x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Off-the-wall way of social climbing

Men and women of all backgrounds and nationalities gather at an outdoor climbing wall.

Dominic Ford, The Wall's chief instructor, left, and Jerry Spring, right, supervise Seaon Shin, in pink, and Sara Castillo.
Dominic Ford, The Wall's chief instructor, left, and Jerry Spring, right, supervise Seaon Shin, in pink, and Sara Castillo.

DUBAI // The expanse of orange, grey and yellow painted boards on the back of the Dubai Trade Center Hotel Apartments gives the phrase "social climbing" a whole new meaning.

The region's highest outdoor climbing venue, The Wall, stretches 15 metres up the first five floors of the concrete block on Sheikh Zayed Road. The Wall is built between balconies, which means guests dining al fresco have an intimate view of the climbers as they make their way up hundreds of hand and footholds.

To outsiders, climbing might appear a solo pursuit, but regulars at The Wall say it is remarkably social - mostly because each climber literally leaves their life in someone else's hands.

"Climbing creates bonds between people because you're allowing someone to secure your weight and putting your trust in them," said Sara Castillo, 23, a climber from Texas who is studying with a US online university. "If you meet people here and climb with them for the first time it automatically creates a bond, because you're trusting them with your life. And people really encourage each other, so it brings everyone together."

Each climber is secured by a rope that loops through a bracket at the top of The Wall. A partner on the ground uses a device known as a belay to keep the line taut and support the climber above, should he or she lose grip. When the climber descends, their partner releases the line little by little, ensuring a controlled drop should they fall.

"You have a very big psychological connection with the person who's securing the rope for you," said Dominic Ford, 41, from London, who has just taken up his duties as chief instructor at The Wall. "Also there's a lot of fear that you have to deal with up there, so everyone has this common ground, they're all coping with that and that's one of the attractions - overcoming that fear is what makes people feel good."

During a recent session Seaon Shin, a 19-year-old Korean American who runs her own youth empowerment centre at Festival City, deftly handled the belay as she yelled encouragement at her Emirati partner, Safa Alabedy. Ms Shin has been climbing for a matter of weeks.

"Being on the end of the rope is very easy, you just use your body weight to hold it, and that little device does all the work for you," said Ms Shin. "As long as you're paying attention - which you should be all the time - it's fine.

"A lot of independent climbers come here and just ask, 'Oh, are you free? Can you belay me?', so you make new friends. I've met a lot of new people coming here."

Once she was safely back down on the ground the Sharjah-born Ms Alabedy, who produces trailers for a TV station in Dubai, said: "You need to trust the person on the other end of the rope, if you're way up there and the only thing stopping you from falling is that person."

Jerry Spring, a 49-year-old Briton who teaches English at Zayed University, said climbers bonded in a way that was different from other sports.

"I played a lot of football when I was younger, and it's sociable after the game when you go out together," he said. "But climbing is sociable while you're doing it."

The Wall offers mixed climbing, so men and women from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities can interact, he said.

"People chat between climbs when they're resting, and when this place gets crowded you have to wait to climb, so you chat then as well," he said.

"You can have six people climbing at once," said Ms Castillo. "So you're up there and you say to someone right next to you, 'Hey, how's it going?'" The Wall was opened by Dorell Sports Management, a Dubai company, in March of 2009. It is open daily from 1.30pm to 9.30pm. Day passes cost Dh60.