Niagara Glen has been the first outdoor experience, or FA for many GTA climbers. We had a chat with Ali Al-Nakeeb, 28, the Portfolio Manager at Niagara Glen, who has been actively working on building positive relationships between climbers and the Niagara Parks Commission. We also discussed his approach towards new challenges.
How did your journey into climbing and route setting begin?
I began climbing in 2016 when my university housemate took me to Junction Climbing Center. He was an avid climber and wanted to show me a new sport, so I joined him once or twice a week. Unfortunately, he got injured and had to stop climbing.
At that time, I was a varsity athlete on the fencing team at Western University. By 2017 there were too many stressors on my fencing performance and it was eating up too much of my time, therefore I decided to take a break from the sport.
Being an active person, I was on the lookout for a new hobby. Climbing felt like a perfect fit—I found myself going to the gym three to five times a week, and I quickly fell in love with it.
In 2019, I began working at Up The Bloc in Mississauga. At the time, I was not involved in the setting world whatsoever, but had always fantasized about route setting, as most climbers do. It just so happened that one of the setters was quitting and the owner was looking to hire someone to fill that role. I applied thinking that I would mainly be washing holds, or stripping the wall but during my first shift, the head setter handed me a drill and asked me to set a boulder problem! From there I continued to learn to grow and improve as a setter.
How are you involved in climbing?
I have worked at four different climbing gyms so far, Junction Climbing Centre, Up The Bloc, True North Climbing, and currently at Boulderz Climbing Centre.
I also am sponsored by Flashed climbing, where I get to represent the brand and share my knowledge of its product across the community. We host athlete trips around Canada and the US, so I get to travel to different parts of North America and interact with the communities around there.
Another sponsorship I have is with Evolv, and through that I host shoe demos across the climbing gyms in the GTA. It is an extremely fun and valuable event where I get to help climbers find a perfect fitting shoe for them, and interact with all the different communities at each gym. I’ve made many friends from doing such events including you, Josefina and Nico.
Additionally, I'm affiliated as what they term 'friends with Arcteryx', it is a role that a step behind being an ambassador with the brand. But through this involvement I have hosted a few intro to bouldering events at few gyms in the GTA. It is always a great time getting to interact with the newer folks who are just getting into the sport and getting to share my knowledge and psych with them.
Finally, I am the Niagara Glen Portfolio Manager which involves advocating for Niagara Glen climbers & working to ensure the Niagara Glen is available for future generations of climbers to enjoy. Being a positive ambassador for sustainable climbing in the Niagara Glen. Collaborating with the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC) on access guidelines, events, clean ups, etc.
What would keep you from climbing? What would you do instead?
Climbing for me is equally a physical challenge and a mental challenge. Using only your muscle to get up the climb is never enough, solving the puzzle of a climb, whether it is figuring out the beta, adjusting the hand position, hip movement, etc all play a crucial part in keeping me mentally engaged. This gives me the thrill to want to become better and better.
I get inspired by movement and then wish to try it, I am attracted to beautiful lines that drive me to try and climb them, and as much as I love climbing with others and pushing my friends to send and give their all. I love that climbing is about you and the climb only, that is all that matters, you set your challenge and you decide what success is to you. This mindset, which I arrived at quickly into starting the sport is what has kept me motivated to continue climbing and improving.
If I never got into climbing I would have gotten back to training for fencing and trying to reach a highly competitive level, then one day go try climbing and get addicted to it and leave fencing.
What is the most challenging aspect of setting problems and/or routes for climbers of various skill levels?
The most challenging thing for me has been setting a climb that invokes a feeling. Instead of focusing on what I want the climbers to do, I’ve been considering instead: how can I elicit a specific feeling for the climber. Whether during the climb or after, exploring the emotional side instead of specific move pattern. Also trying to make things as fair as possible to all climbers in terms of reach and moving through a natural path that doesn't feel goofy or morphed.
How do you approach creating a balance between difficulty and accessibility (climbers with physical disabilities)?
I do not think about physical disability in setting and here is why; When I worked at true north there used to be a group of climber with physical and mental disability who came to the gym weekly through the Canadian Adaptive Climbing Society.
I noticed that they never shied from any challenge and as long as they could get on the wall they were happy to take on the challenge. They mostly did Top Roping, since it was safer for them, but there were climbers who chose to boulder as well. The climbs seemed to challenge them differently from folks without their disability but it was not inaccessible nor unclimbable, they had to find creative ways to send the climb.
Since then, my approach has been to create climbs that are fair; an accessible starting position, moves that are within reach of most folks, and a balanced amount of risk, intensity, and complexity.
Boulderz Climbing Centre is hosting a friendly paraclimbing competition in the next month. So I will be learning around that area a lot soon.
When you forerun or watch someone else climb your problems or routes, what do you look for?
I look for what seemed most intuitive for the climber, what direction and sequence did they choose, the amount of effort put into the climb, emotional feedback post climb, how they react after coming off the climb and what do they say to their friends or their facial expression.
What are your thoughts regarding indoor bouldering grades? Circuits vs V-grades? What are the pros and cons?
I am not a fan of indoor V-grades, it is all mostly subjective and up to too many factors. I prefer a circuit for an indoor climbing gym because it creates a better range of challenges.
Grades are mostly a guideline to the level of challenge a climb presents. However, with the vast amount of styles in climbing, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of challenge a climb presents, especially since people have different strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, we find ourselves arguing consistently about the grades of climbs and whether a certain climb should be graded one way or another.
The advantage to a circuit is that it involves more than one grade, thus if one climb targets the weakness of one climber and strength of another, they both can agree that is is in the circuit but potentially different grade.
How do you feel about "Route Setting Clinics"? Would this experience enable members climbers to provide a more objective criticism instead of "too soft" or "sandbag"?
A route setting clinic would be phenomenal! I can’t understand why, in Ontario, such a thing does not exist. We do have The B.I.G initiative that gives amazing opportunities for women, trans, non-binary or gender fluid folks to get into setting. However, that is only one entity that does that scarcely throughout the year.
I know of one gym that did a setting clinic prior to the pandemic, and one of the participants told me that they had a greater appreciation for the effort and work that goes into setting, and how challenging it is to create a climb that is spot on the grade.
Such a clinic would expose the participants to how brutal the climbers can be in terms of: attacking the climb’s grade, breaking the beta, calling climbs stupid or not fun, and shitting on the setters for not doing a good job. All negatives aside…That is only a small portion of the job.
The majority of the time, climbers are wonderful and thankful for what we provide. It is one of the best feelings when climbers post about your climb on social media!
ON YOUR ROAD TO V12
Can you share a memorable experience or challenge you faced while working on this grade, and what strategies or mindset helped you overcome it?
I have yet to send a V12! However, an experience that was vividly memorable was in June of this year (2023) when I was in Squamish. I started trying "Room Service", a stunning and sought-after line located in "The Room", where "Dream Catcher" and "Singularity", a couple of the most well known climbs in the world, are situated.
I decided to see where I stand against my goal. To my great surprise, in my first session, I was able to do all the moves individually and do the climb in two overlapping sections. I thought that was going to be the end of RoadToV12 and moving onto the next chapter. But that was not the case, the two sessions on it I came extremely close to sending but could’t latch the last hard move from the start. This puts me in a great mindset because I learned that I am capable of climbing this grade and I am ready to work hard to achieve my goal.
How do you choose your projects? What makes them “the one”?
I stopped picking projects; instead I tend to try and climb whatever I can. If there's a climb that at first I can’t send, then I go back and put some more effort into it, analyze why I am falling, what do I need to get better at to send it, work on the those areas, go back and hopefully manage to get the climb.
What makes a climb “the one” for me is its level of challenge and the beauty of its movement. I LOVE a good challenge and climb that proves me weak, inspiring me to keep working until that weakness become strengths. The movement on a climb is also a great factor of attraction for me. I don’t really care about the aesthetic of a boulder, its the flow, subtleties, and finesse what drive me to pick “the one”.
What would you recommend to someone working on their first outdoor project? What should they have in consideration?
The best advice I can offer is to not try it all the time. This might seem counterintuitive; however, after investing a certain amount of time and effort, you might begin to regress and perform worse on the project. At that point, it's beneficial to take a break from it and go climb other stuff, build a solid foundation to similar grades and boost your confidence by getting some climbs under your belt. At the same time, you can analyze where and why you are falling, apply specific training techniques to address those areas and go back later to the project to see where you stand.
Is there a sustainable practice or initiative in place at Niagara Glen, and how does it contribute to preserving the climbing area for future generations?
Not entirely sure…Apart from my role as the portfolio manager, there doesn’t seem to be much going on with the Glen, at least from what I gather from fellow climbers. I think the forestry team conducts occasional research on the species there.
The best thing we can do is to educate ourselves and others about the ethics of outdoor climbing —and not solely limited to climbing but ethical practices in general. From the simplest idea of not leaving trash behind, being respectful to one another and to the environment, and more.
Achieving this seems challenging; perhaps we lack the time or maybe we want to but we don’t have the proper resources to do so.
How should someone prepare themselves for their first time climbing outdoors or going to Niagara Glen?
Ask loads of questions! Ask people who go outdoors and know about it or your local gym staff, they will lead you to the right people. Ask on social media for advice and who can help out. ASK, ASK, ASK!
While there's a ton of information online about outdoor rock climbing, it may be somewhat relevant to the Glen. However, nothing compares to insights from someone who frequents the area, understands it well and is familiar with its ethics.
How is Niagara Glen different from other bouldering areas (name a few if you want)? Are there any area-specific guidelines?
The Glen seems to be different from other areas in mainly one way, at least compared to other bouldering areas that I have been to, it is mainly run by non climbers. most of the work that goes into the glen is done by the nature reserve, the cleaning of the area is done by them, putting up signs and maintaining paths is through them as well, and much more. In Squamish for example the work is mostly done by climbers and volunteers who keep the area clean and well established.
It is quite nice that the nature reserved puts in most of the work for us, but it takes away some of the accountability from the climbers to keep the place in proper shape and to abide by the rules.
Another guideline at the glen that is not as common as other bouldering areas is the no top out rule, that one is pretty controversial, that main reason behind why it is not allowed is because some of the boulders have an endangered species growing on top of it, the nature reserve wishes to keep those species alive and prosper through.
Is there a plan to hold an "Intro To Outdoor Bouldering" soon? Would this be beneficial to those with outdoor experience as well?
There is an intro to outdoor bouldering event coming up !!!! it will be for folks of any climbing level, but mainly catered to those who have little to no experience outdoors.
The workshop will speak and point out the etiquette of being a climber outdoors and things to look out for while bouldering outside.
ONTARIO'S CLIMBING COMMUNITY
What does community mean to you?
I am not entirely sure, community means: people living in the same place or a feeling of fellowship with others because they share a common interest/goal.
We use the term very loosely and have our own definition and meaning behind it. So for me I guess it boils down to being INVOLVED with the group of people who share interests and goals.
I don’t really have the best way of explaining how I would say what it means to me, as a fencing coach I want everyone who comes to our classes to feel welcomed and accepted for who they are, I see our fencers as a part of the fencing community, then you have the fencers who get involved with more than just the fencing, they become friends with one another and us the coaches, so we have now created this sub category of fencers that we identify as the the clubs community, and that encompasses most of our fencers since they tend to feel accepted and welcomed in the club which encourages them to be more involved with us and one another.
This can then translate to the climbing community, if you are a climber then by definition you are part of the climbing community, do you go to a climbing gym and climb there? then you are part of the gym climbing community, if you are more involved with a group of climbers then you have another set of community there and so on and so forth.
Do you or your climbing friends reach out in other contexts that don’t involve climbing? Can you rely on them?
Yeah! Totally. I have established quite a great friendship with lots of my climbing friends over the years that we can rely on each other for anything. Some of my climbing friends joined my book club, some I go disc golfing with, some came to my wedding.
I know I can rely on them when i moved and they came to help, or when one of them was going through a break up and came to me for support.