Friendly and inclusive, Leeds’ Climbing Lab has changed the face of indoor bouldering
In a world full of reasons to be serious, grown-up problems to solve and smiles to fake, finding time to set your inner child free can prove a challenge. Pressures to stay physically and mentally healthy, maintain active social lives and keep up appearances surround us, but there aren’t many things that tackle all those birds with one stone. Or boulder, if you will.
Introducing the Climbing Lab - the place where everyone’s welcome to try their hands (and indeed, feet) at bouldering in one of the city’s most inclusive, fun-orientated spaces.
Tucked away in Kirkstall Industrial Park, Leeds Climbing Lab has been welcoming humans of every shape and size since early 2015, when it beat the odds (namely, chest-height flooding that struck weeks after construction began) to open as a fully-functioning climbing centre.
“We’ve got busier and busier over the years,” says co-owner, Hannah Mason. “Now, on a busy day, we have 400 people coming through the doors.” Potentially fuelled by the popularity of Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, or by climbing’s imminent debut as an Olympic sport in Tokyo 2020, climbers of all abilities are discovering the joys of the Lab in their droves.
“We think everybody can enjoy climbing,” says Hannah, telling me how the team has consciously tried to avoid a cliquey environment by reaching out to different communities in the city. “We’re not here to judge each other. We just want people to enjoy themselves and get the most out of climbing.”
A look at the weekly schedule is enough to show just how seriously the Lab takes that mission. Monday evenings offer discounted prices for women from 4:30pm, with Leeds Girls Can Climb Friendly - a coach-supported social – kicking off at 7pm.
It’s the same on Tuesday nights, but this time for anyone, with all abilities welcome. This is coaching with none of the pressure or intensity you might fear; laid-back, ‘ask-for-help’ sessions that are just as much about meeting like-minded people and having fun as they are about nailing your next route.
Wednesdays are for students, when partakers in education can climb for just £5.50 with shoe-hire included. Great if you are part of the aforementioned tribe, if not probably best avoided due to extreme busyness.
The Lab’s final weekly event is Free Pizza Fridays, when friendly neighbours MOD Pizza ship over a load of dough for climbers to enjoy in between routes.
At every other time of the week, it’s just normal, everyone-welcome, do-as-you-please climbing. If you’ve not bouldered before, you’ll need to book in for an intro and, if you have, your first time at the Lab will require a bit of form-filling before you’re good to go.
For the Lab’s 25-strong team, the work is non-stop. They run frequent four-week improvers’ courses to help boost ability; regularly working with schools, communities and youth groups to provide everything from holiday tasters and family inductions to weekly classes for improvers and progressive courses for high school students and young people.
“We try to be an active member of the community”, Hannah says, telling me about the Lab’s Out Climbing celebration they hosted during last year’s Pride weekend; complete with rainbow climbs, music, cake and freebies, not to mention the chance to make new friends.
This year’s Pride event takes place on 3 August, and it’s worth keeping an eye on their website for details of parties, Red Bull takeovers and other fun stuff happening throughout the calendar.
The Lab’s constant focus on positivity, social inclusion and a sense of community stretches further than parties and pizza, though. As part of an initiative by CAM (Climbing Alongside Mental Health), anyone with a mental health issue can be referred by their counsellor, GP or therapist for a free intro and follow-up session with a friend or carer.
“I’m surprised at how many people say climbing has improved their mental health,” says Hannah, looking around us at colourful patterns of handholds, open spaces and groups studying routes in companionable silence, or pointing out the nearest foothold to friends as they climb.
“It gives a boost for people who maybe struggle socially or with confidence; something to talk about that isn’t themselves, an activity to do together that makes relating to each other a bit easier.” I totally agree - I can see it happening before my eyes.
There’s something about the combined physical and mental challenge of bouldering that gives it an uplifting effect; methodical, mindful exercise that tests your logic and pushes your courage to reach that extra bit further. For that reason alone, the Lab is well worth a trip.
The Climbing Lab is open from 10am until 10am Mon-Fri, 9pm Saturdays and 8pm Sundays. You can find more details about pricing and schedules on their website. If you’d like to know more about CAM, have a look at their website to read up or download a referral form.