Rock Climbing Guide
Rock climbing is a thrilling sport that engages the body and mind. When climbing a rock, nothing else exists to you. You are in another realm completely focused on rocks above and around you. The weather, view, rock formations, nature, and challenges make your adventure more interesting.
But rock climbing can quickly transcend being a sport to become an art with practice. The sport becomes a choreographed dance between yourself and the wall, perfect intuition and fluidity of movement guiding your ascent.
This page aims to introduce you to rock climbing, how difficult the sport is for beginners, different types of rock climbing, and getting the right gear for the sport. Let's get started!
What Is Rock Climbing?
The simplest way to define rock climbing is a sport that involves moving or climbing along a rocky or artificial rock formation usually with the aid of ropes and special equipment. The goal is to reach a summit, an endpoint, or a particular rock structure.
The type of equipment and technique used in rock climbing depends on the type of rock you are climbing. While rock climbing is a physically demanding sport requiring a good combination and agility, there is a mental aspect of the sport that’s equally important.
To get to the endpoint without falling, you need a great deal of mental fortitude – intelligence and coordination. Rock climbing can help sharpen or develop your skills at strategizing under pressure. I sometimes like to compare climbing to chess as you have to plan your next move before or as you are about to make the current one. You consider which foothold or hand is going to get you closer to the endpoint.
The challenge rock climbing poses is one of its major attractions. As a beginner climber, you are going to be surprised, impressed, and blown away by the large number of permutation of “moves” involved in climbing a route. You’ll find out that all the handholds and footholds can be grasped by either your left or right hand/foot (sometimes both). It’s now up to you to determine where to place each hand or leg, how many fingers to place on each hold, and so on. But know this, every decision you make in rock climbing has major consequences.
In a nutshell, rock climbing is a fun sport presenting several possibilities for each route with only a small fraction of those possibilities getting you to your goal. It’s challenging, but in an enjoyable way and as you gain more experience, you become an artist dancing your way across the wall of rocks to the very top.
Is Rock Climbing Hard For Beginners?
While different sports can be intimidating to beginners in different ways, rock climbing is unique in that it involves leaving the safety of the ground. You’ll also have to use equipment like ropes and harnesses that you are most likely not familiar with. But these have an easy learning curve and you’ll get the hang of it in no time.
One of the best things about rock climbing is that the climbing routes are available in different difficulty levels ranging from easy to very hard. As a beginner, you should start with something easy and work your way up.
While rock climbing requires a certain amount of strength and athleticism, physical prowess shouldn’t be a concern for beginners. As long as you are healthy and start with an easy route, you’ll be fine. You can then build your strength, endurance, and flexibility with practice.
The most difficult part of rock climbing for most beginners is the mental hurdle of climbing up high into the air. Most people have the natural fear of heights and preparing yourself psychologically before going rock climbing is important
Is Rock Climbing A Good Workout?
Rock climbing is a superb workout that can do wonders for your body and mind. You not only exercise your physical body but also engage your mind as you try to navigate your way through the vast number of routes available to reach the top.
As a beginner, you aren’t going to realize the intense physical, mental, and emotional requirements of rock climbing. But as you gain more experience and begin to take on more tricky routes, you begin to see that rock climbing can serve as both a cardio workout as well as a strength-building exercise.
What Does Rock Climbing Do To Your Body?
The following body systems are developed by rock climbing:
Cardio: Rock climbing is a great cardio workout that gets your heart pumping and warms your muscles. However, before climbing a rock, it’s advisable to carry out a few climbing-specific workouts to prepare your muscles for the challenges ahead.
This light workout is a cardio exercise on its own but the real cardio workout begins when you start your ascent. Different studies carried out about rock climbing over the years have shown that the sport is even more of an aerobic sport than previously thought and is a good way to shed weight.
Agility: Agility is important in rock climbing although you don’t gave to start out with a high level of agility. As you practice and gain more experience, you find yourself being quick on your feet and moving with a kind of efficiency and grace you never thought possible. You get a new sense of balance and will be as fit as a fox and as agile as a chimpanzee.
Strength: When you think about how difficult it is to hoist your body straight up a vertical surface with no support from gravity, you begin to realize why rock climbing is a total body workout and how it can build your strength. Your core, arms, legs, and back are going to see significant improvement after months of rock climbing.
Summary: You’ll be surprised at how fast you’ll break a sweat even when climbing an easy route. This is because easy routes require a whole-body effort and intense concentration and you’ll work out muscles you never knew you had.
Choosing A Type Of Rock Climbing
In this section, I’ll be explaining the different types of climbing as simply as possible. Here we go.
Indoor climbing – The easiest place to start
As a beginner, one of the easiest ways to get started with rock climbing is with an indoor wall or gym. Yes, climbing is more fun in the outdoors but starting indoors will help you familiarize yourself with the sport on an indoor, safe, and well-monitored wall.
There’s no shortage of rock climbing gyms around and you do some son research to find those closest to you. Not only will you find indoor climbing at gyms relaxed and fun, but there’s also an abundance of other climbing enthusiasts who will be more than happy to help you.
Note that you may have to pay a subscription fee at most gyms but the fee is usually affordable.
Bouldering is another option for beginners and can be practiced indoors or outdoors. You practice bouldering without using a rope or a harness. To prevent from getting injured in case of a fall, bouldering courses are set up close to the ground (no more than six meters high on average), and lots of soft protective mats placed on the floor for protection.
By climbing boulders, you get to build your upper and lower body strength as well as perfect your climbing techniques before taking on greater heights and more complex courses.
Belaying (Top-rope climbing)
Another wonderful type of rock climbing for beginners as it helps them get used to wearing a harness while learning the fundamentals of the sport.
In top-roping, the climber ties one end of the rope around himself/herself while the other end is attached to and controlled by someone on the ground (called a belayer). In event of a fall, the belayer will stop your fall. Some courses may utilize an automated belayer that detects falls and prevent them.
However, should your human or automated belayer fail to stop your fall for any reason (rarely happens), there are cushioned mats on the floor to protect you. The fall may hurt depending on the height you are falling from but you’ll definitely be okay.
Usually carried out as a group, traditional climbing involves the lead climber placing bolts along the rock wall. This makes trad climbing more difficult as the climbers must create their own route and secure the bolts using nuts and camming devices.
All equipment must be removed from the rock wall at the end of the climb. Aside from the climbers having the knowledge of anchor placement, traditional climbing requires patience.
One of the most versatile types of climbing, sport climbing is available in a variety of difficulties and route lengths. Here, emphasis is on the technique and moves rather than reaching the endpoint. Falls are expected here and are planned accordingly.
The climber uses a security rope that’s controlled by him/her. As the climber ascends, he/she clips the security rope into quickdraws (carabiner systems) that are periodically spaced along the route. While it is the responsibility of the climber to clip the rope to the quickdraws, there is still the need for a belayer on the ground that will feed the climber rope, catch their fall, or lower them.
Free climbing is a type of climbing where climbers rely on their own physical strength and skill to reach the endpoint. Equipment used in free climbing is only for protection in case of falls but the actual climbing is done by the climber unaided by any equipment.
Traditional and sport climbing explained above actually falls under free climbing as the climber may secure himself by cams, chocks, and other removable hardware into cracks (trad climbing) or by using quickdraws to climb routes that have pre-placed bolts for protection (sport climbing).
Free soloing, as the name implies, refers to climbing solo – on your own and without any equipment for climbing or protection. Only the most advanced and confident climbers attempt free soloing as the higher heights mean the climber has a very small chance of survival in case of a fall.
Sometimes, free soloing is done when the rock is over a water body (referred to as deep water soloing). In this scenario, the climber falls into the water in case of a fall and is unharmed. The water must be deep enough to cushion the fall of the climber even at great heights and that’s why it’s called ‘deep water soloing’.
While rock climbing is about reaching the summit or endpoint, rappelling is about descending a rock using ropes. Here, the climbing rope is anchored to a cliff using artificial anchors like bolts or cams. It is common to double the rope by trying it to another rope or with the midpoint at the anchors. The climber can then retrieve the rope after completing his descent by pulling it through the anchor.
What Is Belaying?
Belaying is, as established earlier in this article, the technique of controlling the rope so that a falling climber does not fall very far.
The term belay is also used to mean the place where the belayer is anchored; this would typically be a ledge, but may instead be a hanging belay, where the belayer is suspended from anchors in the rock. Control of the rope is achieved through applying friction, which allows control of the speed at which the rope slides past the belayer.
It is one of the most important climbing skills and is absolutely essential to all climbers.
Useful Safety Tips For Belaying
- Always pay attention to your climbing partner, and I mean ALWAYS…
- Always double-check your harness buckles are double passed
- Check the tie-in knot is properly tied
- Check the belay device is properly rigged
- Check that the locking carabiner is locked
- Check the anchor set-up and tie-ins are rigged correctly
- Check that the free end of the rope is knotted or tied into the belayer
- NEVER take your brake hand off the rope – and don’t hold any other strand other than the brake strand in your brake hand.
- Always keep the rope taut when belaying someone – do not let it pass through the belay device while lowering someone. Tie a stopper knot in the end, or even better, get your belayer to tie in to the end.
- Get acknowledgment before taking someone off belay. Don’t rush into things. Always get confirmation when taking someone off belay or committing to being lowered.
- Stand close to the cliff when belaying. Put a helmet on if you’re worried about rock fall. If you are belaying from too far out from the cliff the leader could be slammed into the wall during a fall.
- Forcing your panicked leader to take a fall because, down at the belay, you allowed a knot to creep into the slack rope. Flake the rope out before beginning belay duty, even if it looks neatly coiled.
- Getting hit by loose rocks or items dropped by your leader. Wear a helmet. Even something as simple as the movement of the rope above you can cause a loose rock to come crashing down.
Getting The Right Gear
Having the appropriate gear is important in rock climbing for your safety. If you start out with indoor climbing in a gym or with a guide, you may be provided with important equipment. It’s also common for gyms to ask to buy a few pieces of the most important gear.
You’ll eventually want to get your own set of climbing gear. Remember to always inspect any climbing gear given to you as they tend to wear out after some time. And if you are using your gear, you’d already know the history of your gear.
Clothing for climbing should allow you to move freely while also not getting in the way of you or the rope. Also, you should wear clothes that are breathable, quick-drying, and wick sweat. This way, you’ll remain comfortable and warm on your expedition.
It’s advisable for outdoor climbers to always pack clothes for changing weather conditions, just as you’d do on a hiking trip.
Available in different styles, climbing shoes are specifically designed to provide optimum protection for your feet while also providing enough friction to properly grip footholds. Ultimately, the type of climbing shoe you go for will depend on your climbing ability and the condition of the rock you are climbing.
While your climbing shoes must fit snugly (be sure to pick the right size), they shouldn’t be painfully tight although more technical terrains will require closer-fitting shoes.
Note that climbing shoes are only suitable for climbing. If you have to walk long distances to reach the base of the rock you intend to climb, you can damage your climbing shoes. Instead, pack a hiking shoe or trail runner to reach your climbing destination after which you put on your climbing shoes.
Climbing helmets are designed to protect your head from falling rock and debris. They also offer some sort of protection in case of a fall. It’s important to choose helmets specifically designed for climbing and such helmets should sit tight on your head, fit snugly, and be comfortable.
Note that climbing helmets are generally worn outdoors and not in a controlled environment like the gym. Rocks and debris aren’t going to fall on your head in a gym and as such eliminates the need for a climbing helmet.
Every rock climber needs a harness unless you are bouldering or free soloing. Made of two parts – the waist belt and leg loops, a harness allows you to tie into the rope easily, securely, and efficiently. The waistbelt goes over your waist or hips and should fit you snugly. There are usually two leg loops with each loop going around each leg. It’s important you buckle your harness correctly for safety.
Carabiners are strong, light metal rings that help attach climbing ropes to protection pieces like bolts, camming devices, and nuts thanks to their spring-loaded gates. Beginners generally require a locking carabiner that can be connected with a belay device.
A quickdraw is essentially two carabiners that are connected by a textile sling and is usually used in lead climbing. The idea here is to connect one end of the quickdraw carabiner to a bolt hanger on a route while the other end is attached to your rope. Doing this provides some slack on the rope by allowing the rope to move around while remaining attached to the bolt hanger.
Remember the belayer? Yes, the nice gentleman or lady holding the rope on the ground, feeding you rope, breaking or rather catching your fall, and helping you descend safely. Good. Your belayer needs a belay device to help you. The belay device increases friction which makes it easy for the belayer to do his stuff like catching your fall and gradually feed you rope as you ascend. And the two most common belay-device styles are tubular and assisted-braking.
Your nice belayer needs a quality pair of gloves to protect his/her hands from fast moving topes, hot belay device, dirt, aluminum oxide flakes, foreign materials stuck on the rope, and so on. This way, the belayer hands are protected and chances of losing control of the belay is greatly minimized.
A climbing rope is the most piece of gear to a climber. Simple as that. If you are starting out at a gym or with a guide, you’ll most likely be provided with a climbing rope. You’d eventually want to get your own rope and the exact rope you buy will be ultimately decided by where and what you are climbing.
There are two basic types of climbing ropes namely Dynamic and Static ropes. Dynamic ropes are elastic and are built to absorb the energy of a fall which can be very massive.
Static ropes, on the other hand, are relatively stiff and are more suitable for rappelling and rescues. At the end of the day, all climbing ropes must be certified by the UIAA which is the body that makes specifications that climbing and mountaineering gear must meet.
Remember how the lead climber sets anchors or places protection equipment in traditional climbing? This doesn’t concern you as a beginner although learning how to set anchors and place protection will make you a well-rounded climber. But you’ll need to properly master the sport first and then taking lessons on how to place protection.
Protection devices, simply called “pro” in trad climbing include cams, chucks, and nuts. When placed properly at strategic positions, pros ensure you do not fall a long distance.
Each of the two basic types of pro comes in a variety of sizes:
Active: This type comes with moveable parts and is designed to fit into a variety of cracks. An example of an active pro is a spring-loaded camming device (SLCD).
Passive: Unlike active pros, they are rigid and do not have moveable parts. A Hexacentric nut is an example.
Hire a Guide
You can’t learn rock climbing on your own as you need a guide to show you the ropes. Literally. It’s common to see beginners getting their experienced friends to help out, hire a certified instructor, or start out at a gym.
Rock Climbing Articles
Rocks are cool, but not as much as rock climbing! It’s one of the best ways to feel like an explorer while getting in touch with nature and all its beauty. Rock climbers also get an awesome workout which is always a plus. The only question is…are there any mistakes I should know about?
Rock climbing is a challenging sport with many different types of movements and techniques. You’ll want to make sure you’re prepared before you set out on your first climb. Read our articles for some rock climbing tips that will get you started on the right foot!
There are many things to like about rock climbing as I’ve already discussed in this article. For some, it’s the physical aspect while others are thrilled by the puzzle-solving and mental aspect of the sport.
I’ve also established that rock climbing is a good body workout and can do wonders for your body and mind. I hope this guide has given you a good idea of what to expect when you embark on your very first climbing expedition.
Remember to start out at a gym where you’ll be guided or hire a guide to teach you the fundamentals of the sport. Start out on an easy route and slowly work your way all the way up. Before you know it, you will become a conqueror reaching the summit of all the rocks you have your eyes on.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the comment section. For now, ‘Au revoir!”