Rock climbing as a sport has been around since the late 1800s, but it’s become increasingly popular in the last 50 years or so since the advent of indoor climbing walls. Not only do these walls help climbers stay fit over winter, but they also provide a great training ground and social area for newbies to learn the ropes (pun intended) – making climbing more accessible than ever.

I’ve been climbing regularly for the last couple of years, and in that time I’ve picked up a few tips which might be useful if you’re thinking about trying out your spider monkey skills.

Disclaimer: this is a brief overview and no substitute for proper tuition. Don’t try climbing without supervision from someone who knows what they’re doing!

Types of climbing

Top roping: this is the most common type of climbing for beginners at indoor climbing gyms. The rope runs from the belayer, up the wall to an anchor system on the ceiling, and back down to tie in to the climber’s harness. This allows the climber to ascend the route without having to worry about clipping in the rope as they go – and the belayer takes in the slack as they climb.

Bouldering: climbing at low heights without a harness or ropes. Safety mats are placed underneath you in case of fall.

Lead climbing: this is where the climber and belayer are both tied in to the rope, but they begin with all the rope on the floor. As the climber ascends the route they must clip in the rope to various safety points. Lead climbing is further divided in to:

  • ‘Sport climbing’ – where the climbing wall or rock face is dotted with pre-existing bolts for climbers to clip into.
  • ‘Trad (traditional) climbing’ – where the climber has to place their own safety gear into the nooks and crannies of the rock face, which they can then clip the rope into.

Grades

All rock climbing routes are graded, so you know how tricky they are before you begin. There are various grading systems that vary depending on what country you’re in, and whether you’re bouldering or climbing with ropes.  Roped routes at UK climbing gyms mostly use Sport grades a.k.a French grades.

These are numbered grades, and the lower the number the easier the climb. Most beginner climbs at a gym are 3 or 4. Sometimes the number might be followed by an a, b or c – again to denote an increase in difficulty (‘a’ being easiest).  So a 5c is a fair bit trickier than a 5a, but not hard enough to be a 6. If a climb is right on the borderline between grades you might also get a ‘+’ after the letter e.g. 6a+. Make sense? Good – because this is one of the simpler systems!

I won’t go into the other systems because that’s an article in itself, but you can find a great summary of the main ones here.

Bouldering (climbing without a harness)

Learning to climb

Climbing walls are the best places to pick up the basics – especially as they’re generally indoors so rubbish weather won’t spoil your fun. (Hello Britain).

A quick google search should bring up climbing walls in your area – otherwise you can try the handy directories from BMC (British Mountaineering Council) and UKC (UK Climbing). These sites are both full of other info and resources as well.

Most climbing walls will offer lessons or climbing courses with an experienced instructor. An ‘intro to rock climbing’ course will teach you all the proper safety precautions and basic climbing techniques you need to have a good start in the sport. They’re also a great opportunity to make new friends, so you’ll have other people to climb with once the course is over.

If you already have friends who are experienced climbers, then most walls will be happy for them to teach you under certain criteria. Your friends will need to be members of the wall before they can sign you in as a guest – to gain membership they’ll need to have demonstrated that they have the skills and knowledge to climb safely. Climbing is a risk sport, so it’s important to use your common sense, and only climb with people who you trust to teach you well and look out for you. I’d still recommend doing a proper course if you can as that way you’re sure to learn good habits and better technique.

Climbing can be a bit addictive, but it’s important to pace yourself and listen to your body. Most beginners need at least 2-3 days’ break between climbing sessions to allow their muscles to recover.

What to wear

You don’t need fancy clothes for climbing – generally anything you’d wear for running or exercising will be fine. It just needs to be comfortable, flexible, and preferably pretty durable. I tend to wear:

  • Sports Bra
  • T-shirt or tank top (summer)
  • Long sleeved thermal top (winter – plus a t-shirt to change into if I get too warm)
  • Running tights, cuffed yoga trousers, cargo pants or lightweight shorts. As long as they won’t fall down, give you a wedgie, or break at the seams when you’re doing the splits to reach a foot hold, you’ll be fine.

The Gear

The two main things you’ll need for indoor climbing are rock shoes and a harness (unless you’re just bouldering). Most walls offer both of these for hire for a couple of quid, so don’t worry about buying either until you’ve decided whether you want to stick with the sport.

It’s also really handy to hire or buy a chalk bag to attach to your harness or clip round your waist for bouldering. Chalk increases friction on a variety of surfaces and helps to dry out sweaty hands (it happens) – so you can grip the holds much better.

Once you start leading and climbing outdoors then there’s plenty more gear to blow your money on, but it’s always best to stick to the basics to begin with.

Benefits of rock climbing

The obvious upsides of rock climbing are the physical benefits –and thanks to the grading system you don’t need to be super-strong to start climbing. Good technique (careful footwork, balance and body positioning) will get you up climbs much more efficiently than just relying on brute strength. It’s why you often see petite women crushing routes right alongside big burly guys.

Of course climbing itself is still a great work out. Climbing engages most major muscles in the body, helping improve strength and endurance in both the upper and lower body. Your back, core and leg muscles all get exercised as well as your shoulders, arms and even your fingers. Regular climbing can improve stamina as well as muscle strength. In addition, all the reaching and stretching for holds improves flexibility and agility.

Climbing even helps with cardio – according to a 1997 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, energy consumed in rock climbing is similar to running at a pace between 8 and 11 minutes per mile.

Rock climbing is also a great mental workout. Overcoming the ‘fear factor’ of being up high is a real test of determination, and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. Climbing also requires problem-solving skills and hand-eye co-ordination, as you need to work out how to position your body to reach the next hold. It also teaches you to understand and manage your individual abilities such as reach, strength, and stamina.

Like many types of exercise, climbing has been proved to reduces stress by increasing levels of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter in the body that aids in releasing stress.

Finally, rock climbing is a great sport for people who aren’t particularly competitive. Although there are pro climbers and many walls will run amateur competitions, the general environment is much more about supporting and encouraging each other to progress. You’ll tend to develop strong friendships with your climbing partners due to the level of trust involved, and through shared experience.

The Lingo:

Rock climbing has its own language, which can sometimes be a bit baffling for the newcomer. Here are some of the key terms you might come across as a beginner:

Route: The route you climb up the wall. At an indoor wall routes are colour-coded, e.g. one route might use all red hand & footholds, another might use all green holds.

Belayer: your best friend when you’re climbing. This person stays on the ground and is clipped in to the other end of the climbing rope. They’re the ones who will catch you if you take a fall, and lower you to the ground once you’ve finished your climb, using a handy ‘belay device’.

Karabiner: you can never have too many of these. They’re an essential part of the belay system, and also useful for clipping stuff to your harness (e.g. your chalk bag).

‘Take’: This is what you shout if you want your belayer to take in more of the slack in the rope – e.g. if you want to sit back in your harness and take a rest during the climb.

Figure 8 and stopper knots: These are the two most basic knots you need to know for roped climbing – you’ll use them to tie the rope onto your harness before you start your climb.

Rock shoes: a.k.a. climbing shoes. These are tighter fitting that your regular shoes, and allow for much more precise footwork.

Buddy checks: The most important part of climbing. Before you start a route, you and your belayer should always triple-check each other’s knots, harness and carabiners. Even the pros can make mistakes sometimes, so you should never think you’re to the point where you’re comfortable enough to breeze through your safety checks.

Crux: the most difficult move (or sequence of moves) on a route.

Bomber: bombproof – usually referring to climbing holds that are really easy to grip, or really secure gear placement (in trad climbing)

Moves: various different techniques for moving up the wall, which you’ll learn as you become more advanced. Examples include dynos, toe and heel hooks, side-pulls, and plenty more.

Pumped: When the muscles fill with lactic acid and become bloated and less strong. Very common for beginner climbers, but generally reduces as you become stronger and learn better technique.

Flagging: Dangling or sticking a leg out to the side to improve balance when climbing.

Bucket/jug: a huge hold that is very easy to grasp onto with your whole hand. Every climber’s best friend – unlike tiny pinch and crimp holds which rely on finger strength.

Overhang: a feature of climbing walls (and natural rockfaces) where the wall protrudes or leans out beyond the vertical. Requires more strength & technique to climb than a vertical or slab (less than vertical) wall.

Once you’ve learnt to climb indoors you can progress to outdoor climbing.

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If you’re in the South West like me, you’re spoilt for places to climb. My favourites are:

Undercover Rock, Bristol – This is a converted church, meaning you can get high into the rafters and encounter a few stained glass windows along the way. Bristol also has more great climbing at Redpoint, and bouldering at TCA and Bloc. Bloc is also home to Bananafingers – a great place to indulge your gear obsession.

Swindon might not be your first choice for a place to visit, but is does have a great climbing gym in the form of Rockstar. Mostly bouldering but a few roped routes as well, and the best brownie I’ve had in ages.

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