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Getting Started At A Climbing Gym

Lessons From Our First Time At The Gym

Rock climbing can be intimidating to anyone trying it for the first time. The gym is filled with people at all different levels, and it can feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Getting to know the lingo, the logistics, and the cultural norms of the gym takes time. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to go into your first climbing session completely in the dark. These tips will help you feel confident and excited to start scaling those (fake) boulders. 

Your First Day

Start With Bouldering

If you’ve never climbed before, bouldering, or climbing without gear on lower-walled routes, is a great place to start. All you need is a pair of climbing shoes (likely provided by your gym), and a good attitude. Head to the bouldering section of the gym and watch others for a moment.

Watch Others

Before jumping on the bouldering wall, take a moment to absorb your surroundings. Each gym will have a rating system to rank the difficulty of the route. Find the system (they’re usually posted around) and study it. Once you have an idea of how the system works, watch other climbers attempt routes at the various levels. Observing people climb is a great way to learn techniques and culture. 

Here are a few things to note while you watch. First, if you’re not climbing, stay off the mat and away from the wall. It’s good practice to give other climbers plenty of room. Second, notice how each of the holds (fake rocks) are colored. The color represents a route, so climbers know what holds to reach for when working on a problem (a route). When climbing, stick to the same colors if you can. Third, when getting off the wall, watch how climbers fall. Most gyms will cover proper falling tenqunies in their welcome video, so make sure you pay attention, but if you missed it here’s the idea: bend your knees while you land and roll onto your back. While most bouldering walls aren’t too high, you still need to get off the wall safely.

Your First Climb

Once you’ve found a route on the lower side of the rating scale, and you’ve watched other climbers try it, give the climb a shot yourself. If there are a lot of people climbing, and you’re ready, place your foot on the mat (this indicates to the other climbers that you’re interested in getting on the wall). Take a deep breath. Dots or lines will indicate where you place your hands, but don’t worry about that yet. Try to stay to one color, but if you find yourself struggling don’t limit yourself. Use whatever hold on the wall you need to get up. Once at the top, hop off and land on the mat with your knees bent, as mentioned above. If you’re too high, or not comfortable falling off, you can “down climb”, or use the holds to get closer to the ground before hopping off.

Assess Your Climb

Now that you’ve climbed your first route (nice job!) give yourself a break. Climbing, especially to beginners, is tough on the hands. Don’t worry, your skin will toughen up quickly. If you’re feeling good, then find another problem (route) and give it a shot. If the climb was too easy, find a climb that’s the next rank on the grading system.

Conserve Your Energy

It’s really tempting to go hard and climb as much as you can, as fast as possible. But it can be useful to study routes before you start them and make a plan of action. That way, when you’re on the wall, you won’t waste too much energy deciding where to go next. Take breaks between climbs and remember to eat and drink water when needed

Try A Bit Of Everything

Once you’ve sent (completed) a few routes on the bouldering wall, give the ropes a shot. Ropes are similar to bouldering in that the holds are the same, but different in more ways than you might expect. Roped routes are much longer, meaning they challenge your stamina. Don’t be surprised if you’re tired after just one or two climbs, that’s perfectly normal for a beginner. If you want to try ropes, you’ll need a partner and some gear.

If you don’t have a partner, ask the gym if they have any auto belays. Auto belays are devices that use magnets to allow you to climb alone. If you do have a partner, make sure you know the gym’s rules. Most gyms require a belay test, which proves you know how to safely climb with ropes. If you’ve never blayed before, gyms will offer classes and tests. Typically gyms will already have some ropes in place, so no need to get your own (yet), but you’ll need a harness, and if you’re belaying, you’ll need a belay device as well. Your gym will have these to rent, but if you find yourself loving the sport, you might want to think about investing. Other than ropes, climbing gear lasts a long time if you treat it right and you’ll save money in the long run if you have your own gear.

 

Go To The Gym With An Experienced Climber

If possible, go with a friend who has some experience climbing. They’ll be able to walk you through any issues you might come across or encourage you when things start to look a little intimidating. Additionally, gym spaces are majority white, straight-sized, able-bodied, and male, so if that’s an environment you find unwelcoming or intimidating, bringing an ally can make you more safe. It’s worth checking into local clubs or special nights at the gym so you can join more diverse groups on the climbing wall.

Gym Etiquette: Sharing Spaces & Sharing Rules

Like any other activity where there’s a community, there are rules. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Don’t stand next to the wall unless you intend to climb. Staying by the wall means that you’re approaching a problem. If you’re not ready to climb, stay off the mat until you are.
  • Take your climbing shoes off before going into the bathroom. The floor there is dirty and if you go in with your shoes, you’ll get the gross-ness on your shoes and then track it onto the wall when you climb.
  • Make sure to watch where you’re going so you don’t go underneath anyone. It could be dangerous if they fall or jump down and you’re in their path.
  • Make sure to look at your route before getting on the wall. It could intersect with nearby climbers’ and you don’t want to interrupt their climb. 
  • When the gym is busy, be aware and courteous of others who may want to work on the same route as you or one in the same area. Take turns and let everyone use the space

Advice On The Mechanics Of Climbing

Climbing is a very technical sport that takes years to master, but that doesn’t mean you have to go in with nothing. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Use your toe instead of your whole foot. This allows for a greater range of motion and flexibility. 
  • When climbing, try to keep your body close to the wall. Hanging from the wall requires more strength and will make you tire faster.
  • Let your bones do the work. While you’re climbing imagine hanging from your skeleton rather than your muscles. Save your muscles for movement, not hanging.
  • When in doubt, initiate upward movement with your legs. You can use them to gain a lot of ground.
  • Utilize the backstep. A lot of beginners climb the wall straight on, like they’re climbing a ladder. But if you watch professional climbers, you’ll see that their hips rarely square off with the wall and one foot is behind the other.
  • Chalk your hands. It will help you grip handholds and prevent blisters.
  • Find good shoes as soon as possible. The rental shoes are good for testing out whether or not you like the sport, but they’re not much compared to climbing shoes from the store. There are lots of beginner shoes under $100 so you’ll quickly recoup the price of renting them every time you go. 
  • Try a few different gyms. Every gym has a different culture and different available climbs. Some will have training areas and yoga studios attached, others will just be bouldering. Take time to find the gym that has what you want and need.

The Climber’s Lexicon

Bouldering: low climbing without ropes or harnesses

Top rope: high climbing with ropes and harnesses

Belay: top rope technique climbers use to create friction with a rope so that a falling climber doesn’t fall far and can be lowered to the ground slowly

Belay device: acts as a brake on the climbing rope by adding friction to it

Problem: a bouldering route

Send: successfully climbing a problem

Flash: finishing a climb on your first try

Crux: the hardest part of the climb

Project: a problem or climb you’re working on 

Beta: shared info about how to finish a climb

With these tips in mind, you can enjoy a new rock climbing adventure. It’s a great activity for rainy summer days and the cold doldrums of winter. We hope to see you on the climbing wall soon!

Bethany Clarke is a freelance writer with work in She Explores, Litro Magazine and Amjambo Africa. You can find her art and hiking adventures on Instagram @bethanymclarke.