We've all seen Mission Impossible 2 (or at least the preview): Tom Cruise hangs perilously from a rock by his fingertips, the mere slip of a finger bringing about a terrifying plunge to death. Cooooool
Well, rock climbing isn't as glamorous as Hollywood makes it look. It's an intense sport that requires lots of preparation, practice, and concentration. But with this primer, you'll be well on your way to going on your first rock climbing expedition. Having said that, this SYW should not serve as your only reading. Rock climbing after doing nothing more than reading this SYW is like driving a car for the first time after watching a Toyota commercial. But it's a start. After reading this article, we suggest that you enroll in a class and go climbing with an instructor. To protect our toned butts, we repeat: go climbing with an instructor. Unless you like the "full-body cast" look.
1. Make Sure You're Physically Capable
Rock climbing requires you to be in pretty good physical shape. You don't have to be Sylvester Stallone or anything (thank God!), but you nonetheless must realize that you'll be using your legs and arms to haul your carcass up the side of a mountain. Halfway up the face of a rock is not a good place to realize that you have the body strength of a wimpy second grader who always gets his lunch money stolen.
Gyms with rock climbing walls are a great place to begin training. You'll get a feel for the amount of physical exertion you'll need to expel, and you'll get to test out different levels of expertise. Once you're comfortable with an indoor rock wall, you can move on to the great outdoors. But before you do that, take stock of your current physical shape and abilities. You may find that you need to work on one or more of the following areas:
Lack of acrophobia
You need plenty of endurance for rock climbing, since a big part of the sport involves hiking. So if you're of the couch potato variety, you should start preparing at least 4 weeks before any rock climbing expedition by taking aerobics classes, doing some mild running, swimming, or biking. It'll build up your stamina.
Stretching is VERY important. Stretch everything, especially your legs, arms, and fingers. It may sound weird, but flexible fingers are a must. When you're grabbing for a ledge that's one measly centimeter wide, you'll want finger flexibility. And no, surfing the Internet for porn does not give you more flexible fingers. Instead, you can increase your finger flexibility by crinkling paper into a ball with one hand.
Though you don't have to be ripped to climb, you do have to be strong enough to push yourself up a wall of rock, so some basic weight training would be useful. One thing that many people don't realize is that while rock climbing, you actually use your legs more than your arms -- so if you have particularly weak legs, that would be a good place to start. However, since most people's legs are stronger than their arms, you should spend about equal amounts of time exercising both the upper and lower body. And since you're doing all that exercise anyway, you might as well tone up your abs. Here's a slightly premature tip: when climbing, push up with your legs rather than pulling up with your arms whenever possible. Your arms will tire more quickly if you don't, and you need to conserve enough energy to finish the climb.
Tying knots is a fundamental skill in rock climbing. It takes practice, but you only need to know how to tie a couple types of knots, and it's really easy to learn. Thursday night "Must See TV" is a perfect time to hone your skills. Grab some rope and sit on your couch. Every time Ross says something dorky, tie a knot. You'll get really good really fast. Here are the five most common knots used in rock climbing.
Lack of acrophobia
If you have acrophobia (that is, the fear of heights), then don't even attempt to rock climb. You'll be miserable and you'll freak out your climbing mates.
2. Familiarize Yourself With The Different Types Of Climbing
These are the five main types of rock climbing, arranged from the least to the most dangerous:
Aid (or artificial) climbing
Full-safety climbing is the safest way to climb, but it's also the least exciting. With full-safety climbing, you are tied to all kinds of ropes and you climb up a surface by grabbing onto pre-installed grips. Furthermore, someone on the ground will be pulling on the rope to help you haul your body up the surface, just in case you're not strong enough to do it yourself. Basically, it's just like rock climbing on one of those walls in the mall. You can do it, but it's not nearly as fun.
Free climbing is the most common type of rock climbing out there, and is considered to be the "essence" of the sport. Equipment is used only for safety, not for creating holds (the places where you grip the rock). When you see amazing pictures of psychos hanging off of rocks with one hand (with nothing but a rope around their waist), that's free climbing. Your first climbing experience will consist of quite a bit more safety, but this will still most likely be the type of rock climbing that you will do as a first-timer.
Another popular first-time climbing option is bouldering, or a short climb unaided by equipment. This style is used on a low, freestanding rock or at the base of a larger rock (where falls aren't very steep or dangerous). Nevertheless, a spotter should always be present.
Aid (or artificial) climbing
This should be left to pros. Used mainly when free climbing becomes impossible, aid climbing uses equipment (like hand-held suction cup thingies) to create artificial holds in the rock. Complicated and scary.
Soloing should be left to those with a death wish. It is a longer climb unaided by safety equipment. This style is very dangerous, and even many professionals refuse to do it.
Within these types of climbing, there are other safety features you can use. A very popular safety feature is belaying: when two people climb together while hooked up to each other. Used in free and aid climbing, belaying prevents long falls (undoubtedly a good thing). The "leader" climbs first, and the "second" follows. While one is climbing, the other belays him/her -- that is, releases enough rope for him/her to climb. The rope is anchored to some fixed point on the rock (like a crack or a tree) while the belayer stays steady at that point to attend to the rope. Should you fall, you will only fall as far as the amount of rope that has been anchored. Don't worry about the details of belaying yet just realize that it is another safety feature which exists.
3. Gather The Proper Equipment
How serious are you about rock climbing? There are many different levels of commitment:
- Doing it just to impress a boyfriend/girlfriend/pet goat
- A one-day experience to say that you did it
- A "just a few times a year" experience
- Exploring new potential weekend hobby because you like nature
- You plan to climb the Himalayans to search for a Yeti
- A blossoming full-time career as a rock climber
Figure our your short-term goals before you spend hard-earned money on piles of equipment that will sit unused in a closet next to the kayak paddles and the fencing sheath. You may want to rent equipment for your first time if you're not sure, because you'll need a lot of stuff and prices will quickly accumulate.
Here's the basic equipment you'll need for a climb. As you become more skilled, your collection of equipment will increase. The type and amount needed will vary depending on the difficulty level, but this list is a good place to start:
- Clothing. Wear clothing, or you might get arrested. But even more importantly, wear comfortable clothing. Many people prefer to climb in shorts and a T-shirt, though some wear tight Lycra pants. Some climb as dressed as RuPaul, but they're usually paid to do it. Find the most comfortable outfit for you. Just make sure that your clothing allows you to spread your legs wide enough so that you can reach different footholds.
- Harness. The harness provides a comfortable means of attaching yourself to the rope that will prevent you from plummeting. Also, in the event of a fall (which may happen), it will help you to remain in an upright position (read: your trail mix won't fall out of your pocket as you dangle 40 feet above the ground). It'll cost $40 - $45.
- Rubber-soled climbing shoes. The rubber of these shoes molds to the surface of the rock. In situations where footholds are hard to come by, you may need to "smear" the shoe against the rock to gain a hold. Make sure the shoes fit and are comfortable. You can probably get by without special shoes, but clinging to a rock is hard enough why make things more difficult? Go to a sporting goods store and ask the salesperson to hook you up with shoes made specifically for climbing. They usually cost $100 - $150.
- Chalk and chalk bag. If just watching a precarious situation on TV is enough to make your palms sweat, then you will undoubtedly need chalk. Hanging from a rock -- and situations with high levels of anxiety -- tend to make palms get a tad damp. The chalk takes care of this potentially slippery situation. A bag (with chalk) will cost you around $10.
- Helmet. Helmets protect against loose, falling rocks, and they also come in handy if you're the one doing the falling. Because helmets don't fit the popular "tough guy" mountaineer image, many climbers do not wear them. Those people are fools. Decide for yourself, but remember it's difficult to un-dent a skull. And you're too old for peer pressure anyway.
- Rope. No matter what kind of climbing you do, you will need special rock climbing rope. Here's what to look for: strength, elasticity, flexibility, impact load, thickness, and the number of falls (by you) it can withstand before becoming unusable. Your rope is your best friend on the rock, so don't take any chances. The most common rope is called a "kernmantel," which has tightly woven nylon fibers over a loosely plaited core or a collection of straight fibers. Be sure to consult with a salesperson who has plenty of climbing know-how. Good rope is expensive; at the beginning, you might shell out $150 on rope alone. All the better reason for you to rent at the beginning and make sure you want to keep climbing those rocks.
- Carabiner. Carabiners are metal links used to hold the rope in place quickly and securely. The standard snapping variety is the lightest, and climbers may carry thirty or more. By the way, it's pronounced "care-a-bean-er," so you sound like you know what you're talking about when you walk into the sporting goods store. And if you want to sound ber-cool, just say "beaner." A carabiner will cost you about $10.
- Nuts or "pro". All nuts are called "protection," or "pro," because they protect the climber from a possible fall. Nuts are inserted into cracks in the rock in order to help hold the rope in place. Coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, you link them to your rope with a carabiner.
- Tape slings. These strong strips of nylon can run anywhere from a couple of inches to four feet long, and are useful for wrapping around trees and other objects. Short ones with a carabiner on each end are used to connect nuts to the rope.
- Descenders and belay plates. The rope is run through these to provide friction while rappelling.
You might not quite exactly understand what all of this equipment does. That's because it's tough to get a clear picture until you're actually in the situation and you see how it works. Nonetheless, you at least have an understanding of the fundamental equipment you'll use and their basic functions. That puts you a step ahead of where you were 5 minutes ago.
4. Decide Where To Climb
The grading scale
Each trail or route is rated on a scale from 1 - 6 (with 1 being a relatively easy hike and 6 being a strenuous climb). Class 5 is highly subdivided to include all possible free climbing environments; it's what you imagine rock climbing to be.
- Class 1 is characterized by trail hiking. Just a walk in the woods. No rocks involved. Boring.
- Class 2 trails may require the use of hands for support. A couple of rocks but still no climbing.
- Class 3 trails contain some rocks. Inexperienced climbers may wish to use a rope, but it's still fairly easy.
- Class 4 has more difficult rocks. Many climbers choose to use a rope for safety. Usually, natural protection is easy to find.
- Class 5 is free climbing. A rope and protection are required. Class 5 is subdivided by the Yosemite Decimal System into fifteen groups from 5.0 to 5.14. Beyond this division, decimals from 5.10 through 5.14 may have an A, B, C or a + or - to further indicate difficulty level. A general guide for the decimal system is as follows:
- 5.0-5.7: This range is easy for adept climbers. Most beginners start in this range.
- 5.8-5.9: Most weekend climbers settle in this range. Specific climbing skills are employed.
- 5.10: A dedicated weekend warrior may achieve this level.
- 5.11-5.14: This range is for climbing experts. Extensive training and possible reworking of the route is required.
- Class 6 is characterized by artificial (Aid) climbing. Holds may not be available without the use of equipment.
The grading scales vary greatly from country to country. Many guidebooks will have a conversion table for your convenience.
Choose a location
Wonderful rock climbing locations abound across the country. Contact the location nearest you to find what they offer:
New Hampshire (The White Mountains)
- Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School, Main St., North Conway, NH 03860 (603) 356-5433
- IMCS, Inc., P.O. Box 1666, North Conway, NH 03860 (603) 356-7064
New York (The Adirondacks)
- Alpine Adventures, Inc., Route 73, P.O. Box 179, Keene, NY 12942 (518) 576-9881
- Diamond Sport, 3 Crispell Lane, New Paltz, NY 12561 (800) 776-2577 (914) 255-4085
- High Angle Adventures, Inc., 5 River Rd., New Paltz, NY 12561 (800) 777-CLIMB (914) 658-9811
- Zen Mountain Monastery, P.O. Box 156MR, South Plank Rd., Mt. Tremper, NY 12457 (914) 688-7993
West Virginia (The Appalachians)
- Seneca Rocks Climbing School, Inc., P.O. Box 53, Seneca Rocks, WV 26884 (304) 567-2600
- Hard Rock Climbing Services, 131 S. Court St., P.O. Box 398, Fayetteville, WV 25840 (304) 574-0735
- Devil's Lake Outdoor Training Center, P.O. Box 44156, Madison, WI 53744 (800) 33CLIMB
Wyoming (The Tetons)
- Exum Mountain Guides, Grand Teton National Park, Box 56, Moose, WY 83012 (307) 733-2297
- Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, Box 7477, Jackson, WY 83001 (307) 733-4979
- Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service, Box 600, Hill City, SD 57745 (605) 574-2425
- Fantasy Ride Mountain Guides, P.O. Box 1679, Telluride, CO 81435 (303) 728-3546
- SouthWest Adventures, P.O. Box 3242, 780 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81302 (303) 259-0370
- Tower Guides, P.O. Box 3231, Grand Junction, CO 81502 (303) 245-6992
- Wilderness Connection, P.O. Box 29, Joshua Tree, CA 92252-0029 (619) 3664745
- Vertical Adventures, P.O. Box 6548, Newport Beach, CA 92658 (714) 854-6250
- Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service, Yosemite National Park, Yosemite, CA 95389 (209) 372-1244
- Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, P.O. Box 301, Bass Lake, CA 93604 (415) 309-3153 Shasta Mountain Guides, 1938 Hill Rd., Mt. Shasta, CA 96067 (916) 926-3117
- American Alpine Institute, 1515 12th St., Bellingham, WA 98225 (206) 671-1505
Enroll in a course
You are not Spiderman. Thusly, you can not climb a rock without good professional instruction. Call your local rock-climbing center to see what is offered in your area. Classes will vary based on:
- Difficulty levels
- Indoors only vs. traveling to an outdoor practice site
- Size of class (you may even hire a private instructor)
- If equipment and shoe rentals are covered
So do some investigative work and call around. Look in the Yellow Pages. Your local sporting goods store may be able to recommend some instruction facilities too. One last way to find a course is to find a climbing gym in your area using these climbing sites:
5. Know How To Avoid Plummeting
Good communication is critical when climbing. At times, the leader and the second may lose sight of one another. Without verbal communication, one climber may begin climbing before the other is ready to belay (a scary thought). So a set of calls should be practiced and agreed upon beforehand. Some common rock climbing verbal calls include:
- "Off belay!" The leader has reached a secure place. The second may discontinue the belaying process.
- "Taking in!" The leader will now pull the slack of the rope that remains between the two climbers. The second should watch for snags and tangles in the rope.
- "That's me!" The second informs the leader that no slack remains.
- "On belay!" The leader is ready for the second to begin climbing.
- "Climbing!" The second answers that he is ready.
- "Climb!" The leader gives the final cue to begin the climb.
- "Slack!" The climber asks the belayer for extra rope.
- "Up rope!" The belayer may remove any slack that has accumulated.
- "Tension!" The belayer should take in enough rope to support some of the climber's weight; a somewhat urgent call.
- "Watch the rope!" "Watch me!" or "Take me!" A fall or difficult move is anticipated. The belay may be tested, so get ready!
We hate to break it to you, but after you get to the top, you're gonna have to find a way to get back down. There are three ways to do this: rappelling, walk-down routes, and jumping. For obvious reasons, we shall only consider the first two.
One method of returning to the ground after a climb is rappelling. You've seen robbers rappel down the sides of buildings on TV: you hook a rope to the top of a rock, and you bounce down the side of the rock as you let a little bit of rope out on each bounce. Rappelling is a rather dangerous part of the climb, but some people consider it the most enjoyable part also. During the ascent, the rope is present as a safeguard, but during the descent, the rope becomes the means of movement, and a safeguard no longer exists. To begin rappelling, the rope is run from the anchor on the rock through a screw gate carabiner on the harness over the shoulder and to the opposite hand. The rope is held behind the body by one hand to control the friction generated and thus the speed of descent. Friction devices such as the figure eight descender have made rappelling safer and easier, but be wary. Make sure that each element of the rappel is secure before beginning to move down the rock face. And NEVER attempt to rappel until you have gone through the proper training with an instructor -- if you don't, it'll be the most dangerous part of the climb.
If rappelling freaks you out, then note that many climbs have a walk-down route, which of course doesn't require ropes and safety. Only feet.
Planning and patience
We don't mean to get all preachy, but planning and patience are crucial elements of rock climbing. Rock climbing is a lot like chess: you have to think ahead, know exactly where you're going to plant your hands and feet after each move, and stay safe throughout the whole process. Here are some tips:
- Look down to find footholds and up to find handholds. You may use the same hold as both a handhold and a foothold.
- Move smoothly, and try not to employ unneeded motions, as this will use significant energy (and possibly make you lose your balance).
- Look for footholds at a normal stepping distance. Lofty steps are often strenuous, but small steps waste energy.
- If possible, choose handholds at head height. Holding hands above the head is more tiring.
- To begin, always have contact with the rock in three places, two feet and a hand or two hands and a foot.
- Try to use your legs and not your arms when possible. Your legs are stronger than your arms, and they already support your body naturally.
You're high above the ground. Suddenly all of your protection pops out of the rock one by one. Your rope breaks in half, and you are left hanging from a cliff's edge by one finger. That is a movie. Gotcha! Learn how to climb correctly, trust your gear, and it won't happen to you. Yes, clinging to a rock a hundred feet above the ground is scary, but the feeling you'll get when you reach the top is indescribable. What a rush. What an amazing accomplishment. What dedication. And what a view! (Don't forget your camera.)
SoYouWanna know more? Check out our full-length article SYW go skydiving?