New Surrey climbing gym takes kids to lofty heights

Ty Rosenke

Photo: Ty Rosenke, 13, is a youth climber training at Project Climbing in Cloverdale. Adrian MacNair photo.

When I moved to Vancouver from Toronto in the winter of 2005 I didn’t have much of a plan. I didn’t have a job lined up and I hadn’t yet gone to school to become a journalist.

So I drew upon my experience working as a rock climbing instructor for four years in Toronto to apply at the Cliffhanger climbing gyms in the rundown industrial area of pre-Olympic Village Vancouver and its suburban sister in Coquitlam.

It was there that I met Adam Diamond, chief route setter for the gyms, and a mentor of sorts in my progress as a climber. Adam and I had more in common than growing up in Toronto. He took his first climbing course in 1990 at the age of 21 inside Canada’s first climbing gym, Joe Rockhead’s. It’s the same gym where I “learned the ropes” of climbing (10 years later), fostering my own 17-year obsession with rocks and mountains, and the main reason I hitched my proverbial wagons west and headed over the Rockies.

Twenty-seven years later, Adam is now a co-owner of his own climbing gym, Surrey’s second official gym, located at 64th and 176th Streets in Cloverdale. I hadn’t seen him in at least 10 years when I wandered into the new building earlier this summer and after I collected my jaw from the floor I asked him how life was treating him.

Ty Rosenke trains as coach Adam Diamond looks on. Adrian MacNair photo.

As safe or extreme as you want

Rock climbing has had an extreme sport label for decades. Those in the sport (some call it a “pasttime”) are fully aware of the first ascent of the epic 570 metre cliff face of the Stawamus Chief in Squamish in 1961 by Ed Cooper and Jim Baldwin.

People less familiar with climbing are at least aware of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay heroically surmounting the tallest mountain on the planet, Everest, in 1953.

But these days you’ll find fewer people on those windswept peaks and more clambering over rock holds affixed to walls in a gym. In fact, more and more children are getting into the sport at a young age.

So, is it still dangerous?

“I think it would still fall under the label of an extreme sport but where it’s different is it’s no longer on the fringe,” says Adam. “So, just like snowboarding, you can be extreme or not extreme. You can go in the backcountry or just ride on the lifts and do your average day at Whistler. And in climbing it’s the same sort of thing.”

A team for kids without the team sport

Jack Rosenke training on a steep incline. Adrian MacNair photo.

Just what precipitated this interest in rock climbing for kids? The answer can be found in the proliferation of climbing gyms throughout Canada, whch has given kids who aren’t in love with traditional team sports like soccer and hockey, an opportunity to learn how to climb from coaches like Adam.

“This sport has got everything,” he says. “The physicality, the outdoor adventure, travelling to amazing places. It’s got something for everybody.”

This access to relatively safe climbing and bouldering (ascending artificial climbing walls without ropes but without going high) has given rise to an entirely new generation of young, extremely strong kids.

Twenty years ago the World Cup of climbing scene would have been dominated by experienced climbers in their twenties and thirties. Today, adult champions can be as young as 16.

With more and more eyeballs on the YouTube channel for the International Federation for Sport Climbing (IFSC), even the Olympic committee took notice, allowing climbing to be entered as an official sport in the 2020 games in Tokyo, Japan.

Adam could be training the next group of Canadians eying that lofty goal.

Surrey gym building future competition climbers

Just as I was losing touch with Adam a decade ago, he became a coach at Cliffhanger in Coquitlam. He spent the ensuing years coaching kids to compete in “what I would characterize as one of the best teams in Canada.”

In summer of 2016 he left Coquitlam to build his own gym in Cloverdale with partner and former competition climber Brock Tilling. Now he’s building his own team here on Surrey soil.

Adam says coaching kids to climb is like coaching any other sport. It’s a slow, day-to-day progression, but ultimately one that can really pay off in competition climbing.

Jack Rosenke, 10, trains with his brother in Cloverdale. Adrian MacNair photo.

“Often as a coach I feel like the kids learn more from their peers than they do from me,” says Adam, smiling. “I probably provide that extra 15 percent to top it up.”

Although competition are a small subset of the overall interest in rock climbing, there is a very well developed curcuit for climbers and boulderers in British Columbia and Canada.

“The hardest part is the stress of watching them compete because there’s always going to be successes and there’s always going to be… not successes.”

Although Canadians do not traditionally dominate on the global stage—that reputation goes to Japan and the Alpine European countries—North Vancouver’s Sean McColl, 30, has turned competition climbing into a career, winning five gold medals, 14 silver medals, and 14 bronze medals in a career spanning 10 years on the IFSC World Cup curcuit.

On December 16, 2017, three of Adam’s students represented Surrey by attending their first ever sanctioned competition in Project Climbing’s Abbotsford location.

“Surrey is just growing in leaps and bounds and these gyms appeal to a lot of people but you definitely need a population base to find people who are into it. Surrey, the way it’s growing with young families, it’s a vibrant city and it’s got a lot going for it.”

Coach Adam Diamond with Hallie Hamilton and Ty and Jack Rosenke. Adrian MacNair photo.

Project Climbing’s Youth Climbing Team is accepting registrations for their next camp (beginning Jan. 8) for ages nine and up. Kids can choose to train between one and three days a week for 12 weeks. Visit for more info.

Adrian MacNair
Adrian MacNair is a freelance photojournalist living in South Surrey. His work has appeared in the Surrey Now, National Post, and Globe and Mail.