A Beginner's Guide to Rock Climbing - SkyAboveUs - Outdoors
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A Beginner's Guide to Rock Climbing

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Alex is a football fan, traveler, and a fitness aficionado who enjoys expanding her culinary skills in her free time.

An example of what a rock climbing gym looks like. Notice all the different kinds of holds and how the walls are shaped to resemble rocks and cliffs outside.

An example of what a rock climbing gym looks like. Notice all the different kinds of holds and how the walls are shaped to resemble rocks and cliffs outside.

The Bug

2020 will forever be remembered as a strange year. I picked up new hobbies, like making cocktails at home, and became hyper-focused on my balcony garden. At the start of the year I had been going strong; it really looked like this would be the year I finally got back on track. I had been eating better, ordering takeout less, found my groove in the gym. After a major shock in the previous fall, when I realized that my metabolism and body was not the same that it was in my college days. I was finally starting to lose the weight I hadn't realized I had packed on and tone my body. I was going to be ready for beach season.

And then everything changed. The gyms closed, grocery store shelves were empty, and all the positive changes I had made were in jeopardy.

I tried to pick up running again. I won't lie: I did well until the hot humid days of summer came into full swing. My local rec center opened by appointment, but I couldn't consistently get an appointment scheduled with my inconstant work schedule. My progress was stalled and I fell into a slump.

A couple of friends invited me to try out a new gym in the area: a rock climbing gym. I had never been rock climbing before, but it sounded fun so I thought I'd give it a try.

The gym was empty when we arrived and I was awed by what I saw. The walls were so high and covered with colorful "rocks" of all shapes and sizes. After a quick tour and a harness fitting, I was ready to climb.

I was almost instantly brought back to reality when I realized I had no upper body strength. I could feel the hurt in my forearms. I wasn't even halfway up the wall when I started to freak out. I guess I should have thought more about my slight fear of heights before I started climbing....I kept on trying. I tried out a few routes. But I never made it to the top. My muscles were sore and I was terrified.

Then I discovered the other half of the gym. Bouldering. I loved it. Which, when given more thought is interesting considering I greatly dislike heights, was terrified of falling, and was greatly lacking in upper body strength. Bouldering is done on shorter walls but with no harness or safety devices. I spent over an hour working on different puzzles and I felt the high when I successfully completed a route. I knew my session was over when I lacked the arm strength to pull myself up again.

I was sore. I was tired. I was so very hungry. But, I was hooked.

Not even a week later I brought my boyfriend. We spent hours climbing, and falling. We left tired. We left sore. But, we left wanting more. It was the start of a new beginning.

What You Need To Know

Rock climbing gyms are safe. Of course there is risk involved with the sport, especially when bouldering. But overall, the gyms go to great lengths to make sure people of all skill levels are able to come and have fun. After all, if I plummeted to my death my first day, I couldn't sign up for a monthly membership now could I?

There isn't a whole lot of gear needed for this sport, well when climbing in a gym that is. Essentially all you need are climbing shoes and a harness. However, these items are pricy. Most gyms have these items for rent so you won't need to bite the bullet and buy them straight out the bat.

There are two main types of climbing you'll find at a rock climbing gym: bouldering and top rope. With the top rope you'll either have an auto belay or a person at the bottle of the wall to belay. The auto belay courses are great for people going to the gym alone since you don't need another person. With both the auto belay and the belay, the climber has a rope attached to their harness; the rope goes to the top of the course through a pulley system. With the auto belay this is where it ends, as a pulley at the top will help to control the descent.

It is important to note that these systems prevent a free fall, but you'll have to climb all the way back to where you slipped or got stuck, if you want to try again. With the belay system the rope comes from the pulley down to the belayer at the bottom. The nice thing about this system is that the climber is able to take a seat if they get stuck and they can remain suspended until they wish to climb again or come back down.

Prior to climbing, you should make sure that you understand any weight restrictions on the gear. At my gym they told us the gear is rated for people between 40 and 350 pounds.

Learning the Trade

There is a learning curve to this sport. I won't pretend that I am an expert. I'm far from it. It is a bit scary when you first put on the harness and ascend the wall. You need to have trust in the system. It is a bit a leap of faith to let go of the wall.

It's not just a matter of trusting the system. You need to have faith in yourself. You may find that you need to reach more than you are initially comfortable with or even need to jump to reach the next hold. When you need to jump for a hold over 20 feet in the air it is scary. Being able to trust in yourself and having the strength and flexibility needed to complete the routes comes with practice. It is amazing how much you can do once you believe in yourself.

I was told that the best way to learn this sport was to get up and do it, and when you get stuck, watch someone else try it. The terminology will come. The techniques will be learned. All things come with time.

Using an Auto Belay System

Getting Your Feet Wet

That old saying "Rome was not built in a day" holds true to rock climbing. It takes time to build up muscles, grip strength, confidence, and experience. You need to work at the basics before you can work on anything more extreme, like free solo climbing or climbing outside. Essentially, you shouldn't be discouraged if you aren't ready to scale El Capitan your first year climbing.

There is competitive rock climbing all over the world. With some practice you can try your hand at a local competition. Also, rock climbing is now an Olympic sport, so you never know how far this sport could take you.

A lot of gyms change their courses regularly. This keeps them fresh and challenging and allows climbers to hone their skills.

Why I Love It

Even though I am new to the sport I have already become passionate about it. Why? It is a total body workout. I'm working on building upper body strength, which I have never been very good with. I'm toning my arms, which have gotten a bit flabby, because I disliked working on upper body in the gym because I was bad at it. I'm gaining flexibility reaching for different holds. I'm engaging my core with balancing while changing holds.

It is also a great mental workout. Some puzzles I couldn't work out the first time. This made me take step back and think about how to re-attack them. There is also nothing that matches the high of passing that little voice in your head that says "you can't do that" when you get to a sticky spot and you push through and make it to the top.

While my fitbit doesn't straight-out recognize the sport there is an option to record a rock climbing session as a workout. I just tell the fitbit app I'm starting a workout and select rock climbing. I typically am at the gym for about 2-3 hours, and I don't spend the entire time actively climbing. After each workout my fitbit records over 1000 calories burned. That's amazing! Some climbs even get my heart rate into the cardio zone.

This sport is fun. It is challenging for the mind and body. I am excited to see where I'll be a year from now. I highly recommend giving it a try. You never know, you might find that you really enjoy it too.

Setting The Courses