A long climb to the top

Af­ter a slow start , can the sport of rock-climb­ing take in Myan­mar off

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - NYO ME

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.”

Olympic am­bi­tion

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

Pho­tos: Sup­plied

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.

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