Interested in rock climbing? Here’s how to get started…

Kalymnos, Greece 2012

I started rock climbing in college in 2004. Since then, it’s been my favorite way to stay active outside. It’s also introduced me to some pretty amazing friends and taken me to some of the most beautiful landscapes all over the world. It’s not only a physical endeavor, but a mental one as well. When you’re rock climbing, you don’t really have a chance to think about anything else. Along with dancing, it’s one of my preferred ways to exercise and zone out of everything else.

I’ve had several people ask me how they can get started rock climbing and so I figured I’d write about my experience. There are several ways to go about it, but I’ll share what I did and offer suggestions:

Banff, Alberta 2017

Go With a Bud or Hire a Guide

If you want to begin outside and you’ve got an experienced bud willing to show you everything they know, killer. Do that! If you don’t have a bud, but you do have the dollars, go ahead and hire a guide for a course (and skip the rest of this post). Your guide will bring all the equipment, teach you all the basics, and take you to a place that works for your level. You can get a friend or two to join you and split the costs.  If you’re the DIY type, read on.

Bouldering at Horse Pens 40, Alabama 2006

First, Decide on Height

How high do you want to go? You’ve got a few types of climbing to choose from: (1) sport climbing, or trad climbing, where you use gear, rope, and go up high, and (2) bouldering, where you don’t  go up super high, but you also don’t use any gear or ropes. If you’re not into heights, I suggest starting with bouldering. If heights don’t bother you, begin with sport climbing, which is what I did. Both are a great workout and offer easy to advanced options. Most indoor climbing gyms have both sport climbing and bouldering areas, which brings me to my next point…

Bouldering in Joshua Tree, CA 2007

Start Inside

Sport Climbing: I was lucky to have a climbing wall in my university’s Campus Rec Center, with awesome people running it that were great teachers (shoutout JB, Christy, Kelso, and Karley). I learned indoors with several other beginners, climbing usually 2 to 3 days per week. We had to earn our belay pass in order to climb without staff help so I took workshops to learn about the procedures. Over the fall semester and winter, I learned lots of skills indoors (in a less scary environment) that made my first outside experience in springtime really smooth. Starting out indoors gets you really comfortable climbing (and falling) before ever venturing outdoors, where things get a little more serious. Climbing gyms are becoming more and more popular, so if your city has one, take advantage! You can rent shoes/gear there too.

Bouldering: Some towns have boulder gyms which are great as they’re usually less expensive and you don’t have to use gear or find a partner. They also have huge padded floors so that when you fall off the wall, it won’t hurt. The staff will get you started and can offer beginner pointers.

Most gyms now also have areas for kids, so the whole family can get involved. Little kids are usually free or just a few bucks. Check out my BFF’s 2 year old crushing it with that high step last year:

Learn to Belay

You have to learn how to belay, or operate the rope your partner is climbing on. They’ll have to learn how to do this too. It’s important to know how to do it so you don’t let somebody fall on their head, and you don’t get dropped either. Your climbing gym will have belay workshops, so spend the $10 or $15 and take one! You can also potentially meet some other beginners there that could become future climbing partners. Pull, break, switch, slide, bitches!

Lake Louise, Alberta Canada either 2013 or 14

Get Used to Falling

Get used to the fact that you will fall, but if you’re sport climbing, know the rope will catch you. Whenever I introduce a friend to climbing, we tie into the rope and I almost always have them climb a couple feet off the ground and then tell them to fall off the wall. I want them to feel what it’s like for the rope to catch them. Doing this 3 feet from the ground is way better than taking your first fall 30 feet up.

New Jack City – Barstow, CA 2016

It’s OK To Go Alone

It’s likely that your friends won’t want to learn to climb with you. Mine didn’t. I started climbing and taking classes on my own and eventually became friends with most of the people at my climbing wall. We all learned and progressed together. Most climbing gyms will have a sign up sheet at the front desk if you need a climbing partner that day.  This is a service I used several times in San Diego when I joined a new gym there.

photo by Jenn and Jason Burton circa 2010

Rent Gear Before You Buy.

From shoes and harnesses to ropes and belay devices, I recommend renting until you decide how into climbing you are. But once you decide that you’re ready to go, buy your gear so you’re not wasting money. Gear seems expensive at first, but once you have it all, climbing outside is free!

If you’re broke (like I was in college when I first started climbing), check out SteepandCheap.com and buy one thing at a time. Shoes are the most important and then you can accumulate other things as you can afford to. If you’re bouldering, you just need shoes, chalk, and eventually a crash pad when you go outside. If you’re sport climbing, here’s the priority order I would suggest for purchasing the basics:

  • Shoes – Everybody has a preference on fit. I don’t go by the “get one size smaller” rule anymore.
  • Harness – You want light and comfortable. I like some padding around the leg loops myself.
  • Chalk bag – Any one will do.

And when you’re ready to go outdoors:

  • Belay Device – ATC  or Gri Gri 
  • Helmet – Don’t act like you’re too cool for a helmet. If somebody kicks rocks off from overhead, you’ll be glad you have one on.
  • Quickdraws – At least 12 of them.
  • Rope – You’ll want a dynamic climbing rope. I like 9.8mm and 70 meters long. (60m is cheaper but lots of climbs require a longer rope so it’s best to just spend the extra money in the beginning). Also make sure yours changes design patterns at the halfway mark! It helps!

Krabi, Thailand 2011

Go Outside & Take Sweet Trips

Once you’ve got a good handle on things and you’ve rented/bought your own gear, you should go climb outside. I recommend going with someone who’s experienced. I only climb outside with people who I know and trust because, although there are a lot of safety systems in place, it’s still a potentially dangerous activity that deserves a lot of respect and attention. I want a partner who knows what the hell they’re doing and isn’t going to cut corners and put us in danger. The more educated you both are, the safer you’ll be and the more fun you’ll have. But yeah… get outside as soon as you feel comfortable.

Idyllwild, CA 2016

Climbing trips are some of the best as well. You can travel to some amazing places in the country and abroad very inexpensively and spend all your time climbing and playing outside. If you love to camp, you can do an entire trip where all you pay for is gas and food. Some of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen have come from climbing outdoors on trips with awesome people.

Deepwater soloing, Thailand 2015

Banff, Alberta Canada 2015

OK, there’s more, but that’s enough for now.

Questions? Email me at fitwithflash@gmail.com

Or shoot me a message on Facebook!

Karley, Jenn, & JB 2006

Miss you guys! Let’s go on a trip again… Or better yet, get your asses up here to Canada!

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