|The Sorbonne wall|
The climbing wall at Sorbonne University, on Reem island in Abu Dhabi, is probably the best wall so far built in the UAE. It’s only ~10m tall but the width allows for about 20-25 independent routes and the modern Walltopia design has a good variety of interesting features. It is also very steep. About three quarters of the routes involve some sort of overhang and the steepest have a continuous violent lean. Perfect for power-endurance training. Critically it is also indoor; in fact, in a very high quality (and under-utilised) sports facility.
Though the wall has been there since mid-2010, when the campus construction ended, it has only been possible to gain (limited) public access recently, despite a barrage of requests by climbers to the university during the intervening period. To be fair to the university administration, they probably had more urgent priorities during the first year in the finished campus. The owner of the campus buildings is also an unconnected entity (a quasi-public Abu Dhabi investment fund) making decisions about facility usage especially complex.
In September 2011 these decision makers did finally resolve (but not advertise!) a scheme for non-student usage of some of the sports facilities, which I discovered by chance in November. Unfortunately, for the climbing wall, their proposition was aimed at small school or corporate groups, who could “rent” the wall and its coach for a short sequence of weekly sessions at a very high price. Our challenge became to persuade them to instead accept a much longer duration arrangement for more people at a lower price. Thanks to fantastic support from the head of sports, this was eventually agreed. However it required accepting several constraints that have little resemblance to normal climbing wall usage: pre-payment for 20 weeks in advance and a fixed group of climbers. The university also required that their counter-party in the transaction be a single company with its own insurance, not the individual climbers themselves. This was solved thanks to the help of Abu Dhabi businessman and climber Sami Matuq. Axa insurance were also very accommodative.
The process of finding a group of climbers who were prepared to pre-pay for twenty weeks worth of Monday evening climbing sessions at a still quite high price was not especially easy. I think I must have fielded several hundred emails cumulatively along the way. The large number of people expressing a casual interest rapidly collapsed down to a small number when they learned the constraints, and especially when asked to part with hard cash, but we were – just – able to assemble a group of twenty. The first session was Monday 20th February. My impression is that everyone considered it a huge success. Thanks are also due to Pete Aldwinckle, from Global Climbing, who did a safety briefing free of charge.
Inevitably requests to join the group have already started appearing. A few points worth making: this is a hard-won and experimental project that will hopefully encourage the university to allow more flexible usage in the future; for the first 20 weeks there will only be space for new people if existing members of the group want to drop out; though Theo Giani, Sami and I did most of the work to make this happen, this is essentially a spontaneously-assembled co-operative and no-one is “in charge”; similarly this is 100% non-commercial – no-one has carved out even even a single fil from the transaction; there is no “operator” with incentive to boost numbers. Bottom-line, if you are reading this and interested: please be patient.