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Rock Climbing: How to Get Involved in the Sport

Looking for a way to challenge yourself mentally and physically in a fun, social environment? Rock climbing is the sport for you! Our featured blogger, Sarah Jane Jacob, from ‘Gun Girl Down Under,’ is the guest author of this piece.

I still remember the day when, as a 19-year old in the mid-‘90s, I discovered that there was a rock climbing gym in my home town. I had long wanted to try the sport, so the very next day, I turned up at the gym to check it out.

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Rachel about to tackle a climb at an indoor climbing gym.

The pleasant young man beyond the counter asked if I had a climbing partner. In my haste to visit the gym I hadn’t considered that I would need one. Luckily it was a quiet day, so he was able to belay (hold the rope and take in slack as I ascended) me, as I made my way up a climbing wall for the first time. The experience was addictive, and I soon found myself climbing several times a week in the gym, and then climbing outdoors on the weekends with my new climbing friends.

For me, rock climbing is a physical form of problem solving. There are many different ways to climb a cliff. The way a petite woman in her 30s, such as myself, will approach a climb, is very different to how a tall, strong teenage boy will climb that same route.

You can choose to climb in an indoor gym, or take it outdoors at one of literally thousands of “crags” (natural cliffs that can be climbed) across the world. If you decide to take your climbing practice further, you can also participate in climbing competitions held across the country, and the world.

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Rachel belaying a climber at an indoor climbing gym.

How to get started rock climbing

The quickest, easiest and least intimidating way to try climbing is to visit your local indoor rock climbing gym. It’s best to go with a friend or your partner, so you can belay each other; it’s a great activity for couples. However, many gyms now offer self-belay devices, which take up slack as you climb up the wall, and take your weight if you fall off – which means you can go solo if you like.

Alternatively, you can sign up for a beginner’s climbing course at an outdoor/adventure school, and try outdoor climbing on real rock.

You can also join a climbing club, if one exists in your local area.

Learn the lingo

Rock climbers use a lot of jargon specific to the sport. It’s worth familiarising yourself with some common terms, so when fellow climbers start talking about chimneys, aretes and quickdraws, you know what they’re talking about. A climbing glossary can be found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_climbing_terms.

Lots of knots

There are many different types of knots used in rock climbing. You will not be required to know all of these when you first start climbing, but you will need to learn the figure-of-8 knot, as this is how you attach the climbing rope to your harness

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Sarah climbing at a crag in Krabi, Thailand. Note the climbing harness, chalk bag and climbing shoes.

The basics of outdoor rock climbing

There are 2 ways to make your way up a cliff:

  • Depending on the cliff, it is often possible to attach the climbing rope to a structure (for instance, a large tree or boulder, or a purpose-installed attachment point) at the top of the cliff, so you can “top rope” the climb – the same way that climbs are set up in a climbing gym.
  • The other way is much more intrepid, and it’s call “lead climbing.” This is where you climb the cliff, taking the rope up with you, and clip it into attachment points as you ascend, which will arrest your fall if you slip off.

Lead climbing comes in 2 flavours:

  • Traditional climbing refers to climbing on cliffs where it is possible to use cracks in the rock to place devices (like nuts and cams) that you can attach your climbing rope to.
  • Bolted or “sport” climbs refer to routes where attachment points have been bolted into the rock, so you can clip your rope into the attachment points using a carabiner.

Equipment you’ll need

Rock climbing is the perfect activity for gear freaks, as there is a seemingly endless range of equipment that you can purchase – especially if you decide to climb outdoors.

To get started, however, you will only need a few pieces of equipment:

  • Harness – this is essentially a belt that goes around your waist, with straps that loop around your legs. You attach the rope to your harness, to ensure that you are not hurt if you fall off.
  • Helmet – if you are climbing outdoors, your guide or club may insist that you wear a helmet.
  • Climbing shoes – these are not compulsory, but they will improve your climbing dramatically, compared with trainers (sneaker for the American readers). They are shaped so that they are a tight fit for your foot, to allow you to easily stand on small projections of rock.
  • Chalk bag – also not compulsory, but very useful. Putting chalk on your hands improves your grip on slippery rock, and when you are sweating (trust me, you’ll do a lot of that!).
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Sarah “topping out” on a sea cliff at Point Perpendicular, Australia.

What to expect

Regardless of whether you try out climbing at a gym or with an outdoor guide, the first thing you will receive is a safety briefing and some basic instruction from your instructor. Make sure you listen carefully and ask questions if you don’t understand what is expected of you. You will begin with top-roping a climb, for safety reasons.

In the beginning, you can expect to get a few bumps and bruises, as you learn how to manoeuvre yourself on the rock or wall. You will probably find that you will be quite sore after your first few sessions – rock climbing is a whole body activity, and you will use lots of muscles that you didn’t even know existed! Over time, you will find that your strength – particularly in your upper body – will increase considerably.

Tips

  • If you hair is long enough to tie back, it’s important that you do so. Loose hair can easily be caught in belay devices and other equipment, often with disastrous and very painful consequences!
  • Consider wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt when you first start climbing (if the weather allows), to prevent cuts and scrapes from the rock or wall.
  • It’s good practice to always check your tie-in point/carabiner and that of your belayer, to make sure they are secure, before beginning to climb.
  • Try to use your legs to stand up on the rock, instead of using your arms to pull you up, as your leg muscles are much bigger and stronger. You will quickly become very tired if you use your arms to do everything!
  • Communication with your belayer is also important. Make sure you tell them when you are about to start climbing, when you need a rest, and when you are ready to come down.

Climbing might be for you if you:

  • want an hobby that will make you physically and mentally strong
  • want a full body workout
  • enjoy problem solving
  • want a hobby that has a vibrant social scene
  • like spending time out in nature
  • are interested in an activity that can take you to beautiful natural areas around the world
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    The Women's Outdoor News, aka The WON, features news, reviews and stories about women who are shooting, hunting, fishing and actively engaging in outdoor adventure. With a band of columnists and reviewers, photographers and female reporters, The WON engages its readers through a blog format and we invite you to talk to us. Thank you for reading!