Five things you are unlikely to be able to do for a few days following your first intense climbing session:

  • Brush your teeth
  • Put your hands on your hips
  • Do up clothing; a zipper, buttons etc
  • Go up or down stairs (in fact even just plain walking)
  • Raise your hands above shoulder height.

Why then, I hear you ask, would one go climbing? Very simply; because it’s jolly good fun.

Arriving at the Arch Climbing Wall (one of the biggest ‘bouldering‘ or rope-free climb centres in London), I was given an indemnity form to fill in by a surly chap at the front. After requesting to rent rubber climbing shoes in a size 7, he came back with one size bigger. ‘Oh, like ice skates where you take a size up?’ I ask. ‘No, we’re out of 7s.’ I think he was also out of a few people skills. Undeterred and cheered on by my two climbing friends, I signed away all potential blame and picked up my slightly-bigger-than-recommended shoes.

My friends helped me cinch in my shoes so that I no longer felt anything below the ankle, and lead me to the traversing wall. In my mind, climbing was all about going up. So beginning with sideways climbing was a bit of a mind boggle. It involves staying off the ground around an average garden-sized wall using coloured hand holds in varying shapes and sizes.

Each room has coloured routes identifying different grades or levels, following the Fontainebleau grading system (coined in the ‘Fontainebleau’ forest/popular climbing area in France). The starting grade here was signified by white with green polka dots.

My friends watched helplessly as I clung to the wall like a spatch-cock chicken, shaking slightly while trying to negotiate a corner, and suggested we try one of the other rooms with more vertical climbing routes (around 4.5m high).

Here the hand holds were much more akin to a beginner’s sense of grip, and I found most of the routes in this room to be quite easy – still straining, but achievable. Because bouldering routes are shorter than rope climbing, they tend to be trickier, requiring a bit of problem solving and hence are commonly known as ‘problems‘.

In contrast to what I initially thought, climbing is not a solo sport. It can be if need be, but a part of the experience is nattering with a few friends and strangers about the best way to tackle a particular route. Which results in around half the time spent ‘climbing’ being planted on the ground. Which is why another thing you may struggle to do after climbing is look up.


  • Look for the starting hold and if it is below the waist it means that the route is a ‘sitting start‘.
  • To ‘complete‘ a route, you need to get both hands  on the finish hold at the same time.
  • If you’re just beginning, it’s handy sticking your hand in someone’s chalk bag (no, that’s not a euphemism) to prevent your hands getting sweaty.
  • All of these climbing clubs offer poofy mats (crash pads) against all of the walls so if you do fall, you’re guaranteed a soft landing.
  • Most beginners suffer after climbing from using their arms too much.
  • If you’re struggling with a route, jump down and look for the best path or, where possible, watch someone else do it – there is normally more than one solution.


  • Cost – £-££ for bouldering, the cheaper climbing style (day passes range from £10-15 uninstructed, shoe hire is extra)
  • Energy – Strenuous. Climbing is one of the best overall work outs you can find.
  • Sociability – More than you think. The climbing community seem to be a friendly bunch and happy to offer opinions if you’re stuck.
  • Equipment needed – good-fitting comfortable clothing that allows ease of movement.

Want to give it a go?

Arch is based near London Bridge and offers beginner fees of £10, £3 shoe hire. Other options below, untested:

One thought on “Out on a Limb – Bouldering

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