Everything You Need to Know to Start Rock Climbing

How to prepare physically and mentally before tackling your first wall

Some beginners prefer bouldering, which doesn't require as much gear and avoids 100-foot heights. Here, a climber boulders in California's Joshua Tree National Park. (Olivia Harlow)

Rock climbing is back in the limelight: In the past three years, nearly 100 new indoor climbing gyms have opened nationwide, participation in outdoor climbing has increased 20.3 percent, and 1,000 to 1,500 people try climbing for the first time every day.

Ready to give it a shot? There are couple things you should know ahead of time, and you’ll need a few pieces of gear

Prep Your Body

Hands are everything, says Hans Florine, professional climber and manager of Diablo Rock Gym in Concord, California. If you’re hoping to last more than 15 minutes, consider purchasing a hand gripper. Work up to squeezing out 50 reps with each hand daily.

Then there’s your core, which actually does much of the work to keep your body close to the wall. Start incorporating planks, bridges—especially single-leg variations—and single-leg circles into your regular gym routine, advises Florine.

Overall flexibility and mobility will give you a leg up when you start climbing. For beginners, work the hips. “Sit in butterfly pose and pigeon pose,” Florine says. Open hips mean you’re better able to reach tough foot holds and generate momentum from your lower body.

And then there’s your cardio. It’s common for a new climber with no cardio base to get winded halfway up a route, Florine says. Try to build a solid base either before or during the early stages of your climbing pursuits.

Nail the Jargon

Once you settle on which type of climbing you plan to try, you’ll want to start learning some of the lingo. Mastering climber-speak will make it easier to learn from feedback and pick up new skills as you go. Although there’s a whole world of climbing jargon, Florine recommends peppering the following terms throughout your next crag conversations. One part helpful, other part climber slang, this vocab list will have you sounding like a seasoned vet from the very beginning.

Beta: Helpful information about a route, verbally passed on from a trusted climber who has already done the climb. As the new kid, plan to be exclusively a beta consumer.

Bomber: Derived from “bombproof,” meaning very secure or indestructible. Can refer to a type of rock, a hold, or the gear itself.

Choss: Collective term for loose, crumbly rock, dirt, or even vegetation—basically anything on the route that’s not stable enough to grab. Often used as an excuse for taking a fall or otherwise fumbling on a route.

Gripped: A mental state resulting from becoming consumed with fear while on a climb, usually due to difficulty or exposure or the unexpected presence of choss.

Pumped: When forearms are so swollen with lactic acid that a climber can no longer grip properly. Usually occurs at the end of a difficult route. Can serve as either a badge of honor proving how hard you’ve climbed or as a source of frustration that you can’t climb anymore without taking a break.

Understand Route Grades

Climbing routes, both in the gym and outside, are rated on a scale from 5.0 (easiest) to 5.15 (hardest), dubbed the Yosemite Decimal System. At the 5.10 level and above, routes break out four levels deeper, as in 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, and 5.10d. Beyond 5.10d, you’re getting into an elite level—the folks who spend almost five days a week in the climbing gym or at the crag. The hardest climbing route in existence is currently 5.15c. You’ll start on a 5.6 or 5.7.

Bouldering has its own rating system, known as the V Scale, after bouldering pioneer John “Vermin” Sherman. It goes from V0 to V17, and only a handful of people in the world can climb V16 and V17. Indoor bouldering problems, as the routes are called, tend to max out in the low double digits. Some gyms have a VB, as in brand-new beginner. Start there.

Think About Technique

How you move your feet is often more important than where you place your hands. “Good climbers probably spend 80 percent of the time looking at their feet,” says Hilary Harris, veteran climber and owner of Evo Rock and Fitness in Louisville, Colorado. Experienced climbers also tend to climb with their arms straight. Harris goes so far as to tape kids elbows to remind them while they’re still learning. “You want to climb with your skeleton,” she says. And forget powering through moves using muscular strength—instead, you’ll learn to shift your weight and finesse your way upward.

Practice Etiquette

Demonstrating basic climbing manners will make it easier for you to assimilate. A few things to avoid:

  1. Don’t start climbing a route at the exact same time as a person on the route next to you. Even if your routes don’t intersect, people need a little space on the wall. Let them get at least a third of the way up before you begin.

  2. Don’t step on the rope. It’s the thing that saves your life in a fall, so you don’t want to do anything that will wear it down faster. It’s not as big of a deal when you’re indoors, but it’s still not a habit you want to get into.

  3. Don’t make a lot of noise. This isn’t CrossFit. The vibe in climbing is more like yoga.

  4. Be mindful of your surroundings. In the climbing gym, there’s music blasting and a good amount of socializing. Outside, it’s much more tranquil. Pay attention.

Learn These Lessons from Day One

Belaying: Every climber on the wall has a partner standing on the ground with the other end of the climber’s rope tied into the partner’s harness. The partner, or belayer, is responsible for feeding out rope when needed, taking up slack when needed, and “catching” the climber in case of a fall by locking off the rope.

The FEFT Knot: The Figure Eight Follow Through knot, more commonly known as the figure eight, is the first knot every climber learns and the most important one in climbing, because it’s used to connect the rope to your harness—that is, tying in. It’s simple to master, doesn’t require any backup knot, and totally bomber. After a few tries, you’ll be able to do it in your sleep.

Humility: Climbing technique can be surprisingly counterintuitive to execute. You won’t get it the first time, or the second, or even the third. In fact, climbing technique can take years to figure out, let alone master. The good news is that it’s fun and interesting to practice and extremely gratifying when it starts to click.

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