Gripping a nation

Sinéad Fogarty charts the rise of bouldering, a sport that has climbed into the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Whitewashed walls encircle the gym, jammed with colour pops of polyurethane. Trading kettlebells for Sydney’s latest sporting craze, lean muscle and man-buns abound to climb this caboodle of blobs. Otherwise known as bouldering.

“It’s very different to just working out at the gym, pushing weights. Sometimes climbs will be, say, 90 per cent physical, 10 per cent mental, and then other times it’ll be completely the opposite,” says Sean Powell, a former competitive boulderer.

Originating in France, boulderers scale a vertical course about six meters tall without a rope or harness. A climbing session is self-driven, alternating between funnelling up a wall, and resting one’s forearms.

“As opposed to the pairs system in traditional rock climbing, you’re completely free to climb any climb, socialise, or rest at any time you want, and I think that freedom was lacking in climbing gyms,” says Martijn van Eijkelenborg, owner and manager of bouldering gym, 9 degrees.

Climbing in popularity

While bouldering has been very popular in Europe over the past decade, the opening of 9 degrees in Alexandria two years ago saw the sport officially introduced to Sydneysiders.

“Australia hadn’t really experienced the European style of bouldering of any great size before we opened our first bouldering gym. Now that it’s here and has gained a following, the market has widened and there’s a lot of new gyms opening up,” says Mr Eijkelenborg.

New bouldering gyms in Sydney this year include 9 degrees in Parramatta, and NOMAD in Annandale, where the NSW Bouldering Titles were recently held on September 23. Competitions are usually held on artificial rock walls scaled for complexity, surrounded by soft mats to break falls.

Olivia Campton-Smith, a member of the Junior Sport Climbing Team, claimed a bronze medal in the highest ranked division at the state titles. Her favourite part of the sport is the mental challenge, forcing a climber to first haggle with the course inside their head, before physically worming their way up the wall.

“I enjoy figuring out all the problems and sequences, as well as the atmosphere. With competition climbing, it’s hard to stay in the zone and not let yourself get freaked out when trying to keep your performance as perfect as you can – but other than that it’s mostly fun!” she says.

National men’s champion Thomas Farrell certainly has a knack for nimbleness, but also agrees that the most enjoyable part of the sport is the mental game.

“The process of having to figure the problem out, and then put your plan into action physically is about a 50/50 split – but I’d have to say my favourite part is mostly the problem solving,” says Mr Farrell.

Gold medal bouldering

Together with lead climbing and speed climbing, bouldering has been granted status as an Olympic sport to debut at Tokyo 2020 under the umbrella term of sport climbing.

“It’s going to be great for the sport in terms of its growth and popularity, although it’s a bit odd how they’ve put it into the Olympics as three disciplines grouped as one – almost like having runners do both sprinting and a marathon, and then judge them on both, averaged,” says Mr Eijkelenborg.

Interestingly, the sport has maintained an indie status, with bouldering gyms the chosen haunt of millennials sipping macchiatos between climbs.

“Our customers are mostly between 20 and 30 years old, so it’s definitely a young sport for young people. I think it may be something to do with being adventurous and trying something new – it’s considered a dangerous sport when it’s completely safe actually,” says the 9 degrees owner.

Sean Powell has now been climbing for 17 years, after being introduced to the sport by a family friend when he was a teenager. You’ll regularly find him hanging off the boulders at “The Balkans”, a popular outdoor spot in North Rocks.

“Climb with someone who is just better than where you currently are,” Mr Powell recommends.

“You’ll pick up all these little things about the way they climb which enable them to attempt slightly more difficult routes and, because they’re only just ahead of where you are, it makes it easy for you to step up into their realm.” said Mr Powell. – Story, video and photographs by Sinéad Fogarty

Sinead Fogarty

Sinead Fogarty

Sinéad Fogarty is a Sydney-based writer and video journalist, interested in unearthing stories full of quirk and character. You'll often find her with her head in a book, or with ice speed skates on her feet.