Rock climbing is a wondrous sport that can be anything from a fun and interesting workout for a few hours all the way to a life long passion that takes you all over the world seeking challenge and adventure. Climbing is usually portrayed in the media as ultra fit dare devils, hanging perilously off finger nail size holds thousands of feet off the ground, risking certain death for an adrenaline rush. Because of this it can seem more like a death wish than a sport. However, in reality most climbers are just average people with varying physical abilities looking to get outside and have a fun and safe time. Climbing is dangerous, make no mistake, but these dangers can easily be mitigated with a few pieces of the right gear and a bit of instruction and experience.
Getting started into rock climbing can seem confusing, intimidating, scary, and expensive. However, with a bit of guidance and explanation it can just as easy to get into climbing as any other sport or hobby. Any one can get into climbing, there is no age limit (upper or lower), and there is no fitness requirement. Climbing can be whatever you want it to be as well. It can be a fun workout a couple times a month at your local gym, all the way to where your full time job is traveling the world establishing the tallest and hardest climbs in the world, and everything in between. There is also minimal financial commitment to trying out climbing as well. So if you've ever wanted to try rock climbing, ever wanted to get out and see nature from a totally different perspective, or ever wanted to push your physical limits while having an absurd amount of fun then here is a guide to getting started with rock climbing!
Step 1: The Lingo
Like any sport or activity, rock climbing has its own dictionary full of odd ball terms that add to the color of the sport but also add to the confusion and intimidation for those unfamiliar with "the lingo". There is a literal dictionary worth of terms that could be covered but here is a list of a few key terms that will hopefully clear up some misconceptions and help you all get started in the sport.
Free Climbing - Only using the natural rock features and your own human power to make upward progress. Ropes and protection are used but only for safety to catch the climber in the case of a fall.
Free Soloing - Free climbing except without the use of ropes or protection for safety. A fall while free soloing would lead to serious injury if not death.
Aid Climbing - Climbing where upward progress is made by pulling on or standing in the protection placed by the climber.
NOTE: Free climbing and free soloing are often confused; leading to the misconception that rock climbing is a dare-devil, death-defying sport (which it is not). An overwhelming majority of climbers don't free solo and always use ropes and protection to keep safe. Even the few climbers that do free solo only free solo for a small percentage of the the routes they climb. I personally do not endorse free soloing and cannot emphasize enough to always used proper safety gear and techniques when climbing.
Types of Free Climbing:
Top Rope - A form of roped climbing where the rope has already been pre-hung above at the top of the route. In event of a fall, the length of fall is essentially zero as the rope can be kept tight to the climber.
Lead Climb - A form of roped climbing where the rope is hung progressively higher up the route as the climber ascends the route by clipping the rope through various pieces of protection along the route. The length of a fall can be significant as the climber is required to climb above the previous piece of protection before reaching the next piece.
Bouldering - Climbing short routes (typically <15') where a rope and protection is not used. Instead a crash pad or bouldering mat, a thick piece of industrial foam, is placed on the ground to cushion the fall of a climber.
NOTE: Beginners will start with Top Rope and Bouldering. Lead Climbing is a more advanced skill that is learned later in a person's climbing career.
Belay - A second person who "holds the rope" in the event of a fall of the climber to catch the climber with the rope. A special belay device and harness are used making it a mundane action for a person to "catch" a climber with the rope. Belaying is hard to describe but will make perfect sense once you see it in person.
Sport Climbing - Sport climbing describes outdoor climbs where there protection is pre-placed steel bolts secured into holes drilled in the rock. These bolts will have been put in the rock by other experienced climbers. The rope will then be clipped to the bolts (using what is called a quick draw) to provide protection in case of a fall. It takes at least several minutes using a specialized rotary hammer drill to drill the hole for the bolt. Contrary to some popular climbing movies there are no guns that shoot bolts into the rock.
Trad Climbing - Trad or Traditional climbing describes outdoor climbs where removable protection is placed temporarily in the rock to provide protection in the case of a fall and then removed by the climbers partner. The protection must be wedged in cracks or other similar features in the rock. Contrary to some popular climbing movies, properly placed protection will hold several thousand pounds of force or more.
Climbing routes are graded based on their difficulty. Difficulty of the route is a combination of the difficulty of the single hardest move on the route (called the crux) and how many hard moves are are on the route (in other words how sustained the route is). Roped climbing and bouldering have two different grading scales.
Roped Climbing - Roped climbing will be described by a decimal number system always starting with 5 with the second number representing the difficulty. A letter following the number (a through d) or a plus "+" or minus "-" symbol after the number will subdivide the scale. Some examples:
- 5.9 (read "Five Nine")
- 5.10a (read "Five Ten A")
- 5.12+ (read "Five Twelve Plus")
The scale increases with the value of the second number. In other words a 5.12 is harder than a 5.9 (because 12 > 9, even thought mathematically 5.9 > 5.12). "+" is harder than "-" and "d" is harder than "a" within a number grade. "+" and "-" are typically used for 5.9 and below and "a" through "d" used for 5.10 and above. The scale would be as follows starting from easier to harder:
5.8- / 5.8 / 5.8+ / 5.9- / 5.9 / 5.9+ / 5.10a / 5.10b / 5.10c / 5.10d / 5.11a / 5.11b etc. etc.
Bouldering - Bouldering has a separate scale than roped climbing as a bouldering route is much shorter but also typically more powerful and dynamic than a roped climb. The letter "V" followed by a number indicate the difficulty. Some times a "+" or "-" will be used to sub-divide the grade similar to roped climbing. The scale would be as follows starting from easier to harder:
V0 / V1 / V2- / V2 / V2+ / V3- / V3 / V3+ etc. etc.
Beginners should aim for roped routes graded 5.4 to 5.8 and bouldering routes graded V0 to V2.
Step 2: Go to a Climbing Gym
The first step to getting started in rock climbing is finding your nearest indoor climbing gym. One could jump straight into outdoor rock climbing but an indoor climbing gym offers a mountain of helpful tools and benefits.
I highly recommend bringing a friend or family member as a partner. Roped climbing really requires two people (one climber and one belayer) but going with someone else will make the experience much more fun and cut down on the intimidation factor.
Finding an Indoor Climbing Gym:
In this day and age finding an indoor climbing gym is very easy due to the internet. Your best bet is to just google "climbing gym" and search the results. Many climbing gyms advertise is the back of CLIMBING or ROCK AND ICE magazine but this list is limited. Local outdoor or recreation magazines can also be a source. The following two websites are also a good source to find a gym.
Picking The Right Gym
Some gyms are definitely better than others, but in general you can't go wrong in your selection with the exceptions below. If you have more than one option for a gym I highly recommend trying all the gyms out as time allows.
Climbing Gym vs. Climbing Wall
Make sure you find a true climbing gym, not what I'll call a "climbing wall". A climbing wall may not look any different from a climbing gym but the goal of the business is totally different. A climbing wall is only going to offer you a few climbs focusing on one time users, whereas a climbing gym is going to offer a suite of classes and instruction on climbing and belaying with the intent of turning you into a member. Tell tale signs of a climbing wall are prices per the hour or price per trip up the wall, no lead climbing or bouldering area, or a "funky" location like in a mall or amusement park. There is nothing wrong with climbing walls, there just aren't what you will be looking for.
Climbing Gym vs. Bouldering Gym
A bouldering gym is a climbing gym that does not offer roped climbing and only has bouldering. Bouldering gyms are growing in number and the only downside of a bouldering gym is that they don't offer belay classes. I recommend finding a climbing gym that has both roped climbing and bouldering initially. The main reason for this recommendation is so you can learn how to belay and so you can try both roped climbing and bouldering to see if you have a preference. Some climbing gyms do not offer any bouldering. In this case you'll HAVE to bring a friend or you won't have anything to climb. You can find partners to climb with at the gym but I wouldn't tread into those waters on your first trip.
If you have access to multiple climbing gyms they should be all within a few dollars of each other for an entrance fee. The reasons for one gym being more or less expensive than another gym will not apply to a beginner so I wouldn't make price a big factor in your selection.
First Trip to the Gym (What to Expect)
Don't worry about gear. All you need to go climbing is some athletic clothing (as you'll be exercising) and closed toe shoe (no sandals or flip-flops). You will rent a harness (unless you went to a bouldering gym) and have the option to rent climbing shoes, shoes purpose built for climbing, and a chalk bag, filled with gymnast chalk to keep your hands dry. Climbing shoes and a chalk bag may make the experience more enjoyable but they certainly are not mandatory.
The gym will either teach you how to belay, or have auto-belays (simple machines that pull in the rope as you climb up and lower you safely down after the climb), or both. Gyms will vary a bit but some will offer belay lessons right on the spot, some will offer them every one or two hours, and some will offer them only at certain times during the week. Auto-belays are very simple and straight forward to use but do need about 5 - 10 minutes of instruction to use if you've never seen them but the gym will provide that. It's best to call ahead and verify these details to plan your first trip. You always have the option to boulder (assuming the gym has it) which would not require a partner.
Expect to pay between $15 and 25$ per person for a day pass to the gym. The drivers for cost difference between one gym and another will likely be lost on a beginner. However, a few more dollars may get you a newer, nicer facility which will make the day more enjoyable. Your first few trips I'd recommend getting a day pass just to make sure you like it. Gyms will also offer punch passes (10 pre-paid day passes) or monthly memberships that will offer some cost savings over the day pass if you go regularly.
I would plan on roughly two hours spent at the gym. Maybe half an hour to an hour of instruction, then an hour of climbing, and then your forearm muscles will likely be to tired to continue but you have a hard time putting away the smile on your face ;).
Step 3: Going Climbing Outside
Transitioning from indoor climbing to outdoor climbing is not trivial. Most beginners have a definite lack of appreciation for all the controls and safety systems put in place by climbing gyms to keep things safe that are now the responsibility of those climbing to establish outside. They also lack the skills, experience, and gear to establish those safety systems on their own. No amount of classes or experience in the gym, reading instructional books or articles, or watching instructional videos on YouTube or similar will properly prepare you to climb outside. Climbing outside should not be attempted without the guidance from a professional guide or experienced mentor. Please, please, PLEASE stay safe!
I recommend using a professional and certified climbing guide or guide service for your first trip outside. Concurrently I recommend looking for and finding an experienced climbing mentor. I'll elaborate below.
There are numerous guiding services located throughout the country and usually located close to outdoor climbing destinations. I highly recommend only using guides or guide services that are AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) or IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association) certified. There are some very reputable and professional guide services that are not certified but you as a begginer likely have no way of distinguishing them from a non-reputable service so it's best to go with an AMGA/IFMGA certified guide. Most guides are AMGA/IFMGA certified but verify this on the guide's website or by calling them. There are several levels of certification but for the purposes of your first trip outside all levels will be adequate. AMGA/IFMGA certification requires not only passing real life, on the rock, tests demonstrating knowledge of climbing and climbing systems but also skills on self rescue (in the very unlikely event an injury occurs on the rock) and a service oriented mentality (the guide is there to ensure you have a safe, fun, enjoyable day).
A guided trip will be a half day or full day event. The guide service will almost always offer rental climbing gear for yourself and will have all of the technical gear. They will usually have a recommended clothing list but sturdy closed-toe shoes (no Teva's or similar hiking sandals) and some rugged yet breathable fabric clothing will be needed. Jeans are highly advised against; they don't breath at all and bind easily when making climbing moves. As with all outdoor activities use the layering system and dress for the weather. When you're actually climbing you'll be generating a lot of body heat but during bits of rest you may be just sitting in the shade so keep that in mind. You'll likely need to bring a water bottle and a few snacks for yourself but double check with the guide service on what you need to bring. Don't forget sunscreen, a hat, and your camera! The cost can vary widely depending on full versus half day, location, and the number of people in the group but should range from $100 per person in a large group for a half day to over $1,000 for a full day private lesson.
Finally I recommend working with your guide service to explain what you want out of the trip and your current experience in climbing. Guide services are all small business operations and will be happy to customize any trip to suite your exact needs.
Climbing has traditionally been taught through mentors. There is no formal mentoring system or society so finding a good mentor can be difficult and it will usually take a few rounds to find a good mentor. A mentorship isn't any thing formal, no contract, but it is good to be honest about your skills and upfront about looking for a mentor. When you are looking for a mentor, you are looking for a partner to go climbing with specifically a partner willing to mentor someone less experienced wanting to be mentored. A really good mentorship will hopefully grow into a regular partnership and friendship.
A good mentor will have 3 attributes. The first attribute is experience and knowledge. The whole point of a mentor is to pass on experience and knowledge so if they don't have that then it misses the point entirely. I would recommend looking for someone with at least a few years of outdoor climbing experience and that lead climbs at least 5.10. The second attribute is safety. Not only do you have to have the knowledge and experience to be safe, you have to be proactive in implementing that knowledge and experience. The third attribute is good compatibility. Climbers tend to spend hours on end together due to the nature of climbing. So if you have nothing to talk about or find each other annoying it will quickly ruin an otherwise fantastic day outside.
Finding A Mentor:
There is no good way to find a mentor other than putting yourself out there and letting people know you are looking for a mentor. The are three main places to meet a mentor. The first is your local gym. There will likely be a community board where people will post notes about looking for a mentor or looking for a partner. You also should just talk to people in the gym and through normal conversation find out if they are looking for a partner or mentor. The second place is the website Mountain Project. Mountain Project is the leading rock climbing community website. It's main focus is guide book type information for outdoor climbing areas but also has a large and active forum with discussions on anything under the sun dealing with climbing but also a "looking for partners" section. Just make a post that you are looking for a mentor in the "looking for partner" forum for the correct regional area you are in. The third place to find a mentor is a Facebook group for your local rock climbing area. Finding a Facebook group for your local area is very hit or miss but it's worth a search. Once again, just make a post that you are looking for a mentor. You can find a mentor any place really but these three places are the main places.
I recommend making your first trip with a mentor to the climbing gym. The point is to test drive your partner and for your partner to test drive you. It will give you both a chance to check out each other's safety in a controlled environment. It also allows you to see if you two are compatable.
How To Be A Good Mentee
Being a good mentee ensures you enjoy the trip, get invited on future trips, and get the most of the mentorship. It's easy to be a good mentee, just be humble, honest, respectful, and energetic. Ask lots of questions, particularly about the safety systems. It doesn't hurt to offer a six pack of beer (for after the climbing) or to pay for a bite to eat or gas to drive to the location. As the mentor is usually just a climber themselves they won't have personal climbing gear for you so you'll need your own but they'll usually have all the technical gear (rope and protection). I'll discuss the finer points of gear in a bit. Also, remember that a mentor is out to have fun as well, not just to teach you. They need a belay to climb so you offer that in return. With this in mind its best to learn how to lead belay before looking for a mentor.
Guides vs. Mentors
To become proficient in outdoor climbing takes experience and knowledge which takes time to gain. This means a lot more than two or three day trips outside. A guide and a mentor both have their PROS and CONS which is why I recommend utilizing both.
A guide is a great teacher as they are focused on your learning and enjoyment. However, they are costly. Most people probably don't have multiple thousands of dollars to pay a guide to teach them everything they need to be self sufficient outside. Ideally, a mentor is superior as they have the skills to become a guide but as they don't have interest in making guiding a business they haven't been certified. However, for a beginner it can be difficult to determine how experienced a climber is, and if they have actual experience and knowledge or just talk a big game. It can also be hard to find a mentor as not all climbers are willing or capable of being a mentor. I recommend starting climbing outside with a guide to establish of base level of knowledge that will allow you to make better assessments of mentors going forward.
One Last Note
One last note on starting climbing outside is on informal group climbs. These can be through Facebook groups or websites like MeetUp.com. I would be weary of these types outings and I would not recommend them at all for newer climbers. The group aspect adds a layer of complexity for both the teachers/leaders and the students. The teachers/leaders of the group climb have many people to look after and mistakes can easily slip through the cracks. There is also an added intimidation factor for students which leads to over stating skills and experience. Informal group climbs can be great for the gym as it makes finding partners easy and you have the controlled environment of the gym. However, I highly recommend sticking to guide services on one-on-one mentorships for your initial trips outside.
Step 4: Getting Kids Into Climbing
Getting into climbing is great way to introduce them to the outdoors and physical activities. Rock climbing tends to be a great activity for kids that don't do well in traditional group sports, but really any kid that likes climbing around on jungle gyms and monkey bars will love climbing.
Kids can start climbing as soon as they learn to walk. I've seen kids as young 2 start climbing but 4 to 5 years old is usually a bit better as even the easiest climbs will be too hard for young kids due to height and muscle development. There are a few finer points to keep in mind when getting kids into climbing.
-Full Body Harness: Until a child ways 40 to 50 lbs they tend to be top heavy. In a normal harness the rope is tied into the waist which leaves the possibility of the child flipping upside down during fall. Because of this I recommend a full body harness for smaller children. There are child size regular and full body harnesses available.
-Distractions: Children get easily distracted and are distracting. This has obvious downfalls for situations like climbing where you need to be focused on climbing or belaying. If you bring your kids climbing, make sure you have the ability to keep track of them as you'll be tied into the rope and won't be able to chase after them. Also make sure they don't need constant supervision. This tends to apply more to younger children but just bringing an extra adult can relieve the problem. With kids system usually works best as one person climbing, one person belaying, and one person supervising kids and the roles rotate.
-Fear of Heights: Most kids have some level of a fear of heights. Remember that heights are relative so for someone only 3 feet tall being 6' off the ground is like being 12' off the ground for someone 6' tall (twice your height. The opposite, a complete lack of fear, can be an issue too. Kids can climb to the top of the wall or boulder and then look down and freeze with fear. Its best to work kids up in height and make sure they are comfortable sitting on the rope at lower heights before going all the way to the top.
Step 5: Gear
Climbing gear can be the most confusing, intimidating, and costly aspect of climbing. However, a bit of explanation can go along way to demystifying it all. I'll cover you first basic "kit" or set of gear you'll buy. There is many pieces of gear needed (ropes, protection, etc.) you'll need for outside climbing but that is really beyond the scope of this piece and is better discussed with a guide or mentor.
As perviously mentioned, to get started in climbing just takes some athletic clothing and closed-toe shoes. You'll rent the gear you need.
Personal Gear Kit:
The first kit or set of gear you buy will be your personal gear. This gear is your harness, belay device, locking carabiner, chalk bag, and climbing shoes. It is called personal gear because each person will need their own gear whereas the rest of the gear (rope and protection) will be shared between climbing partners. You'll need this as a minimum to climb outside with a mentor.
All proper climbing gear is certified according to UIAA standards. The details of those standards aren't relevant to a beginner but understand that they are quite rigorous to ensure safe and functional gear.
You'll want to buy all of your gear from a reputable dealer such as REI, EMS, or your local mountaineering/climbing store. This provides two benefits. 1) It ensures you are only buying gear from reputable companies where everything is properly UIAA certified. 2) The staff will be knowledgable and be able to help you select the right gear for you and properly size it. I strongly, STRONGLY, discourage buying gear off of sites like Amazon or eBay at least initially. A lot of gear will get confused with climbing gear but it will be either for industrial rigging (safe but not functional or practical) or falsely advertised for climbing (just not safe). Some companies have even been caught falsely claiming UIAA certification. Once you get experience and know the exact piece of gear you are looking for then you may be able to find deals on sites like Amazon.
In general as a beginner you won't need, nor even notice, all the bells and whistles of the expensive gear so its okay to look on the lower side of the price range. Ask the store clerk or a guide/mentor to help with gear selection to fit your needs.
Everyone will need a harness. You'll want something that is comfortable and fits well. A standard harness will have a waist belt, leg loops, belay loop (for clipping in your belay device) and gear loops along the waist belt.
A carabiner is a large metal link, somewhat oval in shape, with a gate that can be opened to insert things like the rope or your belay device. A locking carabiner has an extra mechanism for locking the gate closed so it can't accidentally open. This feature in mandatory for your belay device.
A belay device is device that drastically increases or decreases friction on the rope with small movements. It allows the belayer to hold the rope without needing a vice grip on the rope but also feed out or take in rope as needed in an efficient manor. The most common belay device is a tube styles (such as the Black Diamond ATC). They usually have two slots but as a beginner you only need one. The second slot is for rappelling on two strands which you'll learn what that means in due time. They are many more fancy and complicated (read expensive) belay devices but as a beginner you do not need those extra function and its better to learn on a tube style device so save your money.
Climbing shoes are specifically designed for climbing with stick rubber (exception friction on rock holds), and form fitted to you foot for precision and feel. They range from beginner all-around models (around $90) to various highly specialized models ($180) specific for certain types of climbing. To get the most out of climbing shoes you want them to be snug but not uncomfortable. Typically people buy climbing shoes a half size smaller than their normal shoes. Typically climbing shoes are worn without socks to enhance the feel and precision of the shoe so take that into account when sizing a shoe.
A chalk bag is a small bag worn on its own waist belt that holds powdered gymnast chalk. Sweaty hands make for slick hands. Chalk helps keep your hands dry and get a better grip on the holds.
Your personal gear kit will run you about $200 dollars. However, it will last you many seasons.
Step 6: Beyond Being a Beginner
Climbing takes a little while to learn but a lifetime to master. There are also a myriad of types of climbing beyond just rock that are equally as fun, adventurous and challenging. You'll eventually transition out of being a beginner to the point where you can manage on your own and even to the point where you yourself start to mentor others getting into climbing. There is not set bar to reach to move beyond being a beginner. Your guide or mentor will help you get a feel when you are competent to hold your own. However, never stop being safe, never stop having fun, and we'll see you outside!
Second Prize in the
Outdoor Fitness Challenge