Rock Climbing 101

This past season I discovered skiing at the crusty age of twenty-eight years. After my first day on the slopes I was so happy but at the same time deeply saddened by the fact that I had not been skiing my entire life. It is kind of like finally working up the courage to ask a cute girl out and on your amazing first date you discover that she has been crazy about you for years and you missed all that time together. That is how I felt about skiing and now I have a lot of catching up to do.

I had pondered skiing for many many years but had always been intimidated by what I did not know and always assumed that it had a culture similar to surfer culture, which is not very welcoming of newbies. I would hardly consider myself  in possession of any sort of ski knowledge that would be worth passing on, however I have been a rock climber for a long while. I thought I’d share a sport that has been mine since I was six. You do not want to wake up one day and regret all the years you missed doing something you just discovered completes you, and rock climbing just might be it!

So without further ado I will teach you how to become a rock climbing fiend over night. Soon enough you will be doing one fingered pull-ups and calling everyone “bra”…. Okay, maybe not, but you never know.

©Isaac Tait

Where to start

Well this is the easy part: ask a friend, a colleague at work, or classmate who loves to climb to take you out. You will probably need to be persistent – if I followed up with everyone who asked me to take them rock climbing, I would have spent the last 22 years on the phone rather than on the rock. If you do not know anyone (or maybe you do but have serious doubts about their knowledge level) you should consider hiring a rock climbing guide for your first few day trips (here are a couple of suggestions: American Alpine Institute based out of Bellingham, WA and Sierra Rock Climbing School based out of Bishop, CA). Before I go into this further, let me back up to my previous statement.

How do you determine if your friend, colleague, classmate, etc. is safe to climb with?

Well this, too, is easy. Are they always injured (e.g. broken legs, shattered ankles, pulled tendons)? If so, they probably are not a great person to go out with on your first outing. Do they spell carabiner with a “K”? Did they buy all their gear, including their rope, on eBay? Do they laugh at you if you ask to wear a helmet? All these are signs of a newbie or an individual with no grasp of safety. Best to hire a guide.

©Rhondie Tait

Onto guides: I interned as a guide for a summer and it was a great experience. I can personally vouch for the invaluable knowledge you will gain from a good guide. Rock climbing guides go through an extensive, expensive, and thorough training process before they can tie in with a client. There are two agencies that certify guides: the AMGA and the PCGI. If you hire a guide service keep in mind that a tip (15-20% is considered standard) is very much appreciated at the end of the day. I remember to this day my first tip as a “guide.” I had been living off of jelly flavored oatmeal and plain pasta for weeks and with my first tip I went and bought an avocado cheeseburger, which was heaven on earth. So don’t underestimate the gesture, and please tip your guide!

©Will Stanhope

What is next?

Okay, so you have spent a day on the rock with your friend or a guide and you are hooked. You probably learned the basics of communicating on the rock, how to put on a harness, and what chalk is used for. Now what?

Well lucky for you this step is easy too (are you noticing a trend yet?)! You will need to choose which discipline of climbing most interests you. There are a few genres of rock climbing:

Bouldering – the cheapest form of climbing to “get into.” All you need is a pair of shoes, a chalk bag, and a crash pad (a big mattress-like pad that you fall onto – well, “if” you fall. But you are so good you probably will not fall, right?). Boulders are graded on a V-scale starting with VB or V0 which is the easiest problem all the way to V16 which only a handful of people in the world can climb.

Sport Climbing – A fun style of climbing where you clip bolts in the rock for protection. You will need a bit more gear such as a rope, quickdraws (carabiners connected by a strip of high strength material such as webbing or dyneema/nylon runners), harness, belay device, and a helmet. Sport climbs are graded on the Yosemite Decimal system starting at 5.0, the easiest, all the way up to 5.15 which only a handful of people in the world can climb. When you get to 5.10 there are letter grades to further denote difficulty from a to d. For example 5.11c, 5.13a, 5.10d, etc…

Trad Climbing – similar to Sport Climbing but instead of clipping bolts you place your own gear in cracks, fissures, holes, etc. in the rock. Trad climbing is expensive and you will need a lot of gear such as cams, nuts, tri-cams, hexes, and ballnuts just to name a few. Trad climbing has the same grading system as Sport Climbing.

There are many other disciplines of climbing such as aid climbing, ice climbing, big wall climbing, alpine climbing, gym climbing, etc, all of which may tempt you later (once you get your arms around the basics).

Minimum gear you will need: A harness or crash pad depending on which climbing genre you pick, shoes, and a chalk bag. You can expect to spend about $200 total for these items but if you find a good sale it could be significantly cheaper. A full trad rack can easily cost upwards of $2,000. A good rope typically costs $200+ and needs to be replaced every two years or so depending of course on how much you use it.

©Rhondie Tait

Now what?

You now have a basic idea of what climbing is, you have decided you like it, and you are trying the varying climbing disciplines. Is there anything else you should know? Well, I am glad you asked. Rock climbing is all about solving problems, and as your climbing skills progress the problems you encounter will become ever more complex. I have been climbing for over two decades and I am always learning. That is what I love about climbing: it never gets old. There is always a new challenge over the horizon or right there in front of you. You must always be honest with yourself and your abilities, as getting in over your head is very easy to do, especially when you are new. Just because you can climb the yellow 5.10b problem at the gym does not mean you can climb a 5.10b outside in the “real” world.

©Rhondie Tait

You may also want to consider joining a climbing club or conservation organization such as the American Alpine Club or The Access Fund not only will a membership give you access to special deals, awesome events, and great people but a membership sticker on your ride at the local crag will give you instant street cred.

You never know, a couple times out bouldering and you may find, like I did with skiing, you have a lot of catching up to do.

See you on the rock!

©Rhondie Tait

Leave a Reply