How To Get Into Rock Climbing
Climbing up a rock face is a mental challenge, a physical thrill and a life-affirming experience – here’s how to try it yourself
If you’ve ever looked out onto a crag or cliff and seen the figures of rock climbers, trailing ropes as they unlock the secrets of the ascent, and wondered what it would be like, then you should know: it’s absorbing, exciting and liberating.
Your preoccupations and concerns, so vivid in normal life, fade away for those moments as your focus narrows to the task in hand.
Speak to pro climbers and they will tell you that the ultimate goal isn’t to conquer or dominate. They seek to to flow up the rock, like water in reverse, taking the line of harmony. By the time you reach the top you feel like you have come to a new understanding of things – it’s deeply satisfying.
As with all worthwhile things, there is risk, although your choice of routes, level of knowledge, preparedness and skills can mitigate that risk. Rock climbing isn’t about throwing yourself into danger, it’s about being careful; methodical even. Here’s a short guide on how you can take your first steps onto the wall.
Clever placement of your feet can unlock seemingly impossible moves
Learn Your Rope Skills
Very soon after leaving level ground, rock climbing safety becomes critical. You cannot afford to get it wrong because you will be seriously injured, or worse. So, you need to become proficient at tying yourself into a rope, using a harness and other mission-critical skills, right from the off.
The easiest and best way to do this isn’t to watch videos on YouTube, it’s to go on a course accredited by the British Mountaineering Council (BMC), or one offered abroad by a reputable, qualified mountain guide. You can also join a BMC affiliated climbing club to learn best practice from its experienced members.
Many UK climbers opt to go on lead climbing courses sunnier climes where you can guarantee rain won’t halt your learning, says Nicolas Durand from Climb Catalunya. ‘The advantage of coming on a course like ours is that over a very few days you are going to learn to be independent and to be safe, which is the biggest thing. You will have the confidence to go outside and know how to select a route, know what gear to use and how to use it, and to do it in a safe way,’ he says.
Go Shoe Shopping
Climbing shoes are specialist bits of kit, clad in smooth rubber for maximum grip. As your climbing progresses you will be standing on ever smaller footholds, so getting a good fit is vital.
Climber and mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick has some good advice in his book 1001 Climbing Tips: ‘Slip new shoes on with the heel folded down first to check the toe profile is correct for your foot shape. After that you can think about length.’
Buy A Helmet And A Harness
For trad and sport climbers, wearing a helmet is an easy way to mitigate risk, says Durand. ‘My recommendation is to wear a helmet at all times, whether you are belaying or climbing because you can lose your footing. And a small rock could fall from above, or you could drop a quickdraw.’
If you start your climbing career wearing a helmet, then it will become a good habit; you’ll soon forget you’re wearing one.
A climbing harness is another essential piece of kit for sport and trad. Kirkpatrick advises going to a shop to buy one where you can hang from a beam and test the fit. ‘Check that the harness is not digging in anywhere and that most of the weight is held by the leg loops, with the waist belt supporting your body, so you don’t fall upside down.’
Find A Partner
One of the joys of rock climbing is that it’s a sociable sport, requiring at least two people and a level of trust. (Even when bouldering without a rope, you need someone to ‘spot’ you and stop you from toppling over when you drop to the mat.)
Whether you join a BMC club, or go on a course, your aim should be to find someone who you trust to climb with, but who is also like minded. ‘It’s important that you and your partner are well balanced in experience and ability, but perhaps it is even more important that you share the same degree of psych for the same kind of climbs,’ says Kirkpatrick.
It’s a good idea to start climbing with a new partner in the controlled environment first, in order to see if you’re a good match. ‘A sense of humour is vital in any partnership, as this will allow you to deal more effectively with setbacks,’ he adds.
It’s All About Footwork
Once you start climbing in earnest, it’s easy to get sucked into obsessively searching the rock above for your next handhold. This is natural, but your lower body is the powerhouse when it comes to climbing – it has the biggest muscles to push you up, and it has more endurance because you can stand on your toes far longer than you can hang from your fingertips.
What’s more, clever placement of your feet can unlock seemingly impossible moves. ’Outdoors the holds are perceived as being a lot smaller so foot technique is even more important than indoors, especially in the lower grades,’ says Durand.
So, remember to keep looking down as you climb so that you can move your feet onto better holds, and learn to start trusting your feet to stay on the holds. You’ll soon be surprised what a well-placed rock shoe can stick to!
Words: Matt Ray
Photos: Matt Ray
Visit climbcatalunya.com for more on courses and guiding with Nicolas Durand; you can buy Andy Kirkpatrick’s book 1001 Climbing Tips from V Publishing.