There is likely a climbing gym in every major city in North America. Gyms have made the introduction to rock climbing much more accessible and the controlled environment helps beginners learn to be safe before climbing outdoors where things can be much more unpredictable. Your first experience climbing should be fun, social and great exercise. Here are a few things you should know to prepare yourself for your first time climbing.
Know the climbers’ vocabulary
Some basic words you will likely hear in the gym and their rough definition:
- Belay, belayer – The person controlling the rope when roped climbing.
- Top Rope – When roped climbing, the rope will pass through an anchor at the top of the climb. One end will attach to the climber, the other end to the belay, who controls the slack in the system.
- Lead Climbing – Instead of Top-Roping, intermediate and advanced climbers will tend to start climbing with the rope at the bottom of the climb. They will lead up and affix the rope to quickdraws along the way.
- Carabiner – The spring loaded metal clip that is used pretty much everywhere when roped climbing.
- Quickdraw – Two carabiners attached together about 6″ apart.
- Bouldering – A style of climbing without ropes above a padded surface. Some gyms only facilitate bouldering.
- Crash pad/mat – The name given to the soft surface that boulderers fall onto.
- Gri-gri (pronounced gree-gree) – A mechanical device used for belaying.
- Handholds – Most holds have their own distinct style and fall into the below categories:
- Jug – A really big hold that fits all 4 fingers and is like holding onto a 4L (1 gallon) milk jug.
- Crimp – A really small hold that usually has a sharp edge.
- Sloper – A hold that requires friction between the plastic and skin to hang on; there isn’t anything to sink your fingers behind.
- Pocket, 2-finger pocket – A hold with a hole or slot in it that only fits 1, 2 or 3 fingers. A 1-finger pocket is often called a “mono”.
- Volume – many gyms have large volumetric addons that are bolted onto the climbing wall. Some are used as gigantic features to climb, others allow normal climbing holds to be bolted onto them. They add new dimension to an otherwise boring flat surface.
Climbing requires the minimum of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. If you’re roped climbing, you will also need a harness. You can likely rent all this equipment directly from the gym. You probably won’t be belaying your first time, but if you’re starting out by taking a belay course, you will need a locking carabiner and a belay device. Again, this equipment will likely be provided to you for your first time.
Wear the right clothing
Climbing inside is really a mix of function and fashion. You will see all sorts of attire. Depending on your gym, you may even see a lot of logos and climbing brand names plastered all over the sponsored pro climbers. Just wear something comfortable, but athletic. You can’t go wrong with shorts and a t-shirt. Guys should avoid sweatpants unless you want to show off your package, which can be accentuated by the climbing harness. Girls: short-shorts are a no-no especially if they don’t go past the harness’s leg loops. Shorts that are too loose-fitting could be revealing while you high-step or heel-hook on the climbing wall.
All seasoned climbers will go barefoot in their climbing shoes. However, many beginners will choose to wear socks with their rental climbing shoes. This is understandable because who really wants to mix their own foot gunk with the last person’s. So if you decide to wear socks, bring a pair of running socks that are usually low-cut and thin. Thick wool socks will ruin the advantage of wearing climbing shoes.
Lastly, cut your nails short and tie your hair back. Remove all jewelry, especially from your hands. Some climbing holds have sharp, pointy features that could hook onto things like rings and bracelets. If you fall and the jewelry gets snagged, it could do some severe damage.
Expect to be afraid
It’s acceptable and even expected to be scared the first time you’re on the climbing wall. If you’re bouldering and you get to the top of the wall, you usually have to jump down or down climb, but it’s still a long ways down! When climbing on a rope, you’re expected to let go with your hands once you’re ready to be lowered down by your belayer. This means you have to trust all the equipment and your belayer! Climbing rope also stretches, so when you first weight the rope you might get the feeling that it doesn’t fully have you. With all this in mind, know that you are in a relatively safe environment. This is the advantage of starting out in a gym. Hopefully by the end of your climbing session, you’ll have it all figured out and feel comfortable focusing on getting to the top!
Respect climbing etiquette
Beginner climbers are sometimes annoying to the regulars because they haven’t learned the unwritten rules of the climbing gym yet.
- When walking around, be aware of your surroundings, especially above you. A falling climber that hits you can easily break bones.
- Be conscious of busy routes. If you and your partner are taking a long time on a climb, it will frustrate others who are waiting for it.
- When bouldering, don’t crowd or loiter around the bottoms of climbs. Instead be mindful of other climbers who look like they want climb next. There is usually a subtle unspoken queue that forms for boulder problems in a busy gym. Wait your turn, but be assertive in taking it once you’re confident it’s yours.
Embrace your newbness
Every climber was like you once. You’re going to climb like a newb and totally suck. But forget about it. You’re experiencing for the first time something that is super fun, rewarding and exercise that doesn’t feel like it. Watch others who are better than you to learn how they move their body and unlock sequences of moves to get through the puzzle of climbing holds. Most climbers have a forgiving, easy-going attitude and will likely help you and give you pointers if you ask. Climbing is a community, culture and a lifestyle that may even define how you identify yourself in the future!
If you recently experienced climbing for the first time we would love to hear how things went in the comments below!