I love answering reader questions (ask yours here), and I was especially stoked about this one! Watch the video above for my best advice on getting started with rock climbing. Or if you’re more of a reader, check out the transcript below. Happy climbing!
How to Get Started With Outdoor Rock Climbing
Hey everybody, it’s Sarah from Miss Adventure Pants, and I am here tonight live with you to answer a reader question, which by the way, is one of my favorite things to do. PLEASE send me all your questions! You can message me on Facebook and DM me on Instagram.
Tonight’s question comes from Kara in Denver. She asks:
“Hey, are you a rock climber by any chance? My question is, how does someone who is brand new even begin to get outside? I’ve got the fitness and hiking stuff down, and I really want to get out and learn rock climbing. I am joining a climbing gym, and practicing there will be my first step. But how do you take these skills, and be able to get outdoors with them? And not bouldering, but with a climbing rope?”
So first, full disclosure: I, Sarah Maurer, am not an amazing rock climber.
I climb outside, usually alpine style. Because a lot of times in mountaineering, you have to climb short pitches to get where you want to go.
But to be honest, rock climbing is probably my weakest discipline. I don’t lead, and I definitely don’t lead trad. I will do a super-easy sport climb, I will follow on an easy pitch, and I will belay a leader.
So, I think I can answer your question and help get you outside. And then through these tips I’ll give you, you’ll hopefully meet some amazing people who are going to be able to really take you to the next level. Because you sound like you’re totally enthusiastic. (You’ll probably be one of those girls who’s trad climbing in like 18 months!)
The first thing to remember when you’re getting started with rock climbing is that it’s so important to understand what is safe.
You need to be able to spot practices that aren’t safe. Because when you’re making climbing friends, and just starting to get out there, you’re going to be meeting a lot of new people. You have to know who it’s safe to climb with.
Let’s be honest, I think anyone who climbs knows that we go to the crag, and we see a lot of practices that probably aren’t really safe.
So, how do you get a really good safety education?
One of the best things you can do is to take a course and learn from really qualified people.
So, maybe that’s taking a course at your rock gym or taking a course at your local regional mountain club. At Colorado Mountain Club, we have a lot of programs that can teach you how to rock climb, and they’re taught by very experienced, qualified people.
Another place people learn around here [Denver] is REI. REI actually has AMGA-certified teachers. AMGA is the gold standard for rock climbing instruction. People who have that certification are generally going to be super, super safe.
Another way you can learn rock climbing is by going through a guide service. Around here, people go to Colorado Mountain School. Or if you’re up in the Pacific Northwest, maybe you go to RMI. Just make sure that the guide teaching you is very well qualified and shows you how to climb safely.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, what do I learn? What kind of courses can I take?
Here’s what your journey to climbing outside might look like.
Rock Climbing Basics for Beginners
You’re going to start with things like learning to tie in, belay, use your gear correctly, and demonstrate basic climbing techniques.
If you’re going to be outside, you’re going to have to make sure you can safely secure your rope at the top of the pitch (for top-roping) and also at the bottom (for trad and sport climbing). You might anchor to bolts or natural features like trees. And eventually you’ll be building your own anchors with rock climbing pro (protection).
This isn’t so important when you’re first starting out with single pitch climbs, but it’s a good thing to start practicing as soon as you can. A lot of times, rappelling is the way that you’re going to descend from your multi-pitch climbs. It’s also a lot of fun.
This one is essential as you move into lead climbing. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s all about taking you through the different scenarios that could happen. For example, what if the climber you’re belaying becomes incapacitated in the middle of a pitch, and there’s no way you can lower them to safety? In this case, you need to be able to come off belay so that you can go for help. This class will show you how.
Some organizations offer specific seconding classes. These are for you if you want to go out, and you want to climb multi-pitch routes, but you don’t want to be the person leading. (Which is totally fine, by the way. Like I said, I don’t lead.)
But if you do this, definitely learn how to be a good second. Learn how to belay your leader safely and how to clean the pitch, which involves taking out the protection. Learn how to come up and attach yourself to the anchor so that you’re being a safe partner.
In this type of climbing, the leader clips into bolts instead of rock protection that she’s placed herself. It’s kind of a nice transition between top roping to trad climbing. It’s the way a lot of people gain confidence.
And it’s also very enjoyable. You can do single pitch or multi-pitch sport routes. And there are lots of them in Colorado for you, Kara.
This is the final piece where you put it all together. In trad climbing, you actually place your own pro as you’re going up. You’re putting in things like cams and nuts.
That’s a pretty advanced skill, and some people take many years to get there. But some people get there in a year or two years. It just really depends a lot on how much you climb and how confident you feel. And there are trad climbing classes you can take as well.
So, that’s kind of the journey that I think most people go on.
A couple tips for you as you’re going along …
Here’s some valuable advice that expert climbers shared with me when I was getting started.
Definitely do things by the book, especially when you’re learning your safety rules.
A lot of the things that you learn in the early days might seem a little bit silly and overly cautious. For example, it’s a good idea to say the person’s name before the command (like, “Jennifer, on belay,” or “Kara, lower.”) That just seems silly when you’re in the gym. But believe me, when you’re outside at a very busy crag, and everyone is shouting commands, it becomes important.
So maybe you’re in the gym climbing with a friend, but try to practice your safety rules as if you’re on a multi-pitch climb. It’s just going to help you remember them once you reach that level.
Meeting new people.
Once you have some basic instruction, it’s fun to go out and climb with other people.
There are many places you can meet them. Your rock climbing classes will be a great place. You’ll know exactly what kind of instruction those people have.
Outdoor clubs like Mazamas, The Mountaineers, Colorado Mountain Club, and the American Alpine Club are also a great place to meet folks.
I’ve noticed a lot of climbing Meetups springing up, and I think that’s fun, that’s fine. But that’s one place where I would be super careful in assessing people’s skills and really getting to know them before you climb together. Maybe that means starting with indoor climbing so you can really see how they operate and how safety-conscious they are before you go outside with them.
Remember, you’re literally putting your life in your climbing partner’s hands.
And at Meetups, everyone’s a stranger, so it’s really important to have your safety radar way, way up. Make sure that you really want to climb with someone before you agree to go outside with them.
Don’t ever feel like you’re being heavy or you’re being a meanie for having safety standards. If you ask any experienced climber, they will usually tell you they’re very particular about who they climb with!
By the way, if you’re looking for outdoor activity partners, you should definitely check out my Facebook Group, Mountaineers and Backpackers in Training! We’re a fun, friendly bunch.
Some bonus tips for women
I think it’s so exciting, Kara, that you are a woman getting into climbing. Because in a lot of ways, it’s still a very male-dominated sport.
Women face some unique challenges in climbing because of stereotypical social roles. For example all of us climbers need to practice our skills. We need to build anchors and lead pitches over and over to stay sharp.
Men love to help out and use their skills. And sometimes — maybe I’m just speaking for myself here — it’s easy to just let them take control.
But if we’re too much in “receiving mode,” we can lose our edge, and we don’t get the practice we need.
So my number one tip for women would be to really step up. You don’t need to ask and you don’t need to apologize. Just be like, “Hey, I’m going to go up and set the anchor, be right down.” Or, “Hey, I’m going to lead this one.”
Make sure that you’re an equal partner and getting in the same practice time as anyone else would. Because, you need it, and it’s important. Also, because you’re going to really love doing this stuff, and you should have the same opportunity to do it as anyone else would.
By the way, I created a Lady Dirtbag board on Pinterest to celebrate outdoor women. And the rock climbing pics are definitely my fav! Follow if you love seeing girls do badass things.
So those are my tips on learning to rock climb.
Here are some additional comments from folks who watched the Facebook Live.
- The American Alpine Club (which has chapters all over the country) has a mentorship program for climbers who want to develop their leadership skills. See if this is offered by your chapter.
- Learn and practice your knots. It’s so important.
- Get in the habit early of always tying stopper knots in both ends of your rope. A lot of accidents happen when climbers rappel off the end of a rope or feed the end through a belay device.
- Some books people liked: Climbing Anchors by John Long and Topher Donahue and the many rock climbing books by John Luebben.
Other than that, I will leave you guys to have a great evening, and thanks for tuning in. And thanks for all the great comments, these are just amazing tips. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Kara, hope you have a great time climbing outside, and to everybody else, have a great night!
Originally published June 11, 2018.