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Beginners Guide to Rock Climbing
“There are only three real sports: bull-fighting, car racing and [rock] climbing. All the others are mere games.” -Ernest Hemingway
Rock climbing is one of the most exhilarating adventures you will ever experience – if you have the guts to attempt it. Rock climbing involves strength and determination…and possibly a touch of insanity. There is no earthly reason to look at a massive and unforgiving wall of rock and think: ‘I could climb that.’ Surprisingly though, that is exactly what a great number of people think. What’s more, they are almost uncontrollably excited to get out there and see if they are right. Climbing is an addictive sport that challenges you to test your physical and mental limits. It forces you to slow down, look ahead, consider your options and then cling to it with all your might. Essentially, the principles for success in rock climbing are the same as in life – only with a much larger possibility for physical injury. However, as in life, if you know yourself and your capabilities you can work within both to reduce your risk of injury and still push your limits.
Climbing isn’t just about finding some bit of rock and throwing yourself against it until you get a hold. Climbing is a much more scientific and elegant process than that. If you have ever been fortunate enough to see an expert climber at work, it is one of the most beautiful things you will ever seen. These astonishing climbers seem to be suspended in mid-air. They move as though they have all the time in the world and their strength is infinite. It is a graceful ballet to which only they know the moves. It is physical poetry. Having been inspired, you, the novice, give that same problem a try. Not quite so pretty. Suspended in the air, that same problem that looked so polished a second ago is now a clawing, scraping, lunging mess. You are grunting, sweating and swearing. However, if you manage to make it to the top, you have the feeling that you are capable of anything. There seems to be a direct correlation between rock climbing and determination, although it is kind of a chicken-or-the-egg connection. Who can say which comes first?
There are many variations to climbing; meaning that it is very likely that there is a style that fits your personal training goals.
• Traditional (or ‘trad’) climbing that involves making the ascent without the help of previously placed anchors.
• Sport climbing is the same as traditional climbing but with the help of anchors that are permanently embedded in the rock.
• Bouldering is a variation of climbing that doesn’t involve gear such as harnesses or ropes because you only go as high as you are comfortable falling from. Usually done with spotters
• Solo climbing is the most dangerous form, as it really is what it sounds like. You are gear-less and friend-less and (hopefully) fearless. If you fall, you better be within yelling distance of someone. However, it is also considered to be one of the freest and possibly purest forms of climbing.
• Ice climbing is a very cold version of traditional climbing. It is a singular kind of person who attempts this beautiful and aggressive form of climbing. The above YouTube video will give you an idea of what ice climbing entails.
There are other climbing styles you can try, and it is worth looking into them all at least once or twice to see if any appeal to you. Unfortunately, the more technical you make your climbing style, the more expensive it becomes. You could easily spend hundreds of dollars for the bare minimum amount of equipment, and the more experienced you get, the more you need/want to spend. (Buying new gear can become as addictive as the climbing!) There is also no end to the variety of equipment available. There are shoes, harnesses, carabineers, ropes, cams, and much more. Don’t worry about purchasing all the high-end equipment for your first climb. Borrowing or renting is better – particularly with regard to climbing shoes. Basic is best for the majority of equipment when you are just starting out, since the special features of expensive items will be a waste of money for beginners. Wait till you are scouring climbing books and magazines and spending all your time flat up against the side of a mountain before making bigger investments. That being said, you don’t want to buy the cheapest, shoddiest products out there. There is something to be said for the statement, ‘you get what you pay for’ and, after all, this is your life we are talking about!
When deciding where to climb, it might not be a bad idea to start out at your local bouldering gym. This is great way to learn technique in a less threatening environment. The furthest you are going to fall is about 15 feet, and even then you are falling onto a mat or springy, foam-insulated floor. Technical grades for bouldering have some variety, but the most common is the Hueco, or V-scale, ranging from 0 to 16, with 16 being the highest. If you can say you are doing a V-10, you are definitely allowed to do a little bragging. For rock climbing, the scale is a little different.
• 5.1-5.6 Easy
• 5.7-5.9 Intermediate
• 5.10-5.11 Difficult
• 5.12-5.13 Very Difficult
• 5.14-5.15 Expert
Don’t worry about climbing this ladder very quickly. Just because someone says they are able to climb a 5.11 doesn’t mean that they are a good climber – they might just muscle their way up. The best climbers are concerned about technique, grace and style. If you work on perfecting your skills instead of focusing on the numbers, you will advance in a more consistent manner. If you remain focused on skills and control of movement there is less of a threat of hitting a plateau, which can be a result of disregarding for technique. Just keep working at it and eventually you will start to feel that pull. That constant need to challenge yourself, because you know that you are just so close to figuring out that problem. You go to bed feeling like you scraped every single bit of flesh off the palms of your hands, every muscle in your body seems as though it cannot possibly move even one more inch, and you have inhaled so much chalk and dirt your lungs feel like they are coated. But, running through you mind is the way that you are going to try the problem again tomorrow. You can’t wait to go to sleep, because the sooner you do, the sooner you can wake up and give it another try.
Further sources of rock climbing information
- Basic guide to knot-tying
4 of the most commonly used knots in rock climbing
- What Rock Shoes Should I Wear?
Guide to choosing climbing shoes
- Different styles of climbing and descriptions
Descriptions of the different styles of rock climbing.
- Information, forums, and tips on bouldering
Guide to bouldering locations, articles and videos