The Basics of Our Happy, Healthy Hobby (or Should I Say Obsession?)
Walking into your local climbing gym for the first time is terrifying. Everyone seems to know each other, even the little kids climb like Spider-Man, and complex jargon that we can’t even pretend to comprehend is tossed around like it’s nothing. You glance around and notice tiny shoes, strange equipment on the walls, and numbers on the climbs that don’t make much sense. The feeling is overwhelming and enough to make anyone run. But let me tell you a secret: every climber in that gym has felt the way you do now and most are excited that you’ve decided to join us in the unholy church that is rock climbing. After all, every new climber is a potential friend and, more importantly, spotter. This article is meant to give YOU a brief introduction into the world of indoor climbing and hopefully ease some of the fears we naturally feel as we join a new sport and community.
Our 5 Step Indoor Climbing Guide for Beginners
(1) What types of climbing can I do indoors?
There are three main types of climbing that one can do indoors: bouldering, top-rope, and sport. Bouldering refers to shorter climbs that don’t require ropes. Generally, bouldering areas will be well-padded and range from 12 to 16 feet in height. Bouldering can be the simplest type of climbing to get into, as you don’t need a partner or any specific training.
Roped climbs in the gym are designated into top-rope and sport routes. When top-roping, one is attached to a rope that goes through a pulley positioned at the top of the route. The person on the other end of the rope (and pulley) is tasked with “belaying”, or pulling in lengths of rope in order to prevent the climber from falling. Most gyms offer classes on how to belay, but you can also learn from your future climbing partners! Top-roping is generally considered the least scary way to get into roped climbing, especially for those who are uncomfortable with heights. This is due to the fact that the climber is always below the anchor, meaning that the climber should stop almost instantly if they begin to fall.
Sport-climbing is more complex than top-roping and generally requires a separate certification in the gym. When sport climbing, the climber begins the route attached (by rope) to the belayer with no pulley, or anchor, in between them. As the climber moves up the route, they “clip”, or attach the rope, to anchors placed along the wall. Sport-climbing allows for more mobile routes (and the ability to climb overhanging routes without swinging far out) but is considered more advanced due to the more complex nature of a sport belay and the potential for further falls (as one moves above the anchor).
(2) How do the rating systems work?
In most gyms located in the United States, one can find two rating systems: the Hueco (or V) scale for bouldering and the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS or 5.) scale for roped climbs. Some gyms use their own scales (such as color-coded routes). If a gym’s scale appears vague, ask a staff member!
The Hueco scale begins with V0- (or VB, standing for V beginner) and becomes progressively harder as the number increases. For each V-rating, there’s a “minus”, flat, and “plus”. For example, for V0, one can find the ratings of V0- (easiest), V0, and V+ (hardest). Theoretically, the hardest V0+ should be easier than the easiest V1-. Practically, however, this isn’t always the case. Every route is dependent on your flexibility, your height, and your general style of climbing. Therefore, some routes that are graded higher than you normally climb may seem easy and some graded lower than you climb may seem impossible.
The Yosemite scale comes from a long history of rope climbing. The scale starts at 5.0 and continues upward to the hardest roped-climbs in the world (currently 5.15). Above 5.9, climbs are divided into alphabetic parts a, b, c, and d (for example, 5.10a). A 5.10a is easier than a 5.10b and so on.
Take grading with a grain (or bucketful) of salt. As mentioned, grading is based on the opinion of the person (or people) doing the grading. Different styles of climbing or heights can lead to incredibly different impressions on a route.
(3) What equipment do I need?
Most climbing gyms, much like a bowling alley or ice skating rink, stock rental gear. When you visit the gym, mention that you’re a first-time climber and gym staff will be more than happy to help you out! If you plan to boulder, all you need to rent is a pair of shoes. If, however, you’d like to face the challenge of rope climbing, you’ll also need to acquire a harness. Shoes should feel tight, but not too tight. You want to be able to feel every divot on the wall without excruciating pain. Put on your harness in the same way you’d put on a pair of pants! The waistband should be snug around your waist and the leg-straps should feel tight without being constricting. Check in soon to learn more about what gear you need for your first time climbing outside!
(4) What basic etiquette do I need to know?
Climbers, like any other subgroup, have their own norms and set of manners. Though a more exhaustive list is available via the Heel Hook’s article on climbing etiquette, the following tips will help keep your first gym sessions free of awkwardness. First, never walk underneath someone climbing. Beyond manners, this keeps you (and the climber above you) safe. Second, don’t give unsolicited advice, or beta. Problem-solving is an important part of climbing and many climbers enjoy the experience of working through problems themselves. Climbing is a very community-based experience, so you’ll probably end up sharing beta quite a bit, but always remember to ask first. Third, simply put, don’t be creepy. Though relationships do, at times, form at the gym, don’t be that person who makes a bad name for themselves by hitting on every person just trying to climb.
(5) What should I wear and what else do I need to bring with me?
When climbing, like with most sports, always wear what makes you most comfortable. Most indoor climbers like to wear basic athletic apparel: shorts, leggings, tank tops or t-shirts, and the like. Some prefer to wear long pants or jeans from a protective standpoint, but doing so is completely personal preference. Other than your athletic clothes, make sure to bring a pair of socks. Though climbing shoes are normally worn without socks, you’ll want a thin pair to wear with your rental gym shoes. Some gyms even require this!
(Bonus) I’ve started climbing inside and have caught the bug… how do I get outside?
For many climbers, spending time outside is the high-point of their week. Outdoor climbing is an entirely new adventure that takes a slightly different skill set, more preparation, and a greater focus on safety. Generally, the best way to get into outdoor climbing is to talk to your fellow climbers in the gym! Once you start to build friendships with fellow climbers, talk to them about joining a trip. Make sure your group has all the equipment it needs, good spotters (if you’re bouldering), and a map or guidebook of your chosen sending location. Most importantly, remember to have fun!