There are few physical activities that compare to rock climbing. It offers a lot of fun, an adrenaline rush, and a more unique experience than what most people are used to from traditional workouts. And although it may look frightening at first, it’s absolutely safe and accessible for any person who is reasonably fit.
But before strapping yourself in to an intense rock climbing workout though, you should be prepared. This guide will give you a basic overview of rock climbing, what to expect and how to become an awesome climber.
- Benefits of Rock Climbing
- Types of Rock Climbing
- Climbing Route Ratings
- Essential Gear
- What to Expect Your First Time Climbing
If you’re still skeptical about starting rock climbing, there are a number of benefits that you will enjoy:
- Fun: Traditional cardio and weight lifting can get dull after a while. With rock climbing there is never a dull moment.
- Grip Strength: Hanging from and pulling yourself up by small rocks and objects will help you develop strong and muscular forearms, as well as a vice-like grip.
- Build Connections: Rock climbing gyms create a very supportive environment. When you find yourself struggling on a wall, you can guarantee others will start cheering you on.
- Conquers Fears: If being afraid of heights is something that has held you back, then there’s no better way than to tackle this fear then through rock climbing. It will allow you to slowly build up your tolerance for heights, easing your mind into getting over your fear.
Not all rock climbing is created equal. There are a number of ways to enjoy this activity. To start, you’ll probably want to stick with indoor climbing.
Indoor Rock Climbing
This is probably what you had in mind for learning the ropes of climbing. Think of a giant wall inside a sports club, climbing gym, or anywhere else it might fit. Some stores like Dicks’ Sporting Goods and REI even have climbing walls inside.
The indoor climbing walls consist of artificial holds, shaped like rocks that dot the height of the wall. Novice routes will have more rocks making it easier to climb. More advanced routes will have less rocks making the climber work much harder.
Climbers work with a staff member who will control their climb. Climbers are bolted in via a combination of ropes, locks and hooks (this will be discussed below). You shouldn’t be worried about falling— focus on the climb and have fun!
Indoor climbing gyms are advantageous for a number of reasons:
- It offers a controlled environment for novices to get the hang of things.
- Gyms are convenient. No need to drive out into nature to find a natural wall that can be climbed.
- You can rent gear, without having to shell out money before you’re ready.
Unless you’re going with an experienced rock climber, stick to indoor climbing in the beginning.
Outdoor Rock Climbing
Rock climbing on a natural surface is quite a different experience from what you may experience at a climbing gym. Yet, with the challenge of outdoor climbing you’re rewarded with a huge adrenaline rush, great scenery and unforgettable experiences. There are a few different variations of outdoor climbing. You’ll have to experience all of them to find out what you really love most.
An interesting spin on outdoor rock climbing is bouldering. This is a form of a rock-climbing that consists of free climbing, while staying close to the ground (as you will be climbing without a rope). The point if this is not to traverse a mountain, rather you should only go as high as you could jump off comfortable without hurting yourself (there should be a pad to cushion your fall too). This is great for beginners looking to build grip strength and enjoy a bit of rock climbing without a ton of gear.
All routes are not created equal. That would make it too boring, as once somebody got good at climbing they would run out of challenges.
To distinguish the different challenges there is a standard rating that is used commonly at rock climbing facilities. The basis or this is the Yosemite Decimal Rating which consists of a 1-5 scale. 1 would be a flat, walking trail. 5 being a technical climb that is vertical and requires a rope to protect from falls.
The Class 5 is broken down to sub-categories. It will go from 1-15, 15 being the most intense. Most climbing gyms will avoid offering climbs that go to both extreme ends of the spectrum. That is, there won’t be many climbs that are below, say, a 5.3. These climbs are simply too easy, even for someone who may never have climbed before (assuming they’re in good physical shape). And climbs that are above a 5.12 are extremely difficult. You shouldn’t have to worry too much about ratings right now, as professionals will be able to help you out. However, it’s good to know the ratings for future reference.
If you’re just starting out with rock climbing, there’s not an urgency to go out and buy gear. When getting started, you should just rent equipment from the gym. But if you’re going to rock climb on a regular basis then gear is worth investing in as the costs of renting it will be too much over time.
If you do want to buy gear, there a few pieces that you’ll need to buy.
(As a reminder, you should always check your gear before climbing, whether it’s your own or rented.)
A harness is what’s going to keep you locked in and prevent a fall— it’s essential. You’ll likely have climbed a few times before grabbing your own harness, so it’s crucial to know how to harness yourself in properly for safety purposes.
Rock Climbing Shoes
Regular sneakers won’t do for rock climbing. You need rock climbing shoes that protect your feet and give you enough grip to keep your feet stable. While different climbing shoes depend on what kind of rock climbing you’re doing, most should carry over to the different types of climbing. When buying shoes, make sure they’re snug, but not tight enough that they cause pain.
The last thing you want is to get a severe head injury. So naturally, when climbing high off the ground you’ll want to wear a helmet. Additionally, when climbing outdoors rock debris can potentially fall off and hit you. A helmet prevents you from experiencing any such thing. Helmets, like shoes, should be snug but not too tight.
These are metal pieces that connect to the various pieces of climbing gear that you’ll wear on your climbs. You’ll need about a dozen for the majority of climbs.
They come in a few basic shapes, such as oval and a D-shape. Additionally, they come in different locking styles. When starting out stick with the most basic design. If you find that later on you’re being held back by the gear then go ahead and get some new carabiners.
There are a few other items to consider buying:
- Chalk: Climbers rely on chalk to allow them to increase their grip when hanging on to tough anchors. You’ll also need a pouch to carry your chalk as well. By doing this you can stick your hand into the pouch as you ascend the wall.
- Clothing: Don’t wear clothing that will restrict movement. At the same time, don’t wear baggy clothes that are going to get in the way of the rope.
Finding yourself suspended high in the air for the first time can be quite nerve-wracking. Even though you’re locked in tightly, and you have virtually zero chance of falling, your mind has a hard-time rationalizing all of this.
Here is a checklist for novices:
- Fear of Heights: If you don’t do great with heights, then you’re going to have to go above and beyond to make yourself relax. Take a deep breathe, enjoy the view (if outdoors) and focus on reaching the top. And remember, if you absolutely want to come down, just let the guide know.
- Know Your Strategy: Before your climbs, you’re going to want to observe the route you’re going to climb. Many novices don’t realize this, but coming up with a strategy before the climb especially for more difficult routes will give you a significant advantage. What ends up happening is that you find yourself stuck halfway up the wall with no place to go. Had you planned each move beforehand, you would have gotten rid of this uncertainty. At the very least, have your first series of hand and foot positions predetermined.
- Improve Quickly: If you’re looking to improve your climbing skills and have limited experience, there are a few routes you can take to accelerate your learning process. To start, ask local climbing gyms if they offer safety classes or courses offered to beginners. This will allow you to learn from the best instead of learning it on the fly.
- Get in Shape: Being in great shape definitely helps you climb better. In terms of physical strength, being able to pull yourself up with your arms and back will help you dominate walls faster. Additionally, having good endurance is important. A lot of people are shocked to find themselves sweating after a climb or two. If you’re planning on doing rock climbing on a regular basis, then you should consider hitting the gym 3-4 times a week. Train with weights to build strength, and do some cardio to build your endurance.
- How to Find a Rock Climbing Gym (Or Wall): Though you won’t find a rock climbing gym in every town, there are always some in major metropolitan areas. Search online for a local gym, or even a club that regularly takes trips. Additionally, visit a sporting goods store that offers rock climbing gear and ask them where they recommend going.
Take this advice to heart and you will have an unforgettable rock climbing experience!