Hand Craft: Celebrating Our Regional Climbing Scene

BY CHRIS TIESSEN

It’s pretty easy to recognize a climber: just look at their hands. Thick. Muscly. Callused and blistered. Fingers always slightly bent – as if begging for something to clamp on to. Looking for further proof? Ask for a handshake. Or, better yet, an arm wrestle. Just don’t plan on winning.

I’m familiar with climbers’ hands. Not because I’ve got them, mind you. I’m terrified of heights. Always have been. And probably always will be. And not just the really tall stuff either. For me, any height is an unfriendly one. Heck, a few years back I couldn’t even build up the courage to re-shingle my own shed – which must be no higher than seven feet off the ground. Instead, I spent the day hauling old shingles to the dump and grabbing coffees for the crew. (Thanks, crew.)

My oldest kid Dylan is a climber, though. A pretty great one too. Overall Ontario Junior champ. Three-time Junior National Team member. Junior Pan-Am Games athlete. Two-time Junior Worlds competitor. Indeed, Dylan’s climbing has taken us all over the country – and a lot further. Arco, Italy. Guangzhou, China. Quebec City. Ottawa. Montreal. Edmonton. Calgary. Canmore. Victoria.

Let’s just say I haven’t asked for an arm wrestle in a really long time.

To be sure, Dylan’s many medals are proof of his accomplishments. But his hands – they’re proof of his passion for the sport. A sport that, regionally, has grown exponentially in the last several years. Indeed, with teams competing out of The Guelph Grotto (where Dylan climbs), Grand River Rocks (Kitchener), Core Climbing (Cambridge), Climber’s Rock (Burlington) and about a dozen more gyms a bit further afield, the kids are alright. And the fact that sport climbing has been named an Olympic sport for 2020 will only continue to spur its growth – regionally, nationally, and internationally.

‘It’s like chess on a wall,’ legendary Guelph Grotto Head Coach Mat Moreau says of the sport, before adding: ‘Albeit the most physically-grueling game of chess you’ll ever play.’ Indeed, competitive climbing is as cerebral as it is physical, given that climbers in both Bouldering and Difficulty comps (the two main types of competition around these parts) spend almost as much time mentally plotting their course to the top of each problem, or route, as they do on the wall itself.

And climbing is solitary too. Because each climber participating in the comp has to confront the same problem, climbers are cordoned in ‘Isolation’ (or ‘ISO’) during competition, and then led out – one by one – to the problem or route that has been set for them. They ascend on their own, fully occupied with the challenge before them, knowing that no one watching their solo performance – teammates, coaches, spectators, parents – is allowed to offer them any verbal help, or ‘beta.’

Indeed, the sport is a cloistered affair. But it is also firmly grounded in community. ‘These kids do everything together,’ Mat explains. ‘Train. Work out. Carpool to comps. Airbnb – across the country and the world. The team becomes family – not only on the wall but in life.’

I can certainly vouch for this. Besides his girlfriend, Dylan’s best friends are his climbing teammates. I can’t seem to get him up to walk the dog at 10am, yet any of those kids can get him up at 6am for a work-out. Followed by a climb. Fine tuning their bodies.
Strengthening their hands.

Each of them in search of a solitary dream. Together.