So, you want to start climbing outside? Maybe you’re brand new to climbing and just want to get out and touch some rocks. Or perhaps you’ve climbed in the gym for years and are ready to venture outside. Wherever you are in your arc as a climber, the aim for this post is to shed some light on how to start climbing outdoors.
Outdoor climbing is where it all began. In fact, before the first climbing gyms there was no distinction between indoor and outdoor climbing—it was all just climbing, and it was all outside. Climbers had to go to places like Yosemite Valley and the Cottonwood Canyons to develop their skills and experience.
Fast-forward to 2022 and there are climbing gyms in most urban areas throughout the country. The proliferation of climbing gyms is linked to an increase in the popularity of climbing. Because climbing gyms are safe and controlled environments, they are more approachable for a beginner than an outdoor crag.
Major films and social media have played a huge role in the increase in climbing popularity also. Films like Meru, The Dawn Wall, and Free Solo showcase top-level climbers exploring the limits of their ability. Professional climbers and influencers post exciting content that reaches millions and inspires people to go seek out their own adventures.
With more people climbing in gyms, more people are climbing outside too. But while gym climbing is tame and approachable for a beginner, outdoor climbing can be dangerous and intimidating. So how does an aspiring climber get outside? Well, there are a few things you can do before you head outside that will help with the experience and knowledge needed to be safe and feel confident.
Learn to Lead Climb
First, learn to lead climb in your local gym. Typically, most gym routes are top-rope routes, which means the rope goes through a secure anchor above the climb then back to a belayer on the ground who is ready to catch any falls. The belayer takes slack out of the rope system as the climber moves upward and keeps the rope tight to ensure any falls will be short. With lead climbing, the climber clips the rope to protection points as they ascend the wall. When a lead climber falls, they will fall at least twice the distance that they are above their last clip. The risk of longer falls and relying on your own ability to properly clip the rope makes lead climbing more committing, and potentially more dangerous, than top-rope climbing.
Most of the roped climbing outdoors is lead climbing. Though it is possible to set up top-rope climbs on outdoor routes, usually the anchors must be accessed by climbing the route on lead. Becoming proficient at leading routes indoors will help you be safer and feel more comfortable when you are ready to lead a route outside.
The second thing you can work on to prepare for outdoor climbing is education. The traditional way is to find a mentor who will take you climbing outside. By belaying them and following the routes they lead, you will gain valuable knowledge and experience about climbing systems and safety. If you cannot find another more experienced climber to learn from, there are classes available through local climbing guides and the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) that teach the basic skills for climbing outside. If you’re in the Park City area, White Pine Touring offers guided rock climbing trips; check out the link at the bottom of this article for more information.
Even if you’re learning from a great mentor, taking initiative for self-education is key. Falcon Guides offer how-to guidebooks for gym climbers and beginners who want to climb outside. Another valuable resource is Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, published by Mountaineers Books. This reference volume covers a wide range of mountain skills beyond just rock climbing and is a must-have for the self-taught climber.
One of the most valuable education resources are accident reports, which are published annually by the American Alpine Club (AAC). Though it may sound morbid to read through a database of climbing accidents, the reality is climbing accidents can be high–consequence, and if you have one you may not survive to learn from your own mistakes. For this reason, it is critical to learn from other climbers’ mistakes, and there is no better way than to read reports from actual incidents.
So you’ve started lead climbing in the gym, studying accident reports, and reading Freedom of the Hills, and now you feel ready to start climbing outside. Great! Now you can start adding some basic gear that you’ll need to build a top-rope anchor and lead outdoor sport routes. At this point it is important to resist the urge to buy more gear than you need. For example, you probably don’t need to buy a full rack of nuts and cams if you’re just getting started climbing outside.
Likely the first routes you will climb outside are single pitch sport or top-rope routes. Like the lead routes in the gym, outdoor sport routes have bolts drilled and set into the rock. As the leader climbs upward, they use quickdraws to clip their rope to these bolts. In traditional climbing (also known as trad climbing) climbers use protection pieces like cams or nuts placed in cracks and clip their rope to these pieces instead of relying on bolts. Because you are placing your own protection, trad climbing has an additional risk element and is best practiced by experienced climbers.
As a gym climber you probably already have a harness and climbing shoes. These will work great outside too. Whenever climbing outside it is critical to wear a helmet, so make sure you pick up a climbing-specific model designed to protect against rock impacts. You will need a dynamic climbing rope—70 meters is a good versatile length. A dozen quickdraws are enough to get started since rarely will a single pitch have more than 12 bolts. You will also need a handful of locking carabiners, a few slings, a 20-foot cordelette, and a belay device such as an ATC or Grigri.
Do you love climbing and want to support the climbing community? You don’t need to be a climber to get involved. There are local and regional climbing clubs as well as national nonprofit organizations that would love your support. The American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) replaces old climbing bolts in climbing areas across North America; they’ve replaced over 50,000 bolts since their founding in 1998. The Access Fund is another nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainable climber access and conservation of the climbing environment. Finally, the American Alpine Club is a pivotal organization for the climbing community. They support climbers with expedition grants in addition to publishing podcasts, journal articles, and annual accident reports.
Rock climbing outdoors is a fun and exciting activity, and learning is more accessible than you might think. If you’d like to learn more about rock climbing or our guided climbing trips, stop by White Pine Touring in Park City or give the shop a call at (435) 649-8710.
Climbing is an activity with inherent risk in which accidents may occur that could result in injury or even death. It is each individual’s responsibility to assess risk and determine what level of risk is acceptable to them.
By Chris Norwood, Editor, jans.com