Julia is a college student who has spent the last 4 years slowly but steadily falling in love with rock climbing.
You hear a yell, so you tilt your head backward to see a shirtless, muscled guy straining to reach the top of the wall. Another man nearby is suspended by a rope at what has to be at least the height of a three-story building. You return your attention to the ground level as a woman brushes past you, her unlaced climbing shoes in her chalk-covered hands, her bare feet red and raw. Small children jump off boulders without a rope and somersault to their feet on the ground.
Sensorily, it’s an overwhelming scene. Or at least, it was for me the first time I went to a rock climbing gym. I carefully put on my shoes and harness, watched as the rope was secured to me, and started to climb, only to look down and experience a moment of utter terror. I never thought I was that scared of heights, but something about the combination of the fluorescent lighting and the feeling of the rough holds in my hands made me feel incredibly insecure perched on this concrete wall, even supported as I was by the rope.
When I first started climbing, it felt like an exclusive club, one to which I could never belong. Climbers offer each other advice and discuss tricky parts of bouldering “problems” (as they are called by those in the know), but I didn’t want anyone to watch me climb for even an instant. I was ashamed and embarrassed as I felt tears come into my eyes (not just the first time, but the first several times) as the fear of heights hit me, or as I felt inadequate and weak compared to the muscular bodies I saw around me.
So why did I keep coming back? Even on those very first trips, there was something about the feeling of climbing that I loved. It engaged my entire body and made me feel strong and brave when I could get to the top. Any improvements I made were small victories. It strikingly exposed my insecurities and gave me a concrete way to overcome them. I knew I didn’t want to stop.
I’ve picked up a lot of information over the last few years as I’ve gotten comfortable with and excited about climbing, and I want to share it with any first-time climber who feels overwhelmed or excluded by the terminology and fancy equipment. But I also want to speak to those people who are intimidated by the images of impossibly cool, buff climbers on the walls, or by the people laughing off scary-looking falls. I hope my perspective as a once-terrified, insecure climber (who still struggles with self-esteem while climbing) will encourage you to give it a try anyway and know you’re not alone in your feelings of inadequacy.
Most people I talked to about climbing when I was first starting out just didn’t relate to the way I felt. Their battles were only to become stronger and more skilled than they were before. But for some of us, climbing is psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically, challenging—which makes it all the more rewarding when we start to feel more comfortable in our own skin and embrace climbing as part of our identity.
The Basics of Rock Climbing
There are two types of climbing for beginners to try: bouldering and top-roping. There is also lead climbing, where you are attached to a rope that’s not attached to the top of the wall, so you have to secure it to the wall at various points as you go. These walls are not only taller, but the falls you can potentially take are much farther, and the person helping with the rope underneath you has a tougher job, too. All you need to know is that when you arrive and see those climbers taking huge falls and climbing absurd heights, you won’t be doing that (at least for a while).
Most beginners start with bouldering because the walls are shorter and you don’t need to be attached to a rope (or wear a harness). Bouldering routes are rated between V0 (or sometimes VB) and V10. Start with VB or V0, since these are the easiest. The holds are color-coded by route (either the holds themselves are the same color or they’re marked with colored tape), which is how you know which holds to use. Bouldering is a social activity—people often come by themselves and make conversation with others working on the same problems. Climbers cluster in the area and take turns climbing when the gym is crowded.
Here’s the thing about bouldering, though: it can be terrifying to jump off the wall at the top, let alone climb a route challenging enough that you might fall unexpectedly. It’s important that you know how to fall safely: land with your knees bent and keep your body loose (let yourself roll onto your back if you need to). Ideally, you should always climb down the wall a little bit when you reach the top, so you’re not jumping as far.
Some people love the social aspects of bouldering, the shorter heights, and the freedom to climb without a rope (and by yourself). But since I had a lot of trouble getting used to jumping off the wall, I only hit my stride with climbing when I got into top-roping. Of course, you need someone qualified to belay you (which means someone to hold the other end of the rope and keep you from falling, using a belay device attached to their harness) first. Look into staff belays or try to go with a friend who is certified. The point is: if jumping off the bouldering wall seems scary, top-roping might actually be an easier way to get your foot in the door—even though it seems counterintuitive because the walls are taller.
Top-roping routes have a different rating system than bouldering problems. Generally, 5.6 is the easiest (though some gyms have 5.5s or even 5.4s) and 5.12 is the hardest (with an occasional 5.13 thrown in for the insane). Again, the holds will either be colored or marked with colored tape to show you which ones are on which route.
Here’s some of the best advice that I’ve received about basic climbing technique:
- Move your feet, then your hands. New climbers tend to stretch their arms up and try to pull themselves up the wall, but this uses up a lot of energy unnecessarily. As you go up the wall, look to see if you can move your feet up a step before reaching up with your arms.
- If you want to take a rest or pause before your next move, do so hanging off the wall with your arms straight instead of holding yourself to the wall with bent arms. Again, this prevents your arms from getting too tired. (You can also yell “take” to the belayer and just sit back for a break, letting the rope hold you up!)
- Take it slow and steady, and think about where you’re placing your hands and feet before you do it.
The hardest part about top-roping for most new climbers is letting go of the wall at the top and putting your full weight on the rope in order to be let down. It’s just something you have to get used to doing, because it feels extremely unnatural at first. The most important part is to let go with your arms and keep your feet on the wall. As the rope lowers, walk them down the wall to avoid spinning around. Also, ask your belayer to let you down slowly - it makes a huge difference in the fear factor (but sometimes experienced climbers forget that).
Definitely take a belay class so you can learn to belay your friends! That way, you can go climbing in a pair and take turns belaying each other—or you can sign up to find a climbing buddy, a program some gyms facilitate.
Lastly, please remember that the information and advice I’ve provided above in no way encompasses all the safety information you need to know before you go climbing. Gyms vary in their requirements, but they will probably teach you some safety basics the first time you visit. Pay attention to these!
Indoor gyms are very ‘in’ right now, but hardcore climbers have been climbing rocks outdoors for a long time. While of course your experience climbing at an indoor gym will help you climb outdoors, it’s important to know that they are very different experiences. I (surprise surprise) cried the first time I went outdoor climbing. It was so difficult that I could barely get started on the route, even though it was supposedly rated lower than the climbs I did at the gym all the time.
This leads me to another crucial point (which I still have to tell myself): don’t put too much stock in the ratings. They are good guidelines for which climbs to attempt, but difficulty varies based on individuals’ strengths and body types and which gym is setting the ratings. Outdoor climbing poses many challenges that indoors does not, the most important being that the holds aren’t highlighted for you in bright colors. There’s the added challenge of figuring out where, in this mass of grey rock, you should place your hands and feet. It takes a lot of practice to see those helpful places quickly. It’s also challenging simply because it’s the outdoors, so the rock can be slippery or there can be bugs and dirt covering it.
Outdoor climbing can be extremely rewarding and exciting, but don’t be hard on yourself if you’re struggling. Of course, make sure you go with someone who knows how to set up the rope and/or the crash pad safely. Don’t be afraid to sign up for a group trip as a beginner—everyone starts somewhere, right? It’s time to dismantle the idea that climbing is an elite club only open to a certain type of athletic person.
Benefits of Climbing
I never had arm strength. At all. I would periodically try to lift weights, and would endure several days of incredibly sore muscles afterward only to abandon the project. Climbing is what finally kickstarted my upper-body strength. Since it’s truly a full-body activity and there are so many different levels (and different ways to do each climb, depending on your strengths), you can start with whatever body you’ve got. The best part is that you’re so focused on the activity and getting to the top of the wall that you’re not thinking about the cardio and strength-training workout you’re getting. I was able to start lifting weights after I gained some muscle mass climbing and felt like my body had gotten stronger overall.
It’s both a social and an individual goal-oriented activity; a hobby and a form of exercise. Sticking with it has positively impacted my self-esteem and my confidence. There are lots of little victories: the first time you see someone else at the gym struggling with a fear of heights and realize you don’t think about that anymore, the first time you complete a 5.7, and then a 5.8, and then a 5.9 . . ., and when your body starts to feel strong and familiar with the wall.
It’s important to remember that climbing usually requires a degree of socioeconomic privilege. Climbing isn’t cheap; it costs money to get a day pass or monthly membership at a gym and to rent (or eventually buy) your gear. And like any form of exercise or hobby, it requires a certain amount of free time. But if at any point in your life climbing is an accessible activity to try, I hope you’ll check it out. I hope you’ll feel encouraged to join a local climbing group or reach out to a friend to learn to climb together. If you worry that you can’t be a climber—you don’t have the right image, you’re not in good enough shape, you’re too scared—but you have any interest whatsoever in seeing what it’s like, I hope you’ll put aside your fears, take a trip to your local gym, and prove that all of us have the potential to become great climbers. Let me know how it goes!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Allison from San Diego, CA on August 30, 2019:
I enjoyed reading this article. As somebody who has always been in awe of rock climbing but never worked up the nerve to try it, your words are encouraging. It's so true that I feels like a club that you're either in or out of. I was around a climbing wall recently and could have tried it, but all I could think was that I might make a fool of myself. Like many things in life, I just need to set aside my fears and take the plunge!