Becoming a rock climber

Very often I see posts in one of the many facebook groups with questions like: “I’ve climbed once, I want to learn, what do I do?”. Recently I taught a newby the basics of lead climbing and had a lot of fun explaining all there is to know about rock climbing. ….At least, a big part of what I know. These two things were the lead up to this post, that I’d like to start with a big disclaimer.

This post is my opinion and experience. I might be wrong about certain things. If you find any mistakes please let me know.

Short about myself. I’ve been climbing regularly since 2010. I followed a belay course in 2001 and later I’ve followed some technique courses. I learned to climb multi pitch in one day of guided climbing and I started but did not finish a trad course. Recently I’ve become a certified top rope mentor, which means that I can teach an introduction to top rope sport climbing to a small group.

Most of my knowledge comes from what I’ve learned from Dutch instructors. The Netherlands isn’t known for its mountains. However it is known for being thorough and full with rules and guidelines. For all the terms I’m using I refer you to this wikipedia page, where all terms are explained.

Belaying

One of the most important things to learn when you want to learn how to climb is belaying. There are three common ways of learning how to belay. In a gym with an official instructor, from a professional guide or from friends. Personally I prefer the gym or a guide, since they should be up to date on the latest techniques and insights. Also they know what to look for when you are improving your skills and direct you towards the safest way of working. However, I know that many learn from friends. That isn’t bad by definition, but the biggest problem is that you don’t know where they got their knowledge from. They might teach you some very unsafe things. In the end when you are belaying you have someone else’s life in your hands. One mistake and your life can take a very unpleasant turn. So if you decide to learn from a friend (I totally understand why you would), keep one thing in mind. Whatever belay device you’re using (even a grigri), you should always have one hand on the brake side of the rope. Any person that tells you that a grigri is safe and that you don’t need to hold on to the rope is wrong. Check out this funny but truthful video about The World’s Worst Belayer.

Gear

Buying the gear for a new sport can be very exciting. Unfortunately within that excitement it’s fairly easy to buy things that you regret later. You might not enjoy the sport as much as you thought you would or you later find out that different materials would suit you better. So I’ll try to direct you towards the right choice moments.

If you’ve tried climbing a few times on borrowed or rentend materials and you’d like to continue, it’s time to purchase a harness and shoes. A harness, just like every other safety gear is best not bought second hand. You never know what the previous owner has done with it. It might have damages that you can’t see, which can result in injuries or even death when taking a fall. When choosing a first harness there are two things I recommend. Choose a size that almost doesn’t let you pull it any tighter when you’re in thin clothes (unless you’re expecting to lose weight). This leaves room for more clothes in colder weather and your material loops come as much forward as possible. My first harness was too small and all my gear was more on my back, which made it hard to reach it when lead climbing.

The other thing I recommend is to try multiple brands and types and fully hang in each one of them. It really depends on your body type and your personal preferences which harness will be most comfortable to you. If you can’t sit in the harness for a full minute without pain or numbness, that is not your harness.

Climbing shoes are very expensive. So for your first pair I recommend buying a second hand pair or the cheapest one you can find. In Europe the Decathlon shops have their home brand shoes for around 30 euros. It’s not the best, but that’s really all you need when you’re a starting climber. For size keep in mind that each brand has their own sizes and they almost never compare to a street shoe size. A climbing shoe needs to be tight, but your feet also need to get used to the fitting. It’s normal to start on bigger shoes and go smaller once you’re more used to it. When selecting a brand and size keep in mind that the shape of the foot is very different per person. For instance, I have a very round front of my foot with short toes. In most La Sportiva shoes I feel a lot of pain inside my big toe, while Scarpa shoes fit me perfectly without pain. To find out if the shoe is your fit, always stand on the tiny footholds if they are available. Otherwise you can stand on the very edge of a chair or bench.

As soon as you’re climbing outdoors you need a helmet. At many crags you’ll find loads of climbers without helmets, and I’ve definitely had times that I didn’t wear one. However I highly recommend that every climber always wears one. There’s the obvious risk of falling rock. Especially in spring, newly opened crags and in places with brittle rock. But there’s also the risk when taking a fall. The internet is full with videos of climbers taking bad falls where they end up hitting their head in some nasty way.

Next in line is getting a belay device. In the time that you’re learning to belay try as many different devices as you can. This will help you to explore what type of device suits you. The range of devices nowadays is so big that I can’t go through all of them. But in general they can be split into locking and non-locking devices. A tuber or an eight are non-locking and grigri or mega-jul are locking. The prices of the devices vary widely, so if you’re not sure yet what kind of belay device suits you and you do want to buy something, buy a simple tuber. Once you know what direction you’re going in with your climbing career you can buy the device that suits the climbing that you’re doing. Things to keep in mind when buying the right device are; possible to use in multi pitch, using it for abseiling and belaying people who are projecting.

Once you’re starting to lead climb you’d want to expand your gear set with a lanyard, quickdraws and eventually rope. A lanyard is something you don’t need in every climb. It actually really depends on where you’re climbing. You need it when there is no clipping or screwing carabiner in the top anchor. If the area where you climb is very consistent and always has a carabiner in the top, then you don’t really need it. But most crags I’ve been to are not that consistent. After many years of climbing I have concluded that the nicest lanyard is one that can be adjusted in length. This is not really necessary when you’re climbing single pitch, but as soon as you’re multi-pitching it’s the way to go.

Even if you don’t have a rope yet it’s nice to have a few quickdraws. Most climbers have a set of 10-12 quickdraws. But there are times that routes are longer and require more draws, that’s why it is nice to show up with your own quickdraws. Also if the other person is already supplying the rope it is a polite gesture to use your draws. Replacing gear is an expensive thing to do. My preferred quickdraw has a closed gate for the bolt and a wire gate for the rope. The wire doesn’t open when the draw hits the rock hard. Having two different types of gates helps with seeing which way around the draw should be used. Quickdraws are sold in different lengths. I suggest getting half and half; some normal length ones and some longer ones. As soon as a route is not completely straight the use of longer draws can lower the amount of rope drag. In long climbs the weight of the rope in combination with rope drag can make it difficult to pull the rope up to clip the draws.

Buying rope is another big investment. There are so many options available, of which half I also don’t understand why it would be an interesting option. In general the choices that you have are; length, coating, diameter and category. The categories divide into single, half and twin rope. When you’re climbing single pitch routes you need a single rope. When going into multi-pitching, ice climbing etc., half and twin rope come into play. But I don’t have enough knowledge about it to go into more detail. What I can say more about is the length of the rope you’re buying. In many areas route bolters use a standard length of rope for their longest routes. Often this is either 70 or 80 meters, with 70 being the most prevalent in the places I’ve been to in Europe. Ask local climbers or check out your topo guides for the length of rope you need to be able to climb everything in your local climbing area. If you don’t have a local crag, like every Dutch climber, go for a 70 or 80 meter rope. This will allow you to climb almost everything in most crags around Europe. For any other continent, ask locals.

Above is all that is in general needed for sport single pitch lead climbing. Once you’re progressing into multi-pitch, trad etc., you’re going to need a lot more gear, like slings, prusik, carabiners and more. By the time you learn these skills you are more at home in the climbing world and will know where to find the right information to make the right purchase for you.

Technique

Learning to climb doesn’t stop at knowing how to belay and lead. Learning to move your body in the “right” way is a big part of the climbing basics. It’s a long process, there are so many techniques to learn and improve. That said, if you’re happy with what you’re doing don’t feel the need to learn these techniques. On the other hand, most starting climbers move in a very energy insufficient way. Almost every climber has started focussing completely on the arms and hands when climbing. While climbing is way more efficient if you place your feet in the right place and make the movement with the legs.

Many new climbers are very enthusiastic and want to learn “everything” as fast as they can. With my experience I’d recommend that you don’t start with lessons right away. I’ll do my best to explain why. When you start climbing for the very first time the power in your hands and arms are very low because you have never used your arms and hands in this way. It takes about a year of regular (at least once a week) climbing to strengthen the tendons and muscles. Overdoing things in this period gives high risk of injuries. I’ve seen so many starting climbers over the years who had injuries or pain in their hands. To me that seems like such a shame because it either takes away your fun in climbing or will leave you with recurring issues.

For the first few months of regular climbing you most likely improve by yourself. You’re getting stronger, you’re learning how your body balances during climbing and maybe you climb with more experienced climbers and learn from them. Once you’re noticing that the grade you’re climbing isn’t improving anymore then it’s a good moment to sign up for a class. The right instructor will look at the skills you already have and work from there. The course should help you improve the grade you’re climbing. Maybe not so much during the course, but for certain once you’ve finished it and you can use the techniques you’ve learned during your regular climbing.

If possible I suggest that you take your first course in a gym, even if you prefer climbing outdoors. The routes set in climbing gyms are often more consistent than the outdoor routes. This will help with repeating certain movements over and over. When you have to make a movement so many times it will eventually stick and you will start to use it without even thinking about it.

Thank you for reading and enjoy your process of becoming a climber.

3 Replies to “Becoming a rock climber”

  1. Very nice post with some good info and certainly good advices.

    Although pretty much everything is important for rock climbing (technique, body strength, strength in the hands etc.), I find very important to learn how to properly balance your body.

    When I was starting to rock climb, I wish I had someone that would make me focus more on the correct body positioning/balance, rather than to become better in terms of strength and endurance.

    Again, a very nice post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completly agree with you. Learning to balance your body is very important, that’s why I do recommend taking a class. But in my opinion it wise to not do it straight after learning to belay. You can learn so much more in a course of a few weeks if you’re already a bit phisically trained and have improved naturally first. But it really depends per person when you stop improving I guess. I see big differences between guys and galls learning to climb. I haven’t considered the male perspective as much.

      Like

      1. You are absolutely right on suggesting taking a class.

        Also, the first weeks of climbing one can progress quite fast up to the point she/he actually needs to start “climbing”, and by that I mean to climb properly, with proper technique and actually to reach the level of enjoying the whole process and not being scared of falling (if climbing outdoors).

        Again, great post with many useful information.

        Liked by 1 person

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