Introduction to Rock Climbing

These days, everyone knows someone who is a climber. Rock climbing has overthrown Crossfit as the fun, trendy thing to do. First date articles name it as a suggestion. Climbing gyms are popping up left and right overnight. Climbing even is an Olympic spot now.

With rock climbing being so popular, how do you get started?

Groupon

Many rock climbing gyms offer discounts for one month of climbing. They typically include rentals, too. If you decide to continue with a membership, oftentimes, this will also waive your initiation fee.

Gym Classes

Gyms often offer “Intro to Climbing” or “Beginner Rock Climbing” courses. These are a great way to learn basic fundamentals and techniques of climbing. You might even find a climbing partner from your class.

Gyms will also offer classes on how to belay a climber if you want to jump right in without other formal instruction.

What is belaying?

To belay a climber means to hold a rope to protect your climber when s/he falls. As a belayer, the life of your climber is literally in your hands. You are the one stopping the fall.

Because safety comes first, gyms test climbers on their belaying abilities before sending them to belay in the wild.

What type of climbing is there?

Bouldering

Of all the styles, bouldering is the easiest to do solo in the gym. All you need are shoes and chalk. As a climber, you are not roped in, but you are only typically climbing no higher than fifteen to twenty feet. If you fall, a foam pad will break your fall.

The difficulty of climbs is denoted by a V-grade, ranging from VB or V0, the easiest, to V16+, the hardest.

Photo Credit: Heidi Kumm

Top Roping

When you walk into a gym and you see people climbing on ropes, they are top roping. Top roping is the most common activity in the climbing gym. A rope runs from the climber to a point where the rope is attached to the wall, and then down to the belayer.

This is typically the safest style of climbing within a gym. Climbers will not fall long distances with a proper belay.

Some gyms even offer auto-belays, no partner needed.

Roped climbing follows the Yosemite Decimal System, ranging from 5.fun to 5.15+. Climbs rated above 5.9 also have difficulty denoted by the letters “a-d”.

Photo Credit: Heidi Kumm

Lead and Sport Climbing

Lead climbing is when you climb up and clip your rope into fixed draws. If you fall, you fall to the last draw that your rope is running through.

This is a more advanced style of climbing and requires comfort on a rope. Gyms offer intro to lead classes, but typically a climber needs to be climbing at a certain grade to be eligible for this.

In order to lead climb in a gym, climbers and their belayers need to pass a separate climbing and belay test to ensure they are climbing safely.

Photo Credit: Heidi Kumm

Trad Climbing

A step above sport climbing is trad climbing. This is a type of outdoor climbing where there are no pre-set anchors for you to clip into. Before you begin trad climbing you’ll need to become very comfortable and familiar with top rope and sport lead climbing. The risk is much higher, as you’re depending upon temporarily placed anchors and may fall much further due to this placement. Since this is a much bigger commitment than standard climbing we won’t go into detail here but we did want to mention trad climbing as a general term and form of the rock climbing sport.

What are climbing grades?

Don’t think about them too much! Climbing grades are arbitrary, and are highly subjective depending on your height and climbing style. A climb that’s very scrunchy might be really tough for a tall person, but short people may climb it with ease. Climb whatever looks fun.

What type of gear do you need?

Climbing Shoes

Climbing shoes are the first thing a beginner climber should by. Gym rentals are icky. Try on shoes at the gym or at an outdoor sporting goods store before purchasing. Climbing shoes are a highly personal purchase and can make or break your climbing experience.

Chalk Bag and Chalk

Chalk is a good investment if your hands get sweaty often while you’re rock climbing. The appropriate chalk helps to reduce moisture on your hands so you can climb without slipping off holds.

Harness

If you’re looking to rope up, a harness is mandatory. Again, gym harnesses tend to be uncomfortable, so you should get a comfortable harness for yourself if you’re spending tons of time roped in. Many gyms and outdoor gear stores offer harness, belay devices, and a chalk bag packages at an affordable price point.

Photo Credit: Heidi Kumm

Belay Device

Some gyms do not provide belay devices for you to use, so you will need to bring your own or rent. There are various types of belay devices, all with their own pros and cons. What is most important is that you become familiar with the belay device you’re using, whichever type of ATC or Grigri you get.

Ropes and Quick Draws (Lead, Sport and Trad Climbing)

If you’re going to do any lead or sport climbing you will also need to invest in your own climbing ropes, slings and quick draws. There are all devices used to keep you safe while climbing. Since this is something you won’t start using until after you have some bouldering and top rope experience we won’t go into detail. Just know, outdoor climbing requires a bigger investment.


There is actually a lot that goes into rock climbing, both in the gym and outdoors. In part because it is an inherently risky sport and in part because there are so many different variations of it. If you’re at all interested in climbing, head to a climbing gym to classes or recruit an experienced friend to show you the ropes.

About the Author

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Paulina Dao