Many people learn how to climb at an indoor climbing centre, which is a great place to develop the basics. It’s a really fun way to stay fit and learn new skills. In fact, because the sport is becoming so popular, new climbers are actually swapping the gym for indoor rock climbing or bouldering. But there are some definite limitations to indoor climbing, and moving to climbing outdoors opens up a whole world of new options and room for growth. Moving out of the climbing gym can be complicated—there are so many terms to learn and gear to master. This guide will get you ready to make the transition.
Four Types of Rock Climbing
This is a common setup at climbing gyms. The rope is anchored at the top of the climb before the climber begins, which means that the only thing the climber has to do is climb. A belayer on the ground uses a belay device to take up slack in the rope as the climber moves upward. The belay device relies on friction to brake the rope and prevent the climber from falling very far if he or she comes off the wall. A fall will generally be anywhere from a few inches to one or two feet, as climbing ropes are designed to stretch a bit in order to help absorb the energy of a climber’s fall. Top-roping is very safe, and is a fun way to practice climbing movement on longer routes.
Bouldering is a type of climbing that is typically done on walls ranging from 10 to 15 feet in height, and is practiced without a rope, harness, or use of a belayer. However, boulderers usually have a crash pad—a thick mat that is placed below the route—and also often employ the use of a spotter to help land safely if they fall off the climb. Bouldering routes have a different rating from other climbs because the goal is to figure out the exact sequence of moves to ‘solve’ the bouldering ‘problem.’
Sport Climbing and Lead Climbing
Sport climbing is a good next step for a gym climber because it adds a new element, but isn’t as complicated as traditional climbing. Climbing sport means you’re climbing a pitch that has bolts drilled along the entire route, including two bolts for anchor-building at the top. Sport routes are common in areas with rock that traditional gear would not fit in. Usually, the bolts are metal and are placed in sections where the lead climber can place a quickdraw—a set of two carabiners connected by a length of sewn runner. The top of the draw is placed in the bolt and the bottom of the draw is clipped into the rope. This way, at each bolt, the lead climber has shortened the length of a possible fall.
When ‘leading’ a sport route, the climber, belayer, and all of the rope start on the ground. As the leader moves up the route, she clips the rope to the bolts via the quickdraws. When the climber is below the clipped quickdraw, it is as though she is top-roping, with the rope running from the belayer, through the ‘draw, and then back down to her harness. However, as she moves up the climb to the next bolt, and climbs above her last clipped ‘draw, she has the potential to take a larger fall than she would while top-roping. In the event of a fall, while leading on sport, the climber would fall to the last clipped quickdraw, then the same distance below it, and often a bit more to account for rope stretch. Sport climbing is still very safe; however, it has the potential for larger falls for those leading the routes.
Traditional (Trad) Climbing
Trad climbing is sometimes viewed as the purest form of climbing because the lead climber places their protection as they go, which is more technical than clipping bolts in sport climbing. Trad climbing gets its name through being the original type of climbing, practised in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, before the advent of bolted climbs in the 1980s.
When trad climbing, the ‘protection’ is a piece of gear that can be slipped into cracks or constrictions that the rope is clipped through in the same way that a leader climber clips a bolt when sport climbing. However, on a trad climb there are no bolts, and the protections can be removed after the leader has ascended to the top of the route. Trad climbing requires a lot of gear and a lot of training in how to properly place the gear in the rock so that it will hold in the event of a lead fall.
It’s recommended for aspiring trad climbers to find a person or organisation to get training and mentorship from in the art of placing gear before leading any trad climbs. A great way to develop this skill is through practising placing gear on cracks and constrictions while on the ground, coupled with feedback and advice from a mentor.
Free Climbing, Free Soloing, and Aid Climbing
If you’ve read much about climbing in the news, then you’ve probably heard of free soloing. This is not the same as free climbing. Free soloing, or ‘soloing,’ means the climber is not using a rope or a harness; there is nothing to arrest their fall. Those who free solo are usually very experienced, very skilled, and only solo on routes that are well within their climbing ability. Free climbing means to climb without the aid of gear, or in other words, by only making upward progress through the use of one’s body on the rock. Importantly, free climbing does not mean climbing without the use of a rope.
Conversely, aid climbing is climbing primarily through the use of pulling on gear placed in the rock, and is often done on very hard climbs. Aiders are one common piece of gear that allows a climber to ascend without using the rock; aiders are like a ladder made of webbing.
Buy a Guidebook
Climbing guidebooks can help orient you to a climbing area; however, using a guidebook can be a skill set unto itself! All climbs have a rating, which gives an idea of the difficulty of the intended climb. The grade is the standardised way of describing climbing difficulty and is different in different corners of the world. In the U.S. it’s known as the Yosemite Decimal System, which runs from 5.1-5.15c. Most climbs in the 5.5 to 5.9 range are ideal beginner or intermediate routes. The route will usually have either an illustration or a picture that shows details of the climb.
Gear to Consider
For those who are ice-climbing, crampons are a must. Crampons are metal spikes that attach to the bottom of your boots to help you gain traction on otherwise slippery surfaces. Make sure that your crampons fit correctly and keep them clean and dry for the best results. Beginners could check out a list of crampons recommended by Michael Graw or seek out advice from local outdoor stores if they need help picking the right crampons for their needs. Even experienced climbers should take a few minutes to review their equipment before each climb to make sure all pieces are in good working order and that everything is tightened properly.
The move from climbing indoors to climbing outside is the perfect time to invest in a helmet. Helmets are designed to protect the user from falling rocks and gear, and they can also add a level of protection in the event of a fall. Wearing a helmet while belaying is just as important as wearing one while climbing, because who knows what can fall from the climber.
A harness connects both the climber and the belayer to the rope. For beginners, it is important to find a harness that is comfortable and sits tightly over the hips. Be careful how you store your harness. Too much direct sunlight, such as storing it in the back window of a car for a long time, can degrade the material’s strength.
Climbing shoes are a very important piece of equipment, as their fit and comfort can directly affect your experience on the rock! Fit is important for climbing shoes. Look for shoes that are comfortable for extended use, aren’t too tight, and have a flat sole. One common error is getting shoes that are too snug, which can make climbing painful.
If you buy a belay device, you’ll need at least one locking carabiner to attach the device to your harness. A screw-gate carabiner is the most common type of locker, and uses a threaded mechanism on the gate of the carabiner to keep it closed when belaying.
Gymnastic chalk is crucial for keeping your hands dry while climbing, particularly in hot or humid environments. Most climbers use a chalk bag to dip into on long climbs.
Dynamic rope is the industry standard for outdoor climbing. Dynamic ropes often have about 5 percent rope stretch, designed to help absorb the energy of a climber’s fall. Ropes can range in diameter from 9 mm to 10.5 mm, and the most common first rope for one beginning to climb outside is 10 mm.
When top-roping, sport climbing, or trad climbing, the climber relies upon the belayer to catch a fall using a belay device. The most common type of belay device is called an ATC, or air traffic controller, in which the climber is the ‘air traffic.’
Hire a Guide
There are a number of great resources for developing outdoor climbing skills. Climbing with a guide can be an excellent way to get personal coaching on movement, learn new rope systems, and get to know an outdoor climbing area. The American Mountain Guides Association trains and certifies guides and guide companies across the United States. Some climbing gyms also have guide services, classes, or clinics. These can provide opportunities to learn how to sport lead, place protection, or learn climbing rescue skills.
Overall, rock climbing can be an excellent way to get exercise, build community, experience the natural world, and even push one’s limits. While there is a lot of jargon and many different skills encompassed in the activity, the journey of learning this language and these skills can be fun and empowering. The act of moving up a climb can also be thrilling and invigorating – for some, climbing can become a way of life! Regardless of one’s passion or desire to fully delve into the world of climbing, remember to pursue proper training and the mentorship when developing these skills. Stay safe, and climb on!