Situated in a deep, disused quarry, it’s all too easy to miss the architectural feat that is the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena.
That is, of course, until you wander down a rather winding path, overlooked by trees that would look more at home in Australia’s Daintree Rainforest.
Suffice to say, there is an air of exoticism about the place, located in Ratho, under the flight path of Edinburgh Airport. The fact the sun is shining and the mercury is soaring only adds to the sense of being in balmier climes.
But it’s only when you pass through the vast lobby of the building that the cavernous arena reveals itself: spanning five floors it’s a truly gargantuan place surrounded by climbing walls over 100ft high with lots of little ant-like figures attached to them by nothing but ropes and their sinewy (or artificial) limbs.
I’m there to attend the formal press launch for the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Cup and Paraclimbing Cup, which is due to be staged at the arena in the autumn. Despite boasting the largest indoor climbing edifices anywhere in Europe, and arguably the world (there’s a place in America that attests to having a couple of extra feet, I’m told), this rather unsung hero of a place has only hosted a world cup on one occasion since it was opened to great fanfare in 2003. It is of course very well-known on the climbing circuit but perhaps the lack of an international event with the stature of a world cup has contributed to it not being particularly well-known outside a very niche target market.
I meet with Lindsay Renwick, Head of Customer Operations at Edinburgh Leisure, who has worked behind the scenes on putting together an application to host the event on September 23-24. He is in the midst of negotiating two sponsorship deals, which he can’t reveal at this stage, but fortunately the event has already secured the backing of Edinburgh City Council (£55,000) and Event Scotland (£20,000), plus some funding from Edinburgh Leisure itself. Tickets go on sale today (Thursday), he tells me, and with adult tariffs priced keenly between £15-25 (depending on whether you want a day or weekend pass) the venue hopes to draw around 600 spectators each day to fill the venue, coffers and recoup some of the initial outlay on bringing the event to the capital.
But it’s the journey that the arena has been on that is most striking. Lindsay gives a potted history of how the original vision of architect and passionate climber David Taylor brought the unusual building into being, only for the venture to be scuppered by spiralling costs, unpaid bills and the business eventually being placed into administration. Fortunately, Edinburgh City Council came to the rescue with a multi-million pound lifeline and Edinburgh Leisure was installed as the manager for the site. “There’s an old saying that you should never turn your passion into a business,” Lindsay jokes. “But it’s a vastly different thing now to what it was then.”
He adds: “I think what we really want to do is raise awarenesss, not only of the World Cup but also of the arena. I think this event raises the profile of sports climbing and of Ratho, and most importantly we hope it will get more people interested in climbing.
“Sports climbing is now part of the Olympics and it will be part of Tokyo in 2020. So that’s a key aim for us in terms of raising the profile of sports climbing and in doing that we will have live streaming of the event and it will feature on Sky TV a month later.”
In terms of the funding secured, it is being spent primarily on licensing costs to stage the event (which goes to the Federation), prize money for the competitors (they are expecting around 200 international climbers and 60 para climbers) and also on “logistics”. The venue will need to bring in ‘route-setters’ who will devise the courses the competitors will climb across three disciplines, as well as cherry pickers needed to set them. The disciplines themselves are physically very demanding. There is a 15m speed wall, which competitors must ascend in the quickest time (the world record is a mind-boggling six seconds, apparently) and there is a ‘lead wall’, which looks something like only a bat would dare to dangle from (competitors have six minutes to get to the highest point they can) and there is a ‘bouldering wall’, squat artificial rocks competitors must climb without ropes.
The event is also the first of its kind which will feature para climbers, which is palpably an exciting development for the sport. As we chat, para climber Keith Lynch is ascending a wall in the background. I think how difficult it must be for an able-bodied person to attempt to go up a 170ft high rock face, let alone someone with a disability.
Lynch, a member of Climb Scotland and GB Development Squad, who will be competing in the Paraclimbing Cup AL2 (lower limb amputee), says: “Having a paraclimbing element happening alongside the IFSC World Cup can only create more awareness for this lesser known element of the sport and hopefully encourage more people with disabilities to get involved.
“For many climbers, this aspect will almost be unknown and to non-climbers, the thought is baffling as climbing without a disability seems hard enough. Hopefully we will show that the impossible is possible, no matter what the disability is.”
VENUE: EICA, Ratho
In addition to its sporting facilities, the EICA can also host meetings, conferences, banquets and product launches.
I speak to Victoria McWhannell, Event Sales Manager, who explains some of the facilities on offer to event organisers and delegates.
“We are trying to raise the profile of the venue,” she explains. “We do have a spectacular events space, especially the arena itself, which can accommodate up to 1,600 people.”
The centre also has the Haston Suite, the Raeburn Suite, the Murray Lecture Theatre, the Patey Suite, the Cunningham Suite and the Marshall room – which deliver a range of configurable options, with AV and catering, for up to 600 people, depending on the event.
She adds: “Events here can really range from anything on the spectrum; in February we had a Range Rover Jaguar SUV car launch – there were four cars set on plinths with 700 guests to see the reveal, all catered for. And Stella Artois did a launch for the Indiana Jones film.”
McWhannell explains, also, that many conference bookers are keen to put their staff through some climbing activities whilst they are there.
“They chuck them through the aerial assault course which steps off from the fifth floor – they call it ‘team-building’,” she laughs. “But we’ve got an event in today and when they finish the group is coming into the arena. That’s what makes us special, I think.”
For the full gamut of event options visit here.