Monday, 1 August 2011

AZ on the rocks - Saturday 16th April 2011

I'm sitting on a Boeing 777 on an overnight flight from Phoenix to Heathrow trying to write a review of a Scottsdale climbing centre or as our former colonial brethren like to style them "a rock gym" while everyone around me (with the exception of my eight year old son who is cramming in Tron Legacy again) tries to sleep. I can't sleep on planes, as someone once said, "I don't do turbulence", and so excuse me if on occasion this reads a little panicky.

I came away from the climbing centre and immediately sent a tweet to Gareth offering to review it and massage my pretentions as a sometime writer, he, being the top chap he is accepted. So here I am 37000 feet above the Canadian wilderness struggling to organise my thoughts, which is why, you, the reader has had to put up with the last two paragraphs of blah. If you're still reading at this point, I'm impressed.

I had two definite activities in mind that I wished to incorporate into our family holiday to Phoenix along with all the museums, mock gunfights and a baseball game, they were
1.    Purchase new rock shoes while taking advantage of a reasonable exchange rate
2.    Drag my family and our hosts, my sister-in-law and her husband along for a session at the wall; they would be given no choice <cue evil laughter>.

My researches revealed a variety of possible walls in the greater Phoenix area, however when one is described as "Arizona's Biggest" and as having "14000 square feet of climbing" it's got to be the one you go for. And so it came to pass that last Saturday morning, nursing a not inconsiderable tequila hangover, I found myself at AZ on the Rocks in Scottsdale trying to read three pages of waivers, "you wills" and "you will nots" and "if you die at our centre, your heirs may not sue us" which seemed to be the American equivalent of the BMC statement of risk. Having parted with $52 for a family pass, pretty good I thought for three adults and two kids to climb all day and including any kit hire, we were ushered into a side room and shown the 15 minute unintentionally funny induction video, this was followed up by a member of staff supervising your first belay. As a non-climber my wife found both the video and supervised session useful. I found it amusing that the young lady who gave us our induction said "if you already know how to belay then I'm not gonna tell you how to to do it differently" before proceeding to tell me I couldn't use my belay plate and had to use a gri-gri. I'm not sure how effective her supervision was either as when it came time for me to climb in order to allow another member of our party to belay, I reached the top of the route and looked down to discover at least eight feet of slack in the rope, now don't get me wrong I'm not one for having a top rope that you could play pizzicato on but a big loop ain't nice either. I did find it reassuring later in the session however when I witnessed floorwalkers actively engaging with belayers and intervening when they saw dangerous practice.

The centre was enormous with hundreds of routes ranging from 5.3 to 5.14 YDS, this range of routes seemed to have something for everyone, it gave my kids a chance to come away with a real sense of having achieved something by getting to the top and me a chance to push myself. The majority of the routes were given over to top rope each equipped with a gri-gri already on the rope and half a figure of eight knot tied into the other end; I wonder how often these are swapped over? There are four auto-belays spread around the centre; there was also a large menacing looking overhanging lead section and a vast bouldering area. Had the fancy taken me I could also have used a large gym with free weights and cardio machines. Also set up was a slack line on which I successfully made a fool of myself. If anyone could tell me how to stop one of those things wobbling under my weight I'd be most grateful.

The walls themselves were essentially featureless except for the holds and the odd crack. The holds were in most cases uniformly shiny and, if like me you are a weakling, difficult to maintain a grip on, although I did impress myself with a few small edges. Each section of the wall also has an accompanying daisy chain anchor into which the centre rules state you are required to clip when belaying. I have to say I found this quite restrictive, as a belayer I move around quite a lot making sure that the climber is not being impeded by the rope, the daisy chain made this impossible and I admit to having "forgotten" to clip in to the anchor on a number of occasions during my visit.

Unlike most walls I've visited in the UK where routes are set in a single colour of hold, those at AZ on the rocks are set using any colour hold and then the individual routes are shown with an inverted "V" of coloured tape under the hold and some holds are part of three or four routes, fine as you climb up to the hold but a problem when you're above the hold, can't see the tape, are wondering where the heck you can place your foot without going off route and how much longer you can hang on! You may be thinking that surely you can remember which hold you just used for your hands but I'm convinced they change shape and colour when you're not looking.

I was unable to try out the lead walls at the centre due to not having taken my own rope and bouldering is not my bag so I am not placed to comment on those facilities however they looked to be on a par with those at Craggy Island.

I'm just going to pause the review for a moment to tell you that we've just hit the turbulence I was telling you about earlier and it's deeply nasty, everyone seems to be coping admirably except me and a lady across the aisle who has just taken a bible from her bag. Awesome.

Despite some negatives AZ on the Rocks is a good centre, the staff were friendly and the atmosphere was good. The facility was very family friendly and the induction would have a complete beginner climbing in half an hour. There are lockers, although you need to provide your own padlock, and showers, there was even a big bottle of hand cream in the gents to soothe your battered digits (climbing centre’s of Britain take note!). The family pass we got allowed us to climb all day and we were able to leave, have lunch, and then come back and continue climbing. The hire kit all seemed to be clean and well maintained, even the shoes didn't seem too skanky and chalk was available. There was an onsite Tufa gear shop that, although small, appeared well stocked. As I've said above there was a good range of routes from easy - less than vertical - to downright outrageous roofs, and those in our merry little band who had never climbed before thoroughly enjoyed themselves, at least that’s what they're telling me. I may even get them climbing more often. On the downside, I did not enjoy being made to use a gri-gri, I'd never used one before and didn't like it, but that, I believe, is a discussion best left to the darker recesses of certain online climbing forums (yes, that one). Another problem may be the location, even if you're staying in the Phoenix area you are going to need a car to get to AZ on the Rocks as it's quite far out, tucked away in the corner of a business park.

All in all I enjoyed climbing at AZ on the Rocks and would recommend it, if for some reason you find yourself in Phoenix and crave a climb.

Oh, and the turbulence has stopped, for the moment....

AZ On the Rocks

Colin Watson

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