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What is climbing and who can climb? – Tips for beginners
Climbing is for everyone! This unique activity unites the young and the old, men and women, those who are able-bodied and those who have a disability. There are no limits, nobody is judged. You can find your own challenge, set your own level and follow your heart. Climbing is one of those activities that simply feels amazing to do – it’s not repetitive and does not feel like working out in the gym with weights. It shares similarities with dance, martial arts and gymnastics, which require agility and a calm mind. That said, you don’t need to be great with heights or be super-fit to enjoy it – climbing is a natural activity, which we are born to do!
Climbing for beginners: how to start?
These days the easiest way to start climbing is indoors. Modern climbing gyms present a fantastic user-friendly, and inclusive environment. You can hire your shoes, there’s no need to go high up – you can start off with bouldering (when you climb unroped to low heights above crash matts and simply climb back down or jump off). If you wish to try roped climbing you can also do this at some gyms.
Book an induction course, which will include equipment hire and an instructor who will show you the ropes. If you get the bug and wish to venture outdoors then you can book on a course at an outdoor centre, hire a guide or venture out with some experienced climbers. At this stage you may wish to invest in your first pair of shoes, a chalkbag and a harness, which are the standard items of equipment in a climbers’ ‘starter pack’.
Different types of climbing
Climbing is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports and gyms are springing up everywhere, mainly in large towns and cities. Do an internet search and you’ll find your nearest one quickly. Some gyms only offer bouldering whereas others offer roped climbing as well. With roped climbing, everyone learns with a ‘top-rope’ – this is where the rope is anchored above the climber, meaning that they can’t fall any distance. However, more experienced climbers often progress to ‘leading’ – this is where the climber must clip their rope into anchor points (known as ‘quickdraws’) as they gain height, the result is that they may fall slightly further. Indoor roped climbing can be regarded as safe-to-try and fun, provided safety protocol is adhered to strictly.
Rock climbing is a truly magnificent activity, which takes place in some of the most beautiful and spectacular natural landscapes on earth, from dramatic mountain faces to deep river gorges, towering sea-cliffs, and expansive boulder fields. A great number of different rock-types are utilized, from granite to limestone and sandstone – every climbing excursion provides a fascinating lesson in Geography and Geology.
You don’t need to go high up to appreciate the joy of climbing on real rock and there are many bouldering areas across the globe such as the boulders of Fontainebleau in France, Hueco Tanks in the USA, Magic Wood in Switzerland, Val Di Melo in Italy, Al Barracin in Spain, The Peak District in the UK, Castle Hill in New Zealand and so on. All you need are your shoes and a chalk-bag, a portable crash-pad and a companion to ‘spot’ you’re away! Bouldering guidebooks are widely available to point you in the direction.
Sport climbing is roped climbing which utilizes expansion bolts which are drilled into the cliff for security. The leader clips their rope into the bolts which are fixed at regular intervals. It can be regarded as a relatively safe climbing style (accidents are very rare and usually very minor) and it represents a gymnastic and physical challenge, meaning that climbers can push to their limits, knowing that the rope will catch them if they fall.
Sport climbing is practiced all over the world, with some of the most famous areas being Rodellar, El Chorro and Terradets in Spain, Gorge du Verdon and Ceuse in France, Arco in Italy, Flatanger in Norway, Kalymnos in Greece, Smith Rock and Red River Gorge in the USA and the Grampian Mountains in Australia, to name but a few.
Traditional climbing takes place on cliffs where bolts are not used for fixed protection and hence the climber must secure themselves using equipment known as ‘passive protection’. These are ‘nuts’ (metal wedges) or camming devices, which must be placed in available cracks. This skill takes considerable practice, but nonetheless, “trad” climbing can still be conducted in relative safety provided the climber gains experience slowly and progressively.
Trad climbing is so-named because it was the first style of rock climbing to be developed. It originated in Alpine climbing environments, as a ‘branch’ of mountaineering, and has been practiced in areas such as the UK, the Dolomites, the French Alps and Yosemite in the USA since the 1950s.
Single pitch and multi-pitch climbing
The length of most climbs is dictated by the length of a standard climbing rope, which usually ranges from 50m to 70m. If a climber ascends one rope-length and then descends to the floor (usually via lowering or ‘abseiling’ / ‘rappelling’) this is known as ‘single pitch’ climbing. If however, the cliff is much higher, the leader will climb the first pitch, anchor themselves securely and their partner will then ‘second’ (top-rope) the pitch. They will then climb another pitch, and so on until they reach the top. This is known as ‘multi-pitch’ climbing.
Other types of climbing
Climbing is a broad and diverse activity, which spans from ‘Big Wall climbing’ (which takes place on huge cliff-faces of 200m+) to Deep Water Soloing (climbing without ropes above the sea) to ice climbing, Alpine climbing and high-altitude mountaineering.
However, those who are starting out will usually be drawn to bouldering and sport climbing, whether outdoors or indoors, as these are perhaps the most user-friendly and available styles.
How to differentiate the routes and levels of difficulty
Grades are used to give the climber an approximate indication of the difficulty of each route or boulder problem. The various grading systems that are used across the world share one thing in common – they are subjective! As much as the grades attempt to account for differences in height and build, climbers will still argue about them endlessly!
At gyms it is usually the route-setter who grades the climb, whereas on rock it is commonly the person who makes the first ascent and/or ‘equips’ the climb with bolts (they will also come up with a name for the climb). Climbing information is then recorded in a guidebook, along with maps and ‘topos’ (diagrams of the cliff) to help the user to identify their chosen route. The most widely-used grading system for sport climbing is the ‘French system’. These grades start at 3 or 4 (which represent a beginners’ climb) and then run all the way up to 9 (which represents the current limits of the sport). The numerical grades are also split by a sub / letter-grade; for example: ‘6a, 6b, 6c, 7a, 7b, 7c’ and so on. A widely used system for bouldering are the ‘V’ grades, which originated in the USA. These go from ‘V0’ (a beginners boulder problem), to V1, V2, V3 and so on up to V16, which represents the current maximum. Sounds confusing? That’s because it is!
Buy the right gear/equipment for climbing
Climbing shoes have high-friction, smooth rubber soles and should be worn snuggly-fitting in comparison with regular shoes. Ideally your toes should touch the end, yet they shouldn’t be compressed excessively. They take a bit of getting used to but they make a huge difference!
A beginners’s shoe will strike a good balance between comfort and an acceptable level of performance. Laces can give a closer fit whereas velcro is a fast and convenient method of fastening. Most gyms have a range of hire shoes, which enable you to get a feel for what climbing shoes are all about before making a purchase. Discover here how to choose the ideal climbing shoes for you.
Most climbers use chalk to improve their grip and protect their skin from wear. This will either be in loose, powdered form or contained in a small, sealed gauze pouch, known as a chalk-ball. When doing roped climbing, chalk is usually contained in a chalkbag, which is attached with a waist-belt; whereas when bouldering, it is carried separately in a larger bucket-style bag.
It’s worth noting that many gyms are changing their chalk usage policy in order to improve air quality. Most will ban the use of loose chalk, some will allow chalk-balls whereas others only allow liquid chalk. The team at your local gym will advise you.
You shouldn’t need to tape your fingers regularly, although you may find that they become quite sore the first few times you climb; in which case, it can be helpful to protect them with a layer of climbing tape.
Most serious boulderers will carry a small horse-hair style brush in a loop on their chalkbag in order to clean excessive chalk off the holds after attempting a problem. Beginners are unlikely to need a brush until they move onto climbs with smaller and more sloping holds. Note that brushes should be soft and that wire brushes should not be used.
You can hire a harness the first few times you try roped climbing but after that, it can be worth investing in one of your own. Climbing harnesses are light and offer good freedom of movement, yet they are also well-padded and extremely comfortable to hang in. There’s no need to go for an ultra-light, top-price model and something mid-range will work well.
Climbing helmets are similar to cycle helmets in that they are light-weight, compact and comfortable to wear. Helmets are not worn for bouldering and they are not mandatory for roped climbing indoors at gyms; however they are advisable when climbing outdoors. It is at every climbers’ discretion whether they choose to wear a helmet. Some cliffs have a higher risk of rockfall and present a greater range of objective hazards. Each climber must make their own risk assessment and if in doubt, consult experienced climbers.
A belay device is a small metal gadget, which attaches to the front ‘belay loop’ on the harness with a locking karabiner. It creates friction in the rope and is used to hold a falling climber and to lower them safely to the ground. There are many different types and instructors will have their views about which are most suitable for beginners. Most gyms will hire belay devices and it’s important to try a few different options and receive appropriate tuition, so that you can make an informed purchase.
You won’t need a rope to start off with, as most climbing gyms will have ‘in-situ’ top-ropes on their beginners’ climbs. However, once you gain experience you may wish to invest in a rope which is suitable for top-roping and leading. These are known as ‘single ropes’ and they range in diameter from 8.5mm to 11mm, with 10mm-10.5mm representing the optimum for most types of use and being suitable for beginners.
A quickdraw is a short tape-sling with a ‘snap-gate’ karabiner on each end. They are used for clipping the rope into a bolt for protection when leading a sport climb. When you first try leading at a gym, the routes are likely to have ‘in-situ’ quickdraws fixed to the bolts, and it’s not until you are ready to venture outside onto a sport cliff and lead that you will need to make a purchase.
Climbing takes place in magical wild places, which command respect. Leave no trace of your visit – take all litter home with you. Be courteous when you park and don’t stray onto private land. Be aware of other crag users and sensitive with the noise you make. Be discrete with chalk usage. Be kind to the rock and it twill be kind to you!
When it comes to promoting mental health and physical well-being and setting positive and fulfilling challenges, there are few activities to rival climbing. Most keen climbers don’t see climbing as a ‘hobby’ but a way of life and something that defines their identity.
There is always the next destination to visit, the next group of friendly climbers to meet and the next climb to tackle. A life in climbing is a continuous journey of discovery, not just of the planet, but of ourselves.
By Neil Gresham