Rock climbing, as a means for exploration, has been around forever. It has always been a way to access new terrain to explore. As a sport, it gained its popularity in the late 60s with the explosion of activity coming out of California’s Yosemite National Park. And most recently with the booming popularity of Rock Climbing gyms, Rock Climbing is more accessible than ever. I’ve climbed very hard routes in gyms (5.12+) and absolutely fun and exposed climbs outside, but there are so many things I wish I was told when I was starting out climbing. Here are some of my tips for the beginners out learning to scale rocks, both artificially in gyms or outside on cliffs and boulders.
Tip #1: Learn The Ropes & Lingo
Walking into a Rock Climbing Gym can be an overwhelming experience. Most have two different areas to climb: Bouldering or Top Rope. Bouldering involves climbing shorter, challenging walls with pads underneath the routes (or problems) that you can drop down onto if you fall. The other style is roped climbing, where you attach yourself to a rope and climb vertical walls 20-70ft tall. I highly recommend you taking an introductory class, offered by nearly every rock climbing gym multiple times per week, and is usually free with the price of admission.
There’s no real difference in the way that both styles of climbing are done, even though they are graded on different scales. The goal in rock climbing is to use your strength and technique to get to the top of the route without falling. As you climb more, your strength will increase, your technique will improve drastically, and your endurance will grow with the frequency in which you climb per week.
The gear you need is pretty simple for a day of climbing in the gym. Rock Climbing Shoes are a must, because they allow your feet to grip very tiny portions of rock or artificial rock holds with ease. Next is a Harness. These are required if you’re climbing with ropes, since this is the device that the rope attaches to you by. Attaching the rope to the harness will be something an introductory class can explain. And the last piece of equipment you might need is a chalk bag. Not required, but having powdered chalk on-hand can drastically help increase your grip on the holds due to the chalks ability to absorb any moisture on your hands which could make you slip and loose grip.
Tip #2: Start Slow
This applies to everyone, but especially to guys. If you get into climbing, odds are you’re probably athletic, which can sometimes be detrimental for beginners. What I mean by this is, rock climbing uses portions of your body that have never been trained before, specifically the tendons in your fingers, hands, and wrists. You might be able to lift a lot of weights and perform a lot of pull-ups, but this can actually cause issues when learning to rock climb. See, since your arms might be capable of performing the required move on the route, you will tend to grip really strong with your fingers in order to pull your self upward. In this case, your arms are stronger than your tendons, and you can literally pull on your tendons too much, resulting in various ways of damaging them.
You’ll hear rock climbers talk about having injured their “Pulleys”. This is a result of overstraining the tendon that runs from your finger tip to your palm, which are held in place by other tendons called a “Pulley”. These can be sprained or torn, which take weeks and months to recover from. All because your body was strong enough to make the next move on the rock climb, but the weakest link (your fingers) were not. All of this to say, go slow. You’ll be so excited learning to climb and progress so quickly within the first 5 days out climbing that your fingers simply will not be able to keep up. Climb within your limits, and don’t forget to take rest days to allow all these new muscles and tendons to recover.
Tip #3: Set Goals, Not Grades
Rock climbing routes, on both boulders and vertical walls, are graded on their own scales. In America, boulders get scaled on the Hueco V-scale, V0-V15 and beyond, with V0 being easiest, V3 being intermediate, and so on. Vertical climbs which require ropes are graded on the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) which range from 5.5 to 5.15. 5.5 being the easiest, 5.8 being intermediate, and 5.11 and up being expert.
As you climb more and more, you’ll increase the difficulty of your climbs. Moving through the grades, checking them off, is such a rewarding, accomplishing feeling. With that being said, know that grades aren’t the end-all-be-all of rock climbing. Which is why I recommend setting goals, not just grades.
There are so many different styles of climbing, moves, holds, techniques, experiences, etc. Your goal should be a well-rounded climber in all aspects, not just one. And what I mean by this is, you could be an expert at climbing one specific type of hold (a crimp for example) and are able to climb high grades on routes that have crimps, but you’re drastically worse on routes that require you to navigate sections with slab holds or cracks. So who cares if the route is 2 grades lower than what you can climb. If it is a style that challenges you and makes you better, that is all that matters. Climb for you, and don’t forget that.
Tip #4: Climb With Your Feet, Not Your Arms
This is the #1 piece of advice when meeting new climbers at the crag or in the gym. The apology that is often used, is climb any route like you would climb a ladder. What I mean by this is, how do you climb a ladder? Using your feet to propel you upward and your hands to provide stabilization and prevent you from falling back into your front yards for all your neighbors to see.
If you set the foundation of your climbing career by learning how to climb with your feet first, you will go much further than most people out climbing rocks today. It is very easy, and tempting, to want to use your arms only to muscle your way though a climb. Sure, that looks good on Instagram seeing a rock climber with their feet dangling over the valley floor below, but you know what, all that matters is your experience and if you got to the top of the route. The way in which you do it, doesn’t really matter. So wouldn’t you rather climb in a way that takes less energy, more stable, and allows you to climb more routes in a day? Then you need to focus on using your feet.
This is a tip I learned from Ice Climbing, and I still use it for difficult climbs today. Try to move your feet twice for every one move of your hand.
Tip #5: Falling is NOT Failing
This will be one of the hardest aspects of climbing to come to grips with. It is not uncommon that you might pick a route or problem and spend hours, days, or even weeks trying to climb it successfully. During that time, you’ll fall, over and over again. Some times you’ll fall off at the start, some times at the crux (hardest move), or sometimes you’ll be so exhausted that you’ll fall off with one move remaining. Just know, and reinforce to yourself, that falling is not failing. This is all a part of the climbing experience because it means you’re pushing your limit. Sure, some routes you expect to climb and not fall for various reasons (training, warming up, practicing). But when it comes to progression, you will undoubtably fall over-and-over again in order to progress to something harder.
Better yet, every time you fall, you will have intimate knowledge of something new you were learned. You’ll learn, through falling, all the things you did wrong. Because in rock climbing, your mistakes are very difficult to hide. If you misplace your foot, incorrectly grab a hold with 3 fingers instead of 2, or have your body positioned the wrong way, the route will tell you when you’re doing it wrong, by throwing you off either down to the pads below or back onto your rope. The safety precautions in place allow you to fall as many times as you’d like without getting hurt, and in-turn, allow you to climb as much as you want, and that is the addiction of it.
Tip #6: Get Outside
As soon as possible, go climbing outside. Climbing outside will give you an appreciation and an experience unlike anything you could ever afford in a gym atmosphere. Climbing outside involves a similar set of equipment as in the gym, but a bit more knowledge when ropes are being involved. But to go climbing outside, at a minimum, you can buy a bouldering pad (for fall protection) and go climbing 6-10feet off the ground on dedicated boulders or at the start of bigger routes on vertical walls.
The tactile experience of climbing on slick rock outside will make you a much better climber in the end. Holds aren’t color coded, there’s no real right or wrong way to climb a route, just go out and do it. It is absolutely helpful to have a mentor when going outside to help teach you the ropes, pun intended. This will be a skillset you can take with you for the rest of your life and teach other new climbers while they experience the real world of rock climbing outside. Speak to the instructors at your local gym about how to link up with a group or skilled outdoor climbers is the best way to get access to these types of experiences.
Well, there you have it. 5 tips that will set you on a path to super-stardom… well not really. But there 5 tips I wish I had known when I started climbing 7 years ago.
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.