Rock Climbing basics

By Ross Taylor 27 May 2014
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Want to head outdoors, scale new heights and test the limits of your physical and mental endurance? This beginner’s guide to rock climbing will get you off the ground.

I CAN VIVIDLY remember the first time I went climbing. It was with my father and I was 13. I had been bugging him for ages to take me and had finally worn him down.

We drove to a beginner’s crag near our home in the Grampians and at the base of the cliff he spent 10 minutes taking me through the basics of belaying and knots, before tethering my skinny frame to a tree and climbing up the cliff.

Soon after he pulled over onto the summit, I heard the call from the top for me to climb – and for the first time felt the rope tugging at my harness.

By the time I’d struggled to the top, dragged myself onto the ledge with my dad, my limbs battered and scratched but feeling supremely happy, I knew I was going to be a climber.

Rock climbing is often assumed to be an “extreme” sport, and climbers are often happy to perpetuate this image (particularly around attractive members of the opposite sex). But I’ll tell you a secret: it’s really not that dangerous. The perception of climbing as extreme is mostly just that, perception.

While there are climbers who live dangerously, the majority are not daredevils risking their lives at every turn, they are people like me, with wives (actually, just the one) and kids, who climb with a high concern for safety.

This is not to say climbing isn’t scary or without risks, but for those who dare the rewards are great.

Climbing is a unique mix of the mental and the physical and, best of all, it takes place in some of the most rugged and beautiful parts of the planet.

Rock climbing basics

When I first began climbing, there were really only two ways to learn: you either had to know a climber willing to teach you or you did a beginner’s course with a club or instructor. These days it is much easier. Indoor climbing gyms are an excellent (and cheap) way to try climbing and learn basic skills before venturing outdoors.

The safe and controlled environment of a gym is also the perfect place to take children. Best of all, kids take to climbing indoors with all the natural aptitude and fearlessness they bring to climbing trees.

On your first visit to an indoor climbing gym, it’s important to go with a partner, someone who can hold your safety rope. After you have signed the necessary waiver forms, a staff member will lead an “induction”, teaching you the basics of climbing safely in the gym.

For beginners, there are usually two climbing options. The first and most common is to “top-rope” – this is where the rope goes up from the attached climber to a pulley at the top of the wall and then back down to your belayer (the person who locks the rope off if you fall). This way you always have a rope above you.

The second option is to go “bouldering”, which is basically unroped climbing but on very short walls above crash mats, and usually with a “spotter”, someone who makes sure you land safely on the mat. Bouldering is a great way of getting strong without worrying about ropes or climbing on your own.

However, for first-timers, top-roping is the best way to learn – bouldering tends to be harder, whereas most gyms will have a bunch of easy climbs for beginners. It is always better to build your technique on easy routes rather than things that are too hard for you.

As part of your induction you will be taught one of climbing’s most important skills: to “belay” – to hold the climber’s safety rope and slow their descent should they fall. The belayer uses a special friction device that the rope runs through. When locked off, it makes holding the falling climber easy. The belayer’s role is very important – they hold your life in their hands – so they need to be someone you trust.

You will also be taught how to attach yourself safely to the rope. Most gyms use two attachments – a screwgate carabiner (a locking clip) and a knot, usually a figure-of-eight (which is one of the safest and most important climbing knots).

The third part of any induction is communication. Before leaving the ground, the climber and belayer should double-check each other’s attachments, then the climber should announce they are “climbing” and the belayer that they are “on belay” – so each person is clear about what is happening. As the climber moves up the wall, the belayer takes in the rope, removing all the slack.

When the climber gets to the top of the wall, the belayer lowers him back to the ground (it is a bit like abseiling, but the descent is controlled by the belayer). Then they can swap roles.

Learning to lead climb 

Once you have built up climbing experience, there is one more type of climbing to learn: “lead” climbing. Leading differs from top-roping in that you leave the ground trailing the rope and clip it into carabiners attached to safety points as you move up the wall – so, unlike top-roping, you don’t have a rope above you at all times.This means the potential for falling further is much greater.

Lead climbing requires both climber and belayer possess a lot more skill and judgement (and expert tuition). Leading is the main way people climb outdoors.

The benefits of indoor rock climbing

The great thing about indoor climbing is that, once you have done your induction, you can top-rope as much as you like without any further instruction, whereas outdoor climbing is a lot more involved and equipment intensive.

However, if you enjoy climbing in a gym then you need to head outdoors, because the difference between climbing indoors and outdoors is like the difference between eating at McDonalds or a five-star restaurant. Everything is better – from the environment to the rock itself, which provides movement and positions that can never be mimicked indoors.

Best of all, Australia is home to some of the best climbing on the planet, from Mt Arapiles and the Grampians in western Victoria, to the rugged sandstone plateaus of the Blue Mountains and Tasmania’s dolerite pillars.

Getting started with outdoor climbing

Once you have decided to try outdoor climbing, the most important thing is to find suitable instruction. If you are lucky, you might know someone with the skills to teach you, but generally the best option is a professional instructor.

Everything about climbing outdoors is more complex, from the risks to the safety skills and equipment to the climbing itself. Proper instruction is essential. You can learn a lot from reading books and watching videos online, but there is no substitute for hands-on learning with an expert.

When you go outdoors with instructors, you have a few options.

One is to just try it by doing a day’s climbing. This will usually mean heading out to a cliff where your instructors will set up top-ropes for you – a similar set-up to an indoor gym – then you will climb a bunch of routes. This is a great way to experience climbing.

However, if you are keen to learn the skills to go outdoors yourself then you need to do a course. You’ll need to learn, at the very least, to set up top-ropes yourself, but preferably how to lead climb.

This means you will have to master placing “protection” (such as wedges or camming devices placed in cracks, or slings over bollards). Climbers use these to create safe anchors for their ropes.

You’ll also need to acquire good and safe judgement, learn the basic knots and rope-work skills, and master advanced belaying skills and climbing techniques.

Once you have these basic skills, the vertical world will begin to open up – and it is incredible.

Climbing is full of powerful experiences far removed from the everyday. Up on the wall, you are on your own, yet connected to your partner by the rope. You are out in the wild, up high, exposed to the elements, not to mention the roller-coaster of emotions – fear, elation, desperation, relief. You can feel it all on one climb.

When a climb begins, all distractions drop away and you are powerfully in the moment – and that alone is a precious freedom.

Key tips for successful rock climbing

When I worked in a busy climbing gym, every so often we would see the classic couple – muscle-bound boyfriend and slender girlfriend – come in to try climbing for the first time. Without fail, the boyfriend would try to haul his way up using his arms – failing miserably every time – while the girlfriend, lacking the big, showy muscles, would often succeed because she climbed smarter and used her legs.

It’s a good illustration that climbing is a complex activity. Climbing is as much about mental strength and technique as it is physical strength. Here are a few tips to make it easier.

Warm up: Before you do anything, warm up carefully – climbing uses a lot of muscles that most people rarely stress in everyday life. If you go too hard too soon, not only do you risk hurting yourself, but you will get what climbers call a “flash pump” – your forearms will fill with lactic acid, blighting the rest of your session. Ease into it gently with some very easy climbing and you will be able to have a much more productive session.

Use your legs: Your legs are strong – much stronger than your arms. If you can, keep as much weight on your feet as possible and you will be able to climb harder and for longer. With that in mind, place your feet carefully on the best holds and remember, when you get stuck, the first thing you should try to do is move your feet to a higher hold. This will allow you to reach higher for new handholds.

Straight arms: Instinct might tell you to pull up on holds with bent elbows, but each time you do you are asking your muscles to recruit (and tiring them out). If you can keep your arms straight then you are utilising your skeleton more than your muscles and you will tire less. The straight-arm technique works best on steep ground where you can twist your entire torso to reach up to the next hold.

Breathe: It’s remarkable how simple this one is, but a lot of people hold their breath when they climb – like most things, climbing is much easier when you breathe.

Different types of rock climbers

Mountaineering: Mountaineers like to climb snow, ice and rock in alpine environments. Among climbers, they are known for their masochistic penchant for suffering in bitterly cold places, with little to eat or wear.

Traditional climbing: Trad climbers use the natural features of the rock – cracks and weaknesses – to place safety protection on the ascent, which can be removed later without damaging the rock. Trad climbers have a reputation for being daggy.

Sport climbing: Unlike trad climbers, sport climbers use pre-placed and permanently installed safety protection, usually in the form of bolts sunk into the rock. Sport climbers fancy themselves as being at the cutting edge of difficulty.

Boulderers: Boulderers climb just that, boulders, usually with portable crash mats or pads to land on. They tend to be strong but simple creatures.

Soloing: Soloing (climbing unroped) divides climbers into those who think it’s madness and those who can understand the lure of such joy and freedom.

Deep-water soloing (DWS): Soloing with less risk? Climbing above deep water, such as an ocean, river or lake, from a floating base (usually boat), DWS is the newcomer on the scene and is a relatively safe way to climb without a rope [just make sure you have your water landing technique nailed beforehand]. Generally, the worst you can expect if you fall off is a saltwater enema.