The human body is incredibly adaptive.
It can run mega-marathons and dive deep under the sea; it can survive drastically cold temperatures, and yes, it can climb.
Your body has these amazing abilities and very often we don’t take advantage of them.
So how does one get into climbing?
Climbing like any other sport requires practice. Unlike some other sports, it is also a form of problem solving and self expression. Climbing gyms very often have beginner classes and seminars to show you the ropes, both literally and figuratively. You could also go the solo route and train by yourself, teaching yourself through trial and error, but that is significantly harder and more dangerous than going to someone who already knows the answers you’re seeking.
Learning to climb is a great endeavor, involving complicated rope work, belay systems and body maintenance.
It is exhausting work, and very difficult to hold your bodyweight up just by the grip of your fingers and toes.
In this article, we’ll cover a few tips for beginner climbers which hopefully will make the transition from novice to intermediate to an expert that much easier.
Climbing beginner tips
When you’re a beginner in anything it can be very intimidating to look around you at all the people who know more than you.
But don’t be afraid, any and every climber you admire started exactly where you are right now.
They’ve all gone through the steps of becoming better: learning the essential knots, building strength and stamina, learning climbing techniques from their fellow climbers or instructors and so on.
We’ll cover a few tips in this section to illuminate how easy it can be to learn to climb. To begin with, climbing is something we naturally do everyday.
We don’t need to think about what to do to climb stairs, just one foot in front of the other.
We coordinate our hands so that we have one hand on the handrail at the highest point of our ascent, so that if something goes wrong, we have our
It’s the same with climbing, only the stairs are a lot smaller and our tether comes in the form of a rope attached to our safety harness.
Overcoming The Fear of Heights
One of the biggest hurdles any climber comes across is the fear of heights.
It is one of the two fears we’re born with: Fear of heights, and a fear of loud, startling noises.
Children when dropped, (or allowed to think they’re being dropped, it’s unethical to actually drop a baby,) instinctively reach out to catch something, anything.
They aren’t taught to do this, it’s instinctive; just how a newborn baby will instinctively hold its breath when placed under water.
Overcoming a fear that is so deeply hard wired in us is no easy affair. It requires that we ignore the treacherous drop below us and trust that the ropes and rigging will hold our weight.
That is much easier said than done. But there are a couple things we can do to make that process easier.
The first method of tackling this fear of heights is by gaining experience. The human brain fears that which it does not understand.
And since we spend most of our time experiencing gravity in the normal way; i.e. standing or sitting on some sort of surface, experiencing the Earth’s normal gravitational pull, falling is a very unusual experience for most of us.
You’re climbing up the wall, and you make a mistake and begin to fall. You get that lurch in your stomach, and your body tenses up and you panic.
You may scream involuntarily, and clutch helplessly to your rope or harness.
Somewhere deep in your mind, you may be bargaining with your own God that if they let you survive, you’ll be a better citizen or what have you. In
Climbing ropes are built to withstand incredible amounts of weight, on average between 12-14 kilonewtons of force.
That’s similar to if you lifted a mid-size car by one of these ropes. So the rope’s don’t bat an eyelash at a measly couple hundred pounds.
But your falling mind doesn’t care about numbers and figures. It is absolutely sure that you’re about to die.
It’s only after you’ve been successfully caught by the rope and your harness and the sturdy anchor above you, and your belayer below you; that you realize that you were in no danger at any time.
This fear is nothing to feel bad about, it’s something we can’t help. But with practice and exposure, we can begin to learn that falling in this context is not dangerous and can actually be kind of fun.
Killing Fear With Understanding
As we’ve seen, fear will fade the more we do the thing that scares us and
We’ll learn what situations are actually dangerous and which ones aren’t dangerous at all. But taking those first few falls can still be excruciating.
By understanding what is happening above and below you as you’re climbing, you can get up on the wall the first few times and any time you feel that fear creeping up on you.
Remember all the steps that are taken to keep you, the climber, safe.
When you’re up on the wall, chances are that you’ll be tethered with your rope to someone down on the ground belaying you.
Belaying refers to the technique of passing the climbing rope into a metal armature and clipping a strong carabiner through it, which creates a friction lock that can be easily adjusted.
A properly set up belay device will have the climber’s end of the rope come in at the top of the device, the rope would then wrap around the carabiner and come out the same hole as the braking strand of the rope.
This means that when you fall, the person below has to simply hold on to the braking strand with the grip of one hand and this will stop your fall.
The rope cinches tight in the belay system, and the belayer sits back in their harness, using their weight to counterbalance your own.
There are two types of climbing that involve a belayer: Top rope climbing and Lead climbing. Lead climbing is a more advanced technique and will not be covered in this article.
Top rope climbing is typically found in rock climbing gyms or on well established outside routes. It refers to the climber’s rope being fed through an anchor at the very top, hence the name.
As you climb higher and higher, you’re creating more and more slack above you.
The belayer’s job is to take this slack out of the system and keep the rope as tight as they can, without interfering with your climbing.
They do this very important job by performing the Top Rope Belay Technique:
- With their right hand on the brake line, no less than six inches away from the belay device. Their left hand should hold onto the climber’s end of the rope getting ready to assist in feeding slack through the system.
- When they’re ready to take away slack from the climber, they bring their right hand up dragging a couple feet of slack through the system and they lift their hand up above their head. (This position is the most dangerous part of the maneuver and it lasts for less than half a second; if the climber falls, the friction lock is undone, so they move quickly to the next step.)
- They quickly move their hand back down in front of them and in between their legs.
- In this position, they use their left hand to grab hold of the brake end of the rope, below their right hand.
- They slide their right hand back up the brake end to the starting position, again not getting too close to the belay device.
- They finish each movement by returning their left hand to the climber’s end of the rope.
There’s no bones about it, when you’re climbing you’re often at heights that would be fatal if something failed.
It’s because of this, that you must be absolutely certain your knots are tied correctly.
When you’re a beginner climber, you can go to a climbing gym and have your instructor tie all your knots for you, but very often they’ll ask you to tie them yourself.
There are two important knots you need to know before heading up the wall: The figure-8 knot, and the half hitch.
Knots are inherently difficult to teach just through words, so to make it a little easier, we’ll cover a bit of vocabulary. You’ll be working at an untied end of the rope.
This end will be called the working end because it’s the end we’ll be moving about. The rest of the rope, or at least the other end of the section we’ll be working with, we’ll call the standing end.
Figure 8 Knot
We’ll begin with the most important knot you could want to know: The knot that attaches you to the rope.
- Start by holding the working end of the rope in your right fist and hold your right arm out straight to your side. Use your left hand to measure the length of rope to your opposite shoulder. Pinch the rope at that length and let the working end of the rope fall.
- Twist the rope at this point 180 degrees so that the working end of the rope lays over the standing end. Continue twisting another 180 degrees and feed the working end of the rope through the back of the loop you just made, next to your left fingertips. Do not over tighten the knot at this stage. You’ll want a little bit of looseness in the coming steps.
- At this stage, you’ll thread the working end of the rope through both tie in points in your harness.
- Now comes the most intuitive part of tying the Figure 8 knot: you feed the working end of the rope back through the knot, keeping parallel with the rope you just laid.
- If tied correctly you should be able to count five parallel lines, one from the loop going around your harness, three from the knot itself, and one more where the working and standing ends of the rope go off together.
This type of knot will not come undone by accident, nor will it slip loose as you climb; but the beauty of the figure 8 knot is that it will easily untie when you want it to, after you’re done climbing.
The Half Hitch
The half hitch is one of the simplest knots one can learn to tie, but it’s used very often in climbing.
It’s very useful if you need to tie you ropes out of the way with a simple knot, or maybe your figure 8 knot has a bit too long of a tail that might get caught on something while you’re climbing; get it out of the way with a half hitch.
- On the end of a rope, begin by making a loop with the working end on top of the standing end.
- Next, bring the working through the loop you just made and pull tightly.
Like I said, this knot is ridiculously simple, but absolutely necessary if you want to keep your ropes tidy and out of the way while you’re climbing or belaying.
Beginner gear for climbing
At a climbing gym, you have the options to rent gear or to purchase your own.
If you’re thinking of just trying out climbing, go ahead and rent your gear.
Climbing gear can get expensive and buying used climbing gear is very difficult at times because if a bit of climbing gear is damaged in any way, it’s common practice to destroy it so that no one could use it and get hurt.
Below is a list of common gear that you might want to get for yourself:
- Belay Device – As we discussed earlier in this article, a belay device is a necessary piece of equipment to your climbing safety. There are two main types of belay device, the classic ATC and the Grigri device with assisted braking. It’s advised that you learn how to belay on an ATC first, before using the Grigri as your main belay device if that’s what you wish.
- Harness – Climbing harnesses wrap around the legs and waist and should be adjusted to fit your body type. You should be able to slip a finger or two between the harness and your waist or legs.
- Rope – If you’re just a beginner climber, you’re not likely to need to buy your own ropes. But regardless, rope is one of the most important pieces of gear to a rock climber.
- Carabiners – These are specialized rock climbing carabiners. Designed to take great amounts of force without budging. Many rock climbers exclusively use locking carabiners, which have a threaded cylinder which closes over the opening of the carabiner so it cannot open.
- Shoes – Climbing shoes are a whole realm unto themselves. Many decisions on climbing shoes are made with the goal of comfort and form factor. So it depends a lot on the shape of your feet and what you find comfortable. I’d advise thoroughly trying on a climbing shoe before buying.
All the gear listed above, with perhaps the exception of climbing shoes, needs to be inspected rigorously before every climb.
At a climbing gym this responsibility falls on the management, but if you do end up purchasing your own gear, inspect your ropes and harness for any frayed or damaged areas and retire them if you find any.
Inspect your carabiners for hairline fractures in the metal, and always ensure that your belay device is in good condition.
Why is indoor climbing great for beginners?
When you’re new to something, it’s a good idea to plan for the times you’re going to mess up.
In climbing, messing up looks like falling. A climbing gym is great for beginners because in some gyms, the floors are completely padded.
If you slip and fall, you’ll be caught by the comfy pads instead of the hard ground.
Another great benefit to rock climbing gyms is that many of them have bouldering walls. That’s a section of the gym where rope climbing is not allowed.
The walls usually only go up 10-14 feet and the ground is padded for safety. This allows you to practice your technique an build up your strength and stamina in a safe controlled area.
At a climbing gym you are surrounded by people who know more than you. Use them as a resource. Ask them questions, ask them for advice on your technique.
Climbers are very friendly to someone trying to learn because they know the value that climbing has.
Don’t of course interrupt someone’s climb with your questions, or bother a climber who just wants to be left alone, look for the right time.
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