Big Read: Living on the edge - getting to grips with rock climbing

By Michele Hunter

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For those preferring the relative safety of terra firma, it can be difficult to grasp why others choose to explore scenic New Zealand from a rock face. 48 Hours gets inside the heads of some of the Bay's most passionate rock climbers, finding out what drives them to put their minds and bodies to the test, how they ensure their own safety and what it's like to be addicted to rock.
Rock climber Kerry Crawford climbing on Mauao. PHOTO/JOHN BORREN
Rock climber Kerry Crawford climbing on Mauao. PHOTO/JOHN BORREN

Andrew Boere moved to the Bay to work at indoor rock climbing facility Rocktopia last month and has already started the Mt Maunganui climbers Facebook page, attracting 20 keen climbers.

He is now happily addicted to the sport he discovered during outdoor education classes at high school in Auckland.

"I found my passion, I really loved it," he said.

He has climbed around New Zealand and spent eight months living and climbing in Canada.

You get a bit hooked on it.
Andrew Boere

"You get a bit hooked on it," he said.

The 23-year-old is thrilled rock climbing will be an Olympic sport in 2020 and says some young Bay climbers already have the Games in their sights.

He also wants to inspire others to take up the sport, which he said attracted a 50-50 split of males and females.

Mr Boere described rock climbing as the perfect sport, offering a full mind and body workout.

A good climb would leave the climber "knackered". "But it's a good feeling," he said.

Climbing was a very technical sport and a great way to improve personal confidence, he said.

"If you can conquer a big wall, what else can you conquer in life?"

Climbers in general were ecologically minded, healthy people who were "very down to earth," he said.

Having settled in Papamoa Mr Boere is looking forward to riding his bike to Mauao for a quick climb after work.

"Once I'm on the climbing wall I just forget about all my problems," he said.

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Staff at Rocktopia have also been involved in the development of climbing routes in the Mangorewa Gorge on the Pyes Pa road between Tauranga and Rotorua.

Meanwhile, Harrie Geraerts, who grew up in Katikati, has worked at Rocktopia (formerly The Rock House) for the past four years and has seen the number of competitive youth climbers swell from five to 14.

The climbers, aged between 11 and 16, had often elevated through from the social climbing group.

"I've seen 2-year-olds do it, I've seen an 80-year-old do it, literally anybody can do it," he said.

Mr Geraerts said in the outdoors safety was the responsibility of the individual climber.
"You kind of set your own standards as to what you climb and what you don't climb."

Rocktopia offered courses on learning to climb but it was also a good idea for new climbers to find an experienced climbing mentor, he said.

There were real dangers in people buying climbing gear, watching YouTube videos on climbing and thinking they were ready to take to an outdoor wall.

"That's when accidents happen," he said.

Glenda Rowlands
During the term Glenda Rowlands is a deputy principal at Tauranga Girls' College but in the school holidays you'll often find her on a remote rock face around the world.

This week she returned from climbing in Queenstown and Wanaka and plans to head to The Grampians and Blue Mountains in Australia then on to South Africa during December and January.

She has also climbed in South East Asia, Thailand and Laos.

Ms Rowlands took up the sport about 16 years ago after taking a school group on weekly visits to the indoor climbing wall.

She now trains about two hours a day on her home bouldering wall and multiple hanging boards, which help build finger strength.

She does yoga twice a week and strength-based exercises like chin-ups and press-ups.
"Everything is about 'how will it improve my climbing?'," she said.

Rock climbing has become a lifestyle for Ms Rowlands.

In the past she has been a runner and windsurfer but says rock climbing is it for life now.

"I really like the feeling of the rock under your fingers," she said.

She likes scaring herself a little bit and the mental aspect of climbing as well as building the physical strength required.

While balancing a busy work load and a rigorous training regime can be tiring during the term, the sport provides "awesome balance" in her life, she said. "The places that it takes me are pretty amazing."

She has also formed close bonds with climbers from across the globe.

The friendships at a crag (rock face), where you were trusting people with your life, were strong, she said.

Martyn Owens
Rotorua rock climber Martyn Owens started climbing as a 13-year-old - before indoor walls or competition climbing existed.

"I grew up on the Yorkshire Lancashire border in the Pennines where there were a fair few climbers, largely due to the large amount of crags and cliffs in the area. Rock climbing was just a progression from the tree climbing we did as kids back then."

A teacher at Reporoa College, Mr Owens said people became rock climbers because it clicked with them, he said.

"I was hooked from the second time, when our physics teacher took a couple of us multi-pitching on one of the biggest crags in England, Gimmer Crag in the English Lake District. 100 metre cliff with the valley floor 500m below us and Peregrine Falcons flying past while we were sat on our belay."

This is very different to how most kids start today, on indoor walls, which if they get hooked leads to competition sport climbing on indoor walls.

Mr Owen said he had never had an accident sport climbing, only due to rock gear failure when trad climbing.

"However nothing very serious in close to 40 years isn't bad. It's definitely statistically safer than sports like rugby or boxing. Climbing is a great sport. First there is the physical side, then the mental side where you must deal with a degree of stress, manage complex situations and make sure that you are operating safely. It often attracts intelligent people because of the complex mental and physical nature of the sport.

"It can get you to some of the most out there, wildest places on Earth, or keep you safely in the gym. It is an 'extreme' sport if you want it to be, but that is what keeps it exciting and challenging for me, and will keep me a climber for life."

For information and rock climbing training contact:
Rocktopia - Mount Maunganui
The Wall - Rotorua

Types of rock climbing:

Sport climbing: The route is protected by bolts (fixed protection points) in the rock (or climbing wall).
Bouldering: Climbers navigate rocks/boulders without a rope but protected by cushioned mats called bouldering pads.
"Trad" or traditional climbing: The route is protected by camming devices and metal nuts laced into wire loops which will fit into whatever cracks the climber goes past. This type of climbing is not common in New Zealand.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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