, 7a+, RZA Roof. Next time…

Over the last few years I’ve climbed so many amazing outdoor places. The gritstone in the Peaks is superb. The sandstone in Northumberland has so much friction. The sandstone at Harrisons or Stone Farm in the south is just like glass. Limestone on Portland and my kids’ favourite, Newbiggin and Farleton in Yorkshire. Different rock, different skills, a different feel. I love the fact that one has to feel the rock to know the holds. Sometimes so subtle that there’s nothing there to see, only feel. Symbiosis between skin and rock, the two merge and caress never to be forgotten. The routes flow, but don’t jump out at you. Your mind needs to meet the rock and intertwine so as to work out the route. It may be there in the guidebook but until my fingers taste the rock and bring the route alive it’s still a mystery. Routes ‘made by the universe’ as Johnny Dawes said to me. On a day on the rock, for me, it’s an adventure, a voyage of discovery. Johnny Dawes, master climber, stone monkey, ‘no hands wizard’ told me you never know when you might ’find something behind the ivy’. The glorious discovery of new rock, a new unclimbed adventure.

Cobb Family Climbing

I’m painting a beatific picture of near perfection so far in describing climbing outside. The rock, the sun, the cool breeze. The surrounding countryside. My son and I, over Easter in Yorkshire, walked nearly 3 miles following an indistinct footpath on the O.S map. We scaled walls, strained through gaps in fences, sloshed through muddy fields, hid from over-zealous dogs and finally, as we crested  what we hoped was the final hill were met by a beautiful line of gritstone. Rarely climbed, YouTube free, secretly nestled far enough outside Settle for visitors to be put off by the lack of guidebook knowledge. No one. No people for 3 or 4 hours. In fact, the only company were the birds and the sheep in the distance. A picture of mindfulness, without any need to be mindful. Incredible views, relaxing scenery, free rock! A whole 3 dimensional, no, 4 dimensional experience. Route finding, problem solving, the quiet of nature. All the senses alive. An incredible silent collision of time and space firing off at the exact same time as the neurons in my mind. It seems almost perfect. 

Until it rains!

The enemy of the climber. Miserable wet rock. God, when will it stop?!

Of course this is when climbing inside comes into its own. My son prefers to climb inside as he then doesn’t get cold. He thinks it’s more challenging and he really loves using volumes. My daughter prefers inside. She thinks it’s safer.

There are some amazing climbing and bouldering walls. I climb at Brookes Climb. This is where I learnt to climb. It’s hard but if you can climb well here, you can climb well anywhere. When I was a kid there were no climbing walls. Today it’s the new thing. Olympics fever. Climbing walls sprouting up everywhere.

It’s dry for a start. Usually warm and there’s often a café. You can see the routes and the grades are displayed.

If you miss the move there’s a huge mat to keep you from smashing into the ground. I’ve done some moves at Brookes that I would never consider outside

I also really enjoy climbing inside. It’s dry for a start. Usually warm and there’s often a café. You can see the routes and the grades are displayed. Sorted! Dyno to the top hold. No problem. If you miss the move there’s a huge mat to keep you from smashing into the ground. I’ve done some moves at Brookes that I would never consider outside. It’s helped my confidence and has definitely improved my climbing on overhanging rock, my nemesis! I can get on my bike and I’m there in 15 minutes. On the holds, meeting up with friends, sharing beta. Laughter, friendship, opportunities to watch some really good climbers. Trying that move, that route, over and over and it will be there tomorrow, still only 15 minutes away. That black route with the terrible footholds, did you do that one yet? And the red tag out of the cave. Wow, must get that one. But then, in a few weeks’ time, it’s gone. The route has gone forever, to be replaced by more fabulous routes. It’s just like Christmas when you go into the climbing wall and new routes are up. They almost sparkle with excitement!

Outside, the routes are still there. My hardest routes, my favourite routes, the ones I’m still working on, the ones I’m yet to commit to. There are always there. Kaluza Klein. I saw that the other day, at Robin Hoods Stride. Mr J. Dawes climbed it. It looks hard. Jerry’s Arete, as climbed by Jerry Moffatt and Sweet Thing, an impossible looking route, first climbed by Ben Moon. These people are my heroes and here I can see their routes, try them out, maybe complete a few moves. So much history.

Children climbing on the indoor wall
Children climbing on the indoor wall

My son and I watch the Bouldering World Cup. The climbing is ridiculous, almost gymnastics or parkour. Is indoor climbing beginning to diverge from climbing outside, are these two very different beasts? Tomoa Narasaki, the king of the dyno (a modern day J Dawes perhaps), doing moves I can’t even imagine. How would he climb outside?There is no easy answer, in fact no answer at all. I love climbing, full stop. Outside is for me, the be all and end all, my obsession. But indoor climbing? I still love it. It’s something different. The experience is subtle, ever so slightly distinct. Maybe the thing to do is enjoy both for their own particular taste or feel, like experiencing a different wine. Neither being better than the other, but able to be enjoyed in balance, taking from each and just relishing the opportunity to climb, wherever it may be.

Today it rained, no local rock to climb. My kids had friends over, so no visit to a climbing wall. Fortunately, we have a small wall in the garage, so I spent an hour climbing out there. Different. Different holds, different routes, different style but still climbing. Still my obsession. Still that thing I love. That I spend countless hours visualising, thinking about, talking about. Doing.


And Outside.

Written by Mark Cobb, Climbing Ambassador for Brookes Climbing Wall. Thanks to Johnny Dawes for input to this piece. If you would like to have a go at climbing, why not visit our climbing wall at Oxford Brookes University Centre for Sport in Headington. For more information about climbing, email climb@brookes.ac.uk or visit the centre for a chat.

Climbing enquiries

Centre for Sport
tel: 01865 484373 / climb@brookes.ac.uk