When you’re climbing, the entire world melts away and the only things that exist are you and the rock. You breathe. You focus. You move and dance in a way that brings rhythm and power to your being. These days, there are so many styles and climbing environments to choose from: indoor, outdoor, bouldering, sport, trad, alpine, crack, face, the list goes on. Where do you start? Go with sport climbing. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to learn, and safe—compared to other styles of climbing and other extreme sports. And it provides another amazing way to intimately connect with nature and the strength of the human body.

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GEAR

  • Harness – This is the centerpiece of safety. It holds your devices and connects you to the friction system, rope, and belayer.
  • Belay Device – The rope runs through this device to create a friction system that locks in the event of a fall.
  • Locking Carabiners – It’s good practice to keep three to four with you always—for yourself and for others to borrow. You can never have too many ways to anchor yourself into the wall.
  • Personal Anchor System (PAS) – This connects you to the anchor so that your belayer can exit the safety system. Use locking carabiners to connect the PAS to both bolts at the anchor.
  • Prusik – When you tie a piece of cordelette together with a fisherman’s knot, you get a Prusik. Use it when you rappel from the anchors as a backup “catch” in the rare case that you lose control of the descent.
  • Rope – Use a 60 or 70-meter dynamic climbing rope with a thickness between 9.8 and 10.2mm, for starters.
  • Helmet – Wear it any time you’re exposed to potential rockfall.
  • Shoes – Scour secondhand stores for a bargain, or get a comfortable pair from an outdoor equipment retailer. You don’t need anything too aggressive to start out. Comfort is more important.
  • Quickdraws – Clip quickdraws to bolts and rope to quickdraws as you ascend. A set of twelve will get you up most climbs.
  • Chalk/chalk bag – You will become addicted to covering your hands in chalk (like every climber does). It’s calming, comforting, and assists in the flow of your climb. Plus, it really does help your sweaty hands stick to the rock better.
  • Nail clippers – Keep a pair in your climbing bag. It’s really uncomfortable to climb with long fingernails and just downright painful with long toenails.
Officer's Gulch - Climbing - Vail Valley - Fall Shoot - OutThere Colorado - 632
Sport Climbing at Officer’s Gulch. Vail Valley, Colorado. Photo Credit: OutThere Colorado.

Getting Started

  1. Build a strong base – Climbing isn’t just about upper body muscles. Having full body strength will turn you into a well-rounded climber and prevent injuries. We’re not talking body building. Yoga, biking, hiking, and running are all great ways to cross train for climbing. Building a strong core especially helps. Every climbing move originates and moves out from the core.
  2. Find a mentor – All good climbers had a mentor and most want to pass on the good deed. Find friends in the climbing community (i.e., the local rock gym) and ask one to teach you the ways of the crag.
  3. Learn how to lead belayLead belaying requires a different technique, more focus, and a bigger trust relationship between partners. Each phase of your partner’s climb requires different methods.
  4. Gain comfort on the rock – Once you have your mentor, top rope as many routes as you need, until you gain a certain level of comfort and confidence on the rock. Your body will learn the balance, weight transitions, and possibilities for movement in climbing, and soon it will become second nature.
  5. Learn how to clean and rappel – Your mentor will also teach you how to clean a route, and then rappel off it. This means retrieving quickdraws at the anchor, re-threading the rope through the anchor chains, and then descending via rappel. Always, always, always double check that you are anchored into something during this process, and communicate clearly with your partner. Practice on the ground before executing cliffside.
  6. Commit clipping to muscle memory – As you approach readiness for lead climbing, learn how to clip, and commit it to muscle memory. Clipping efficiently can be one of the hardest things for beginner leaders to learn. Rig something up in your bedroom and practice clipping with both hands repeatedly until it happens on autopilot. Know what z-clipping and back-clipping look like and then avoid them on the wall.
  7. Crush your first lead – You’re ready! Hop on a 5.6, 5.7, or 5.8 (whatever you know you can climb) and crush your first lead. Remember, you absolutely know how to climb at this level. Just move like you know how. Don’t forget your footwork. Breathe.
  8. Climb consistently – Now that you’ve taken your first lead, make it a priority to lead consistently. Try to get out there at least once a week to build your confidence and find your flow.
  9. Take your first fall – You’re crushing beginner leads, but have you taken your first fall yet? Are you terrified of falling? Is it hindering your climbing ability? You can either practice falling to get a feel for it, or let it happen naturally by pushing your grade. Either way, when you take that first fall, your partner will catch you, it will be fairly anticlimactic, way less scary than you thought, pretty fun actually, and you’ll realize that falling is insanely survivable. Now you can climb without being so hindered by fear.
  10. Celebrate your progress – Give yourself credit for everything you’ve accomplished and for all of the fears you’ve conquered. It’s so easy to compare yourself to other climbers, but the comparison game is toxic. Every climber is on his or her own journey. It has nothing to do with everyone else and everything to do with how you feel on the rock.

Pro Tips

  • Don’t injure yourself by climbing five days a week. Athletes who climb that much have strict training programs designed specifically for injury prevention.
  • Don’t expect aggressive shoes to magically up your climbing game. Work on your technique and footwork. You don’t really need aggressive shoes until you breach the harder 5.10 range and above.
  • Don’t let indoor climbing ruin your outdoor game. Indoor walls and outdoor crags climb completely different—holds, movements, colors, incline, falls. It can get confusing to switch back and forth, so you may want to stick with solely outdoor climbing while it’s in season. Avoid getting stuck in the mindset of feeling “safe” leading in the gym, but not outside.
  • Feel out the area. Ratings may be sand-bagged or the style of climbing may be drastically different than you’re used to. Climb an easy route to start in case the “easy” route turns out to be a lot harder than you expected.
  • Learn from your climbing partners. Teach each other knots, safety tips, and technique. We pick up different tips when we climb with different people.

 

Safety First

  • Wear your helmet always, even on the approach, and even if you’re just hanging out at the crag. Loose rock could find your head at any time.
  • Warming up is important. Start on easier routes to get the blood flowing so that you don’t injure yourself.
  • Take a rock self-rescue class so that you have an understanding of tools to use in less than ideal or dangerous circumstances.
  • Always check your partner’s set-up and have them check you. Communicate clearly and avoid complacency. That’s when accidents happen.
  • Always ask yourself, “Am I anchored into something”. Even better: “Am I anchored into more than one thing?”. Many fatalities occur when this question gets overlooked.
  • Have a stick clip handy for high first bolts, especially if you are trying to push your grade. A stick clip is way cheaper than a broken ankle.
  • Inspect your gear for damage frequently.

The Next Steps

With climbing, you’ll never stop learning, and that’s why it’s beautiful. Once you make your way past beginner sport climber, look towards leadership and teaching opportunities. Pass on the good deed and mentor someone yourself. Set goals with your climbing partner or partners. Commit to climbing on the same day every week, push yourselves to reach a certain grade, or plan your first climbing specific trip. Explore other styles of climbing. Try the multi-pitch experience or learn how to trad climb. Conquer new environments. Take your skills to the alpine or desert landscapes and play with new styles of movement. You’re going to discover so much about yourself and the people with you along the way.

Shelf Road - Climbing - 4 - OutThere Colorado
Climbing at Shelf Road. Photo Credit: Stephen Martin, OutThere Colorado.

Glossary

  • Sport climbing – a style of climbing where the athlete must clip bolts for protection as he/she moves up the route.
  • Lead climbing – a style of climbing where the rope runs directly from belayer to climber. The climber must use existing protection or put in his/her own protection for clipping during route ascent.
  • Top rope – a style of climbing where the rope runs all the way up to the anchors, through quickdraws, and back down to the climber. This must be set up via cliff top access or lead climbing.
  • Anchor – the clip in station at the end of the climb, comprised of two bolts with chains hanging from each.
  • Cordelette – cord used for climbing anchors and safety backups meant to handle intense force and weight.
  • Quickdraw – It is comprised of two non-locking carabiners—one on each end of a weight-bearing fabric loop. Climbers clip a quickdraw to a bold on the route and then clip the rope to the other end of the quickdraw.
  • Dynamic rope – a type of rope that stretches so that when a climber falls, the catch is less abrupt.
  • Stick clip – a long, extending pole used to clip a quickdraw to the first bolt when the climber would be left very exposed getting to the first bolt.
  • Z-clip – a clipping mistake where the climber grabs rope from below the last bolt and clips it into the above bolt.
  • Back clip – a clipping mistake where the quickdraw is twisted after clipping. This has the potential to allow the rope to escape the clip in the event of the fall.
  • Sand-bagged – the route climbs harder than its rating.

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