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How to Get Into Rock Climbing and Where to Start

04.19.18

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How to Get Into Rock Climbing and Where to Start

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Pro Contributor

From the granite domes of the Appalachians to the skyscraping peaks of the Rocky Mountains, from the redrock canyons of Southwest deserts to the sheer-walled fortresses of the High Sierras, rock formations across the continent stand tall and proud, daring all comers to climb them.

You've seen the climbers: scaling the cliffs of Smith Rock, through binoculars on the face of "El Cap" in Yosemite, carrying big pads through Hidden Valley Campground at Joshua Tree, gearing up at the base of Devils Tower, from the trails at Garden of the Gods in Colorado, out the window of a shuttle bus in Zion National Park, or on television talking calmly about death-defying feats.

Rock climbing is indeed an intimidating and sometimes dangerous pursuit, but it's a greatly rewarding form of exercise and adventure that can be done safely. If you've always wanted to get into rock climbing but have been nervous about safety or just unsure where to start, don't let that stop you anymore.

Rock Climbing is a sport that does have certain barriers to entry, but they can be overcome with a little time and determination. Scaling sheer cliffs is not a natural human tendency, and climbing involves a certain amount of technical knowledge that must be taught. The learning curve is rather, well, steep! It helps to learn with others and in a controlled environment, but luckily there are plenty of people out there who also want to climb, and teach you to climb too.

Here are the steps you should take to get into rock climbing, regardless of previous experience and fitness level. At the bottom is a list of key terminology that you can reference if a word is unfamiliar, as well as an overview of the types of climbing you can aspire to.

Begin Indoors

You might not like to hear this if you're really itching for adventure, but a climbing gym is really the best place to start. You should certainly take any chance to get on real rock with experienced friends or a guided trip, but the strength and techniques needed to excel are easier to build inside than out on the fly.

Gyms create routes of styles and difficulties in greater variety and concentration than most natural destinations can offer, so you'll see faster improvement for your time input when training at a gym. Plus, gyms are simply easier to access than real rock for most people. Nearly every major city has climbing gyms.

Even in a gym, the first steps into climbing may seem overwhelming. You'll find walls covered in plastic holds and colored tape, different areas of the gym for different purposes, and likely very strong climbers who unintentionally intimidate. Don't be shy about telling the staff you are new to climbing. They should be happy to give you a quick tour and rundown of how to use the facility.

Some gyms supply belayers or auto-belay devices that allow climbers with no experience to climb on ropes, but most do not. Either way, the best place to start is with bouldering. This is where you climb only a short distance off the ground and land on pads when you fall.

Start in the gym's bouldering area and simply observe how other climbers move and what routes they do. Take your turn to try easy climbs, get comfortable on the wall, and practice falling. Just have fun with it, and strength will come naturally in time if you come back regularly.

Seek Instruction

It's totally fine to watch others and learn on your own, especially when you first start out, but you'll reach a point where proper instruction will help you make leaps toward getting really good. This is especially true of roped climbing, where you need to learn the technical skills of knot tying and belaying.

Any gym that offers roped climbing will also offer clinics to learn the ropes. Most gyms also offer clinics for strength training, techniques, etc. You should take as many classes as time and money allow in order to become well rounded and confident in climbing.

Make Friends

If you don't already know people who are into rock climbing, starting at a gym is especially important because that's where you'll meet others who climb, and climbing is best with friends. By taking classes and simply talking to others while you climb, you are likely to meet climbing partners. The best training comes simply from working routes with others and having fun.

Eventually you'll find people with the equipment and experience to climb outside and who will let you tag along. The more skills you can get in the gym and equipment you can acquire for yourself ahead of time the better, but if the outdoors are calling you, take the opportunitiy to climb real rock with a competent crew.

Gear Up

Climbing gear is expensive. Most people getting into rock climbing don't go out and buy all the gear all at once. If you can afford it and actually know what you need, great, but you don't have to. Your first purchases should be a chalk bag, harness, shoes, and a belay device. Climbing regularly and taking clinics at the gym will help you learn what kinds to get so you can buy them when you're ready.

These few pieces of gear are the essentials you'll need to climb in a gym without renting equipment each time, and also for climbing outside with other people who own their own gear. Anyone who climbs outside a lot should have a rope and other hardware that can be shared (and knowledge to use it), but you should at least provide the aforementioned personal gear for yourself.

Get Outside

Once you've built strength and technique, learned the skills to climb safely, acquired some gear, and met people to climb with, it's time to get outside. This is a major step beyond the gym, however. Unless you are on a guided trip, climbing outside means you rely entirely on your own skill, equipment, and judgment. Rock climbing can be dangerous, and you don't want your first experiences outside to be bad ones. If you aren't completely sure that your group is competent, consider starting out with a guide instead.

If you climb outside with friends who own equipment, remember that they are doing you a favor by supplying gear and expertise. They are probably more than happy to take you out, but you should try to be a team player as much as possible. Belay other climbers often if you know how, carry a fair share of gear in your pack, and maybe offer to pay for the group's gas or food for the day. As you continue climbing and improving (and saving money), you can gradually acquire gear like ropes and hardware of your own to contribute.

Get Better

Becoming an "outdoor climber" is no reason to stop visiting the gym. No matter how much you climb, there is always opportunity to continually improve, and climbing regularly is the only way to maintain your hard-earned fitness. Advanced clinics, other climbers, and information in books or online will help you learn new skills, techniques, and workouts to advance even further.

Then there is the entire world of natural rock to explore. When you get the proper experience, equipment, and solid climbing partners, you'll want to hit the road and explore new climbing destinations. Check out the featured adventures below for ideas on where to go.

Most importantly, no matter what you climb, remember that rock climbing is supposed to be fun and ideally safe. Know your limits and don't push it too far.

Terminology

This is far from an exhaustive list of the lingo you'll hear climbers use, but these few key terms will help you translate the very basics.

  • Belaying: Using a piece of gear (called a belay device, of which there are various kinds), to control the amount of rope going to a climber and to arrest a fall. The person belaying is called the belayer.
  • Route: Common term for a particular path to climb, either on a natural rock face or gym wall.
  • Boulder Problem: Instead of "route," the word "problem" is often used when referring to bouldering rather than roped climbing.
  • Pitch: A segment of a rock climbing route for which one rope length is used. Most outdoor rock climbs are one pitch.
  • Multi-pitch: A route of more than one pitch, which requires resetting the rope progressively higher up the wall as climbers ascend.
  • Anchor: A point (or set of points) where gear is secured to fasten the rope and hold a fall.
  • Crag: An outdoor rock climbing destination, typically one that consists of many different single-pitch climbs.

Types of Rock Climbing

  • Bouldering: Climbing relatively low to the ground with only pads instead of ropes or other gear for protection. This is the most beginner-friendly type of climbing because it does not require technical rope skills, but the physical movements of "boulder problems" can be some of the toughest in the sport.
  • Top Roping: Climbing while tied into a rope anchored at the top of a route, and while on belay at all times. This is the most common setup at climbing gyms and for beginners who are climbing outdoors.
  • Lead Climbing: The climber is on belay, but he or she clips into protection while moving up the wall. Thus there are necessarily times when the nearest safety catch is below the climber's position, and a fall may be very far.
  • Sport Climbing: Lead climbing on routes where bolts are pre-drilled for protection. The climber clips the rope into bolts while climbing. Sport is the first type of lead climbing that most people learn.
  • Traditional (Trad) Climbing: Lead climbing on routes where protection is not pre-placed. Climbers use specialized gear that utilizes natural cracks and holes and holes in the rock for protection. When properly placed, the gear can safely catch a belayed fall, but it also can be easily removed when desired.
  • Aid Climbing: Instead of using only hands and feet, climbers also pull and stand on gear placed in the rock. This style is used on routes where hand and footholds are very small or very far apart. Aid climbing usually involves a variety of highly specialized gear and technique.
  • Alpine Climbing: Requires a mix of skills to conquer a variety of terrain and conditions that may include ice and snow as well as rock. Alpine routes are often long, exposed, and committing.
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