Rock Climbing: A beginner's guide to getting started

by Esté Pierce

August 23, 2019

It’s simple. If you want to grow, you have to go outside your comfort zone. And what could be more unfamiliar than scaling up a rock face?

My first-time rock climbing was while at varsity many years ago. It was on a date with my husband to be, and needless to say, I was eager to show off my (slightly bogus) sense of fearlessness. Since then, we have had many climbing adventures together.  Today I’m a mom of a busy toddler nearing my 30’s, and I am just getting back to rock climbing since before my pregnancy. Getting back into shape after pregnancy is tough, but climbing empowers me and drives my commitment to achieve my fitness goals.

Similar to most activities, you don’t have to be ultra-fit to start.  A basic level of fitness, a keen attitude, and a little courage will send you on your way.

Why you will love it

Rock climbing demands focus. While you are climbing, your entire mind and body concentrate on making your ascent. Every muscle in your body works to attain that one goal. Hence it is my opinion that climbing can be a form of meditation, which alleviates stress and develops mindfulness.

Beyond self-discipline and self-motivation, rock climbing takes teamwork. You need a partner you can trust with your safety and someone to motivate you to keep going when all you want is to quit. I see it as a healthy addition to my relationship with my husband because it builds trust, encourages communication and it’s just good fun!

If you are looking to meet new people, you will generally find the climbing community to be a group of adventurous, engaging, thoughtful personalities who support each other, the local community and the environment. The best type of people to meet in my opinion.

If you have a passion for nature and traveling, outdoor climbing will take you on a tour of a lifetime. It has led me to many pristine natural landscapes, often overlooked by other travelers simply because they don’t have a reason to wander that way.

How climbing can improve your fitness

There is a reason why the majority of devoted rock climbers have lean, toned bodies. Rock climbing incorporates a complex range of movements that ultimately gives you an intense full-body workout. It strengthens your legs, glutes, core, arms, fingers, back, and neck, while pushing your heart rate up. Besides strength and cardio training, it develops endurance, balance, and flexibility.

Moreover, since every route you climb is unique, you utilize and strengthen different muscle groups each time you climb. It is a varied form of exercise, which improves your overall fitness and may improve your performance in other sports and activities too.

Basics for beginners

Rock climbing can be done at a climbing gym, normally indoors, or out and about on real rock.  As a beginner, you should start with bouldering, top-rope climbing, and then lead climbing:

Bouldering

These are unbolted routes that do not require the use of a rope. Climbs are usually within ‘jumping to the ground’ height and can go traverse or sideways instead of vertically. Bouldering is becoming increasingly popular because it requires the least amount of gear. Ideal if you want to test climbing out without spending a lot of money.

Top rope climbing

These are permanently bolted routes with an anchor at the top. Since these routes include height, a rope and a belayer (the person who controls the rope) assists you while you climb. The rope is tied to your harness, threaded through the anchor at the top of the route, and controlled by the belayer on the ground. The belayer prevents you from falling a significant distance, should you lose contact with the rock.

Lead climbing

Lead climbing involves clipping quickdraws (or extenders) to the fixed bolts in the wall, then attaching your rope to it while making your ascent. If you lose contact with the rock, then you will fall only a short distance. This distance being double the length of the rope between your harness and the last clipped bolt.

Once you become more adept and confident in your climbing abilities, you may want to try other types of climbing, such as traditional ‘trad’, aid, or solo climbing.

How to start rock climbing:

  1. Your first step is to visit a climbing gym if you are fortunate to have one in your area. There you will get a solid foundation in rock climbing, learn to belay as well as get advice on gear and the best outdoor climbing spots around for newcomers.
  2. Befriend an experienced rock climber. If you don’t have a climbing gym in your area, doing a quick search online can point you to popular local climbing spots. There you are likely to meet and connect with other climbers who can show you the ropes.
  3. Buy a guide book for your area, or do research online. A guide book will give you detailed information about climbs in your area, such as the location, accessibility, grade (difficulty) and more. Owning a guide book makes it a lot easier to find routes that fit your skill level when climbing outdoors.
  4. When you start climbing, remember that it is not all about upper body strength. Focus on your technique and make the most of your leg strength and balance.

Benefits and drawbacks

Benefits:

  • Get an intense full-body workout, and lose weight if that’s your goal.
  • Improve your tactical thinking and endurance.
  • Relieve stress.
  • Become part of a community of climbers.

Drawbacks:

  • You need a lot of gear. Shop around for second-hand shoes, chalk bags, backpacks, etc., but invest in high quality, new safety equipment, including rope, harness, quickdraws, belay device and more.
  • It can be a dangerous sport. Always climb with an experienced, knowledgable climber, especially when it comes to belaying. Pregnant women and those with heart conditions should avoid rock climbing.
  • It requires another person and traveling. Join a local messenger group to organize trips with other climbers.

In Oudtshoorn, South Africa, climbing ‘Goony Goo Goo’ on top rope.

Many people think that rock climbing is only for the adrenalin-junkie-type. I disagree, and I believe anybody can enjoy climbing. The important thing is to remember that fear is a rational response to venturing outside your comfort zone. The true test of character is what you choose to do in spite of it.

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