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Beginner Outdoor Rock Climbing Mistakes

Updated on June 27, 2011

Rock climbing should not be attempted without proper training and equipment. But even with training, the beginner with little independent experience will be prone to making mistakes. Between good technique and proper use of safety equipment, there are a lot of ways to reduce the risks of climbing. Let me share with you some tips on easily preventable errors and oversights that will make your climbing safer and more enjoyable.

This article primarily covers some of the mistakes made by beginners on their way up a rock face. If you are interested in some beginner mistakes made on the way back down, check out my other article: Beginner Rappelling Mistakes.

Not Wearing a Helmet

Please wear a climbing helmet. I cannot stress this tip enough. Rock climbing is dangerous even without people taking unnecessary risks. If possible, everyone in your group should wear a helmet. But at a minimum, ensure the climber and belayer are protected while the others keep their distance.

I cannot count the number of times I have bonked my head (hard!) and been thankful I had my sturdy climbing helmet. Whether due to a fall or just not paying attention to the rock formations, my helmet has certainly protected me from many cuts, bruises, and worse. I have also been hit by numerous bits of falling rock as well as dropped gear. And during one particularly frightful belay, a full bottled water came within a foot of colliding with my skull. Apparently the hikers on the ridge did not think much about who or what was below.

Climbing helmets come in enough varieties to ensure one will suit your needs. There are even ultralight models for those who are concerned about weight. If style is an issue, find a model you like and customize with stickers or other designs. Just please, wear a helmet.

Neglecting Fall Direction

Indoor climbing gyms are usually built in such a way to minimize the dangers of falling. Ropes are anchored from the ceiling every couple feet to ensure minimal horizontal swing. The shapes of features permit clean falls. And ropes run smoothly through metal anchors.

On the other hand, in the great outdoors it is the climber's responsibility to ensure safe falls. Taking into account fall direction is important not only for the well-being of the climbers, but also just to make it easier to get back on the rock after a fall.

When setting up top-rope anchors, ensure the anchor is centered over the route and will not be pulled to one side or the other. Also try to minimize how much the rope runs across rough or sharp rock to prevent wear. If possible, set the anchor below the edge of the cliff.

When lead climbing, be aware of possible rock features that could cause injury. Sometimes a loose belay will prevent the climber hitting her head, but other times it may cause her to land on a ledge or hit the ground. It is important for there to be constant communication about potential fall risks and plans to alleviate the risks.

Not Using a "Stick Clip"

Reaching the first bolt on a sport climbing route can be an uncomfortable ordeal. Due to the risk of ground falls, the bolt may be as high as twenty or more feet above the ground--often without a safe landing spot below. For the brave-at-heart, it can be an enjoyable thrill to boulder up to this bolt unprotected. However, the rest of us like to enjoy our climb and survive it, too.

Stick clips were invented for just this purpose. They usually consist of a long pole (such as an extending painter's pole) and some device to hold a quickdraw with an open gate. In a bind, a long stick from the woods and tape will suffice, but this method can take a lot of time and cause great headache. Stick clips allow the first bolt to be clipped from the ground, essentially resulting in a top-rope to the first bolt.

In some circles, the thought of using a stick clip is considered "cheating." However, I would encourage you to put aside your pride and do what you feel is safest. Not every climb will require a stick clip. But I assure you: when you stumble upon the climb of your dreams and freak out before the first bolt, you will be wishing you had a stick clip.

The Rule: Keep the rope in the same vertical region as the previous bolt--either between the legs or to the left/right of the climber.

Ignoring Rope Position When Leading

Lead climbing classes always emphasize common mistakes such as back clipping and z-clipping. However, instructors often don't place sufficient emphasis on properly routing the rope when climbing beyond your previous quickdraw. This oversight generally isn't a problem for leading in a gym; indoor climbers seldom climb above their previous bolt. But when outdoors, the distances between bolts can be much greater making this skill essential.

I once belayed a friend as she carefully navigated the crux between the first and second bolt. While utilizing some delicate footholds, she experienced difficulties keeping the rope from interfering. Even though she was directly above the first bolt, she chose to lay the rope over her left thigh rather than keep it between her legs. Unfortunately, she fell. And due to the rope being around her side, she flipped completely upside down with her head sent straight into the rock. Fortunately she was wearing a helmet, but it was still pretty terrifying to witness.

The proper rope position should always be maintained when climbing above a bolt--even if it seems inconvenient. There are three possible positions: left of the body, between the legs, and right of the body. The simple rule is to keep the rope in the same region as the previous bolt. If the bolt is directly below you, keep the rope between your legs. If it is off to the right or left, keep the rope on the respective side. Deviating from this scheme will cause the climber to flip during a fall.

Forgetting a Headlamp

One of the best ways to ruin a great day of climbing is to twist your ankle while attempting to walk back in the dark. When you're out on the crag, it is easy to lose track of time. No matter how much you plan to be back at the car before sunset, that big project might be asking for just one more try or your friend might be stuck at a crux.

Always bring a headlamp when you head out for the day. Even if you have no intentions of staying out until dark, schedules shift and something can always go wrong. Climbing or hiking near cliffs without a light source can easily cause injury.

A headlamp is highly recommended over an ordinary flashlight. While any light source is better than none, there have been times when I have had to climb and clean a route in the dark. That task simply would not be possible with a handheld light. Plus, headlamps are far more convenient for even the simplest tasks like packing up gear and hiking home.

Leaving Expensive Gear

Climbing gear is expensive! And if you've taken the effort to build up a nice sport or trad rack, you're not going to want to leave anything behind. Most of the time this is not a problem on established routes. All you have to do is make it to the anchors or the top of the cliff. Then you either clean the gear on the way down or have your second do the work on his way up.

But what if a storm comes up or you can't get past the crux? Or what if you need to rappel from the top off a tree?

Every climber should consider carrying two essential items: quick links and webbing. In most situations, these items should allow you to lower cheaply and safely.

Quick links are best used on sport climbing routes when the climber must lower from a single bolt. Not only are they cheaper than quickdraws, but they provide the added strength of a locked gate and a smooth surface for lowering. It is not recommended to make a habit of using a single bolt as the only anchor point. But in some situations it may be the only possibility.

Webbing can be used in many different ways to build a cheap and safe anchor. Combined with the quick links or rap rings, an inexpensive and sturdy lowering point can easily be created. Proper training is a must, but leaving a dollar or two worth of webbing is preferable over sewn slings and carabiners.

Always be careful if you find any webbing left by previous climbers. It is easily damaged by the sun and weather, and has been known to fail in deadly situations.


What's your story?

Has anyone else learned any particularly useful lessons in their climbing adventures? If so, leave some more tips in the comments below!


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    • stuartberg profile image

      Stuart Berg 

      5 years ago from Folkestone,

      We should all pay more attention to safety to keep climbing safe and have a good reputation with the public.

    • bukiecukie profile image

      Megan Gallegos 

      5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      The best thing I've learned is to ALWAYS bring someone more experienced with you when you go. For instance I always bring my friend who is an experienced climber to watch my back and give me tips. It helps he and I learn in the process.

    • stuartberg profile image

      Stuart Berg 

      6 years ago from Folkestone,

      Watching your lead rope that's useful,i have often had to pull the rope through as i forgot to track it properly.Especially before they invented quick draws.Good info.

    • LoganG profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Florida

      Thanks sgiguere! Glad to hear you wear a helmet; keep it up!

    • sgiguere profile image

      Stephanie Giguere 

      6 years ago from Marlborough MA

      Great hub-- smart use of video. Even though I always wear a helmet when I climb outside, the video of the climber hitting his head on the rock made me even more convinced to wear a helmet and to make sure everyone else does too!

    • TrahnTheMan profile image


      6 years ago from Asia, Oceania & between

      Thanks Logan- I hope to have a few more yet! Best to you too.

    • LoganG profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Florida

      Thanks TrahnTheMan. Hope you've had many safe and great outings!

    • TrahnTheMan profile image


      6 years ago from Asia, Oceania & between

      Very comprehensive hub Logan. I think it gives a lot of sensible advice to new climbers, more so than the comments indicate. WHen I started climbing helmets were for the faint of heart (in the days when "leader doesn't fall") or strictly for mountaineering (rather than rock climbing) but I never go out without one now. And the advice to always take some (safe) gear that you can use for a forced retreat is very wise...

    • LoganG profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Florida

      Thanks Nelson! Have you done much climbing?

    • nelson soares profile image

      nelson soares 

      8 years ago from Sunny Algarve

      Excelent! Voted up and awesome!


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