Hanging from the side of one of Mother Nature’s finely sculpted peaks deserves the title of epic in a world that has diluted the meaning of the word by using it to describe mediocre accomplishments. The art of rock climbing is both a healthy shot of adrenaline and a serene, satisfying experience to free your mind. Just imagine bathing in a fiery sunset while you reach for another grip to pull yourself a little closer to the crown of the mountain. It truly is the closest you can get to flying without the use of a man-made machine.
Just like any other hobby or activity requiring a certain set of skills, you need to start at the bottom and work your way up to develop the rock climbing knowledge and physical prowess to become a bonafide pro. Rock climbing is a worthy pursuit for those wanting to stay fit and get their thrills in at the same time. We know how overwhelming it can feel to get into the rock climbing game, so we’ve developed a thorough guide to help you get started — we’ll be covering climbing jargon, the different types of climbing, the importance of communication, how to choose your routes as a novice, and the essential gear you’ll need.
A Brief Disclaimer
Rock climbing is a total blast, but it’s also a rather dangerous sport to take up. We can’t stress enough the importance of seeking a professional rock climber to guide you on your journey. Yes, this written guide is beneficial and will provide you with vital information on rock climbing, but a qualified guide is necessary to ensure you mold yourself into a badass rock climber. Seek out a certified instructor near you to teach you the ropes before you set foot on your first slab. Contact local climbing organizations or gyms for thorough instruction. This guide will make sure you have a solid rock climbing foundation so you won’t be in the dark completely when you hit up a local indoor rock climbing gym for your first session. Also, like with all thrilling activities, you should always implement the right safety precautions and invest in the proper protective gear.
Rock Climbing Lingo
There’s a lot of climbing terms that might sound confusing when you start rock climbing. To make sure you don’t get completely lost in rock climbing discussions, we’ve put together a list of basic vocabulary you should familiarize yourself with.
Anchor: A specific point of attachment for a climbing rope made with slings, runners, or the rope itself.
Belay Device: A mechanical friction device for controlling the rope while belaying, providing an easy way to stop the rope in case a climber falls.
Carabiner: A carabiner is a metal loop with a spring-loaded gate utilized as a connector.
Chock: A metal wedge or nut threaded on a wire, which is used for protection by wedging it into cracks.
Crag: This refers to a small cliff or climbing area.
Harness: This is used to connect the rope to the climber, and it’s made with a padded, reinforced belt and leg loops.
Jug: A large hold on a route that’s easy to grip.
Pitch: The length of a climb which can be protected by one rope length.
Protection: This refers to any device that secures a climbing rope to a rock in order to prevent a climber from falling a significant distance.
Rack: All the gear selected for a particular climb.
Rappel: The act of descending a cliff by lowering yourself on a fixed rope with your feet against the wall or mountain.
Rope: Climbing rope has two main components: a core and a sheath. The rope’s strength comes from the core and the sheath makes it easier to grip. There are dynamic ropes that have elasticity and absorb the energy of a falling cragsman, and static ropes, which are used for anchoring systems or hauling gear upward.
Types Of Rock Climbing
A Variety Of Verticals
There are many types of rock climbing and all of them will give you the adrenaline fix you’re looking for. We’ll be going over the types of rock climbing more suitable for novice cragsman, in addition to previewing some of the more advanced types.
Indoor Gym Climbing
We believe that rock climbing should start in the safest place possible, so the gym is where you vertical skills should begin. Indoor rock climbing gyms replicate nature’s natural peaks with artificial walls, handholds, and footholds. Gyms will set up various routes up the wall via color-coded holds. Typically, the difficulty of each color is marked at the beginning with a plastic card or sign informing you of every color’s name and grade. Route setters can even switch up the holds, creating an endless amount of challenges on the same wall. Indoor rock climbing gyms allows you to test your love for the sport with rented gear and basic instructions from a seasoned climber Plenty of colleges, recreation centers, and even some gear stores have a wall or freestanding pinnacle where the public can enjoy a safe climb if you’re not ready to become a member at a gym. Since this is where you’re going to spend most of your time as a beginner, we’ve come up with some solid tips for you to keep in mind.
1. Rely more on your legs for upward mobility because they’re stronger than your arms.
2. Focus on foot friction and leg placement so you can develop the right feel when climbing.
3. Take the time to watch veteran climbers scale a wall and pay attention to their choices.
4. When you’re on the wall, be conscious of the choices you make and analyze your climb after your gym session is over.
5. Relax and don’t over-grip because you’ll wear out your forearms.
6. Keep your body close to the wall so your center of gravity is balanced in a forward-backward direction and don’t point your knees directly at the wall.
7. Use the static climbing technique in moving your limbs before shifting your body weight. Be fluid with your movements.
8. As a beginner, your goal isn’t to reach the top but to enjoy the success of overcoming each challenge.
This type of climbing leaves you unchained, as you don’t need a rope or harness. In fact, this type of climbing requires the least amount of gear. Many new cragsmen start right off the bat with bouldering, but it still might be a solid choice to start with graded indoor wall climbing first so you can learn the ropes before getting rid of them. Although there are tall boulders out there meant for expert climbers, there are plenty of them perfect for beginners.
In bouldering, climbers can traverse or climb horizontally, parallel to the ground, more so than with other types of climbing.Bouldering requires scaling a man-made boulder indoors or one in the great outdoors that’s low that the fall won’t seriously injure anyone. This type of rock climbing requires crash pads, which are thick padded mats used to help cushion the landing of a climber if they happen to slip and take a dive. The only items you need for this type of climbing are a chalk bag and some trusty climbing shoes. Bouldering routes, usually called “problems,” are no more than 20 feet tall. In bouldering, climbers can traverse or climb horizontally, parallel to the ground, more so than with other types of climbing. This allows you to elevate your strength and increase your flexibility, which also helps you in other activities like obstacle courses.
Boulder problems are ranked on the V Scale in North America, where V0 is the easiest and V16 is the most challenging. We’ll get more into climbing route grades later on. You can definitely start bouldering at an indoor gym. Bouldering is so popular that some gyms are dedicated solely to this type of climbing.
Top-rope climbing requires anchoring your rope to a specific point at the top of the route and climbing toward the anchor while your partner keeps the rope tight. The challenge lies in making solid choices to overcome the obstacles along the way. This can also be done indoors, but once your skills reach a certain level, you can take your top-rope climbing outdoors and enjoy the mesmerizing views once you conquer a peak.
In having solid anchor points and a taut rope, you’ll decrease the length of your fall if you happen to lose your grip and slip off the rock. This is exactly why top-rope climbing is the first type of climbing with a rope you’ll be exposed to indoors. Unlike bouldering, this type of climbing requires a partner referred to as a belayer. The person you choose to be your belayer has the critical role of holding the rope for your safety. In outdoor top-rope climbing, your belayer is literally your lifeline, so choose wisely. A person you owe money to may not be the best choice. In all seriousness, having a certified climbing instructor as your belayer is your best bet.
Top-rope climbing, whether your outdoors or indoors, will require you to be a belayer as well. The following are the basic steps to set up the belay system. Although this information is beneficial, reaching out to a qualified climbing instructor is recommended to show you in person is ideal and strongly recommended.
1. The climber will tie into their harness with a figure eight knot and you’ll close the system by tying a stopper knot at the end of the rope. This ensures your end of the rope won’t pass through the belay device completely.
2. If the climber is heavier than you, use a ground anchor as well to help carry the weight differential. It’s also beneficial to use a ground anchor when the route is less than ideal.
3. Slide a bight (loop of rope) through the tube of the belay device closest to your dominant hand. The climber-rope side of the bight, which goes up to the anchor and back down to the climber, should always be on the top side of the belay device.
4. The locking carabiner has to pass through the bight and belay device cable, in addition to your harness belay loop. Make sure the rope bight doesn’t cross over the cable and don’t forget to lock the carabiner.
Even though you won’t be trying out these advanced types of climbing for a while, it’s still beneficial to gain knowledge about them. The two types of advanced climbing you should be aware of are outdoor sport climbing and traditional (trad) climbing.
In outdoor sports climbing, routes typically have bolts drilled right into the rock so you can use your quickdraws to clip in as you scale the peak. The emphasis for this mode of ascension is on the movement since sports climbers don’t place their own anchor points. With this type of climbing, the cragsman only has to worry about upward progress and not the hassle of lugging around a full rack of gear and placing protection (nuts or camming devices) along the way. Sport climbing requires a wealth of commitment to reach the climax of the vertical and has a greater potential for taking a drastic fall called a “whipper.”
Then there’s trad climbing, which differs significantly from sports climbing because you are required to hone the art and sweet science of anchor placement. On a trad route, there are only a few anchors or none at all. The bare mountain will be your vertical playground and you have to rely on placing your protection into the rock fissures for safety and upward progress. Where sport climbing at its core is mostly a physical challenge, trad climbing tests your mental game as well. The incredible skill of choosing your spots and placing anchors is crucial to trad climbing and should be mastered before you even dream about attempting this activity.
Dialogue For Precision And Safety
Communication is key in a relationship of any kind, including the one you have with your belayer and fellow cragsmen. Clear and concise dialogue reduces stress, increases climbing performance, and helps you avoid accidents.
Whenever you are calling out commands or responses, make sure you say your partner’s name first. This is a simple, yet important rule for solid crag communication because many climbers around you will be issuing similar dialogue. Of course, code names are encouraged, but make sure you practice them first.
The belayer will then say “climb on!” to both get the climber pumped and inform the climber the belayer is ready to go and paying attention.The types of climbing which require a belayer is where most of the dialogue comes into play, so we’ll go over the basic phrases for climbing communication with a belayer. Before a beginning a climb, ask, “on belay?” If the cragsman is on belay, they will respond with “belay is on” and follow that with “climbing” once they begin their ascent. The belayer will then say “climb on!” to both get the climber pumped and inform the climber the belayer is ready to go and paying attention.
Now, at any point during the climb where you feel like you might fall, call out “falling!” to instruct the belayer to increase the tautness of the rope in order to minimize the shock or impact of the fall. If the climber drops anything or sees a rock falling, they should call out “rock!” right away to inform the belayer below.
If the rope is too tight you can yell “slack!” to let the belayer know you need more rope. On the other hand, if you want a tighter rope yell “tension!” These are just several of the basic climbing commands and responses you should use. There’s more dialogue to learn, and you will absorb them all in time. Remember to use clear and effective communication to improve the safety and experience for yourself and those around you.
Picking On Peaks At Your Skill Level
There are two main route rating systems for rock climbers: the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) and the V Scale. It is imperative for you to check the rating of a route before you give it a shot for your safety. Starting out, you should always choose the lowest rated routes first and work your way up. Don’t try to jump the gun and tackle a higher rated climb because this art takes time to perfect.
Yosemite Decimal System
The YDS is the most popular system used in the United States to rate climbing difficulty. The scale runs from 5.0 through 5.15. As the decimal portion of the rating increases, so does the difficulty of the route. Here is a complete break down of the YDS:
Easy (5.0-5.4): These routes are suitable for beginners, as they have large handholds and footholds.
Intermediate (5.5-5.8): Intermediate climbs have low-angle to vertical terrain and small footholds and handholds. A route rated 5.5 may still be suitable for a beginner, depending on their skills.
Hard (5.9-5.10): This range has routes that are both technical and vertical and may have overhangs. These climbs require excellent skills and are perfect for most weekend cragsmen.
Hard to Difficult (5.11-5.12): This range also has routes that are technical and vertical with possible overhangs. In addition, the routes have small holds and match well with dedicated, veteran climbers.
Very Difficult (5.13-5.15): Arduous, upright climbing routes which require technical skill and could have overhangs with small holds. These climbs are for experts who train often.
Named after John “Vermin” Sherman, who rated routes with his fellow climbers in the famous Hueco Tanks bouldering area, the V Scale is used to rank bouldering climbs. Unlike the YDS, bouldering ratings vary more. Routes are ranked from V0 (the easiest) to V16 (the hardest), in addition to the VB rating for beginners. This scale is open-ended, as numbers higher than 16 may get added later. Also, you’ll occasionally see a ‘+’ or ‘-’ appendage attached to a value to further distinguish difficulty within the same rating. The V Scale roughly translates to the YDS. For example, VB routes would have a YDS ranking anywhere between 5.1 and 5.8.
The Tools To Conquer Mountains
Hanging from the side of a mountain or dangling from a boulder gives you a heart-pounding rush you won’t be able to recreate in quite the same way doing anything else. And, because you’ll be hanging out with the birds, you need to grab the best gear out there. Cutting corners with your rock climbing gear could lead to serious injuries. As a novice in rock climbing, you’ll need some basic gear to get you started. We’ve gathered several of the basic essentials you’ll need.
Petzl Lightweight Screw-Lock Carabiner
Optimized for lightness and strength, this locking carabiner is easy to use and reliable for scaling any peak. It has a wide contact surface for easier rope gliding and reduced wear on the carabiner itself. Its compact shape and ‘Screw-Lock’ system make it exceptional for multiple uses related to belaying. The H-cross section and key-lock system keep this carabiner from snagging during your climb.
FrictionLabs Gorilla Grip Chunky Chalk
Get a grip undisturbed by rain, sweat, humidity, and oil with FrictionLabs Gorilla Grip Chunky Chalk. This chunky chalk has no filler or artificial drying agents and it’s non-toxic and pigment free. It’s designed for extreme climbing routes and is endorsed by over 100 multi-sport professionals. FrictionLabs also gives you a 100% money back guarantee, showing supreme confidence in their product.
Petzl Grigri 2 Belay Device
Built with a progressive descent control system, this belay device will provide you with a smooth, balanced lowering action every time. It’s designed to work with single ropes between 8.9 and 11 mm and it features assisted braking along with a stainless steel friction plate an cam for longevity. With this belay device, you’ll have complete control of your climbing partner if they slip and fall.
Arcteryx AR-395a Harness
The AR-395a Harness boasts a ‘Warp Strength’ technology for incredible pressure dispersal and excellent comfort. It has a burly superior strength-to-weight ratio and compactness as well. The waist belt has a soft edge and four reversible polyurethane gear loops, meaning less pressure on your legs for further comfort. This harness keeps you secure and focused on the climb.
Mammut Wall Rider MIPs Helmet
The new standard for rock climbing protection, Mammut’s Wall Rider MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) helmet is the best out there. It consists of a plastic liner within the helmet shell, mirroring the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid, allowing it to protect your dome against diagonal impacts. The 225g helmet is all made with EPP (Expanded Polypropylene) cushioning and a partial hard shell for comprehensive protection.
La Sportiva Genius Shoes
According to La Sportiva, their Genius Climbing Shoes are the highest-performing rock climbing shoes on the market. The grippy shoes feature a fully adjustable lace-up closure system for the perfect fit. Its ‘No-Edge’ technology allows for optimal sensitivity and performance, giving you the support and power you need to reach the top. These shoes have a sticky ‘Vibram XS Grip 2’ soles for unrivaled reliability in climbing footwear.
Black Diamond Drop Zone Crash Pad
Using a closed-cell PE (polyethylene) multi-density foam layup on top and a high-compression PU-coated (polyurethane) 600-denier foam on the bottom, this crash pad will break your fall without breaking. It has a taco-style fold for a continuous landing surface and a quick-closure elastic mesh flap with easy hooking buckles for storing gear within the pad.
Sterling Evolution Velocity DryXP Rope
The Sterling Evolution Velocity DryXP Rope is the best all-around rope you’ll find on the market. It’s perfect for both rock and ice, making it the flagship of the Velocity lineup. It’s lightweight, durable, long-lasting, and convenient to handle. Not to mention, it’s a favorite among world famous athletes like Chris Sharma. This rope is also UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation) water repellant certified.
The 10 Best Rock Climbing Destinations For Beginners
Although an indoor climbing gym is the perfect place to hone your skills, nothing beats climbing outdoors. Check out our picks for the 10 best rock climbing destinations for beginners and soak in those views.