How indoor climbing became the new hangout zone

Bouldering is the latest Olympic sport – and gives climbers the best six-packs around. Tim Auld reports on the world’s top climbing centres

Josh O’Connor wears Eye/Loewe/Nature nylon parka, £895, wool jumper, £625, polyester and cotton trousers, £525, and cotton bag, £325. Styling by Julian Ganio. Grooming by Alexander Soltermann using Aesop. Shot at Yonder, London E17 (thisisyonder.com)
Josh O’Connor wears Eye/Loewe/Nature nylon parka, £895, wool jumper, £625, polyester and cotton trousers, £525, and cotton bag, £325. Styling by Julian Ganio. Grooming by Alexander Soltermann using Aesop. Shot at Yonder, London E17 (thisisyonder.com) | Image: Kuba Ryniewicz

With the rise and rise in popularity of indoor climbing, the past decade has seen it shift from a niche sport into a mainstream fitness trend. A survey by the Association of British Climbing Walls estimates that 2018 to 2019 has seen a 40 per cent increase in visits to climbing walls in the UK, taking the figure to eight million – that’s two million more than in 2017. Indoor climbing is no longer regarded as a mere training ground for the real outdoor thing, but is a serious discipline in its own right; it will be showcased for the first time in this year’s Olympics in Tokyo.

One of the most popular forms of climbing, bouldering, goes right back to basics. There are no ropes and no harnesses: you grapple your way around man-made rocks no more than 5m high with crash mats to break any falls. Centres such as Yonder in Walthamstow  – where we shot actor Josh O’Connor – are popping up around the world like millennial mushrooms. “Anybody can come in, get started on it, watch a safety video, rent a pair of shoes, and go and play,” says Yonder’s operations manager, Josh Glanvill. “We get animators, illustrators, writers and software developers.” There’s a workshop kitted out with state-of-the-art wood and metalwork machinery – not to mention the locally brewed beer in the bar, seasonal lunch and dinner menus, pool tournaments and live bands. 

International Climbing Arena, Edinburgh
International Climbing Arena, Edinburgh

In terms of workout, says Glanvill, “with bouldering you get a much more natural physique than just the bodybuilder physique. I know a lot of models who come in and climb, and they do it because it gets them the six pack without looking as if they’ve been in the gym for 24 hours. There’s a bit of a popular myth, which is that it’s very upper-body based, that you need to be able to do pull-ups. But actually a lot of it is core work, a lot of it is using your legs, with a big emphasis on flexibility. I’d say it’s on a very similar scale to things like judo or karate or yoga – or pole dancing.”

1. Barber’s Gym, London

In a railway arch at Hackney Downs Studios, this is primarily a fitness training gym with a small bouldering wall that caters for both novices and experienced climbers. It’s CrossFit meets bouldering – plus it has some great recipes on the website. barbersgym.com

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2. International Climbing Arena, Edinburgh

Europe’s largest indoor-climbing area has been built in a disused quarry. For amateur climbers and international competitions, it combines more traditional top-rope walls with boulders, a trio of them in the middle of the main hall, plus a dedicated boulder room. There’s a fully equipped gym and a café with views over the climbing arena. edinburghleisure.co.uk

3. Flashpoint, Bristol

The city’s new bouldering centre is designed for climbers of all abilities, and is perfect in an area where you can transfer your skills to the great outdoors in Cheddar or at Avon Gorge.flashpointbristol.com

BKBX, Allston, Massachusetts
BKBX, Allston, Massachusetts | Image: BKBX

4. BKBX, Allston, Massachusetts

The latest offshoot of Brooklyn Boulders – where the whole “co-working space meets bouldering wall” model started in 2009. Design-wise, it pushes the concept of how good a climbing wall can look, and combines that with proper fitness training and cryotherapy. Its slogan is “your training starts here”: indoor training, but for a life outdoors. bkbx.fit

5. Beta Boulders, Copenhagen

Beta Boulders has a 4.75m-high competition wall and a training room with hanging boards for finger training, as well as a co-working space with meeting rooms, sofa relaxation areas, board-game nights and “crazy Fridays” surprise events. It brings together some of the greatest hits of bouldering walls from all over the world.betaboulders.com

Beta Boulders, Copenhagen
Beta Boulders, Copenhagen | Image: Beta Boulders

6. Blockfeld, Winterthur

Offers an aesthetic all of its own: the walls are black, and so are the holds. You add coloured tape to mark your route, and thus leave something behind that other people can try – very much more like climbing outside. blockfeld.ch

7. Dogpatch Boulders, San Francisco

With 20,500sq ft of climbing terrain, this child-friendly centre also hosts events such as “queer crush”, where LGBTQ+ members can “crush” climbs and make friends. It’s even building its own microbrewery. touchstoneclimbing.com

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8. Karma, Fontainebleau

The French national team trains here, and half the centre contains some of the world’s best equipment to train on; the other half is a commercial climbing wall (including “baby climbing” for children aged four to six). One supports the other. karma.ffme.fr

9. Cafe Kraft, Nuremberg

In Germany, the climbing federation generally takes care of all the climbing side of things – which means that Café Kraft just has to worry about things such as the café, the music and the vibe of the centre. It’s a mecca for strong climbers from all over the world. cafekraft.de

10. Het Lab, Amsterdam

There’s a 30-cover restaurant literally surrounded by the boulders. The food is rather avant-garde, but the whole place has a very relaxed Dutch vibe. hetlabamsterdam.nl

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