Hamad Sajwani is one of the first Emiratis (nationals of the UAE) to climb. He has helped develop the sport significantly in his country, raised awareness around the importance of environmental conservation while climbing outdoors, and bolted some of the most majestic routes around the UAE.
I had the pleasure of visiting his place and catching up with him in Dubai, to chat with him about his career, life as an Emirati climber, and what is on the horizon for climbing in the UAE, and the wider GCC region.
Read part 1 of this feature here.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your non-climbing side of life.
Well, that’s a bit of a story. I’m 34 years old and I’ve always been into sports. Growing up, my dad pushed me to be active, which is something I’m very grateful for.
And when I was 10 years old, he said listen, you have to pick a sport and you give it your all, I’m going to send you to a professional training facility and then you can have your education alongside that.
Naturally, as with all kids in the region, I played a lot of club football. I think that created the grounding for my training and having a hobby I’m serious about. And I was very serious about football.
First, I played for a club and then became a semi-pro in the region. I did that for three years. And then had a back injury and it coincided with my exams.
Where did you study? And how did you get into climbing?
I went to a British boys school in Dubai, UAE that encouraged sports and then I went to university in the US. My number one goal there was to study, as my high school grades were not phenomenal. I wanted to nail down my undergrad.
I hit it hard, you know, and just studied and I did well. Then towards the last semester, I was thinking to myself that I’ve got three classes and my schedule is not too tight. I want to do something that I can remember the US with.
I’m not very good at taking pictures and setting up my Instagram, to be honest, it’s pretty awful. I wanted to remember the US with something. I wanted to do a sport that I remember the US with and I wanted to find a sport that I can put my heart into. I missed having an activity that I could excel at. I was looking through the extra classes, and I knew that climbing was probably something I would never do in Dubai or the UAE.
Little did I know that the experience would become a lifetime partner for me, and here I am, eleven years later and still not done, by any means. When I started climbing in the US, initially, I hated it. I was unfit.
I’d be able to climb one or two meters and I struggled with my arms afterwards every time. I wouldn’t be able to drive back home. The next day I wouldn’t be able to hold the pen. But I just kept on pushing through, something about it told me to push on through and then after sending my first route, I knew this was it!
One day, during climbing class, they took us to climb outdoors. That’s when it all kicked in. At that point, I knew I wanted to do this seriously and I wanted to do it well.
After graduating, I went down to the store and bought myself a harness and climbing shoes, trying to figure out if I will ever be able to climb in the UAE
I found out at the time there was a climbing wall at Wafi Mall, a shopping Centre that also has a small gym in it. I had recently come back home from the US and I was a bit fearful, as my life and way of thinking were very different from that of my friends.
And there was a bit of a disconnection between us. I decided then to put all my energy into climbing and I ended up climbing a few times a week.
What kind of wall do they have at the mall?
They have one bouldering and one lead wall. It’s a very small facility, but for someone who was starting off it was enough. So, I started training there regularly, eventually met a few climbers and I went on my first climbing trip within Dubai, UAE, which was a deep water soloing trip.
It was a climbing rock face. It’s basically without any protective equipment, without ropes and you’re only protected by the water below you. Of course, I tried to climb with ropes as well.
I remember seeing the other climbers, who were better than me and they were enjoying it a lot more. I wanted to be that way.
I kept on pushing and then I met this American guy. He kind of took me under his wing, as most trained climbers do. That’s how they started back in the day before the facilities developed. You meet some guy when you have no idea what you’re doing and he shows you the ropes and methods.
Growing up you played football, a team sport and then you started climbing. What are some of the differences between the two, and how did you reconcile moving from team sports to a solo sport?
I was playing club-level football, where everything was organised and structured. I would get frustrated when I was going to kick a ball around with my friends because it wasn’t the same. There were no said tactics and having an uncoordinated approach really ruined the game, especially casually. In the US, I tried to play football on the weekends, but I didn’t enjoy it because the tactics were not there. Everybody was doing their own thing and it was a complete mess. I didn’t enjoy it.
When I started climbing, I didn’t have to worry about the team performing well. It was my performance and I’d be judged on what I would do. This independence was everything for me.
I mean, if you look at my day job, I’m a trader, I make money off of my performance. If I perform well, I make money. Life is good.
If I don’t perform, I don’t make money and I don’t get paid. It’s as simple as that. So, as an individual, I love that independence and that freedom. I think that’s something that I also enjoyed about climbing.
And the other thing was I didn’t realise that I was an adrenaline addict. My first 7b took me three years and I loved that journey and process of development. With climbing can measure your development monthly, quarterly, you name it.
And then the third thing about it was my love for nature, especially being up in the mountains and campings.
Can you tell me a bit about Climbing in the UAE, the wider region and your role within it?
When I started climbing here, there was a lot of climbing, don’t get me wrong, but the scene was literally a bunch of older guys sitting around a campfire and talking for most of the day and then heading out for a bit of a climb. There were definitely no women around either.
If I look at how the scene grew, well the climbing wall at the World Trade Center, was definitely the first indoor facility in the country.
Initially, as I said, it was just a bunch of guys climbing and then gradually, it started to grow and change. A lot of the guys back then played an integral role in growing the sport and making it what it is today. We used to go out, find crags and bolt them around the country, so that people could climb, and set up our own routes to try out.
We also started climbing in Musandam, Oman, which is an enclave of Oman on the other side of the UAE.
Back in the day, the borders were open, so we would drive up to Musandam, and bolt in the summer while climbing in the winter. Eventually, walls opened up and it was more accessible to a larger group of people. People would see us climbing up there as well and join us.
Then we started going to what is now known as the Wonderwall in Oman and bolt routes up there. Eventually, we progressed to Diba, which was an untouched territory, and also bolted the routes there. We also developed quite a bit of climbing in Diba.
I give a lot of credit to my mentor, Gordan Rech, for bolting several crags at Wonderwall, Musandam and Hatta.
Alongside this, we had climbers such as Brian Coons and Theo Giani, who spent a lot of time bolting crags around the country as well.
With that, the sport just kept developing and growing. Then Theo went along and developed other crags too. I just tagged along with these guys, we would also drive around and find deep water soloing spots.
I’ve always been interested in putting my money where my mouth is and that is how I ended up investing in Global Climbing, through which, we managed to set up Rock Republic Dubai.
Tell me a bit about global climbing.
Global climbing is an outdoor sports equipment distributor. They wanted to move from the Dubai free zone to mainland UAE as a means to get more interesting contracts and equipment.
And that’s where I first came along. They essentially wanted an Emirati sponsor, and I ended up investing in the business, not just as a sponsor. Global Climbing is owned by Pete Aldwinckle.
Rock Republic is a subsidiary of Global Climbing, it was half the size to what it is now. And climbing’s popularity has increased as the climbing gyms have been set up. As the saying goes here in the UAE, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum said build it and people will come. We built it and people started coming.
And in a couple of years later, it doubled in size as well and that attracted more attention. Climbing has now made the Olympics, and that has increased its popularity too. Back in the day, it used to be a handful of people climbing. Now you go out on the weekend and you go out to public climbing spots and there are people there who you don’t even know.
Do you still bolt around the UAE?
To be honest with you, I haven’t been bolting lately. I have become a bit disheartened by how a lot of the routes are now filled with people, and a lot of the bolts are for beginners. When I do find a spot, I want it to be good, and high in quality and standard.
I stopped bolting around the UAE as the quality of the rock isn’t that great, and I haven’t been inspired by mega routes. If i want to route something, it has to be a special project for me.
Lately, I have been bouldering, as we have many quality boulders in the country, and I enjoy that.
Tell me a little bit about bolting outdoors and how that compares to an outdoor route setting?
Just as with any skill, you have to understand the theory and the practice itself. You have to develop both things at the same time.
Without a doubt, the most important thing is knowing the safety features. You always have to have an anchor and you have to know what you’re doing. Once you know what you’re doing, and the safety is in place, you’re ready to go.
Then it becomes a matter of creativity and plugging through the hard work. But with it takes a while to kind of get used to seeing the holds and gaps, and figuring out bolt placements. That in itself is part of the creativity. Being able to determine, study and understand what the best spots to bolt a route are, and how you will make each move.
Do you see a UAE national climbing team happening anytime soon?
Well, I do see it. I do think it’s a few years away, but I do see UAE climbing in 5 or so years, with the rapid development of facilities and opportunities.
I will say that a lot of the people who are willing to step out of their comfort zones are women. Women want to prove themselves here, Especially Emirati and Saudi women. A lot of the women here are quite switched on, hard-working and very intelligent.
Lately, I am seeing more Emirati men go to climbing walls as well, as they see it as an alternative to the gym and lifting weights.
What are your thoughts on the climbing format at this year’s Olympics?
In all respects, climbing is one of those sports. It’s very diverse. You have mountaineering, alpine climbing, big wall climbing, ice climbing, you have sports routes of all shapes and sizes, you have bouldering and they’re all unique in their own way.
They do share the aspect of going up but think of it as going up in different ways. I think if we understand the basis of what’s happening, such as developing our climbing abilities, it’s a very positive thing for everything that comes afterwards.
I think it’s very positive that climbing is featured with three formats as it’s very challenging to be a well-rounded athlete. It’s not easy.
However, I’m excited about it. I’m looking forward to it. It’s like anything, the first time you do something, you make a mistake. Develop it and the next time around it is far better. And it improves. It is a great thing for the sport.
Who do you reckon has the best shot at winning the men and women’s competitions? I personally think Sean McColl for the men and Akiyo Noguchi for the women.
I think I’d agree with you on both of them. I think Sean is the best-rounded climber. Having said that, Adam Ondra is a machine. Do you know what I mean?
I don’t always keep in touch with what’s going on though, to be honest, I usually just check out the highlights. I feel, compared to outdoor climbing, the indoor sport has more elements of gymnastics and parkour. Overall I think Japan overall has a really good shot because they’re amazing at the sport. Nonetheless, the sport is picking up and we’re going to see more and more people vying for Olympic spots in the coming years.
My biggest concern with its increasing popularity is the waste and damage to the environment. funding. As climbing grows, more and more people will go out to the mountains. I really want people to make sure that there is no littering and damage to the mountains.
That’s my number one concern. And honestly speaking, I hope people can become more environmentally- friendly when they climb, and if they don’t, this will be one of the negative indirect impacts of the increase in popularity of the sport.
What do you think from your experiences and your knowledge of the issue can be done to curb that harm to the environment?
I think people here in the UAE need to understand the harm that they do. I don’t think people are aware and the facilities aren’t there for people.
What do I mean by the awareness?. For example, in some parts of the world on the crags and mountains, you have migratory birds that will come and lay eggs. During these seasons it’s better to avoid climbing and respecting nature. That’s what I mean by awareness.
Secondly, it’s creating accessibility for people to avoid littering. make trash bins more accessible. Build toilets, create barbecue pits so people are not creating fire pits everywhere. By creating this awareness and providing the facilities, you can reduce the issues.
That’s why littering is my biggest concern. One of the places I’ve always enjoyed climbing in California. When I was there, the camping facilities were phenomenal, with the desert campsites. All you have to do is put in $3 and spend the night there. The toilets there are eco-friendly, there are trash bins everywhere and no litter at all.
On top of that, people look out for their things. People take care of the area and clean up after themselves. You won’t even find chalk marks, and on the off chance that you do, people will clean it up.
Do you see this happening in the GCC?
I’d say it is starting in most of the region. The facilities are there to reduce threats to the environment, and people are using them I mean, it’s not hard work. You go out climbing, you have a protein bar with you just skip it. Most people are sensible enough to clean up. I just hope to see more of it to make it easier for future generations to enjoy it better.
And specifically in Oman, you know, because Oman has a lot of spots outdoors for bouldering climbing and outdoor sports. I just hope that they pick up the pace and realise that their country is a gem when it comes to climbing. It’s basically something that we in Dubai and the wider UAE wish we had. And as the influx of people increases, they will need to develop more facilities to manage and accommodate these people.
And if you had to pick a favourite climber.
Adam Ondra, without a doubt. He goes out, pushes himself pushes the grades and continues to show us what we human beings are capable of achieving He’s taking climbing to the next level, he’s helped turn climbing into a professional sport.
I’d say another revolutionary climber that came before the Ondra, was Wolfgang Güllich. He’s the guy who developed the first campus board and truly pushed climbing to a different level. And now we have the boards on the opposite side of the planet, thanks to his work. Another great climber is Chris Sharma, but I think in our current day and age, it’s Adam [Ondra], he’s the guy who is really showing us what humans are capable of achieving. These guys are very inspirational. I hope they slow down a bit for us to catch up [laughs]
What has worked for you and what have you seen other climbers do in terms of their diet and their nutrition?
I think everybody’s very different. Whatever diet works for me, whatever lifestyle works for me may not work for someone else.
So for me, I’ve tried going vegan and I was vegan for a week, but I was exhausted every night. I had to stop, as it got really hard. However, I would like to give being vegan another shot and I want to do it for a month rather than a week, just to see how my body goes physiologically, as I think a week is not enough.
But my diet consists of low carbs, I’m not a big meat eater. I do eat meat, but I enjoy having a nice salad with a bit of chicken or a bit of meat and lots of good fresh vegetables. I like having vegetarian dishes and I do crave vegetarian dishes now and then. It seems once every two days I must have a vegan meal. My diet involves no fruits, sugars or high carbs, and does include loads of vegetables, meats, fish, chicken, beef and lamb. My body doesn’t react very well to carbs.
I’ll have a few carbs in the morning if I’m going to have a big day or if I’m going to have a two-session day. My usual diet consists of lunch and dinner, that’s it. I don’t need anything at noon. and my lunch usually consists of vegetables and meat.
Living in the UAE, how do you manage to control your diet, as food is a big part of the culture here? I, for one, fail at not pigging out during my visits here.
When I tell my family what I am going to eat. Even if they argue that I should eat a certain type of food or so on. I love climbing too much, and I need my body to be up to scratch for it. It’s something I will probably do for the rest of my life.
And this mission to continue climbing to the best of my abilities has pushed me to watch what I eat. And when I go out to eat, everybody’s smashing out rice and O opt to have a salad, and maybe a bit of meat. Now my family is used to it too. When I go over to my folk’s house, they won’t make any carbs for me. They know I want meat and vegetables, plain and simple.
I also have a lot of lentils and chickpeas and yes, they have a lot of carbs. But there are carbs that are easily digestible.
To be honest, it starts with your passion and drive. There are two kinds of drives. There is fear and there is love. Fear is a powerful feeling. People get you going. It’s like lightning, it’s powerful. It hits the ground running, but then it’s gone in seconds. Passion, on the other hand. It’s there all the time. It’ll keep you going.
Tell me a bit about the training and fitness requirements that go into climbing at the highest level? What do you focus on and how do you do it?
When I started climbing, basically a year and a half into it, I developed tendonitis. A physiotherapist fixed me up and I was fine. I went back to climb, and it happened again. The physiotherapist then said why don’t you just go and lift weights, and work on building your strength? He said you need to develop your entire body, and if you don’t, what happens is you develop certain muscles more than others, specifically more pulling muscles and less pushing muscles.
So, I then started hitting the gym, and I did not know what I was doing in the gym. I just started working out. What I found to be beneficial for me was complimenting my climbing with two sessions at the gym, with at least one session a week. The gym helped me avoid all of those injuries.
Also, it strengthened me overall and rapidly improved my fitness. What I usually do now is that I compliment my climbing with some cardio and weightlifting. I usually use heavyweights and low reps. I found that it helps me, but you have to be careful with it because you do not want to bulk up. I find that heavy weight training helps me build a stronger body. Things like deadlifts, squats, bench weights, pull us, these are the kinds of things that have strengthened my overall body.
In addition to that, it really drove my fitness through the roof. For example, running 10 kilometres in under an hour is not an issue anymore, because I have the cardiovascular system, but I also have strong muscles due to my weightlifting. My muscles are working at extremely heavyweights. Working at a low intensity for a longer time is not an issue anymore. This had always been my issue. Working at 80 per cent of your maximum. That’s what power endurance is.
Incorporating elements of CrossFit is also very beneficial to climbing, specifically sports climbing. What I’ve learnt is that you have to mix and match your exercises. You can’t just assume that you can do everything on the wall, that’s ridiculous, everything will fall apart. You’ve got to have a diverse week.
I started training on the side in 2013. I found it hard to find a coach who could help me with my requirements. I then made it my mission to find a professional coach who could train me. When I found one, he gave me a full-fledged plan, which I did for weeks, and I worked on updating this plan along with other climbers to set up my own routine.
On Monday, I usually work on power, I’m on the moon board climbing as much as I can. The next day I would wake up and head to the gym with weightlifting at night. The next day I’d work on the fingerboard and then I would go for a run. Then I would focus on my endurance.
It also depends on what I have on at the time. If I will be climbing, it’ll be different to if it is just general water a sport climbing project and I’ll be the week will be more focused towards endurance. If it’s just general fitness, it’s completely different.
It will always be different, but that is the beauty of it, the variation is necessary and it’s enjoyable.
Where does the flexibility aspect come in?
I tried to get into yoga to improve my flexibility, but I couldn’t. Unfortunately, I don’t have the patience for it. And when it comes to the more flexibility-focused routes, I just push through.
My technique is improving again though because this summer I didn’t train the way I wanted to train. I had a bit of an on and off summer where I was working on different things. I haven’t been able to climb as much as I wanted to either.
And now that I’m back on the routes, my flexibility, my mind and my technique are not sufficient enough to do what I want to do. To be honest, I think technique precedes everything. You need to get the technique right, and if you’re fit enough, you will be able to get the route done.
What would you say to people overseas about coming to climb in the UAE and the wider GCC?
It’s an adventure here. We have ample amounts of beautiful scenery. I’ve climbed in Thailand, France, Marseilles, London, Spain, Norway, Iran. In fact, I go climbing in Spain once a year. None of it makes up for what we have here in the GCC. The region offers a lot. It’s an adventure like no other.
You’re not going to get the same kinds of crags, mountains and scenery anywhere else in the world. The type of climbers you come across are very different as you have people from various different cultures. It’s a completely different place.
I’d say, yes, the region has a lot to offer, but you’ve got to make it a road trip, otherwise it won’t cut it and you won’t enjoy it as much. The biggest advantage we have is the weather here when it’s cold in Europe in January, it’s beautiful here. They are the perfect temperatures.
We have beautiful outback. We’re all going to Saudi Arabia now because it has opened up and is increasing tourism, and promoting the sport. I think the region has a lot to offer, both in terms of people doing sport, climbing big walls and literally everything, except for mountaineering.
What’s next for you on your schedule?
Well, I just got back from a climbing tour in Saudi Arabia, and next up, I’m moving to Barcelona from the UAE. Spain, in my opinion, has the best sports climbing in the world. I’ve got a passion for climbing and they have very good bouldering there too. The plan is to head over there in the summer of 2020.
I’m going to do my MBA there and continue to climb. Then, I want to build a nomadic lifestyle where I can earn a decent income and live wherever I want. As my professional goal is to trade for myself. So, essentially, climb and trade, wherever I want, whenever I want and on my own terms.
This is part 2 of our series on climbing in the UAE, for part one: click here.
You can follow Hamad Sajwani on Instagram.
Zushan Hashmi is a sports writer who works in the policy space in Australia. He is an avid fan of climbing, football, cricket and all things sport. You can follow him on Twitter.
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