A long climb to the top
After a slow start , can the sport of rock-climbing take in Myanmar off
FOR hiking enthusiast Nyi Nyi Aung, conquering one of Myanmar’s highest mountains, was a bittersweet experience. He and a team of 32 hikers battled to reach the 4,319 metre high summit of Noi Madwe, only to be stopped 7 metres short by a vertical rock wall. He watched on as six hikers from his group made short work of the final hurdle. He stayed there, unable to proceed. That was the moment he decided to take up rock-climbing.
Nyi Nyi Aung struggled to teach himself how to climb, mostly because it was impossible to practice in Yangon, which has few natural climbing features of its own and had no indoor climbing gyms.
“I had to train myself by hanging from the balcony of my hostel. There was no place to practice rock climbing in Yangon,” he said.
With that in mind Nyi Nyi Aung and other climbers formed the Technical Climbing Club of Myanmar (TCCM) in 2011 with the help of experienced American climber Sean Davis.
For years the group stuck mostly to theoretical training, such as learning how to tie knots, while actual climbing required travelling hundreds of kilometers to well-known climbing spots around Mandalay and Hpa-an, something they could only manage once a month.
The country’s first ever indoor climbing gym opened in Yangon earlier this year, an indication that the popularity is on the rise. Built and operated by Nyi Nyi Aung, Climb O’ Clock has over 350 square feet of climbing walls catering to all skill levels. The facility, which is open to the public, has become base-camp for Yangon’s climbing community as they try forge an identity for the sport in Myanmar.
From extreme to mainstream
Most people in Myanmar don’t regard rock climbing as a normal sport but as an extreme sport, rife with danger, said Nyi Nyi Aung.
This, he says, stems from a deep-seated fear of climbing instilled in them by their parents as children.
“Kids always try to climb trees but their parents stop them and say things like ‘If you climb too high you will fall and break your leg’.”
But that phobia is misplaced. Climbing accidents are very rare and don’t occur without gear failure or human error.
“If you’re using quality gear, failure is rare these days. There is no human error without ignorance or showing off,” Nyi Nyi Aung explained.
Where climbing differs from other sports is that it requires participants to overcome a unique mix of challenges, equal parts physical and mental, a bit like solving a giant puzzle or game of chess. Reaching the summit isn’t the climber’s only goal; quick decisions on foot placement and climbing routes are just as celebrated.
“My first rock climbing experience was in Mandalay, my whole body was shaking. When I looked back, there were open skies, when I looked down, there was a steep rocky wall,” said 33-year-old Khin Myat Thuzar, a Yoga teacher who tried the sport on the recommendation of one of her students.
“But when I reached the top, I felt like I wanted to do it again and wanted to challenge myself one more time.”
In line with the sport’s growing popularity around the world, rock climbing has been added to the 2020 Olympic Games. Nyi Nyi Aung has ambitions for Myanmar to compete and says athletes need to begin preparing now, but adds, “I’m not that hopeful.”
While the number of local amateur climbers has tripled to about 40 over the last decade, the talent pool in which to pick an Olympic team remains very small. Nyi Nyi Aung estimates there are around 10 people in Myanmar who are skilled enough to compete professionally.
“We need to start training teenagers. But state school students don’t have any awareness of the sport here while in other countries like Singapore, climbing is taught as a compulsory sport.”
Most climbing careers start in a gym. This alleviates one of the sport’s biggest drawbacks – the cost of equipment. Climb O’ Clock charges locals K5,000 for an entire day’s use of the gym, that includes shoe and equipment hire and guidance from instructors.
But as most climbers will tell you, nothing quite beats the feeling of rock under fingertip. Climb O’ Clock has recently launched free ‘bouldering and slacklining’ sessions at Kandawgyi Park in Yangon, which is home to 9 foot high boulders that are perfect for climbing.
“The texture of indoor and outdoor climbing is different. So, I try to give climbers some practice with the touch of real rock texture,” said Nyi Nyi Aung.
So far the events have been a success with about 20 participants signing up to each of the two classes.
One recent Saturday morning at Kandawgyi Park 21-year-old Min Thwin Maung said that since he has taken up climbing he has more confidence in day-to-day life but he wishes more young people would take up the sport.
“Most young people are only interested in eating, gaming or hanging out… I’ve only found a few people my age who climb,” he said.
‘I had to train myself by hanging from the balcony of my hostel. There was no place to practice rock climbing in Yangon’ Nyi Nyi Aung Owner of Climb O’Clock
Climbers in the midst of a bouldering session one recent Saturday morning at Kandawgyi Park in Yangon.
Deep in concentration… climbing is as much about the mental as the physical.
Climb O’ Clock opened in May 2017 and is Myanmar’s first indoor climbing gym.