As I’m sure was the case for many climbers, the idea of not having access to any form of climbing during lockdown was a terrifying notion for me. During our first lockdown experience in Spain, Husband and I were living in a rented flat, so we made do with training on a Beastmaker screwed onto a slightly wobbly stand. Even if we had been allowed to drill into the wall above the doorframes in that flat, they wouldn’t have held up to the pressure of us hanging off it. It was a lovely little flat but it obviously wasn’t built with pull-ups in mind.
When Husband’s job in Spain came to an end and we realised we’d be heading back to the UK and moving in with his parents, I wondered how they’d feel about us building a climbing wall on a small chunk of their smallholding. It turned out they were rather enthusiastic about the idea, far more so than I expected. I ended up spending our two-week quarantine period building the wall, with a fair bit of help from my father-in-law, and I’ve been very much enjoying the fruits of our labour ever since.
In this post, I’ll take you through a few things I’ve learned about building, setting, and climbing on our home wall and the plan for its (and our) future.
1. My Father-in-law is Mad
To give my in-laws an idea of the kind thing I was hoping to build, I sent them some photos and videos of other walls that my fellow gym deprived climbers had built. This included creations by Louis Parkinson, Annie from Dabrats, and Jenn Sends, amongst others. I didn’t really know what they’d say but I certainly didn’t expect my father-in-law to respond with:
“We can do that, but why don’t we make it bigger?”
I was pretty happy when we got the first half of the wall together but there was no stopping my father-in-law.
“When are we going to get the second half done then?”
What can I say? The man loves a building project.
2. Painting is Boring
At first, I was enjoying binging a load of podcasts, including all ten episodes of the You’re Wrong About deep dive into the O.J. Simpson trial, which up until that point, doesn’t actually cover the trial. It’s possibly the deepest of deep dives any podcast has ever dove.
After about three straight days of painting though, I was a little done with it. It was absolutely worth it and has protected the wood from the unforgiving weather in the north of England. But I was extremely happy when it was finished and I could detach the paintbrush from my withered claw for the foreseeable future.
3. Maintenance is Important
Despite our excellent construction work, the wall is showing a few signs of wear and tear. It’s taken a pounding from rain, hail, wind, dogs, and flailing limbs and keeping an eye on the wall’s well-being has been an important part of its survival.
We’ve added a few drainage holes where the rain was puddling along the planks across the back, repainted the whole thing (sigh), added a few bits of metal work to the fraying edges of the plywood, and even shoved a few staples in the front to hold down the top layers that have cracked a little under the pressure.
Whenever I have looked at a little crack here or a little fraying edge there and said “I’ll fix that after my session” I have inevitably kicked or caught it while climbing and made the small problem a whole lot worse. Holes in wood, it turns out, are exactly the same as holes in clothing and should be addressed when they’re small so you don’t end up with a bigger mending job on your hands later.
In summary, don’t be a lazy shit. Future-JoJo does not enjoy dealing with the consequences of past-JoJo's actions (or lack thereof).
4. Climbing Walls Can Blow Away
These breezeblocks have lived here permanently since a particularly windy spell resulted in the 20-degree wall tipping over into the hedge behind it. I know the structure looks heavy, but that big flat surface makes an excellent sail when the wind picks up.
5. You Always Want More Holds
It doesn’t matter how many holds I have, I always want more! We’ve got a really good mix and a well-covered wall on our hands now but it’s hard to stop myself idly browsing for another batch.
We’ve ended up with about half new and half second-hand holds.
Certain eBay sellers seem to drip feed a steady stream of second-hand holds into the internet ether and I’ve bagged a few bargains with some crafty bidding. The biggest holds are pretty expensive to buy new so I’m particularly chuffed about picking up all these chunky boys second-hand. My favourite of the cast-off holds have to be this red set of absolute beasts. There’s a pinch the size of your head, two huge jugs, the giant disk of doom, and a round blobby pimple of a hold that feels fabulous to wrap your mitts around and squeeze like hell. There’s just so much going on in this bundle of joy.
All the new holds came from a company called Holdz and I cannot recommend them enough for their service, quality, and price. Of the five sets that we bought from Holdz, my favourites are definitely the yellow Smooth Edgez/Crimpz. They’re challenging enough (for me anyway!) on a 30-degree overhang but there’s still plenty for you to dig your fingers into. I just love a good crimp.
Admittedly, the blue Ripplez and orange Splitz holds have added more variety to the wall and provided more opportunity to work on my weaknesses (pinches and slopers). They’re both great sets of holds and it’s only my bias towards crimps that keeps them from occupying the hold-shaped space in my heart.
6. Route-setters are Geniuses
As a craftsperson myself, I’ve always admired the artistry in route-setting. However, my appreciation for the talents of route-setters has increased astronomically since attempting to do the job myself.
Husband and I have been climbing regularly at Eden Rock in Carlisle since the gyms opened up again after lockdown. I really can’t stress enough how excellent the setters at this gym are. The majority of the boulders are set really well for different body types and provide plenty of opportunity for sneaky beta and technique to triumph over sheer brute force. We’ve not found many moves there that are significantly easier or harder because of our differences in height, strength, or flexibility. We are very evenly matched on the boulders across the entire gym, from slab to overhang.
This is far from the case on the home wall. I have consistently set boulders that I find really hard but Husband has either flashed or taken only a couple of attempts to complete. Or I’ll set something that I can get flexy and sexy through, but Husband and his tight hamstrings and hips can’t get close to.
Dynos have been a particular frustration of mine as a home wall setter. If I set a move that is achievable but big enough that it forces me to jump, it is either within Husband’s reach or pifflingly easy for him. If I move the hold further away to make it challenging for Husband, then I can’t get anywhere near it.
We’ve also both been infuriatingly successful at not just breaking but absolutely annihilating each other’s intended beta. I’ve set most of the boulders on the wall but Husband has had a go with the holds and drill on occasion. What has generally happened is we’ve both stepped back and admired our respective boulders, then the other person has immediately ruined our carefully crafted hopes and dreams by skipping a hold here or performing a sneaky match there.
Setting boulders that force the moves you want and don’t favour a particular body shape is really bloody difficult. I encourage all climbers to cherish the route setters at their gyms, salute them for their efforts, and forgive them the occasional boulder that favours the tall/short, burly/delicate, flexibile/plank-like climber.
7. Grades are Difficult to Estimate
In a similar vein, I have absolutely no idea what grade to give the boulders on our home wall. I’ve climbed hundreds of boulders in my life, of grades between 3 and 6c+, but I find it basically impossible to identify where my creations fall on this scale.
Part of the problem is that the wall is overhanging and I tend to find overhanging routes difficult, so I grade them harder than they probably are.
My inconsistent route setting also doesn’t help. I’ll suggest a hard grade for something but then Husband will flash it, suggesting I overestimated the grade. Or the boulder won’t be of a consistent difficulty throughout but consist of one stopper move in the middle of several reasonably straightforward ones. So, I’ll build a boulder that it is a reliable 6b but with an absolute bastard of a move in the middle, jacking it up to at least 7a+.
I expect I struggle to grade the boulders on our wall because I’ve still not got a great idea of what I’m actually capable of climbing on it, even after months of practice. I have regularly stepped back from freshly built boulders thinking “that doesn’t look too hard” then subsequently found myself incapable of completing a single move. I’ve also pleasantly surprised myself by flashing boulders that I thought would be really difficult.
Many climbers prefer not to focus on grades and simply concentrate on climbing things they enjoy. I certainly don’t argue with this approach and I think it’s extremely beneficial not to get hung up on the grades you’re climbing if it gets in the way of your enjoyment of the sport.
However, a clear ranking of the available boulders helps me to structure and focus a training session. If I’m totting up some mileage, it’s useful to know that a particular set of boulders is flashable but still challenging. Or if I want to project something, it saves time and energy if I can quickly identify something tricky but achievable rather than slogging away trying to craft something that is near my limit and doesn’t feature a stopper move somewhere in the middle.
Basically, grades are not the be all and end all but I appreciate the helping hand a nicely ranked set of boulders made by professionals gives you.
8. 10 Degrees Makes a Big Difference
We built the wall on the right-hand side first and went for a 30-degree overhang. I knew we weren’t hardcore enough to go for a 40-degree beast like a lot of the professionals use. 30-degrees seemed like an angle that would be difficult but not so steep that I’d be exhausted after 10 minutes of climbing.
And this has largely been the case with the 30-degree wall. It takes a decent amount of pulling power to get up it, but it doesn’t instantly sap all my energy.
On the other hand, I adore the 20-degree half of the wall. I would have loved to have made the second wall a straight up vertical wall or even a slab. But my building consultant/father-in-law pointed out that this would have been even more likely to blow away in a hearty Cumbrian gale and that going for a gentler overhang would make all our lives simpler.
The difference 10 degrees makes is far greater than I expected and I really appreciate having the less inclined wall to warm up and finish my sessions on after I’ve burned out my arms on the steeper wall. We've also been able to use some of the trickier holds that we wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of holding on the 30-degree wall. The worst of the slopers and crimps have found a happy home on the 20-degree wall.
9. Pulling Hard is Fun
I continue to worship at the altar of delicate moves and balance-based-beta but there really is something deeply addictive about pulling hard and getting stronger. I can absolutely see how people get hooked on lifting weights or cranking out pull-ups and marveling as the incremental gains stack up.
Pulling really hard ignites a certain fire that my preferred delicate and balancy type boulders don’t access. I’ve taken an awful lot of pleasure in letting the power screaming monster inside me run riot on the home wall. I’ll certainly always be drawn to slabs and vertical walls but I’m glad I’ve found this extra level of willpower and try-hard deep within my soul. I’m looking forward to continuing to improve this side of my climbing repertoire along with my power screaming skills.
10. Board Climbing Is Far From Boring
There’s more room for creativity on a few sheets of plywood than I expected but I took some time to realise this.
At first, I was a little overwhelmed by the blank wooden canvas before me. It reminded me of the panic I used to experience in costume design classes when presented with a blank piece of paper and a pencil. My brain doesn’t thrive under the pressure of a world of infinite possibilities.
But, after a few deep breaths and a reminder that nobody gives a shit if I build terrible boulders, I really enjoyed whacking holds on the wall and seeing what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes I had a clear idea of what I’d like to create and sometimes I’d just see where my mood took me. I don’t see a career in route-setting in my future but it’s been an intriguing way to explore a different side of my creativity.
The climbing itself has also been more fun than I anticipated. Although overhanging boulders are not my first port of call in a gym, I’ve found some of my creations extremely addictive to climb. There’s been a lot of “one more goes” that turned into ten or more goes. I’ve also had some fun working on my footwork on overhangs, which has improved my ability to use my whole body to good effect on steep terrain.
Laughs have been had and gains have been made.
What Next for Me and the Wall?
My overhanging friend and I will soon be pulling up our roots here in the north of England and heading down south. Husband and I are working on a move to Cambridge (where his job is) now that the country is opening up again. It will soon be time to dismantle and transport the largest piece of flatpack furniture we’ve ever owned.
We’re hoping to buy a dinky house on the outskirts of Cambridge with enough room for two people, a dog, and a Beastmaker 1000 inside and a garden big enough for half of our home climbing wall round the back. The likelihood of finding anywhere within our parameters and with a garden big enough for both parts of the wall is pretty small so the 20-degreee section will either have to be put in storage somewhere or butchered for backup parts of the 30-degree wall. That’s a decision for future-JoJo to make when present-JoJo has found her somewhere to live.
Anyone with a smidgen of knowledge of the English landscape will know that Cambridge isn’t exactly a promised land for rock climbers. It’s one of the flattest places in the country and the nearest boulders are several hours away.
However, Husband and I both began our climbing journeys in Cambridge and another gym has opened in the area since we last lived there. It’s also close to some excellent gyms in London. Combined with our own little wall in the garden I reckon we’re well equipped to get strong and achieve my goal of 7a by the end of the year while living in the area.
All we need to do is find a house, remove a lot of screws and bolts, and hire a home climbing wall sized van. Oh, and find the less important things you need when buying your first house, like a bed. It’s all about priorities.