Rock climbing is catching on in Hong Kong

Rock climbing is catching on as Hong Kong's rugged terrain entices more visitors and locals to rise to the challenge, says Elizabeth Choi

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 11:10am

On any given Saturday, hundreds of people will mill around Central in search of the perfect brunch spot. But for the avid outdoor climber, Central's largest boulders offer a far different type of pursuit.

The top of Central Crags scrapes the sky at 316 metres, providing the type of view even the most luxurious rooftop bar would struggle to emulate. Once up there, every iconic building that has graced a Hong Kong postcard is in sight. But the greatest reward of the view is knowing you didn't get to see it by using a lift.

"Although it's unlikely to ever become a mainstream climbing destination, Hong Kong offers probably the second best climbing destination in Asia, after Krabi. Few places can match Hong Kong in terms of the sheer diversity of good quality climbs available a short distance from each other," writes Stuart Millis, author of Hong Kong Bouldering.

These days, however, it seems more and more are becoming privy to Millis' observations on Hong Kong's enticing topography.

The first instances of climbing in Hong Kong can be traced back to 1956 when the British Army was based at Kai Tak airport. "They saw Lion's Rock [in Kowloon] and they wanted to climb it," says Conway Leung, who has been climbing since 1977 and is president of China Hong Kong Mountaineering and Climbing Union (CHKMCU).

"Once they climbed it, they learned the rock well. They sketched pictures of it and mapped out its routes by difficulty." These images would become part of Hong Kong's earliest climbing guide.

Until 1967, locals did not really climb. But the Hong Kong riots of that year led the government to decide that climbing might be an effective way of diverting youthful energy away from rioting. So the Social Welfare Department decided to introduce it at summer camps led by the British Army, Leung explains.

It's a dangerous sport. You must take precautions like learning how to fall properly
Rachel Lam, climber

"The youths didn't have army training, but were interested in army life, so the British Army taught sports like rock climbing," Leung says.

CHKMCU was established in 1984 to unify a growing number of groups looking to organise their own climbs. Today it operates as a government-subsidised entity that provides Hong Kong's official certification for climbing sanctioned walls.

Hong Kong climbers are largely expats and visitors, but cultural events such as the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, and increased government backing of outdoor sports has led to a bigger interest in climbing among locals.

"You can tell by the schools," says Nikolai Ng, a 19-year-old sponsored climber who is widely sought by outdoor skills training companies to lead programmes and design courses. "Many schools are building climbing walls and many even have climbing teams."

With the inclusion of sports climbing in the 2020 Olympics, CHKMCU believes that interest in climbing will continue to persist. It recently proposed two indoor and outdoor climbing walls be included in the HK$19 billion Kai Tak Stadium project.

The Leisure and Culture Services Department has built at least six climbing facilities in five different areas of Hong Kong, and newly opened private gyms already see several dozen members climbing on any given weeknight. The two-year-old Da Verm Climbing Club in Sai Ying Pun receives an average of 40 members each weeknight.

San Po Kong's Just Climb, which opened last May, has nearly 60 climbers every night. Most climb outdoors as well, says Nick Chan, an instructor at Just Climb. The indoor gym provides a place to practice after work in the week.

Learning to climb is an accessible sport, since most indoor and outdoor facilities offer beginner courses with basic equipment available for rent. It's important to take proper instruction, experts say.

"I would strongly discourage learning from your friends," Rachel Lam, a member of Da Verm, says.

"Once you get into it, you realise that it is a dangerous sport. Things such as learning how to fall properly, and many other precautions, should be learned before attempting to climb."

Common injuries, like strained tendons or pulled leg and back muscles, can occur when climbers haven't properly warmed up or have acquired bad habits.

The initial awkwardness of clinging to a wall on all fours (or worse, falling off the wall) can be off-putting to new climbers. The key is to stick with it after the introductory course. It's also important to maintain the right attitude.

"Climbing is an all-body sport," says Patrick Li, an instructor at Da Verm. "It improves your posture and your sense of balance, and it also strengthens your back, leg and forearm muscles."

But negative thinking alone can greatly affect your climbing experience, and many climbers acknowledge the sport is as much mental as it is physical.

"In the beginning, it isn't easy to climb," says Danny Ho, founder of Just Climb.

"You will fall. That is inevitable. But how do you change your attitude to make yourself stronger? What do you do once you fall? That is what climbing is about."

Ultimately, there is much more to climbing than muscle strength or better balance, says Ng, a former Da Verm instructor.

"Climbing is not only a sport - it's a lifestyle," he says. "When you climb, you have to think. You use strategy to figure out how to go up the rock. You have to be smart about the decisions you are making."

Unlike other sports, the risk of death is very real at advanced levels of outdoor climbing.

"But everyone helps you. You have your friends, you meet people when you climb and they help you. You have a community," Ng says.