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Learning to Rock Climb

Learning to Rock Climb

Learning to Rock Climb

Page Type: Article

Object Title: Learning to Rock Climb


Page By: Duseks

Created/Edited: Apr 18, 2007 / Feb 20, 2011

Object ID: 286278

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Page Score: 93.71%  - 44 Votes 

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A lot of people would like to learn how to Rock Climb but don't know where to start. This article will provide a simple road map through the learning process.

There are many ways to learn to climb stone. This is a generic approach I have compiled from teaching friends and guiding. It's methodical and direct and provides a safe path to self-sufficiency and competency in the vertical world.

If any terms or concepts are unfamiliar - don't worry - it will all make sense in time. In the beginning everything seems daunting and unforgiving, that is normal, rest assured that your outlook will change as you learn more. The modern system of Rock Climbing is exceedingly well thought through and very safe. However, it requires time, focus, and respect to learn how to rock climb properly.

See also Body Fuel: How to Eat for Performance


There are few activities as gripping, beautiful, and fulfilling as Rock Climbing. There is a limitless array of good reasons to start; enough to span people from all walks of life, fitness levels, and geographic locations.

Afraid of heights? Risk-averse? Join the club, so are most climbers! 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. Rock climbing 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. Even if you buy nothing else you can do a lot with just your sticky rubber shoes. The most important factor in choosing shoes is fit. 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. * see chalk bag.

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

These tools are an essential part of climbing safely and really open up what's possible. A belay device is also used to rappel, 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. Most climbers buy a chalk bag with their first set of shoes. They are not essential, but every real climber has one... easy to borrow

Retail: $10 - $25
Clearance & Used: $5 - $15

The entry level price to get into climbing is relatively inexpensive, whether buying just shoes or all the items listed above. Rock climbing gear also generally lasts a long time.

What do I need to study?

Before you even touch a stone you can be learning 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 lots of practice over a span of time - so 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.

Listen and 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 etc. The more you study the more you'll remember what to do when it really counts.

  • Knots
  • Climbing Technique
  • Belay Technique
  • Rappelling Technique
  • Dangers of Climbing
  • Mental Focus

Can I start climbing now?


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.

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 and performed correctly top-roping is extremely safe and a great 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 really 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.

Are you starting to see how much trust matters in climbing?

Where do I start?

Most 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 specific muscle strength and a perfect place to meet partners.

Sooner or later you'll want to go outside. Outdoor climbing is much more rewarding than indoor climbing, but there's 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're very reliant on your more experienced elders. As you gain skills, less supervision is needed and you'll start contributing more. Most climbers are more than willing to babysit a little, but probably not on a regular basis, so if you want to get out regularly 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 actually 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:
  1. Be honest, "I don't know how to do this."
  2. The leader leads something easy that they won't fall on
  3. Repeat Repeat Repeat
  4. Find someone else and Start Over
After 3 or 4 different leaders and 20 or 30 pitches you should be up to speed. Study ground anchors and advanced belay techniques. Ask your partners about unique belaying situations, escaping the belay, and signaling with a rope. Then hopefully you can catch some real lead falls and feel the adrenaline!

With these skills better climbers don't have to sacrifice their ambitions, and you get to climb more exciting and harder routes. Try following some crack climbs ("trad climbing" - where protection is removable). You'll feel better adding something to the pot.

Now you're ready to move on to the next step...

How do I get down?

What goes up must come down. If you've lowered others and been lowered yourself... you really already know how to rappel. You can learn at any stage of the game, and it opens many doors even if it's all you know, but I generally teach it after belaying, so it is natural and familiar. 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
  1. Experienced partner sets up and checks the anchor
  2. Experienced partner makes sure you're hooked up correctly
  3. Trusworthy friend stays at the bottom holding both strands of rope
  4. If you screw up trusworthy friend pulls both strands and you stop immediately

Using this method you can rest assure 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, then you'll want to start leading. Leading is a different game and requires a more rounded knowledge base. It introduces a new element of danger and fear 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 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...


Rock 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
  • Study
  • Learn Technique
  • Learn to Belay
  • Learn to Rappel
  • Study
-then- (the scope of the article really stops here)
  • 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 out they are strong but also vulnerable. True partners share trust, friendship, and survival instinct. Climbing can be the source of many strong and lasting bonds.

Finally, I apologize. Rock Climbing is an emotional rollercoaster and for many it becomes a lifestyle. The vertical brings us many feelings we'd never expect, some good, and 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!

Have fun!


See also Body Fuel: How to Eat for Performance


Gym Climbing


[ Post a Comment ]
Viewing: 1-17 of 17    

Nigel LewisNot always.

Nigel Lewis

Hasn't voted

"top-roping is mega-safe"

That depends on what youre running the top rope through. Any system is only as good as the weakest link in the chain, and if you run the top rope through a poorly constructed top anchor, it most surely is NOT mega safe.

Posted Apr 18, 2007 6:21 pm

lisaeconclusion should be introduction


Voted 10/10

"The truth is there's lots of ways to learn the art of rock climbing. This is one generic, but sure-fire, way to do so."

I think this statement should be included in your introduction. It seems to me that you are describing how you learned to climb or maybe things you wish you had done. But folks approach learning to climb in many different ways: ie, via gyms, from guides, from friends, and the approach you are describing is not the only one.
Posted Apr 18, 2007 8:02 pm

DuseksRe: conclusion should be introduction


Hasn't voted

Good idea,

Writing an article about all the ways to start climbing would leave people where they started... which is wondering where to start, so I chose to be more specific. I learned and refined this plan guiding. There's lot's of other ways though, nothing in the article ever says otherwise :)

Posted Apr 18, 2007 8:26 pm

lisaeRe: conclusion should be introduction


Voted 10/10

Scotty, I didn't disagree with you. Your article specifically mentioned there are lots of other ways to learn. I just think it would be more effective if you address that in the beginning, stating this is the way you learned or the the best way to go about it, based on your experience.

Also, I think you should include some of your learning or guiding experiences.

Posted Apr 18, 2007 8:44 pm

t_manClearance & Used


Hasn't voted

you say "GET NEW STUFF!!!" for Belay Device & Locking Carabiner
but not for a Harness,to quote Nigel Lewis "Any system is only as good as the weakest link in the chain"
Posted Apr 19, 2007 10:15 am

CClaudewhat would be benificial for beginners


Hasn't voted

is an article on surviving your early years. I see the most probably time to have injuries or getting killed, is when you are just starting out (first couple years) because of what you don't know, and later on when you really push yourself- accepting some known risks. It would be nice if someone who is a certified climbing guide (I was going to become one but passed on it for reasons) or someone who is very experienced with absolute horrorshows (hint, hint, The Chief, Brutus of Wyde.....)

Also second what was said above, getting a new harness is more important than a new bealy device, due to weakening of soft goods with battery acid, chemical, UV exposure or just wear or age.

Also top roping you can EASILY get killed, especially a beginner. I've seen someone in another party die just a few feet away when their TR anchor failed (knot issue) and also someone get severely hurt when the anchor (a 1000lb boulder) moved. The knot issue is also what killed a woman Shelley who owned a climbing gym in PHX last year. She made a mistake when she tied two sets of webbing together and when she leaned back , she fell 100ft to her death at Paradise Forks.

Also its best that someone teach a beginner how to belay. You can mess this up pretty bad (had a friend in ICU for monthes since they were dropped by someone who messed up).

Posted Apr 19, 2007 1:10 pm



Hasn't voted

"be and "HMS" carabiner" is a typo I think. Should "and" be "an"?
Posted Apr 19, 2007 2:22 pm

wetsponge007Good info


Voted 10/10

This is a great article, and there are some great and highly important points in the comments. I just started gym climbing and fell in love with it. So far I have been trying to find books and figure out what I need and what to look for in gear and this article goes over the basics. The article also points out some very important things,” being honest" with yourself, instructors, and fellow climbers can stop a major problem or mistake from occurring. Another SP'er recommended a book to me, "Accidents in North American Mountaineering", I think of the books I own and this one is very important, learning from others mistakes and not making them yourself and learning the hard way, and it's also good so people getting into the sport understand what they're getting into.
Thanks Scotty for posting this:)
Posted Apr 20, 2007 3:11 pm

DuseksRe: Good info


Hasn't voted

Thanks for the kind words. Accidents in NA mtneering is a great book, I try not to push it on people too early (kinda freaks 'em out) but it's one of the more valuable resources available to us climbers. Good luck on your vertical conquests, if you ever have questions I'm happy to help, just PM me, I certainly don't know everything, but I'm more than will to share what I do know with any SP member.

Oh and "use your legs" (probably the most common phrase in rock climbing :)

Posted Apr 20, 2007 3:30 pm

wildstarThe mountains don't care


Hasn't voted

Thanks for a good article. I was taught that the "mountains don't care"; that is that they accept no mistake and they don't care if one or a hundred people dies on their slopes in a given year. Thererfore safety is up to the climbing party. I am thankful for that lesson from my mentor and I know we all value safety..
Posted Apr 21, 2007 12:08 am

T SharpGood Article

T Sharp

Voted 10/10

Thanks Scotty for the well written and informative [for the beginner] article. I am certain that you are a good and patient teacher of things alpine, and I appreciate you willingness to write this primer. Even if some will argue with the particulars, your reasoning is solid and verifiable.
Posted Apr 21, 2007 1:03 am

Tie-Dye MikeNice job

Tie-Dye Mike

Voted 10/10

Where the hell was this article 5 months ago?! Well, I guess I'm now up to bouldering, but an awesome read. Guess its on to top roping next...Nice, very well written.
Posted Apr 22, 2007 9:59 pm

Josh_Inkedgood article


Voted 10/10

I just got into the rock climbing world a few months ago, and have battled through a few of the first steps. i just wanted to say it i enjoyed this informative encouraging article. Being babysat and having to put your pride away a lot kinda sucks but considering the grizzly alternatives i am more than happy being honest with myself.

Posted Apr 23, 2007 1:44 am

gogoone of the possibilities


Voted 8/10

Surely, this can be an effective and common good way to teach techniques for a beginner, newbie to climbing.

I do not know how things go on in US, but in Italy (and I think also in the other alpine countries), also trad climbing is a big issue for beginners. Let's say that what is explained in this article could be a good way to start sport climbing, and moreover it is a quite "tech" approach.

In my alpinism course for beginners by Italian Alpine Club (CAI),
an hammer and nails were mandatory, and the first routes I run, following the leader, were unbolted (exept for belays), to be protected routes. First things I learned were how to protect a route, how to belay, and so on, even before placing my hand on the rock. With this, I do not want to say that this way is better than the other.

Only, sometimes I find in trad routes people coming from sport climb who does not know how to protect the route, nor doesn't care about people following on the same route. I think that this behaviour is proper of the do-it-yourself sport climbers approaching for the first time to trad climbing, thinking that sport and trad are nearly the same thing, and threating other climbers with their behaviour.

So, on the whole a good article, but i would put much more emphasis on the fact that trad climbing is not only sport climbing on wild rocks....
Posted Apr 28, 2007 8:36 am

DuseksRe: one of the possibilities


Hasn't voted

I agree that trad climbing is a much different skill than sport climbing. Generally I feel it's best to let a climber's mentors decide when it's best to introduce trad. As you say it's totally possible to learn to trad climb before you ever clip a bolt, but that's a more "hardcore" way of going about things. That approach is great for people who's minds are made up that climbing is for them, but may be less effective for people just wanting to see if they even like rock climbing.

My heart is in trad climbing, even though I climb a few grades harder on sport. To me it's all about the alpine, and everything else is just really fun training. When I teach I try to instill comfort and trust first (I find this easier to do on sport routes) then expose newbies to both, some automatically like trad better, some sport.

Everyone that rock climbs learned to do so in a unique way. To me trad technique is a subject for hands on instruction and advanced textbooks, I omitted a lot of info about trad in the hopes that climbing mentors will fill in the blanks, they're in much better position to do so.

Good points,

Posted Apr 28, 2007 3:25 pm



Hasn't voted

In the USA this article is true for most people: top rope, lead inside, sport outside, trad outside. In other parts of the world, there are few/no "sport" routes, and if you are outside you are on gear from day 1.
In the UK, for example, you'll see a lot of blokes at the gym leading easy sport routes (5.5), but in the USA many of the lead climbs only begin at the harder grades (5.9).
I think having easy lead routes, and getting people to lead easy routes indoors before they get really good at the gymnastic moves, is a better way to transition to outdoor leading and trad.
Much leading and trad climbing is really about equipment technique, not gymnastic technique.
Posted Jun 15, 2013 9:19 pm

liliacarrillo0822Great article


Hasn't voted

Great article thank you for posting!
Posted Jun 25, 2013 5:42 pm

Viewing: 1-17 of 17