Rock climbing, thanks to the modern climbing gym, has shot up the list of to-do recreational activities in Singapore. With over 10 climbing gyms, Singapore now has more than 50,000 climbers – up from 20,000 six years ago, as The Straits Times reports.

Since 2007, SMU has been perpetuating this climbing trend with SMU Gravical, the school’s internationally and regionally known annual bouldering competition. The SMU Climb Team itself boasts up to 200 members, comprising students with varying interest levels seeking some adventure on the walls. SMU Snapshots was curious to find out more about the extreme sport and met up with Vanessa Lim, vice president of the club.

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Vanessa Lim, vice president of SMU Climb Team

Vanessa’s fair complexion gives away nothing about her passion for sports. That is, until she whips out an old photo of her with skin so tanned that she has to comment: “it looks like I sprayed a fake tan on”. She enjoys sports like water polo and track and field because they get her fit, healthy, high on adrenaline, and looking better. But climbing gives her a special sort of satisfaction.

“Apart from the usual reasons for enjoying sports, I feel a sense of achievement each time I unlock a new route when climbing. Compared to the other sports, where training was a good day because nothing bad happened, to us climbers, training is a good day if we had that one route, that one goal, and we achieved it. It’s very rewarding.”

Some climbing basics

The first thing to know is that there are three types of climbing. Bouldering is done on a shorter wall that goes up to an average of 4.5 metres, and there is the high wall, which is tricky for those who have a fear of heights. The third type is speed climbing, where climbers compete to top the route the fastest. Vanessa’s tip for tackling the high wall? “Twisting and turning can save you lots of energy during a climb. Also – keep calm and trust the belayer.”

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Vanessa at the finals of Rockmaster 2016

A common misconception is that climbing is only about strength. For recreational climbers who climb less frequently, it might be fine to power through the routes. But if you are a regular climber, putting in the hours to practice technique is essential for leveling up and keeping the joints safe.

“It’s common to sometimes panic and draw a blank when climbing. So, you might end up using a full crimp grip all the time, placing unnecessary pressure on joints that could lead to swelling. We try to build exercises into our freshman training programs – the hangs, warm-up, stamina training – and design routes to test for technique while teaching the importance of each technique.”

The half crimp and full crimp are two types of common grips. Jugs, where your hands cup the entire rock, are the most comfortable because there is more space to hold. Typically, one will use crimps for tiles that are small and shallow – the shallow it is, the more common for the climber to use a full crimp.

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Three types of climbing holds: A) Sloper B) Half crimp C) Full crimp

A grip tip for climbers is to avoid over-crimping, which places a lot of pressure on the finger joints, and can lead to long-term damage and injury if used regularly. Vanessa admits that learning the different grips might be confusing at first, but that it is necessary for safety and progress.

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Jug grip, which is the most comfortable to hold

“Just keep on climbing and trying the routes and grips till your body gets used to them. Our fingers also get stronger so we can grip better, and our skin gets thicker so we feel less pain. To build strength, practice your grips on the hang-board. Start by hanging for 5 seconds and slowly build up to over 10 seconds by doing sets. It’s really about constant practice for muscle memory, and learning how to incorporate the techniques in your climbs.”

Go with friends

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Happy climbers at the freshmen training program

Besides constant practice, Vanessa also highlights the importance of having a support network, and knowing when to ask for help. Although climbing is mostly an individual sport, having friends around to provide different perspectives is not only encouraging but also helps in your progress.

“Sometimes when you’re up on the wall, you don’t know what you’re doing wrong. You might think that your body is in position, but you can’t tell that you’re actually a little off to the left or right. And for the person who’s giving the advice, it helps them to think. You can climb by yourself, but if you’re stuck on a certain route, you have no one to ask.”

For those who might be more timid, Vanessa’s advice is to “just ask”. Because the climb community is small and tight-knit, people are always willing to lend a hand to those who need help. In fact, it gets easier over time – the same people who helped you once will likely offer their help a second and third time because a relationship has been established. “It’s a community of nice people,” Vanessa describes.

Pace yourself

Although the team trains twice a week, Vanessa is happy to climb four times a week. But she cautions against over-climbing, which can be an easy oversight to make for the fun sport.

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Vanessa during the annual climbing trip at Camp 5, KL

“Many climbers practice too much and don’t give their bodies time to recover. You use the fingers the most, and these joints will get bruised. At one point, I climbed so much that my finger joints had bruising. So, don’t over-train. Train in moderation, but make sure it is consistent.”

Making your first climb

To those who have their reservations about starting on a rock climbing journey, Vanessa’s advice is to simply give it a go. Because climbers train by groups based on the different levels of experience, those who are new to the sport will find themselves in similar company, receiving guidance and growing together. A final piece of advice from Vanessa: “girls, don’t wear your FBTs.”