6 Ways to Start Climbing Outside and Skip Your Sketchiest Days

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Your quick-draws glimmer, lockers shine, the rope is painstakingly uncoiled from its packaging and flaked end to end, helmet without a scratch, your shoes have only seen the plastic holds and vacuumed floors of a gym. All of your gear, including Nalgene bottles, and sunscreen, is spread out in a carefully organized grid on the living room floor to be admired. You even snap a pic for Instagram #weighmyrack. But, it is all theoretical at this point. You’ve never actually been climbing outside.

Your first year of climbing outside is one of utter confusion, accelerated learning, and exciting experiences.  John Long writes in the intro to The Trad Climber’s Bible, “The sketchiest days of all were those first few outings. We all have our memories.”  But, with all the information available, you don’t have to totally wing it. My hope is that these tips help make your first year of climbing outside a little less dangerous and a lot more fun.

The sketchiest days of all were those first few outings.

1. Find a Mentor

A mentor is a more experienced climber that can take some of the guesswork out of learning the sport. From route reading to evaluating fixed hardware, a proper mentor should demonstrate good judgment. Risk is an inherent part of climbing, and no doubt it is a part of what makes the sport so enticing. However, if we want to practice climbing for the long haul, and maintain some acceptable margin of safety, we’ll need to have a bank of knowledge and experiences to draw from and guide us in decision-making.

Mentors can build competence in two main ways. First, a mentor will most likely have a collection of stories recounting their own personal mistakes, epics, and close calls that they are willing to share. Depending on how many beers are in your mentor, these stories may be slightly embellished, but nonetheless, they contain valuable lessons. Second, a good mentor should push you mentally and physically, but limit the potential of catastrophe in the process.  My first trad mentor, Tenny, never discouraged me from getting on a challenging route as long as the gear was good and the falls were clean. Regardless of the grade, if the line didn’t meet his criteria, he’d say, “This route isn’t worth breaking your leg on.” He allowed me to learn while keeping the likelihood of serious injury low.

For the love of all that is good, if you find someone that is willing to volunteer their time and effort to help you, treat them like the saint that they are. One of the wonderful things about the climbing community is that there are so many experienced climbers who are willing to take someone from the younger generation under their wing. You can’t hire a mentor, but realize the patience required to belay a new trad climber as they spend an hour fiddling up a 40ft 5.5 is deserving of at least free pizza afterward.

2. Seek Qualified Instruction

Mentors and hired guides play different roles in your development as a climber.  Mentors are your friends that are doing you a solid by teaching you a thing or two about climbing. Guides teach climbing as a profession. They earn climbing and first aid certifications through organizations like the American Mountain Guides Association and NOLS. Then they work hard to stay up to date on risk management and safety guidelines in the sport while providing the best climbing experience for the customer as possible.

Hiring a guide for a private trip or enrolling in a gym-to-crag course is a game-changer for climbing outside. One day with a guide can teach you what would have taken months to learn on your own. Not only can they teach you the proper way to build anchors, clip bolts, clean a route, rappel, and place gear, but they can also show you landmarks for navigating the area and important information about approaches, descents, and local ethics. They may even continue to be a resource for occasional advice. For example, after taking a super valuable course on self-rescue techniques with Blue Ridge Mountain Guides, my guide, Grant, has generously given his time to stay in contact and answer questions about gear and trip beta.

3. Read Climbing Books

Self-Rescue, David Fasulo
A must-read on how to get out of difficult situations.

Does anyone read John Long anymore? Reading is one of the easiest, most accessible, and least expensive ways to gain knowledge in the sport. There are books on everything in climbing — from anchor-building to sport psychology. Check out The Top 25 Best Rock Climbing Books for some great reads, and then head to your local climbing shop or bookstore to support your community. Also, take a look at Moja Gear’s awesome collection of free eBooks and full-length books for purchase here.

Climbing videos can also be a great resource for information and motivation. Just be mindful of who published the video and what their credentials are for teaching other climbers. Many videos only represent the author’s personal opinion and not the standards established by respected climbing organizations. The American Alpine Club has a helpful series of education videos on topics such as lead belaying, cleaning an anchor, and rappelling.

4. Network with Other Climbers

Make friends at your local gym. Many places have trade-a-belay boards or Facebook pages that serve to bring together climbers with similar schedules or goals. This is a great way find a partner that you may eventually like to go climbing outside with. You might even connect with a potential mentor.

Become an advocate. Join the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and/or your local climbers’ coalition. Access to the public lands that host climbers is not guaranteed forever and is increasingly under threat. Upkeep of crags, trails, and fixed hardware is expensive and time-consuming. Consider attending an Adopt-a-Crag event or Craggin’ Classic as a way to support the community and network with local climbers.

always be honest about your experience

Join Mountain Project’s partner finder or peruse the partner forums. It is one of the weird and beautiful aspects of climbing that we routinely put our life in the hands of complete strangers. Just always be honest about your experience and abilities when making plans with people. “Under- promise and over-deliver” is a good motto for a lot of things involving performance, climbing included. If you are looking for a rope gun, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you are clear about your expectations. A lot of people might like to lead every pitch, but it’s always good to have a heads up beforehand.

5. Become Well- Rounded

slab-climbing-samantha-sophiaClimb outside as much as you can and at as many different areas as possible. Get out of your comfort zone and work on your weaknesses. Try bouldering, technical slabs, splitter cracks, crimpy face climbing, awkward offwidths, chimneys, steep jug hauls, and multi-pitch (preferably with a qualified guide).

Forget about grade chasing and focus on basic techniques in each of these climbing styles. The ability to lead 5.9 in any style, anywhere, on any type of rock is no small task but opens the door to climbing around the world — from the granite big walls of Yosemite to the single-pitch and multi-pitch sport routes of Spain. Learning a wide range of skills early on will give you a head start on eventually feeling comfortable enough to travel with the sport and plan climbing trips.

Before you lead, follow! Cleaning provides a valuable opportunity to learn technique, find good clipping stances, and safely work challenging routes. Following on trad routes allows you to see how gear works and (hopefully) what good placements look like. Cleaning gear also teaches you that when you start leading trad routes, proper placements are not only important for safety but also because overcamming gear or placing gear so that it can easily walk deep into a crack can lead to losing that $70 Camalot.

6. Embrace the Gumby Status

Most importantly: accept that you are new and have a lot to learn. If someone offers advice, say “thank you” instead of “I know.” Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Buy the guidebook, it’s totally worth it. Always pack a headlamp– yes, even if you hike out at sunrise. You are not Alex Honnold or Tommy Caldwell.  A single-pitch 5.8 could quite possibly take you two hours. In fact, everything you do in climbing will take more time than you anticipate. Keep your hand on the brake strand even if you’re using a GriGri, and please- wear a fricking helmet. Now get out there and go climbing!


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