“Rock climbing”can describe a wide range of activities.
It can describe free-climbing the Dawn Wall like Alex Honnold, endangering your life to an almost comical degree, trying your best not to think about death as your chalked-up hands slowly grow sweatier, and weaker.
But it can also describe a corporate team-building exercise, where you climb up a hard plastic wall next to a flock of screeching 11-year-olds.
Let’s learn the basics, so you know where to get started!
Most great climbers climb both inside and outside. But the fact is, you’ll get a lot more street cred (rock cred?) if you climb outside. It’s undeniably cooler. It’s also undeniably more dangerous.
Climbing in the gym — especially a good gym — is dramatically safer, more controlled and more time-efficient.
It’s something you can do for an hour after work. Plus, it’s an amazing workout and a fun social activity.
Climbing outside requires more effort. It’s a lifestyle, an adventure and a commitment. You have to be willing to learn and you can’t be lazy about it. Outside, you're not falling on a foam mat like you are in the gym. You’re (hopefully not) falling on sharp rocks and you might be hours from any medical help. The stakes are much higher, but so is the rush.
In either case, the best thing you can do is make some good climber friends. As long as they’re not total knuckleheads, they can help teach you how to climb safe, and well.
The first few times you climb, you’ll be astonished at how difficult it is. But if you can get past this hurdle, learn basic technique and build up strength in the odd muscles the sport requires, it becomes wildly fun.
Unlike lifting weights, climbing constantly triggers the mind. You’re problem-solving, figuring out how to move your body as a kinesthetic puzzle.
At its simplest, climbing is simply the natural movement of your ancestral apes swinging through the trees.
At its most complex, it’s an in-depth expedition, where every detail of ropes, partners, weather, food, time, routes and gear matters to an extreme degree.
Climbing both is and is not a gear sport, depending on what you’re doing.
No matter what though, you absolutely need good climbing shoes.
It makes the sport dramatically more fun than going barefoot or in sneakers. Trust us. Most gyms offer (stinky, cheap) rental shoes, but we highly recommend upgrading to a mid-range shoe from your local sporting goods store.
A knowledgeable sales rep can help you, but most beginner shoes are fairly versatile. Just make sure to get a half-size too small. That way, when you break them in, you still have a lot of control and support. They should be a little tight starting out, but not “I am now crying” painful.
As for other gear, climbers' chalk and a chalk bag helps your grip more than you might think. Plus, it gives you something to do while you give your arms a break.
The various types of climbing more or less correspond to the length of your climbs and the added complexity required. While there are many more styles of climbing than what we’ll cover, here are the basics.
BOULDERING – CLIMBING AT ITS SIMPLEST
Bouldering is simply climbing a wall that’s about 15 feet or less without a rope. Most climbing gyms offer bouldering walls. Outdoors, bouldering “problems” can be found wherever there are big rocks. Look for them via the internet, secret tips from friends or apps like Mountain Project.
Bouldering is simple — just get up the wall. All you really need are climbing shoes, chalk and a foam crash pad if you’re going outside.
It’s a great sport for beginners because it will teach you the basic movement while also training you for harder problems.
Bouldering gyms use a V0-V1,2,3 etc. system to measure how difficult bouldering problems are. Each jump is pretty steep, but this ranking is also subjective based on who set the problem or route. Which is all to say: you might be able to do a V3 in one place, but not another.
For your first time in the gym, don’t be surprised if you max out at V1s, even if you’re already quite athletic. Climbing uses highly specific muscles and even weirder techniques. When in doubt, climb with your feet, not your hands. Remember that your legs are much, much stronger than your arms. Again, this is why having great shoes is so important.
TOP ROPE CLIMBING
The next jump up in complexity is Top Rope climbing, or top roping. You attach to a rope that’s slung around a fixed point above your climb and a friend, or “belay partner,” controls the other end with specialized belay devices, like an “ATC” or “Grigri.”
Top roping is very simple. You tie your rope into your harness. You climb up the wall. If you fall, your friend catches you.
At the top, they slowly belay you back down to the ground. Naturally, things can still go wrong — and even the best climbers in the world have been hurt while top roping, usually due to a belay partner getting criminally bored. Still, top roping is extremely safe, with children able to belay each other fairly easily.
Top roping is very common in gyms, but less so outside, as it requires a hike to the top of a cliff to set up your rope. This is why most outdoor climbers soon graduate to the “next level.”
Lead climbing is not incredibly complicated, but it’s a climber’s gateway to more adventurous, lengthy and technical styles of climbing, such as multi-pitch, mountaineering or traditional climbing.
The basic technique of lead climbing is simple.
Like top roping, a climber is attached to a rope and their friend is the belay partner whose job it is to stop them from falling. Unlike top roping, however, a lead climber takes the rope up with them.
Picture a half-dozen bolts in a climbing wall. A climber climbs up to the first bolt. He attaches a “quickdraw,” a double-ended carabiner to a bolt. Then he slings his rope through the carabiner. He's now created a point of protection where, if he falls, the belay partner can stop him at this bolt.
As the climber heads up the wall, he keeps attaching the rope to new bolts via new quickdraws, until he gets to the top. Then, his friend belays him down, and he “cleans” the pieces of protection as he goes down.
Now, this doesn’t sound too complicated, but as you might imagine, doing it properly is rather important. The potential for mistakes is quite high, and so, most climbers go into lead climbing with enough skills that they can focus on clipping in correctly and with enough fitness to do so with a clear head.
Our final broad category is more polarizing in the community as it’s a style that’s either adored or despised. However, it’s a necessity for serious mountaineering. Trad, or “traditional” climbing, operates on the same principles as lead climbing, but with a new layer of complexity.
In lead climbing, there are already bolts on the wall where you’re climbing. In trad climbing, you are creating your own bolts, with various pieces of protection.
Google a trad climbing rack and be astounded by the variety and amount of pieces a trad climber requires. By inserting these little metal doohickies into cracks and crevasses, a good trad climber can create extremely safe pieces of protection, as good as a bolt.
Of course, you may have already seen the issue here. A good trad climber has to know which tool is best for which crack in the rock. It ’s not something you want to get wrong — and it’s something you may have to do while exhausted, seven-hundred feet up, as light is falling and a thunderstorm is approaching.
This is why trad climbing is considered the most technically difficult type of climbing. These “racks” of gear are not only expensive, they ’re heavy and require a deep knowledge of how to use them properly. Still, if you can trad climb, you can climb practically anywhere.
As you might imagine, climbing is something best done slowly, and best done well. We’d recommend a climber start out bouldering in a gym or top roping with an experienced friend. Once you catch the climbing bug, you'll be scaling peaks in Yosemite in no time!