A Beginners Guide to Rock Climbing

Although rock climbing can be risky, with the proper training and equipment this thrilling sport can also be safe. However, there are a few things every beginner should learn.

Some rock climbing can look this intense, but not all routes are like this.
Photo by Lionello DelPiccolo on Unsplash.

Start at an Indoor Climbing Gym

Will Maness is a climbing guide at Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne, Oregon, and he is originally from North Carolina. He has three years of guiding experience, and his goal is to become the coordinator of outdoor programs at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

Picture of Smith Rock State Park, Terrebonne, Oregon. Photo by Nickie Hayes.

“These days, most people get their start in climbing gyms and I think that is a great place to go out and get used to the movement, get used to being at height, get some of the technical movement down, and get used to wearing the climbing shoes,” Maness said. 

According to Maness, it is important for a beginner climber to get a few months of experience climbing at an indoor gym. This way novices can take their time getting acclimated into the climbing scene.

Maness said indoor climbing gyms also usually have belay certification classes. Belaying is the ability to handle the rope and essentially catch the climber when needed, according to Recreational Equipment Inc. The belayer is on the ground and the support system for the individual who is climbing. 

“Learning how to top-rope belay is pretty important and pretty fundamental,” he said,  “and learning how to tie in can all be done at the climbing gym.” 

Taking advantage of a climbing gym and it’s amenities is crucial before moving to climbing “crack” or in other words, outdoor climbing, Maness said. Hiring a professional guide to assist with outdoor climbing is vital for the safety of the beginner climbers, if it is their first time moving to the great outdoors, he said. 

According to Maness, one can try to find a group of friends at the climbing gym with experience to go outdoor climbing with. However, it can be difficult to know if these individuals actually know what they are doing. There are no safety protocols when it comes to outdoor climbing, he said, so it is up to the individual to be a responsible climber. 

“This is something you do not want to take a risk on,” Maness said. 

“Knowing what you don’t know is very important too,” he said. “Taking things incrementally and really easy with your first few outdoor climbing experiences should be with someone who knows what they are doing like a climbing guide or a trusted friend.”

Derrick Peppers, a rock climbing guide from Oregon, agreed with Maness that modern climbing gyms have great programs for beginners.

What a Beginner Should Look Into When Transitioning to Outdoor Climbing

Peppers compared climbing indoors to swimming in the pool and climbing outdoors to swimming in the ocean. 

“If you are going outside to climb, by all means, definitely have a climbing guide because it can get pretty interesting outside and indoor climbing gyms are much safer in comparison,” Peppers said. 

Pictured is Ryan Dylan with climbing guide Will Maness. Photo by Nickie Hayes.

According to Peppers, most outdoor climbing areas around the United States have climbing programs. The best way to find these is to just search online in your area and see what outdoor climbing guide programs are nearby. 

“In the United States, almost all guide programs are accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association, and as long as they have that accreditation, they are absolutely, 100 percent safe,” he said. 

Maness said, in regards to gear, acquiring the proper climbing shoes is the first piece a climber needs. The climber at first can rent from the climbing gym they are going to and if they want to take the next step further, it would be getting their own climbing shoes. 

A typical pair of climbing shoes. Photo by Cindy Chen on Unsplash

Other equipment that a beginner climber should look into purchasing if they are planning to move to outdoor climbing are a chalk bag, to keep the hands dry, ropes, a few belay devices, harness, slings, equipment to build an anchor, and a helmet, Maness said. 

“One piece of equipment that unfortunately gets neglected these days is a helmet,” he said. “Buy a helmet.”

Maness said there is no excuse for not wearing a helmet when climbing outdoors. According to Maness, the biggest hazard of climbing is rock fall. The rocks may not always be that solid and rock fall from above can be a tremendous risk. However, if beginning climbers recognize and address the risks, there should be no issues when climbing outdoors, he said. 

Peppers said the greatest way to get the most knowledge out of your first outdoor climbing experience is to go with a small group, maybe one or two other individuals, to have more one-on-one time with the climbing guide. However, he said, going with a larger group socially is wonderful too. 

“Climbing is a very social sport, and is great to have people supporting you,” he said.

Saving Money When It Comes to Climbing Equipment

For someone who is trying this sport out for the first time, and is not sure if they would like to continue, Peppers said there are ways to combat high costs of climbing equipment using those amenities at the climbing gym. At an indoor climbing gym, one can rent everything that they would need, and that is much less expensive than purchasing brand new equipment. According to Peppers, an accredited outdoor climbing program will provide all of the equipment necessary for the first time someone is climbing outdoors. The beginner will need more equipment when they decide to go on their own without the guides. 

One of the nice things about climbing is that you only need a few things to get yourself started. As the beginner gets into different disciplines and styles of climbing, they can add to their equipment gradually, Peppers said. You do not have to buy everything at once.

The Best Ways to Prepare Your Body for Climbing

According to Peppers, for a beginner climber it is important to have a baseline level fitness condition prior to starting. A lot of people think upper body strength is key to focus on before rock climbing but Peppers said that is not the case. Having a strong core and strong lower body, good flexibility and balance are what is really most principal when it comes to climbing. 

“Yoga and pilates will be very beneficial for a climber,” he said. “Dancing is also really good and if you like some form of dance it’s amazing how much that transfers to rock climbing.”

After already being a rock climber, Peppers said he then tried Latin dancing. His climbing abilities got substantially better due to the focus on hip movement in those classes. 

“That is the number one most important part of your body as a rock climber, your hips,” he said. “If you can’t rotate, shift or move your hips in a way that benefits the overall balance of your body, then you’re really going to struggle as a climber.” 

There are also more specific climbing techniques to be aware of too. A few basic climbing techniques the climber should know when going outside are liebacking, backstepping and flagging. In general, beginners need to focus on becoming technically proficient with footwork, Maness said.

What do Other Beginner Climbers Think?

Novice climber Ryan Dylan, a senior at Western Oregon University working toward his physical education teaching license, said climbing outdoors for the first time was a fun and exciting experience. Dylan found outdoor climbing challenging but not overwhelming.

Pictured is beginner climber Ryan Dylan at Smith Rock State Park, Terrebonne, Oregon. Photo by Nickie Hayes.

According to Dylan, if someone is considering outdoor climbing, they should definitely go for it, even if they are a novice, with the guidance from a certified climbing guide. He said the experience is worth it. 

Julia Plante is a National Student Exchange participant from Houston, Texas, currently working toward her Bachelor’s degree as a junior at Western Oregon University. 

She was honest about her first outdoor climbing experience and said, “It wasn’t the most amazing thing I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t the worst.”

Pictured is Nickie Hayes climbing a level 5.9. Photo by Julia Plante.

However, Plante said she was happy that she tried outdoor climbing and would do it again. She said she would recommend another beginner climber to try it, but to also take your time when doing so. 

“Don’t be afraid to hang from the rope, and don’t think they (the belayer) has to hold up your body weight the whole time,” she said. “I held myself up the entire time and burned my muscles out.”

Plante said her favorite part of trying outdoor climbing for the first time was the small feelings of accomplishment every time she put her foot on a new rock and didn’t fall in the process. 

Whether you try indoor climbing or outdoor climbing, safety and enjoying the experience are the most important things a beginner climber should take into consideration. Risk management combined with a light-hearted attitude will assure a secure and captivating experience even if you have never climbed before.

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