Rock Climbing Basics

Rock climbing is a fun and challenging sport that can help you to experience some amazing views, get you in excellent health, and get you some very cool photographs. When I was at university I joined the mountaineering club and learned the ropes (literally), if you’re considering taking it up as a hobby here’s what to expect.

Before you begin rock climbing you’ll need to know some rock climbing basics and make a few purchases. The first and most important are climbing shoes which you’ll need for any kind of climbing. While it’s probably possible to climb in trainers (and incredibly painful in bare feet) you’ll be surprised at what a difference the proper shoes make, enabling you to wedge your feet into tiny cracks and balance all your weight on one toes. Their rubbery surface means they stick to the walls and you’ll instantly be transformed into Spider-man. Secondly you’ll need a chalk bag and some chalk, this enables you to improve your grip on tough climbs stopping your hands from slipping through sweat. You’ll quickly find chalking up becomes second nature. The other things you’ll need to get started on proper climbing are a harness – which will hold you in and stop you falling off the rope (make sure you get a comfortable and well fitted one), and a belay device with carribena which enables you to control the rope while others climb (no one will help you otherwise).

Firstly a fear of heights as you can imagine can be quite a problem to start with in climbing. This isn’t too much of a problem however once you learn to trust the rope and the person ‘belaying’ bellow you. Just expect some embarrassing moments early on as you find yourself clinging onto the climbing wall/cliff face for dear life.

To begin with you can try your hand (again, literally) at some bouldering. Here you climb a much smaller ‘crag’ (the technical term for a climeable bit of rock) or indoor section over a crash mat and simply jump down once your done/stuck. Bouldering routes are known as bouldering ‘problems’ as finding and performing a route is often more like a logic puzzle than something that requires more strength.

Another way to practice climbing at a lower height is known as ‘traversing’. Here, rather than climbing upwards, your objective is to climb along the wall sideways, as though you were crossing a drop or pit. Practicing this will greatly improve your climbing skill as it takes a fierce amount of grip and forearm strength to hold onto the wall for that long.

Once you feel ready to start climbing properly you’ll be introduced to your first route. This will be an easy one to begin with, as the routes are graded for difficulty. One wall can contain several different routes, particularly in climbing centres where you can pick to use handholds of only a certain colour for example. You will be instructed to put on your harness and tighten it up and then tie into the rope using a figure of eight knot (learning a variety of knots is another bonus of learning to climb). This rope will be a ‘top rope’ meaning that it goes through a loop at the top of the wall and is then help by the belayer at the other end. As belayer your job will be to feed the rope through the belay device on your harness and to take the rope in as they climb and to stop it passing back through if they fall. It’s incredibly hard to get this wrong so don’t worry – you’re safe. When you eventually come to abseiling back down you can lean back safe in the knowledge that you won’t fall (unless you’ve recently insulted the guy on the end of your rope).

As you climb you’ll notice how much it taxes your muscles, particularly your legs, lats and forearms. Holding on to a hold for a long time while you plan your move is incredibly difficult and so a good climber will plot their route before they begin climbing. You can also use a variety of established moves to take some of the weight off of some limbs. For example ‘The Egyptian’ describes a move where you stand sideways with your feet facing forward and one behind you. It sounds complicated, but twisting into this position can often be all you need to shift your weight and enable you to free an arm to make the next move. You may be surprised at how satisfying it is overcoming these kinds of problems and it’s almost like playing chess against a wall (far more fruitful than playing tennis against a wall).

As you get more advanced you’ll get the opportunity to ‘lead’. This enables you to climb places that don’t have facilities for a top rope meaning you can discover new routes. Here you take the rope up with you and either loop it through preset holes as you go (‘sport’ climbing) or through devices from your rack that you place yourself (‘trad’ climbing). To do trad climbing you will need many more pieces of equipment on top of your own rope and will have to have faith that the equipment you place in the wall will take your weight if you fall. So long as one does you’ll fine…

Some people take this one step further doing ‘free soloing’ which means you simply climb the wall with no safety equipment, relying on your own ability to stop you from dying. It look amazing and is a fantastic adrenaline rush but there’s really no reason to risk your life in this way (particularly as you may also have to climb back down after). One safer way to do this is to climb a cliff over water, as long as you don’t go too high and you’ve checked for rocks below the surface. Several people have died from free soloing and there’s no need to increase that number.

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