Text and Pictures by Kok Yufeng, Video by Andre He
With the Marina Bay skyline serving as a backdrop, climbers from a range of different nationalities and age groups swung, twisted and leaped their way up a nearly 5m wall last weekend at Gravical 2016.
Held over four days from 21 to 24 January, the bouldering competition was organised by the Singapore Management University (SMU) Climb Team and is in its 10th edition.
What started out as an inter-faculty competition has become one of the major events on the local sport climbing calendar, attracting some 840 participants, both local and foreign, across under-17, novice, intermediate and open categories, its largest crowd since starting in 2007.
Head of the organising team and president of the SMU climb team Alexus Goh told Yahoo Singapore that he is confident that the event will continue to grow as sport climbing continues to gain popularity here.
“That is one of the primary aims of Gravical — to reach out to more people through the sport,” the 23-year-old business student said.
“Year on year, the routes get harder and harder. That just shows (climbers) train harder and harder and (are becoming) more competent at the sport,” he added.
The growth in sport climbing’s popularity has also been noticed by Muhammad Hanief Bin Sarib, president of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Mountaineering Club. The mechanical engineering student said that in his six years of climbing, he is seeing more and more people at climbing gyms.
“Last time, you tend to see the same people again and again,” said the 23-year-old. “But now you see more new faces.”
Low barrier to entry
In sport climbing, there are three main genres, lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering.
Climbers Yahoo Singapore spoke to all agreed that bouldering remains the most popular of the three due to its low barrier to entry.
There are more bouldering competitions here compared to the other disciplines. In addition to SMU’s Gravical, NTU, the National University of Singapore (NUS), as well as Singapore Polytechnic (SP) all organise their own bouldering events.
Unlike lead climbing or speed climbing, the bouldering walls are much shorter, typically around 5m. So instead of using harnesses and ropes for safety, which require lessons to master, boulderers rely on crash mats to break their falls and can climb without company or supervision.
Casual climbers just need a pair of climbing shoes, a chalk bag and a sense of adventure.
Bouldering vs lead climbing
For Hanief, bouldering is more attractive because ofits shorter routes.
“In lead climbing, there is an element of danger. When you want to take a fall, there is a moment that you feel afraid,” he said.
“(Also) once you fall, you have to start all over again from bottom, and go back up to the same spot to try the same move again. So it takes a lot of time and energy,” he added.
Bouldering can also sharpen a climber’s mental faculties, SMU’s Goh said.
“I like the way the route setters think because they actually envision certain routes. For some of the routes, you are meant to do certain moves… It’s like solving a puzzle,” he said.
“Whenever it comes to bouldering sessions, it’s always between me and the wall and nothing else,” Goh added.
“It brings you to a point where you have to focus your mind to solve the puzzle and not get distracted by your surroundings.”
Likening bouldering to sprinting and lead climbing to running a marathon, Goh said the techniques used are also markedly different.
For high walls, the aim is to move upwards, he said, so it requires more endurance and finger strength to last longer on the wall.
“It involves a lot of stretching, bringing your leg high enough to step and move forward,” he explained.
Bouldering, on the other hand, needs more power for different, more dynamic, body movements. Getting into awkward positions also means that body tension and a strong core are must-haves.
Specific techniques like heel and toe hooks to step into smaller nooks and crannies are also more commonly used in bouldering.
Growing interest in sport climbing
The future of sport climbing is looking bright after it was shortlisted as one of eight sports that might be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The large turnout for Gravical this year has also been a step forward for the local climbing scene.
Singapore Mountaineering Federation (SMF) president Anthony Seah told Yahoo Singapore that he was pleased with what the SMU team had accomplished this year.
While the head of sports climbing’s governing body here was tight-lipped about the possible Olympic inclusion, Seah, 51, said there are still hurdles to overcome.
“We are probably strongest in the speed climbing category and our bouldering is quite strong as well, but for lead climbing we are still lagging behind,” he said. “We lack the facilities, especially world-class ones.”
Except for the national competitions, all other competitions here do not receive any funding from the government, Seah said, and hiring foreign trainers to raise the standards of competitive climbing here is prohibitively expensive.
“Hopefully, we can get more support from Sports Singapore, especially for the grassroots,” he said “We don’t want to be just an elite sport. We want to make (climbing) a sport for all.”