Great wall of Riga attracts sports climbers

  • 2001-06-07
  • Anna Pridanova
RIGA - The largest artificial climbing surface ever seen in Latvia was put into action last weekend. About 140 climbers from right across the Baltic region competed on the brand new wall at the Baltic Open Climbing Championship, fighting both gravity and unpredictable weather, on June 2 and 3.

Built especially for the occasion the wall is 12 meters high and 9 meters wide, with an overhang standing out about 6 meters. Built in just a few days by a team of four, with four part-time assistants, it was originally planned that the wall would be taken down again by June 5. But executives at the Mols shopping mall, on whose land the wall was raised, suggested it be left up for two consecutive months.

After a six-week race organizing the event, which was often accompanied by a lack of financial support from sponsors, constructing the wall was something of a change for Normunds Reinbergs, the event's chief organizer.

The day after the competition, taking his first hot dinner since the same day the previous week in a Mols fast food restaurant, Reinbergs said that extending the permit with Riga City Council and providing security at the wall at night are now the biggest headaches.

From the day the construction of the wall began, Reinbergs and three other builders spent full days and nights there. Short of money and having to rent the metal parts used in the wall, most of the savings fell on the personnel, who were not paid for their efforts. Eight people worked on the construction, and another 11 judged the competitions and did the paperwork.

The Latvian Mountaineer's Association was the only party to donate money ($235) for the event. This cash was everything the association allocated this year for climbing sports. But it made only a tiny dent in the 6,000 lats ($9.500) needed for the event.

Now the wall will be available for both experienced climbers and the general public for a couple of months. It's reserved for the public in the evenings, when experienced instructors will be able to assist those who find themselves turned on by extreme experiences. A small fee is charged for the thrill.

Altogether there are four stationary walls in Latvia, plus one movable wall owned by the Youth Climbing Center. The money that comes in from renting this portable wall out to sports events makes up most of the money needed to get the championship up and running.

The lack of information available in Latvia about this curious sport slows up the cash that could come in from willing participants. The only medium to provide information support is the Latvian-language extreme sports Web site Vertikale X (

"There is interest, but there is no money," Reinbergs said. "It's not that people don't want to climb. If there's a wall, it won't stand on its own for long. Many schools would love to have walls, but there is no money for us to build them," Reinbergs said.

Quotes for the cost to build an artificial wall ranges from 50 lats per square meter from a Polish company to over 300 lats from Western companies.

But with rock climbing swiftly developing in all three Baltic states, the championship is a great step forward for the climbing community in the drive to popularize the sport.

On both days of the event almost a hundred viewers - both fans and Mols shoppers - followed the competition's two most exciting events: speed climbing and difficulty climbing. Only rain stopped the action.

Speed climbing, which has athletes darting up the 12-meter wall in 20 seconds flat, attracted slightly less participants than difficulty climbing but raised more of a commotion from the audience.

Difficulty climbing attracts people who are drawn to a more strategic ascent. Climbers pull themselves up without a topped rope - a rope secured at the top of the wall - as in speed climbing. Instead, they "belay" the rope they are attached to through hooks they pass on the way to the top.

These hooks are usually at least one meter apart. If a foot accidentally slips, the climber will plummet only as far as the distance he or she is above the nearest belay point, plus as much below it. Thankfully, there were no terrible injuries over the weekend.

The winner in the male difficulty competition in the over-18 age group was 15-year-old Denis Ciganov of Latvia. He often competes with the adults. He said he likes difficulty climbing more, "because unlike speed climbing I have to think."

Climbers from Estonia and Lithuania featured only in the two older age groups. "We have difficulties getting children interested in Lithuania. There is no one to work with them," said Vaidas Barkevicius, director of the Mountain Sports Center in Vilnius.

"Younger climbers are usually the children of professional climbers and there aren't many of them."

The next sports climbing competition in the Baltics is planned for mid-July in Parnu, Estonia's number one coastal resort. A wall similar to the one just built in Riga stands on the beach.