Rock Climbing Gains Traction as After-Work ‘Meditation on a Wall’
SHANGHAI — Zhou Yinan is a bit of an anomaly among rock climbing enthusiasts in China — she is afraid of heights.
“It’s actually quite scary to climb to the top of an indoor rock wall,” she admits. “I know there is no real danger, but I can’t help feeling afraid. This fear is something I have to face.”
Drawn to rock climbing by photos and videos she saw on social media, Zhou, 30, initially struggled, unable to conquer most bouldering movements due to a lack of overall physical ability. With guidance from a coach, she mastered basic climbing skills and found strength in the sense of accomplishment. “As I keep climbing,” she says, “I feel that I am making progress each time. That makes me very happy.”
Zhou is not alone in discovering the recuperative benefits of the sport. Many climbers, both outdoors and on the pseudo-rock faces of indoor gyms, find the challenge a way to reduce stress, enhance self-esteem, and conquer social isolation.
Listed as an official event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2024 Paris Olympics, rock climbing is undergoing rapid development in China. The topic “rock climbing” has been viewed over 350 million times on the lifestyle app Xiaohongshu.
The General Administration of Sports of China estimates the current number of rock climbers in China to be around 500,000, and there are nearly 600 commercial rock climbing gyms across the country.
On Xiaohongshu, many people refer to rock climbing as “meditation on the wall.” Climbing gyms are increasingly where young people who may otherwise class themselves as introverts can shed their tendency for isolation and the anxieties of work. Some studies suggest climbing may even be effective in treating depression.
Three years ago, the Rock Climbing Association at Shanghai’s Fudan University was part of the Mountaineering Association, but due to the growing number of members with a preference for rock climbing, the group became an independent entity.
Yu Yue, 19, president of the spun-off association, says she was introduced to rock climbing at the age of 6, when the sport was just beginning in China. She has almost exclusively practiced indoor climbing, winning medals in various competitions.
Though an introvert by nature, Yu says she enjoys the social environment rock climbing provides. “People are enthusiastic to talk about climbing, which doesn’t make me feel awkward,” Yu says. “And if I don’t want to talk, I can just start climbing.”
The university’s gym has an old climbing wall, so the association’s daily practice is held at the Climbing Factory, a commercial climbing gym about an hour’s metro ride from the campus.
Since its opening three years ago, the Climbing Factory has grown to become what most believe is Shanghai’s largest venue of its kind, with over 1,000 climbers. University students and those aged 35 to 40 are the most avid devotees.
“Currently, Shanghai does not have a venue that has similar conditions to ours, so most rock climbing fans will come to our place,” says Zhang Yue, a coach at the Climbing Factory.
According to China’s Yelp-like app Dianping, Shanghai has over 170 indoor climbing gyms, while Beijing has 165. “Previously, there were mostly the same old faces in the rock gym, but now I see many new faces every week,” 42-year-old Zhang says. “The rock climbing community is growing very fast.”
Zhang first tried indoor rock climbing in 2008. He fell in love with the sport and left the advertising industry in 2015 to dedicate himself to the activity. Climbing Factory opened in 2020.
“Rock climbing challenges people’s limits and also demands technical skills, psychological control, physical fitness, and lifestyle discipline,” Zhang says. “I am fascinated by all of this, as well as having a lot of fun.”
Despite spending less time training himself since having his second child, Zhang finds fulfillment in helping others develop their climbing skills and love for rock climbing. “The benefit of rock climbing is that you can do it any time because the rock walls are always there, just as the mountains are always there,” he adds.
While he may appear extroverted, Zhang considers himself to be more of an introvert. He says introverts focus intensely on the walls in front of them and on their own movements. “Ultimately, rock climbing tests the focus of one’s mind,” he says.
Yan Mingjie, 36, co-founder of Banana Climbing, a climbing gym chain in Shanghai, says rock climbing is still a relatively niche activity in China. “This is not a sport that you can appreciate just by observing; you need to experience it to truly enjoy it,” he says.
In comparison to sports such as skiing and skating, the barrier to entry for rock climbing is relatively low. The activity does not require any significant investment in equipment or initial physical prowess.
“The cost of rock climbing may even be lower than the cost of watching a movie,” Yan says. “Nowadays, people even choose to go rock climbing on a date, which I could never have imagined in the past.”
According to Yan, rock climbing is the most primeval of sports, likening it to monkeys climbing trees. “The brain releases hormones as you climb, and at that moment, gives a feeling of happiness. It’s then that you discover that rock climbing is fascinating,” he says.
Huang Yijia, another rock climbing enthusiast, was first introduced to the climbing gym by a friend last January. Currently, she goes rock climbing at least four times a week. Huang has also ventured into the wild to climb twice, allowing her to connect with nature.
“The sunlight shines on you, and when you climb high and look back, the scenery is particularly stunning,” the 40-year-old says.
Huang emphasizes the significance of the social aspects of rock climbing. “You inevitably encounter challenges that you cannot overcome alone, and you can learn a lot from others because each person’s climbing style is different,” she says.
For Huang, rock climbing serves as a form of dynamic meditation. “There are no distractions, and your thoughts are focused only on the next rock hold,” she explains.
As for Zhou and her acrophobia, climbing up to heights of 20 meters can still be very daunting, but she perseveres. In addition to conquering that fear, she and many other office workers like her seek to achieve a state of flow when climbing on the wall.
“Rock climbing after work can provide a sense of returning to be ‘wild’ compared with the overly ‘civilized’ feel of the workplace, where pressure can be extremely high,” she says.
There are more introverts than extroverts among Zhou’s climbing friends. Initially a self-described introvert, she says she became more outgoing as she met more people through rock climbing, with whom she would often climb and communicate. She also actively recommends this sport to friends in her circle.
Furthermore, Zhou has found that rock climbing has helped her let go of many things.
“With climbing, safety considerations are paramount,” she says. “You will realize that interpersonal relationships and work pressure aren’t as important, or there is no need to waste your life on these things.”
(Header image: A rock climber trains at Banana Climbing, Shanghai, November 2023. Liu Shuhuan for Sixth Tone)