Where most fear to tread, climbers hang out, writes Derek Cheng.

Rock climbing ignites every instinct for self-preservation in your body. It is hard to articulate the benefits of clinging to a cliff-face by the tips of your fingers, hundreds of metres above the ground.

And yet, it is a sport that takes you to the world's most gorgeous and remote regions, and opens your world to experiences that would otherwise pass you by.

What other activity will take you up a vertiginous wall of granite, in the Canadian Bugaboos, to witness a huge chunk of rock the size of a truck detach from a neighbouring rock spire?


The calamitous impact with the glacier below is a fine reminder of your own insignificance in the grand ampitheatre of Mother Nature.

How else can you experience the rather sickening feeling of a massive rock ledge falling away while you are actually standing on it? The correct response to this is total panic, and to use any means necessary to gain something other than air to stand on. In the heart of the Darran Mountains, Milford Sound, the ledge exploded in a mushroom of dust, leaving behind the unique "gunpowder" smell that comes from rock slicing against rock.

There is no better test of your fortitude than to be caught on a cliff while rock-climbing in the Grampians, Australia, 100m up, in a storm as night falls. Even better to get your rope ensnared in the rock face above you, so you have to climb up, in the miserable wet and limited light, to free it. When you eventually have the means to abseil back to terra firma, it is best to continue challenging yourself by losing the path off the steep hillside.

Rock-climbing also brings you closer to nature. In no other pastime have I witnessed birds the size of pterodactyls swooping out of rock crevasses and launching into raucous counter-offensives, as I climbed frantically past their nests. Once my climbing partner engaged in some impromptu alpine gardening, disturbing the home of a possum, 50m-high on a narrow ledge. They both screamed at each other with equal measures of terror before the possum bolted.

As well as some unique tales to share around the water-cooler, climbing is itself a joyful endeavour. It combines a harmony of movement with a peace of mind. When things are going well, your body dances up the features of a rock face, as your mind blocks out fear.

Fingers stuff themselves into cracks. Toes stand on the tiniest of rock divots. Thighs hug stalactites the girth of a kauri tree. Ignore those sweating pores, those trembling Elvis leg-shakes, that thumping heart.

And if you travel the world with a rope in your backpack, limitless culture awaits. Fill your rest days with sunny beaches in Thailand, ancient ruins in Peru, a winery tour in Argentina, a plate of dumplings in China ... there are literally endless rocks to be conquered the world over.

Sometimes you will hitchhike to your rocky destination. Sometimes you will take a local bus with a dozen other farmers. And their chickens. You may even ride a scooter through a stream of rickshaws, half-rusted sedans and school buses emitting endless plumes of black.


It's not all mishap-free, obviously. A 7m fall once tested the resilience of my spine. I've broken off handholds and smashed into the earth, ankle-first, which lead me to question my sanity. Falls of up to 15m can be intimidating, and knowing how to land properly is an important skill.

Especially if an entire ledge gives way beneath you.