Rock climbing brings a unique sense of accomplishment that you can’t replicate anywhere else. To stand at the bottom of a wall of rock, then pull, stretch, and contort yourself to overcome each individual challenge along the way, and finally look out from the top, knowing your own body and will carried you up that rock is an empowering and addicting feeling. And that’s all on top of the playground-like fun of rappelling your way back down!
Climbing is a wonderful way to connect with nature and spend time with friends. Moreover, contrary to many stereotypes, with the right training and preparation, it can be quite safe. If you’ve been wanting to try out this athletic way to connect with nature but aren’t sure how to go about getting started, read on to learn how to prepare your mind, gear collection, and body to become a climber.
Types of Climbing
Climbing is usually divided into four categories which require slightly different gear, skills, and expertise. After learning the difference between these, you can decide which you want to pursue.
Bouldering is characterized by climbing short, very technically challenging routes. The only gear required is shoes, chalk, and a “crash pad” – a small mattress-like pad onto which you direct your falls – there are no ropes in bouldering. Bouldering is all about making things hard and challenging yourself physically. You might only ever get a few feet off the ground, repeating the same “problem”, or single move, multiple times with a fall between each attempt. This is the least gear-intensive form of climbing but requires a high level of skill and strength.
Top roping means that someone walked up the back of the mountain that you’re climbing (it was probably accessible as a steep hike) or ‘led’ the climb with gear (more on this later), set up an anchor at the top, and now you can climb with a rope attached to you going up through the anchor and back down to the person who is belaying you. This means that, if you lose your grip, you’ll only fall a few inches, because the rope will just keep you hanging where you left off. This is where most rope climbers start as its the safest form of climbing and the risk of falling long distances is basically eliminated. Top roping is easily the most accessible form of climbing. As a climber, you only need a harness and shoes and as long as you have a skilled partner to belay and build the anchor, risk is minimal.
Sport climbing entails clipping the rope into fixed, permanent bolts as you climb. Not only are you climbing the wall, like top roping, but you also have to safely clip the rope into each new bolt in the wall, which are typically placed every 5 to 10 feet up the wall. The first person in your group ‘leads’ the climb, connecting the rope to the bolts with ‘quickdraws’. At the top, the lead climber can either build an anchor to allow the next climber to top-rope, or pull the rope and remove all gear so the following climber can also ‘lead’ the climb, clipping the rope into each bolt as they move up the wall just like the first climber.
Obviously, this requires much more skill and endurance than top roping, but is still fairly accessible for newer climbers as gear needs are still fairly minimal.
Trad (or Traditional) Climbing
As you can probably figure out from the name, trad climbing is the original style of climbing. No one’s placed permanent bolts in the wall to keep you safe. Instead, trad climbing involves placing various types of removable protection like spring-loaded cams, nuts or stoppers, hexes, and others in cracks in the rock. Because of this, trad climbers need an extensive gear collection and lots of experience to climb safely. Gear is expensive and new trad climbers typically have a mentor they follow for years before starting to lead trad climbs, so trad climbing remains the rarest form of climbing.
Where to Find Rock Climbing Instruction
Long gone are the days when adventurers saw their first mountain, tied some twine around their waists and started up a cliff face in their clunky farming boots. We in the twenty-first century benefit from generations of brave souls making costly discoveries about how to climb mountains, and climbing in its modern form is safe if proper safety precautions are taken.
Climbing is a hands-on, sensory activity and can only be learned safely through in-person instruction. Books or articles are great accessories to your learning, but would never be sufficient to allow you to master the nuances of safe climbing on your own. If you don’t have a trusted friend or family member to take you under their wing, look into one of these options for your introductory lessons.
Most indoor rock climbing gyms offer formal classes or at minimum, a required introduction to belaying and “tying in” your ropes.
There are many organizations that offer excellent rock climbing classes. Outdoors stores such as REI or a local state outdoors club such as Colorado Mountain Club will offer classes for varying levels of expertise and almost always include in-class learning and actual climbing.
If you’re lucky enough to know and trust a skilled climber and they’re willing, tag along on as many climbs as they’ll let you, and soak in their knowledge by asking questions at every turn.
Since your life will be – quite literally – in their hands, you’ll want to make sure they’re a safe, knowledgeable climber. If you’re looking for a quick way to determine whether this person is actually a responsible climber or just someone who learned the bare minimum and doesn’t take it seriously, pay attention to the following things:
- Before starting a climb, do they take time to check your knots, harness, helmet, and review gear and then ask you to check theirs every single time?
- Do they pay close attention to the commands “Belay?/Belay On” and “Climbing/Climb on”? I have seen climbers who start climbing without their belayer being ready, but no one seems bothered by it. Everyone needs to be 100% ready at the same time.
- Are they willing to climb or belay without a helmet? This can be a personal decision based on the difficulty or danger of the climb, but a helmet is always a good idea and people who say otherwise probably don’t have safety as their top priority.
Beginner Rock Climbing Gear
Climbing shoes are the very first piece of gear to invest in. You can borrow just about anything else from kind friends or even the gym, but a properly-fitting pair of shoes is essential and are obviously not one-size-fits-all. You might hear that climbing shoes need to be tight to work properly, or extremely aggressive with a downturned toe for maximum crushing.
We are here to say though, that your first shoe should be tight, but comfortable. If your shoes hurt too much to wear for a few hours at a time, they’re too tight! For your first foray into climbing, just get some shoes that are cheap and comfortable, no need for anything fancy.
If you have shoes and a harness, you can tag along with just about any group of climbers. Harnesses aren’t too expensive and there are many ‘general purpose’ versions out there that should work just fine. Like your shoes, you don’t need a super fancy, expensive harness on the outset. Just make sure it fits properly, as you don’t want to go slipping out of it when you fall. The climbing specialists at your outdoors store will be able to fit you properly for a climbing harness.
One should never climb (nor belay!) without a helmet, so bring one in case your group is short. Climbing-specific helmets are comfortable, cool, and lightweight, but in a pinch even just a skateboarding helmet is better than nothing. (And trust me, my first climbing helmet was just that!)
Once you’ve got all the other gear on this list, a rappel device will likely be your next purchase.
A rappel device connects your harness to the rope when rappelling or belaying. You also hear the term ‘belay device’ thrown around as well. For most climbing, these are the same piece of equipment. It’s a combined rappel-belay device that lets you easily switch between the two activities.
A rapel device + harness + shoes + helmet makes you the perfect climbing partner. If you climb with someone with their own “rack” of gear, they’ll have everything else the two of you will need and can share, but most climbers don’t have double sets of harnesses, helmets, and shoes – especially in your size.
How to Train for Rock Climbing
Rock climbing is a beautiful blend of highly focused mental and physical technique. It’s one of those activities where the more you invest, the more you’ll get out of it. Because of this, it can be a bit frustrating when starting out – climbing is hard! Just stick to it. There’s nothing sweeter than topping out, completely exhausted, on the top of the mountain, looking down at your tiny little car far below.
Study up! Read about climbing technique and strategies by checking out books from the library and reading lots of articles. At first, whole chapters about keeping your hips close to the wall or inverting your right knee ever so slightly will seem like serious overkill. However, as you climb more, you’ll find that these minute changes enable huge progress in your skills.
The importance of technique (mostly a mental challenge) cannot be overstated. However, the more advanced the climb, the more a strong body helps things along.
Pull ups are a climbers best friend. Do regular ones, flexed arm hangs, ones with your legs extended in front of you, or any other variation that you can research. Any other arm exercise where you are pulling or keeping muscles tensed (like you’d use while clinging to the wall) are great. Skip pushups – that is for pushing muscles, which are not as useful for climbing.
In climbing, you use your arms to hold you close to the wall, but your legs to push you up. As such, strong legs are arguably more important than strong arms for climbing. Do squats, lunges, star jumps, and go running to build up those quads and calves.
Sport and trad climbing is a sport of endurance, so the stronger your whole body is, the more time you’ll have to figure out problems on the wall. Do planks, crunches, or look up lists of core workouts to increase your climbing stamina.
At the end of the day, lots of time on workout machines and reading can only take you so far. The absolute best way to learn and train for climbing…is by climbing! Go climb, have fun, and the technique and strength will certainly follow!
Indoor gym memberships make quick progress possible by allowing you to climb several times a week. Unless you live next to a crag, getting to the mountains, hiking to your climbing spot, setting up gear, and then doing it all again reverse means you won’t be doing it on a daily basis and progress will be slower.
How to Find Climbs
Once you have confidence in your skills, a good partner or group to climb with, and the minimum necessary gear, you can start researching exciting climbs. Mountain Project is an online database of virtually all the climbs in the world, compiled and updated by climbers themselves. Information can be incomplete, but overall, it’s an incredible resource to allow you to explore almost every climbing area in the world. It’s a good source of motivation – you’ll find climbs around the globe that are absolutely awesome, and if you can’t do them now, they will serve as goals to work towards.
If you know you’ll be climbing a lot in a specific area, it is well worth the money to buy a guidebook for it. This will have clear, reliable information and usually contain photos which will save you time and frustration.
Be sure to read information about the climb carefully – many climbs entail a legit hike to even get to the base. Find out what direction the climb faces (for example, south-facing is baking in summer, pleasant in winter), or read notes about whether this climb gets really busy so you know if you need to plan to go very early.
A Good Climbing Up Point
No jumping off here, just climbing mountains and reaching your goals! There is so much to learn about climbing that this guide only hopes to serve as a place to get started. After you find a place for climbing lessons, collect your beginner’s gear, and start working out, you’ll begin to learn more in-depth skills which will eventually enable you to consider climbing outside without someone very experienced as your guide. Get ready for moments of thrilling excitement and accomplishment as you begin your rock climbing journey. Happy climbing!