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I distinctly remember the first time I climbed outside, at Cemetery Wall, in Safe Harbor, south central Pennsylvania. I was stoked. Cemetery Wall is a frictionless, black chunk of rock that bakes in the summer sun. It also happens to be a slab. That means small holds and insecure climbing.
I had gym experience, but had only been climbing on plastic for a year. I didn’t know the first thing about an anchor, and just wanted to have a good time. My first route was tense. I didn’t feel secure because the bolts were farther apart than I was used to, and I wasn’t confident in my technique. Thankfully, toward the top, the pressure I had put on myself to succeed on my first rock route started to dissipate. I realized I wasn’t going to fall and was close to the two-bolt anchor at the top.
Before leaving the ground, I had been told that all I needed to do was clip the two draws in at the top, clip myself in and clean. “Cleaning” was a term I was unfamiliar with, but after some long “talks” between me, at the top of the cliff, and my friends, down at the base, I managed to get my gear, learned what not to do, and continued to have a great rest of the day.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t know what to expect when I was transitioning outdoors, nor who could teach me or where I could go to learn. Now, years later, my passion is sharing my experiences with others looking to get outdoors and I am lucky to call teaching outdoor climbing education my career.
Find a Mentor, Not a Chuffer
One of the best, and easiest, ways to begin climbing outdoors is through a mentor, someone who is willing to share and teach their knowledge of the sport. I didn’t have a chance to learn from a mentor, however, since then I’ve had the pleasure to learn from some great teachers, whom I now call friends. Those relationships mean everything to me and my growth in climbing increases exponentially whenever I build a relationship like this. So try it!
Every gym will have loads of climbers with outdoor experience. Connecting with an outdoor veteran can be extraordinary, but don’t ask just anyone for help. Just because someone has climbed outdoors does not mean they are safe, or have solid experience. Be selective. If someone is a chuffer in the gym, they are likely outside as well.
If you should venture to real rock, have an inquisitive side and ask why your mentor is doing things a certain way. Observe how they set up the anchor, what knots they tie, and so on. Start off on a toprope—rock is not plastic, or even close— or go bouldering to get a feel for natural rock.
Before you get on a rope, read about anchor building and peruse Mountain Project or the guidebooks at your local climbing shop for an appropriate place to go for your first time. If you’re not sure where to start, your gym or gear shop can help point you in the right direction. Be honest with your experience when you ask about places to start, and ask about specifics for gear and style of climbing.
If you don’t have a mentor, take a class from a climbing gym or a guide service that offers rock courses for beginners. Only sign up with a reputable service. The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) has high standards and is a solid reference for your search. In our programming, Earth Treks has classes that develop skills at all levels, building on skills from the previous classes. This makes it easy for you to learn at every stage in your outdoor-climbing career, and helps you grow into a competent and safe climber.
Now that you’ve made it outside, you are ready to make more decisions. Are you content with toproping? Do you want to lead on bolts or gear?
Either way, it’s time to take an anchor- building class specific to your genre of climbing. Learn the intricacies of anchor building by going out to the crag and practicing at the base. Also, read about the essentials of anchors. I recommend Rock Climbing: The AMGA Single Pitch Manual as a comprehensive text on history, materials and techniques used for one-pitch climbing. The book details with clarity the essentials for outdoor climbing, regardless of the style you are doing.
Now it’s time for the really fun part, buying gear. Depending on where you climb, your gear needs will vary, so keep this in mind as you shop. Here are some guidelines.
1. You will want anchoring material that can connect all compo- nents of an anchor. This could be webbing or cord, depending on
the length, durability and strength you need in your anchor system (covered in the AMGA book). There will always be compromises and there are different types of anchor configurations. Ask questions at your shop and gym and do your homework.
2. You will need a climbing rope. I recommend a standard 60-meter length, single-rated dynamic rope. This is the most versatile length and rating for most styles of climbing. The diameter of rope is up to you to determine. Thicker ropes are more durable. Thinner ropes are lighter. Remember what we said about compromise!
3. For toproping you will need locking carabiners. Buy four to get started.
4. Get a good helmet, belay device, and a few quickdraws in case you need to redirect the rope.
Now you can climb safely and push your physical limits.
Let’s say you’re interested in lead climbing. Does the process remain the same? Should you start top-roping or just dive into lead climbing? I can’t answer this for you, but remember, if you start pushing growth in parts of your climbing, you ought to feel prepared in the others. It should be obvious, but if you want to lead outside,
it’s a good idea to start in the gym. Lead climbing is inherently more dangerous than toproping, and leading requires an acute ability to analyze and forecast risk in changing environments. Outside, holds can break or you can slip on grit or lichen. The rock can be hot or cold, making it more difficult to hold on. There’s also usually no one who maintains the bolts and anchors, so you have to be able to check them at a glance. Are they safe? Sport climbing outside involves clipping quickdraws to bolts. Usually the bolts are spaced farther apart than you will find in gyms. Sometimes the bolts have “permadraws” similar to those in gyms fixed to them, but often you’ll clip your own quickdraws to bolts to protect the lead, and once you have topped out, you must know how to retrieve those draws. You also need to know how to get off a sport route if you don’t make it to the anchor. Take a foundations course that teaches and reviews how to perform this vital skill. Most gyms offer a class or a members’ clinic on this technique, and many services offer a sport-lead basics course. Find a class that suits your needs and have fun. If your gym doesn’t offer the class, they probably know who does. Hopefully during this time you’re climbing and continuing to build muscle, stamina and technique. At the lead- climbing stage, both indoor and out, people start to experience a mental block that limits performance and can be hard to overcome. Continuing to climb and getting comfortable on the wall will help overcome this obstacle.
The goal for your outdoor climbing might shift as you aim to manage fear by controlling your emotions (the mental game), as opposed to simply climbing a harder grade. Leading is cerebral, so be technically prepared, physically fit and lower your grade expectations so you can focus on things other than pushing your limit.
As you gain experience you will push your physical limits again, but don’t worry, for now you’re just focusing on other important skills such as how to inspect bolts, lead confidently 10 feet above a bolt and rappel or lower from the top of a climb.
Now, let’s talk gear for sport climbing. For this, build off your toproping “rack” by purchasing quickdraws. Twelve quickdraws will be adequate to start leading outdoors on sport climbs, however you may need more or fewer quickdraws depending on the climbing area and length of the routes. Check the guidebook or Mountain Project. Always bring a few extra quickdraws, just to be safe.
You might be asking, Am I interested in traditional climbing, aka “trad climbing”? In trad
climbing, there may only be a few or no bolts and don’t count on arriving at a bolted anchor, so you have to place “protection”— stoppers, cams, etc.—while you climb to protect yourself, and when you arrive at the end of a pitch or climb you may need to construct an anchor.
Because trad climbing relies on removable protection that you place, it can be more dangerous than sport climbing. There is no substitute for professional instruction. If you think you can learn from a book and just do it, don’t. Prepare for this next step through professional education and practice. Never rush
this learning phase. I’ve been climbing for nearly 10 years, and I still learn new and useful skills every time I go out! If you are leading 5.11 in the gym, start placing gear outside on 5.6 or 5.7. Remember, it’s not about the grades right now, it’s about learning new skills.
To bring it all back, the transition to climbing outdoors can be a tricky, risky deal. Don’t take that deal … learn, play and grow, in that order. As you transition outside, consider yourself an ambassador for the sport. Treat the areas you visit like the pristine environments they are or can be. Take a Leave No Trace class and learn about ways you can positively impact the outdoors. Philanthropy is the new sexy.
This Article Appeared in Gym Climber 1