Rock Republic Dubai, is the largest bouldering gym in the Middle East. In this exclusive we chatted with two of their climbing coaches, Precious Ayivor, who is from Ghana, and Tom Aldwinckle from the UK.
Zushan: Tell me a bit about Rock Republic?
TOM: So, Rock Republic has been around for seven years and it’s been doing well. And it’s one of the first climbing gyms, well bouldering gyms in the GCC, as we focus solely on bouldering. We basically cover everything bouldering, from the very basic to advanced levels.
I’m presuming you have a range of different people who come in from very much the beginner level to advanced people as well. Is that right?
PRECIOUS: Yes, essentially, it covers everyone from new-starters who are kicking things off for the first time, and there are also people who are climbing and training five days a week.
The good thing though is the climbing community is very friendly and kind, so if you’re just starting off you’ll most likely learn from the stronger, more experienced climbers. And they’re always happy to help give you tips and advice.
TOM: If it’s like your first time, people will show you around, however taking a lesson is key. Understanding the difficulties, the levels, what you need to know, the basic training that you need to have and what you’re doing from the beginning, we provide all of this information and training.
So back in Australia, climbers are more than happy to help each other out and work together. As you touched on, do you think it’s the same across the climbing community and particularly, in the UAE and GCC?
Tom: I believe so, I’ve only climbed in the UK briefly, so I’m not sure what it would be like in Australia, but I’m almost certain it’s like that in every gym, definitely is the case here at Rock republic. As climbers, it’s important to get feedback from each other as well, and it becomes an integral part of the sport and training.
What is the perception of people when they first hear about climbing in Dubai and the wider GCC?
PRECIOUS: Well, I will say that social media has helped change the perceptions of fear and ridicule around climbing that were widespread 10 years ago. Well, I still know of older people who wonder what it is that people like us are doing.
I believe that concept still exists. But now it’s easier and climbing has developed widely. I guess in Dubai, say, five years ago, it wasn’t as famous or popular as it is now.
Meanwhile, bouldering is something you need to understand and appreciate, even as a climber you may not appreciate or understand the techniques of bouldering, the training and so on. This is why the popularity and attractions vary between the disciplines of climbing.
So why did Rock Republic choose to go the bouldering route, and not include other forms of climbing?
TOM: Well, I think the main reason is space. Rock Republic started in the owner’s room in his villa in Ras Al Khaimah, where he would just train.
He then moved the business from Ras Al Khaimah to Dubai and there was a warehouse next to the main building that was vacant and fitting everything into the gym was close to impossible.
It’s not high enough to be a lead climbing warehouse. We were mainly bouldering initially due to the fact that this was the best use of the space that we had available originally. Over the years though we have had upgrades to the roof and new facilities fit in, including expansion across the whole warehouse.
So is that also a personal preference? Do either of you tend to sway towards bouldering over say any other form of climbing?
PRECIOUS: Well, I prefer bouldering, firstly, because it takes less time. And when I mean, it takes less time, I mean you just get onto a wall and climb, or get to a boulder and climb.
All you need are your shoes and your chalk bag. You don’t have to be familiar with the personal protective equipment, you don’t need someone to belay you and you don’t need to check that everything is ready and safe before climbing.
Bouldering is for everyone and anyone and that’s what I love about it.
What are your thoughts on the Olympic climbing format and the variations between the three disciplines and the sort of strength, training, physique and skill required? A lot of people say making climbing athletes compete across the disciplines is unfair and it’s almost like Usain Bolt running a sprint and Mo Farah running a marathon.
TOM: That’s a really good analogy. Well, with bouldering you try to land the hardest moves possible, sometimes you can finish a route with six or seven combination moves.
In lead climbing, you have much longer routes like 20 meters, so if you go to Abu Dhabi (Climbing gym), the height is forty-eight meters or something like that, your body will get used to it.
As I go more and more into lead climbing myself, I recognize that I used to get completely tired, maybe five or six meters up, because I never really went higher. But with Olympic athletes, I’m sure they’re awesome all-rounders that will smash the competition but they’re going to have to train really hard to get going on the speed climbing walls.
PRECIOUS: Well, I’ll share my own story to give you context as well. I used to lead climb, and I switched to bouldering. Believe me, it was really tough. I would wonder what world I am in, as everything was so new and I would try to grab a hold, but it felt so very different.
So I genuinely believe it’s going to be fun to see the Olympics athletes do all three disciplines and be able to adapt across the sport and come out on top!
And how about speed climbing? The athletes are bigger in size and it’s a completely different ball game. Take the example of Reza Alipour, the Iranian speed climbing record holder, if you put him onto a bouldering wall, how can you even expect him to carry his weight?
TOM: Well, for starters, the route never changes in speed climbing. So, it is essentially just the 12 or 13 moves and they are always the same.
It’s going to be tricky to translate your skills from the speed climbing wall to the other walls because Reza must have repeated the same 12 moves over and over again until he could probably do it in his sleep.
He has only had to read the route once, and once he’s got the beta he doesn’t have to read it again. Whereas with bouldering, if you haven’t read the route then you’re not going to be able to climb it efficiently. You may be able to power your way up but not on very hard routes, as it’ll require thinking and sound technique.
PRECIOUS: To be honest, that’s why I like bouldering. The problem-solving aspect is key and you are able to use your feet or your legs.
TOM: Did he qualify for the Olympics, Zushan?
Not yet, he has not competed in qualifications due to injuries I believe, but the regional rounds are starting soon and he may be competing in the Asian qualifiers. Understanding the qualification process for the Olympic climbing is quite complex and I’ve only just figured it out.
TOM: I can understand, I started reading it and then about halfway through, I thought I’ll just watch the races.
I wanted to get your thoughts on some climbing terminologies. What is the first one you would suggest someone new to climbing learns?
TOM: So I would start with the beta. The beta is basically how you get from the start of the route to the end of it and the different moves that you do to achieve this. Everyone has different betas and do it slightly differently.
The beta is the best formulation of moves and the easiest one to finish the route or what feels easier for you to get from start to the top. Some people even take the beta very seriously and don’t share it, but I’m of the belief that it’s always best to share your beta for other people so that everyone can learn and grow.
So, Precious, could you tell me a bit about how people deal with the differences in static and dynamic moves?
PRECIOUS: Mostly. you’ll find easier climbs like a V2 and V4, where these vary and are specific to either static or dynamic climbing-specific routes.
I always tell people to try as many routes as possible until they learn which they prefer from the two. Then I get them to practice the other and vice versa. After this, when they are able to recognise which one they prefer, I ask them to focus on that more, as there is no single way of completing a route, which, of course, is the best thing about climbing.
And what does your coaching in this context really focus on?
Precious: Well, I always say, for starters, it is a matter of trying. And the more you try and learn, the more you develop persistence, which is key to climbing.
Your muscle memory soon starts to understand the dynamics, and this helps you become faster, and eventually, you will be able to send a route.
You also need to understand your body and be sensitive to how it reacts to different moves. If you forget a move or you’re not sensitive, each move will come off the wall and you’ll have to try it again.
I essentially try and explain this to people over and over. They need to understand where to position their centre of gravity, which helps them to use their legs more and then, I know I’ve said this already, but persistence is key. Be patient and keep trying, soon you’ll conquer the wall.
So you eventually figure out if you keep persisting?
Precious: You also need to observe other climbers, talk to them, and ask me questions as a coach. Understand where people are placing their feet, their hands, how they’re thinking, where their centre of gravity is, and so on.
You have to monitor all these things and then you will be able to identify what your weaknesses are and eventually build on those in the gym.
Tell me a bit about what sort of holds climbers generally tend to like at the gym, and which ones they do not, particularly new climbers?
TOM: Normally the ones that people like, if they’re new to climbing, are jugs. These are the holds where you can pretty much get your whole hand into the hold. Meanwhile, there are crimps, which are really small; flat things. When you hold onto those and your hands are screaming, and it takes a lot of practice and strength building to be able to hold them properly.
PRECIOUS: I believe it’s a matter of training. They are all tough unless you practice, some jugs can be tricky as well. I think slopers are really tough for people.
Your body position helps you climb slopers, even though most people say they really hate them, they can be easy if you train properly. I always tell newcomers at Rock Republic that all is not lost, you just need to train regularly and practice.
Do you get a lot of customers at Rock Republic from other sports who come to boulder?
PRECIOUS: Yes, a lot! With bouldering, you’re not working on one part of your body at a time, you’re working on your back, your muscles, your upper body strength, your brain and your stamina and flexibility.
Not to mention your work on your problem-solving abilities too. So, you get a lot of people from other sports, particularly cross-fit and gymnasts
TOM: We also get a lot of OCRs (obstacle course racers). With these races, everything you learn on the boulders helps you prepare for OCR. You also find a lot of Yoga instructors, who come here. For them, climbing is very much like yoga, you’re one with your body. You’re listening to everything. And well, when you go out to the mountains, you’re with nature.
For example, some people come here to train and go to the mountains for two weeks, not have a shower and then you get other people that are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Very, very clean-shaven, they wear a suit and tie, but as soon as they come to climb, almost like a switch in the brain, just sort of changes and they let loose a little and keep climbing.
So both of you touched on the importance of flexibility and balance. Tell me when someone comes into the gym for the first time and they determine that they will use their brute strength and get to the top, how integral are all the other aspects of your body to climbing such as flexibility and balance?
TOM: They are really important, sure, you can power through routes, no problem. But then when you want to progress and get better, you have to bring in the technique, flexibility and the use of your whole body.
A lot of the time you see people who are huge in size and carrying so much muscle weight here at Rock Republic. And they can power through for a bit before they give up on more complex routes. Whereas an athletic body-type normally has a low weight and they’ve got so much power, which is why they normally progress a lot faster and a lot better than the more muscular people.
Tell me a bit about the problem-solving aspects of climbing. That’s something you don’t very much get in a gym. You do get it in sports. But the extent to which you get it in climbing is arguably second to none in a lot of cases.
PRECIOUS: So take the case of route setting, the routes you climb, how you teach them and what you understand, all of those combine to meet the standard and then you put it up on the wall. That is what problem-solving is about.
Imagine, five route-setters are sitting down there looking at the route and determining whether problem-solving is up to the mark.
So everything in bouldering and climbing depends on your knowledge and problem-solving ability. And you have to solve that problem to achieve things.
TOM: Absolutely! It’s addictive. It’s like a video game.
In real life, where you’ll be stuck on a problem for two weeks, you’ll be waking up in the middle of the night, trying to figure out the best moves to complete the route. There’s nothing that compares to that.
What are some of the challenges of route setting?
PRECIOUS: I think the most difficult thing is making sure the route actually relates to the relevant grade. You want to make sure that you do not end up making a route too difficult or too easy in terms of its grade.
Another aspect of it is that you have to explain to new climbers on how they differ, which grades are easier, which routes are doable for new starters and so on.
TOM: That’s mainly why experienced route setter, will bring their knowledge from having climbed outside, and apply it to indoor gyms, to gain accuracy.
Do you have any tips for young climbers? What is your message to them?
Precious: Whatever you’re doing, put your whole heart into it, once you get your whole heart in it. You can do more. I realized whatever it is that I do, I need to put in my all, and you should do the same. If I could benefit from that till now, so can you, even with your climbing, once again, persistence is key.
Zushan Hashmi is a sports enthusiast who works in the policy space in Australia. He is an avid fan of climbing, football, cricket and all things sport.