Learning to Rock Climb

Learning to Rock Climb

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The 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.

See also Body Fuel: How to Eat for Performance


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.

  • 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. 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:
  1. Be honest, "I have never done this."
  2. The leader climbs something easy that they won't fall on
  3. The leader gives feedback about your ropework
  4. Repeat Repeat Repeat
  5. Repeat the process with a different leader to learn a new style
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. Once you have perfected your technique you will have the opportunity to catch some real lead falls and feel the adrenaline!

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
  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 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... 


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 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!

Have fun!


See also Body Fuel: How to Eat for Performance


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-17 of 17
Nigel Lewis

Nigel Lewis - Apr 18, 2007 6:21 pm - Hasn't voted

Not always.

"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.



lisae - Apr 18, 2007 8:02 pm - Voted 10/10

conclusion should be introduction

"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.

Scott Dusek

Scott Dusek - Apr 18, 2007 8:26 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: conclusion should be introduction

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 :)



lisae - Apr 18, 2007 8:44 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: conclusion should be introduction

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.


t_man - Apr 19, 2007 10:15 am - Hasn't voted

Clearance & Used

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"


CClaude - Apr 19, 2007 1:10 pm - Hasn't voted

what would be benificial for beginners

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).


camerona91 - Apr 19, 2007 2:22 pm - Hasn't voted


"be and "HMS" carabiner" is a typo I think. Should "and" be "an"?


wetsponge007 - Apr 20, 2007 3:11 pm - Voted 10/10

Good info

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:)

Scott Dusek

Scott Dusek - Apr 20, 2007 3:30 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Good info

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 :)



wildstar - Apr 21, 2007 12:08 am - Hasn't voted

The mountains don't care

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..

T Sharp

T Sharp - Apr 21, 2007 1:03 am - Voted 10/10

Good Article

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.

Tie-Dye Mike

Tie-Dye Mike - Apr 22, 2007 9:59 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice job

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.


Josh_Inked - Apr 23, 2007 1:44 am - Voted 10/10

good article

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.



gogo - Apr 28, 2007 8:36 am - Voted 8/10

one of the possibilities

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....

Scott Dusek

Scott Dusek - Apr 28, 2007 3:25 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: one of the possibilities

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,



pvnisher - Jun 15, 2013 9:19 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.


liliacarrillo0822 - Jun 25, 2013 5:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Great article

Great article thank you for posting!

Viewing: 1-17 of 17