You'll find them clustered at the base of the Stawamus Chief, the 700-metre granite dome overlooking Squamish, B.C., or dangling off a wall in a Toronto gym. Their heroes have Clif Bar sponsorships and names like Alex Honnold, who climbs mountains, Spider-Man-style, without a harness. Guys and girls, young or old, they have earned their rock-hard glutes and digits of steel. Climbing is an introspective sport, "and very similar to yoga in mindset," said Dr. Jeff Yoo, a 30-year-old physician in Vancouver who has been climbing for seven years. Even so, "it is very much a collective thing." Climbers rely on others to help keep them safe and cheer them on as they struggle to find purchase on sheer rock. If you want to join them, be prepared to get up at dawn and embrace your inner "dirtbag."
Climbing friends might go for a beer at a pub after a descent, or get together for a barbecue. But when they aren't out on the rock at dizzying heights, most spend their free time honing their skills at a climbing gym, ogling gear at Mountain Equipment Co-op or doing cardio exercise to maintain a high strength-to-weight ratio. The sport takes a toll on relationships, said Yoo, who climbs up to 16 hours a week on top of his 50-hour work schedule. Yoo, who is married to a non-climber, noted that his single friends are all looking for mates who are passionate about the sport. "It would make your life a lot more convenient," he said.
Climbing shoes, which have sticky soles to help toes grab hold, are a must, as is a bag with straps for carrying chalk to keep hands dry. For more challenging ascents, climbers use a harness, ropes, carabiners and "nuts." Crammed into tiny crevices in the rock face, nuts are attached to metal ropes connected to carabiners used to create a system of ropes. A harness costs between $60 and $300. Shoes range from $50 to $200. But in rock climbing, brand-name gear is not a status symbol, Yoo said. "People really only pay attention to your ability on the rock."
Climbers dream of being "dirtbags." These diehards live out of their cars, cook on camp stoves and organize their lives to revolve around climbing. Those who can't give up their day jobs talk about "dirtbagging" in the Rockies for a week. A "belayer" is a climbing partner who controls the safety rope so a climber cannot fall far. Belaying is an essential skill in "trad climbing," which involves placing metal nuts and a system of ropes on the rock and later removing all traces as you descend. Sport climbing relies on permanent anchors fixed on the rock, and is the kind of climbing people do indoors. In "bouldering," which does not involve rope, the idea is to climb short but tricky "problems" – a route, or series of moves up a boulder – using strength, technique and gymnastic-like movements, Yoo said.
Veteran climbers don't take kindly to newbies who disrespect the natural environment. "You see a lot of people who are city dwellers who don't know how to behave," Yoo said. "They throw trash on the trails, trample vegetation that's not on the trails and [defecate] directly beside the trail." All too often, inexperienced climbers try stunts outside the safety zone, "where, if they fall, they could take a big swing and hit their head on a rock or a tree." Climbing partners who do not belay properly are another pet peeve, Yoo said, noting a blog series called "Unbelayvable," featuring real-life stories of rookies with no clue. "You just read it, chuckle and cringe."