Tips to Take Your Climbing Outdoors
If you want to get out of the gym and wrap your fingers around real rock, the secret’s simple. Get social.
It was the summer of 2006 when I entered my first indoor rock-climbing facility. The delicate, tenuous strength required, and the friendly, encouraging community immediately drew me in. I’d spend hours puzzling over the multi-colored plastic routes, applying my expanding physical vocabulary to solve them. After a few months, some climbing buddies invited me on a bouldering trip to Coconino National Forest, Arizona. Ever since, my love for climbing hasn’t ebbed an inch.
It’s invaluable to today’s climbing community to have indoor climbing facilities, especially since our ranks have grown so much in the past few years. Gyms make year-round climbing possible and provide a safe environment for climbers of all levels to learn and grow. But they can also encourage isolationism.
It’s all too easy to get lost in your own world indoors, coming up for air only occasionally to mull over beta—the popularly established movements used to complete a route, or problem. You line the floor with crash pads, establish a few belay devices to circumvent the need for a human on the ground-bound end of the rope and voila!—you have self-service climbing.
While how to go about making friends goes beyond the modest scope of this story, I assure you, fellow climber, the community is there should you choose to reach out (and don’t be discouraged by the Elite; they don’t speak for the rest of us). So that's it—get social. Climbing buddies will take you out to the crag, and make the experience safer for you, to boot.
Here’s a primer on the various types of climbing you can get into in the great outdoors. Consider it a beginner climber's guide on how to get out for some real, fresh air.
First to bouldering, the burgeoning spin on climbing that allows for fast, easy access to the crag. Bouldering is done without rope, on boulders and cliffs typically no higher than 20 feet off the ground. Transitioning to the outdoors, technically speaking, is a matter of accepting the learning curve, and setting hard limits for yourself in the beginning in order to avoid serious injury. If you’re climbing V3’s in the gym, don’t expect to do the same outdoors. Rock is sharp or smooth or unexpectedly gritty and, make no mistake, the initial fear of gripping the real stuff will worm its way into your head.
The gear part is casual. You just need some chalk, climbing shoes, a couple of crash pads—3- to 5-inch-thick portable mats you lay down on the ground to protect your fall—and an experienced friend or two on the ground to spot you. Compared to roped climbing, you rotate through the area faster, and what bouldering lacks in height, it more than makes up for in technique, and raw strength.
There are essentially three types of roped climbing styles: Top roping, lead climbing and traditional sport climbing.
Top Rope Climbing
Top-roping is the most beginner-friendly. This is when the climber ascends a weighted rope attached to their harness, which is threaded up to a fixed anchor at the top of the route, and back down to the belaying partner on the ground.
The belayer needs a carabiner, which is clipped to her harness and a belay device—a specialized piece of gear that helps the belayer lower the climber slowly and smoothly. As the climber ascends the route, it is the belayer’s job to take in the slack, keeping the rope above the climber taut throughout the climb. Should the climber slip off the route, the belayer stops the rope, and the climber falls only a few feet. The problem with top-roping, of course, is establishing the anchor, which is often impossible to reach without first climbing.
This necessitates the second category of roped climbing: lead climbing. Here, the more experienced climber ascends first, this time with the rope leaving their harness toward the ground, and the belayer, who’s doing the opposite of top-rope technique: feeding slack as the climber ascends.
Throughout the route the climber clips his rope into pre-established bolts in the rockface using special self-locking, carabiner-like devices known as quick-draws. Once the lead climber has established the first bolt, he can ascend to the next one. Should he fall in between, he will take a longer—and, until you get used to it, rip-the-scream-right-out-of-your-throat—fall to the previously clipped bolt. Note that ideal falling technique is to keep your knees bent, and keep your feet in front of you to absorb the impact.
Once the lead climber gets to the top, he can thread the rope through the anchor, be lowered to the ground by the belayer—while unclipping the rope from the bolts on the way down and “cleaning” the route—and, leaving the rope threaded, switch ends so that now the new climber is top-roping.
The final, and most commonly agreed upon as scariest, version of roped climbing is traditional sport climbing. This is when the route is bolt-free. The belayer-climber relationship is similar to lead climbing, with the belayer feeding the climber slack as she ascends. However, the climber must, in this case, use special “rock protection” gear, or “cams,” to wedge into nooks and cracks as they climb. Once the gear is placed, she clips the rope into it, and treats it as a lead climber would a bolt, trusting its protection until the next point where she can place another cam. This style requires the most experience, as misplacing a cam has potentially disastrous consequences in a fall scenario.
All three styles of roped climbing share a mental edge that bouldering often lacks. When maneuvering at great heights—the average roped route is between 50 and 75 feet high— it’s mental stamina that matters most, and complete trust in your partner.
None of these styles of outdoor climbing should be practiced alone—heck, even Alex Honnold had to practice with people when he started. And, anyway, in my experience, it's the climbers I've shared this sport with who've made it special for me.