Rock climbing is often regarded as a solitary pursuit, but Christoph Lüthy, co-owner of Phnom Penh’s first fully fledged climbing gym, insists otherwise. Climbing, stresses the bespectacled Swiss-German, is all about teamwork.
“We have a community here. It is more than just rock climbing,” he said at his new gym, to a back-drop of joyfully ascending human geckos.“It is a place where people meet, where people get to know one another,” he said.
Phnom Penh Climb, located on a backstreet in the Russian Market neighbourhood, opened its doors four months ago, but incompletely. It had only its bouldering walls then (bouldering involves climbing lower walls without ropes).
It was not until February 20's official launch that the gym became fully functional, with the completion of its two top-rope walls. They are the focal point of the establishment, covered in dozens of routes, designated by brightly coloured tape strips, with quirky names like “Jacobs Ladder”, “Pinky and the Brain” and “The Ladybug”.
At nearly 10 metres tall, the walls are certainly imposing, and to see Seyha, one of the gym’s two full-time Khmer trainers, scale them in a matter of seconds is an amazing sight.
Lüthy, an avid outdoorsman, opened the new gym with his American wife Mary, who he pins as the more serious climber of the pair. He describes their idea to start the gym as stemming from a need.
Besides the recently shuttered Jib bouldering gym, there were no official climbing outlets in Phnom Penh, he said, and climbing here had always required getting creative.
Lüthy reminisced about a deserted, “ultra old” bouldering wall near the Olympic Stadium where he and other climbers used to get their fix. It was fine for a workout, he said, but the place had to be abandoned after it became overrun by squatters, who ended up using their crash pad as a bed. “The place became more of a bathroom,” Lüthy said.
From start to finish, the making of Phnom Penh Climb took two years. The Lüthys had to have the place constructed from scratch and imported all of their climbing equipment from the US.
As neither had experience in running a business – both Lüthys work at the same Phnom Penh software marketing firm – there were plenty of bureaucratic and logistical bumps along the way. Often they improvised.
When testing the strength of the lead-anchors on their new top-rope walls – which European standards require to support nearly a tonne – they brought in an army jeep, to attach to the scale.
But the car wasn’t heavy enough, so they added 750 kilo's worth of barbell-weights from the nearby Amatak cross-fit gym.
“But that still wasn’t even enough, so we had to sit on the hood to generate more weight,” said Lüthy. The team repeated the heavy exercise for all 90 or so lead-anchors.
“It’s been a very interesting journey,” quipped Lüthy after recounting the process. So far, business has been good. Lüthy reports that the Cambodian capital has taken kindly to the new spot. “There were climbers just waiting for a climbing gym to open,” said Lüthy of the warm reception.
But especially important in their clientele is the greater pool of people in Phnom Penh “seeking to do something recreational”, he adds.
One of them was Jacob Brunning, a twenty-something Canadian on a five-month “climbing bender” in Southeast Asia. He had been volunteering at the gym, which he heard of through a friend, coaching newbies as well as setting up fresh climbing routes. Brunning agreed wholeheartedly with Lüthy’s all-for-one climbing philosophy.
“You need a community to progress,” he said cheerfully before running off to teach a lesson. “It’s the only way.”
Phnom Penh Climb is located at #11B Street 29. It is open Tuesday to Friday from 4pm-9pm, and on weekends from 7am-11am in the morning and 3pm-8pm in the evening.
Monthly passes cost $35 and three-month passes cost $90. The price for daily entry is $5 and $1 to rent shoes and a harness. Introductory classes are offered on Tuesdays at 7pm.