IntroductionThe sport of rock climbing encompasses an array different styles. For the beginner it is sometimes difficult to know where to start or what to study. This article provides a simple map through the learning process.
The strategy I suggest in this article is only one of many ways to learn to rock climb. This is a generic approach I have compiled from teaching friends and guiding. Safety is the primary focus of method and there is very little risk for beginning rock climbers if the proper procedures are followed.
If any terms or concepts are unfamiliar - don't worry - it will all make sense in time. Everything seems daunting and unforgiving in the beginning, rest assured that your outlook will change as you learn more. The modern system of rock climbing is well-engineered and with proper technique the risks are minimal. However, it requires time, focus, and respect to learn how to rock climb properly.
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Why?There are few activities as gripping, beautiful, and fulfilling as rock climbing. Rock climbing provides access to some of nature's most spectacular sights.
Afraid of heights? Risk-averse? Join the club, so are most climbers! We only see the world's elite climbers on TV but rock climbers come from all walks of life and fitness levels. Don't be fooled by rock climbing's "extreme sport" designation. Rock climbing is actually very safe, especially for beginners (as long as proper care is taken) and it is not always hard or physically demanding. Rock climbers are normal people like you and me.
Rock climbing is fun and anyone can do it!
What do I need to buy?Listed in order of importance: from most important to least
- Rock Shoes
- Rock shoes are essential and hard to borrow. If nothing else, buy rock shoes. You can do a ton with just these sticky rubber slippers. Fit is the most important factor when choosing shoes. The final, broken-in product should fit snugly, be relatively comfortable, and feel like an natural extension of your foot. Some shoes stretch, some don't, so ask for help and be ready for the initial fit to be slightly uncomfortable.
Retail: $60 - $130
Clearance & Used: $15 - 70
- Want to really get off the ground? You'll need a harness. Almost any modern harness will work, but features like padding, speed-locks, and a haul loop are nice. Mandatory features: Belay loop and Gear loops. easy to borrow
Retail: $35 - $100
Clearance: $20 - $70
- don't buy used
- Belay Device & Locking Carabiner
- A belay device is used to secure the rope your partner is climbing on. It is also used to rappel. It is one of the safety essentials that is used anytime a rope is involved. Get an "ATC style" belay device (do not get a "figure 8"). The carabiner should be an "HMS" style with an easy locking mechanism, get a nice, big, thick one. easy to borrow
Retail: $18 - $30
Clearance: $12 - $20
- don't buy used
- Retail: $10 - $20
Clearance: $5 - $12
- don't buy used
- Chalk Bag
- Chalk keeps your hands dry. They are not essential but every climber has one - there's a reason for that. I suggest buying one with your first set of shoes... easy to borrow
Retail: $10 - $25
Clearance & Used: $5 - $15
That's the basic kit, making rock climbing a relatively inexpensive sport to start learning. Most rock climbing gear also lasts a long time.
What do I need to study?Before you even touch a stone you can be learn valuable skills. Buy a copy of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills which is the bible of climbing, and/or How to Rock Climb or other suitable rock specific text.
Learn your knots. Learning knots takes practice over a span of time - practice at home to avoid wasting valuable time outside. You'll specifically want to learn the figure 8 knot + rethread. Always have an experienced partner check your knots. The most important is knowing when you have tied a knot incorrectly.
When you study visualize what the authors are teaching. Read > digest > read again > practice > sync with reality > read again. Know the theory behind what you are doing, know why option A is better than option B. The more you study the more you'll remember what to do when it really counts.
- Climbing Technique
- Belay Technique
- Rappelling Technique
- Dangers of Climbing
- Mental Focus
Can I start climbing now?Yes!
You're ready for two types of climbing: Bouldering & Top-Roping
Bouldering: Bouldering simply means monkeying around at a comfortable distance from the ground without a rope. Despite its apparent safety bouldering can be dangerous. Watch your landings and stay within your ability level and you will safely build strength and technique. Only shoes, and maybe a chalk bag, are necessary for bouldering, but "crash pads" are a great idea. Always have someone spot you while you are bouldering.
Top-Roping: Want to get high? Top-roping means that a rope runs down to you from the top of the climb. The belayer keeps the line tight, making falls benign and usually just a few inches (the stretch of the rope). When set up correctly top-roping is extremely safe and the best way to begin enjoying the vertical environment and heights.
Climbing upwards on top-rope is the easy part, it's being lowered that makes people freak out. Fully committing your safety to a skinny rope is unfamiliar and difficult at first. Trust your partners! You're totally safe! Just lean back and walk down the wall... repeat after me "just lean back and walk down the wall" ad infinitum.
Where do I start?Many climbers start at an indoor gym. Here you can top-rope and boulder in a safe environment with professional supervision. Gyms teach basic climbing skills and offer courses on belaying. Gyms are great for building muscle strength, technique, and meeting partners.
Sooner or later you'll want to go outside, or you may start there to begin with. Outdoor climbing is more rewarding but there are less safeguards and increased hazards. It is absolutely essential that you have an experienced climber supervise everything. Ask questions, admit your ignorance, and observe the details. Your partners are a wonderful source of knowledge, sponge up as much as you can and enjoy true climbing!
How do I chip in?As a new climber you are very reliant on your more experienced elders. As you gain skills, less supervision will be needed and you will start contributing more. Most climbers are more than willing to babysit a little, but not indefinitely. If you want to always be invited out you must learn the golden skill...
Belaying will really kickstart your climbing career. Learn top-rope belaying first. One hand ALWAYS stays on the "brake". Belaying is very easy but mistakes can be catastrophic. Feed ~1,000 meters through your belay device, catch 20 falls, and lower 30 or so times and you should be a pro. That could take 2 days, or 2 years, it depends on you... SO GET OUT THERE!
Lead Belaying is a different skill. Each leader has different preferences about how much slack they want, when to give it, and when to cinch up. Learning the process can be made simple by following these steps:
- Be honest, "I have never done this."
- The leader climbs something easy that they won't fall on
- The leader gives feedback about your ropework
- Repeat Repeat Repeat
- Repeat the process with a different leader to learn a new style
With these skills better climbers don't have to sacrifice their ambitions to climb with you, and you get to climb harder and more exciting routes. Try following some crack climbs ("trad climbing" - where protection is removable) to experience something totally different. You will feel better when you are adding something to the pot, belaying is what gets you there.
How do I get down?What goes up must come down. If you've lowered others and been lowered yourself... you actually know how to rappel already. You can learn at any stage of the game, and it opens many doors even if it's all you know. I generally teach it after belaying because it is natural and familiar by then. Same old story: super-easy, but if it goes wrong... it goes way wrong.
To learn safely: Ingredients: 1 experienced partner, 1 trustworthy friend, You
- Experienced partner sets up and checks the anchor
- Experienced partner makes sure you're hooked up correctly
- Trusworthy friend stays at the bottom holding both strands of rope
- If you screw up trusworthy friend at the bottom pulls both strands of rope and you stop immediately
This is the safest method of learning to rappel. The anchor and rigging are proper and safe and the "Fireman's Belay" from your friend assures a gentle touch-down even if you blow it.
If you know how to belay and rappel you can take down ropes and climb multi-pitch routes. You've got a future in this!
Where do I go from here?With these skills you really are not a newbie anymore. You have some experience, have established some partnerships, and probably increased your comfort level in the vertical-world dramatically.
Many people stay in this zone for a long time, some forever. If you want to go to the next level, you'll want to start leading. Leading is a different game and requires more technique and knowledge. It introduces a new element of danger and is as much a head game as it is a battle of strength or technique. "Sport" climbing offers the safety of strong pre-placed bolts, so most start there.
Leading traditional climbing ("trad" climbing) is a more advanced skill, if only because there are more variables at play. If your goal is to do more difficult alpine routes, then you'll want to heavily invest yourself in learning to trad climb.
Practice, practice, practice...
ConclusionRock climbing can be easy and fun, but it demands respect at all times. Be careful and take it seriously. Follow the plan, pay attention, be redundant about safety and you should have a long fruitful career.
Let's summarize the steps;
- Acquire the Gear
- Learn the Knots
- Learn Technique
- Learn to Belay
- Learn to Rappel
- Learn Anchors
- Learn to Lead Sport
- Learn to Lead Trad
Respect your partners. They are at once teachers, guardian angels, critics, and friends. You'll find they are strong but also vulnerable. True partners share trust, friendship, and survival instinct. Climbing can be the source of many strong and lasting friendships.
Finally, I apologize. Rock Climbing is an emotional rollercoaster and for many it becomes a lifestyle. The vertical world brings out feelings we'd never expect, some good, some bad. If it really gets into you, you'll never be the same. So in the odd chance you look back, see that I played a small part in the beginning of your climbing career, don't curse me, I warned you!
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