You’re about to stumble into a rock gym for the first time. We’re so excited for you! Maybe it’s because you want to try something different or maybe it’s because your friends are promising dinner and a generous glass of wine to follow. Either way, here is everything you need to know.
Rock climbing is one of those activities everyone can enjoy. You can be old or young, skinny or curvy, light or heavy, short or tall – no matter what, the rocks won’t discriminate. However, it can be a little bit intimidating the first time if you’re not sure what to expect.
The first step is to understand the role of each person. Rock-climbing requires two people who are both attached to the same rope, so it’s a perfect way to hang out with your mates (yep, sorry not sorry about the pun).
The first person is the climber (obviously) while the second (and arguably more important) person is known as the belayer. Always be nice to this person. Make sure you shower them with love, compliments and treats, because they are responsible for catching you when you fall.
All rock gyms require first-time climbers to fill out and sign an indemnity form and complete a basic training session. It usually takes about 20 minutes to complete and if you’re going to a popular spot it’s probably worth calling ahead to make sure they have capacity. An instructor will show you and your friends how to tie in and manage the ropes – basically, how to take up the rope as a person climbs, how to stop their fall and how to lower them when they are finished.
Most gyms will also have harnesses and shoes you can hire. The shoes usually cost a few extra dollars, but they are definitely worth getting. Climbing shoes are designed to fit your foot very closely and they have hard rubber soles that make it easier to get solid footing on small holds. Sneakers, on the other hand, are usually much bigger (to give your feet space to swell when you’re running) and have squishy soles that roll off small holds and make it much harder to grip.
(Pro tip: Climbers generally go barefoot inside their climbing shoes so they can feel all the details in the texture of the wall, but if you’re hiring shoes from the gym, take a thin pair of socks to wear underneath. Plenty of others have worn them first and no-one needs that toe jam!).
When you’re deciding on what to wear, choose clothing that allows plenty of movement with some layers you can remove as you warm up. Athletic tights and sports bras are great, but so are harem pants and big baggy t-shirts. You do you.
The first step, always, is to make sure your rope isn’t tangled or crossed over. Beginners start with a method called “top-roping” which is where the rope is attached to a fixed-point at the top of the climb with two long dangling ends. The climber takes the side closest to the wall, while the belayer takes the side furthest from the wall. Big gyms generally have lots of ropes very close to each other, so double check to make sure you have the correct rope for the climb you want.
There are a couple of ways you can tie into the rope.
Many popular gyms use carabiners, which are a type of clip with a lockable opening. If your gym has these, the climber should clip into the hard point on their harness and the belayer should clip into the belay loop and both should make sure the lock is securely fastened.
Meanwhile, many more traditional gyms use figure-eight knots, which can require a little bit of practice. Your instructor will show you how to tie one, but make sure you ask for help if you’re not sure how to tie one or the knot you’ve tied doesn’t look quite right.
Climbers are also taught to do buddy checks of their partner’s gear, so if you see something that doesn’t look like it’s fastened correctly, speak up. Same goes if you see other people in the gym who have missed something obvious. Don’t doubt yourself – they will definitely thank you.
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As mentioned above, belayers are wonderful, beautiful humans who we love. Generally, if you go with a partner or a group, you’ll take turns climbing and belaying. It’s a great opportunity to rest your muscles, but it doesn’t mean you can stop paying attention to the task at hand.
Once the climber and belayer are both tied in, the belayer will pull all the slack out of the rope so they can feel the weight of the climber on the end and say, “You’re on belay”. That tells the climber it is safe to start. The climber will respond by saying, “Climbing”. As the climber ascends, the belayer will keep pulling up the slack to make sure the rope is tight.
The key principle is this: the tighter the rope, the shorter the fall.
As you pull up the slack, the rope will pass through a small metal device attached to your harness called a “belay device”. It has a sharp corner that acts as a brake to stop a climber’s fall. The beauty of it is that you don’t have to be strong to operate it, so you can safely and easily stop a fall even if the climber is much bigger and heavier than yourself. Keep your hands below the device, with pressure on the rope, so you’re ready to act at a split-second’s notice.
When the climber falls (we’ll get to that later), their safety is totally dependent on you. It sounds scary, but if the rope is tight, they won’t actually fall at all. The will simply come away from the wall for a second, then swing back and merrily pick up where they left off. You may notice the rope stretch a little bit as it absorbs the climber’s full weight. That just means it’s doing its job.
Finally, never ever let your hands off the rope.
No matter how great your friend looks (or how hot your date is), this isn’t the time to try and nab a sick photo. Ask someone to take one for you so you can admire your Catwoman skills later.
Climbing is the easy part! It can be a bit intimidating to look up at the wall and see all the different holds and angles of the wall, but the key is to break it down so you’re just thinking about one move at a time. One hand, one foot; one hand, one foot. Rinse and repeat. The key is to use your hands to balance yourself and use your feet to push yourself up the wall.
Rock gyms generally have holds in all different colours with a sign at the bottom associating a colour to a number. This is the “grade” or difficulty of the climb. Gyms employ people called “route-setters” to design climbs suitable for all difficulty levels and they change regularly.
Basically, the lower the number, the easier the climb.
The Australian system (also known as the Ewbank Grading System) is very logical. It uses whole numbers that run from 1-35 and beginners can expect to climb from about grades 10-16. The American system (also known as the Yosemite Decimal System) is a bit more complex because it uses decimal places and letters to indicate the level and difficulty of each climb. It runs from 1-5.15b and beginners will probably start somewhere between 5.1a-5.8d.
When you reach the top, let the belayer know by hollering, “Take!” They will know to take up the slack and begin lowering you down the wall. Letting go feels unnatural at first, but your lovely belayer will have your back. Let go with your hands, lean back so all of your weight is on the rope and slowly walk your feet back down the wall. Once your feet are safely on the ground, let your belayer know by saying, “Safe”. They will let go of the rope and confirm, “You’re off belay”.
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There are a couple of key things to keep in mind:
- Speak up immediately if you see something that doesn’t look right.
- Look upwards before you cross underneath a rope in case you haven’t noticed a climber coming down on top of you.
- Take a water bottle but make sure you move it with you as you change between climbs so it’s not in other people’s way.
- Ask people if they will be finishing soon and if you can grab their rope next, but don’t loiter or get in the way or be awkward.
- Compliment other people for reaching the top of a hectic-looking climb – climbers call it “sending” and generally love good vibes.
- Wear shoes when you’re climbing. Most people take them off between climbs but no-one wants to touch gross holds covered with your sweaty toe jam.
When, not if, you fall
Falling is inevitable, so make peace with it. Your instructor will make you and your climbing buddy practice falls and catches before the set you loose in the gym, so have faith and don’t stress if you feel yourself starting to slip. You only have to watch the Olympics (or look up a few indoor climbing videos online) to see that experts fall all the time, too. It’s part of the process.
The truth is rock climbing is an amazing full-body exercise and a fun way to try something different. It might seem challenging at first, but it will give you an amazing sense of achievement once you start getting the hang of it (yep, not sorry about that pun either).
Is there anything else you want to know about rock-climbing? Or if you are an experienced climber, is there anything we have missed? Let us know in the comments below or reach out on Facebook or Instagram.