At the start of 2020, Vice wrote that climbing had become “every 20-something guy’s favourite hobby”. While climbing, as with many lifestyle sports, is populated with young people and twenty-somethings, the Association of British Climbing Walls released a report stating that the UK’s average regular climber is 32 years old. Approximately 17% of regular indoor climbers in the UK are over the age of 45, painting a picture of a sport with a wide age range of participants.
Bill Geary, aged 65, is a co-founder of The Grumpy Old Men’s Climbing Club, a climbing group based in Sheffield and founded for older climbers. Club members climb together indoors and organise outdoor trips between themselves, and has been running for 15 years and has around 50 members on the email list.
“It’s all very informal. There’s no joining fees or anything. All it is is a group of 50 people who exchange emails and get together to climb,” says Bill.
“The Grumpies aren’t just men – because the first half a dozen were men it got the name but it’d be wrong to imagine it as men only. Probably 10% of the members are women but I think that just reflects what climbing was like 30 years ago, and it’s much more balanced these days.”
Bill first began climbing in the mid-1980s, when he joined a local climbing club, though he believes that “climbing is so popular in Sheffield that people don’t need clubs as much now”. The climbing experience back then was very different.
“I think the climbing community was certainly a lot smaller and there were no training facilities really. At [Sheffield] University, they were the first people to build a dedicated wall. It was a wall where there were holes in it and they’d chip out bits of wall. It was pretty awful, really.
“Another thing people did was traverse along walls. Endcliffe Park [in Sheffield], that was a popular place for people traversing along the wall. I’m not sure when the Foundry [Climbing Centre] opened, but that was the first purpose built wall and it was very popular from the get go.”
Thankfully, indoor climbing has come a long way since then. The Grumpies now meet at Awesome Walls in Sheffield, the first ever climbing centre to be awarded ‘National Performance Centre’ status by the British Mountaineering Council. Reasons for continuing to climb at an older age varies across the club, but motivation remains high.
Motivations for climbing
“Some of the oldest members are close to 80, and they’re still motivated to climb. They’re still regularly going to the wall, still climbing outside but they’re not pushing their grades. They like to go down, like to socialise, do a few routes, have a coffee, do a few more routes, have a chat. I don’t see them giving it up. It’s what they do.
“[My motivations are still] getting better and in a way that’s not changed. As you get older you have to modify but I still think I can get better and I’m still motivated to try new routes and work at them in order to get a clean ascent. But that’s true of all climbers and I think the fact you’re getting older doesn’t detract from that.
“If you find you can’t maintain the grades you could when you were younger, there’s still masses of climbs to do at an easier level so you have to just dial it back a bit.”
A forum thread on UKClimbing asking the question “When did your climbing performance peak?” suggests that climbing, as Bill says, is not something that people give up.
Answers to the thread such as, “If I’m still climbing hard at 50 I’d be a very happy man, even if I’m not breaking personal records” turned the conversation to whether fun was more important than pushing grades – something which seems to become harder after people reach their mid-30s.
One user replied that, “Certainly, the fun quotient while solving the mental and physical problems inherent in climbing lumps of rock is as great now as it ever was”.
It’s clear that climbing is something that people engage in well beyond their youth.
“For a lot of climbers, it is their principal activity and to lose it would be horrendous,” says Bill. “I don’t know of very many people who actually give up climbing. Once you get into it, it’s a lifelong thing and while you’re still capable of doing it you want to do it. It’s a peculiar thing.”
Climbing and mental health
The mental aspect of climbing is possibly something that Bill thinks is key to what causes people to stick with it for so long. At work he attended a mindfulness course, and as part of the sessions they learnt that mindfulness is about “being in the moment and focusing on the now and this particular instance in time”.
In the second session he said “this is climbing!”
“That’s exactly what it is. You’re on a route and right in front of your face you’ve got a problem to sort out and everything else goes away. You’re right in the moment, and it’s even more true in trad climbing because there’s more risk of making a mistake. Essentially it’s a mindfulness activity. I’ve spoken to other climbers about this and they say absolutely.
“I think it’s a big part of climbing. Part of it is staying fit but this mindfulness thing might be key to why people stick with climbing even when they’re getting older and their standards maybe drop.”