"On belay!" These words are music to any climber's ears as they signify that your belay partner is ready for you to begin your ascent. You're sure to hear this phrase over and over—along with some coaching and a bit of cheering—between climber and belayer. It's all part of the climbing experience, and climbing gyms are a great way to get started.
Climbing gyms offer a safe, controlled environment that's great for beginners. But gyms are popular with climbers of all abilities, too. On any given day you will see men and women of all ages—and lots of kids, too—taking on a variety of routes. Some climb because it's their passion; some because it is good cross–training for other athletic activities; others do it just for fun.
Gym climbing is also known as sport climbing because it uses pre–bolted "sport" routes. It appeals to many people because it is a noncompetitive, physically gratifying pursuit. It is typically done with a partner, which makes it social yet individually challenging. Sport climbing seriously freshens up a ho–hum fitness workout—it's far from your ordinary weight training or cardio routine.
Rock gyms additionally offer the advantage of being climate controlled, making them a great place to spend a cold Midwestern winter or a sweltering hot Southern summer.
The Basics of Gym Climbing
Most gyms offer top–roped climbs with heights ranging from about 20 to 60 feet. Top–rope routes are rated by their level of difficulty, ranging from 5.7 (suitable for novices) to 5.14 (expert only).
In top roping, the rope runs through a carabiner that is attached to a bolt in the ceiling of the gym. The climber ties into one end of the rope, while the person belaying is attached to a belay device on the other end. The belayer remains on the floor taking up the slack from the rope as the climber ascends. Belayers also have the option of anchoring themselves into a bolt on the ground for extra stability when their climber descends, or as protection if their climber should fall. This is done to ensure the pair does not get tossed into the wall because of the momentum created. This is mostly a concern if the climbing partners have a significant difference in body weight.
New climbers should not be intimidated by climbing gyms since virtually all of them offer classes to teach the basics. It is not difficult to learn to climb; in fact, it's a blast.
I have to admit, I started climbing only because I was taking my son for lessons. He enjoyed it so much that I felt as a parent I should share the experience with him. I was surprised at how fun and gratifying it was. I needed only a lesson on how to properly belay and, once I became "belay certified," I could belay both of my children.
Soon I was bitten by the climbing bug and took it up as my own hobby. I now climb with friends who are able to belay me (children under the age of 16 are typically not allowed to belay others).
As noted earlier, indoor sport climbing is popular among highly skilled climbers, too. More advanced climbers often practice lead climbing at gyms. Instead of being top–roped, the lead climber is tied into one end of the rope and has to clip it into a series of quickdraws (anchoring devices) which are already attached to bolts on the gym's wall. The climber's partner has the other end of the rope and is on the ground belaying the climber. This is very much like sport climbing outside, except that indoors the quickdraws are already in place. The challenge with lead climbing is if the climber falls or misses the next quickdraw, he or she falls a short distance back to the previous clipped–in point and must begin again.
This is another option at most gyms. With bouldering there is no need for a harness, rope or a belay partner. Bouldering routes are close to the ground and use a crash pad as a protective mat below you. It is a great way to build skill because only your strength keeps you on the rock wall. Novices will appreciate the simplicity of it and the lack of investment needed for gear; skilled climbers like the challenge of more difficult routes that increase their endurance.
Most climbers wear clothes that offer comfort and mobility. Clothes you would wear for yoga work well. Capris and "manpris" are popular with climbers as well as knee–length shorts since they are cooler than long pants. Short shorts are typically avoided since they do not give enough coverage.
As for gear, I suggest renting all of it from your gym the first couple of times you try climbing. If you decide that climbing is for you, then you may want to invest in some of your own gear.
As a novice, you should rent rock climbing shoes for a while to know what is comfortable and what suits your climbing style. After a while, you then may choose to buy rather than rent.
All climbing shoes have a stiff rubber sole that extends up over the toe, but some have a more aggressive sole than others and are more suited for bouldering or outdoor crevices rather than indoor footholds. The fit should be snug, like a cycling shoe, but not painful. An REI sales specialist can help you choose a rock shoe that fits properly and meets your climbing needs.
Most kids are natural climbers. Climbing gyms typically have classes and programs for kids as young as 4–years–old to teach them the basics and work on their agility. Climbing as a family is an enjoyable way to spend time together. Both of my children (ages 7 and 11) really enjoy it.
Climbing builds muscle and endurance. It is a healthy option for children who are not interested in team sports such as soccer or baseball. The climber has to plan and anticipate his or her next move to get to the top. It takes both mental and physical skill to do this.
Sometimes one of my children will get stuck and not know how to get any higher, so I suggest that they "take," which simply means they just hang for a moment and take a break. The climber literally lets go of the wall and is suspended in the air (i.e., the harness and rope take the weight) while the person on belay supports all of the climber's weight from the ground. After a little while, the child will call back down to me by saying "climbing" and will begin again. This is where a little encouragement makes a difference. Nine times out of 10, they gain new perspective and make it to the top.
It may be helpful to provide some coaching from the ground, too. You can suggest where young climbers should place their hands or feet from your vantage point below. I also instruct my kids to give me a heads–up if they think they are about to fall by shouting out "falling." These are both good habits for all climbers, not just kids.
As with any activity, it's helpful to stretch a bit before and after climbing. Muscles not properly warmed up are more prone to injury. It's good to do stretches that work your forearms, chest and legs. Also, be sure to stay hydrated and keep up your caloric intake. I always bring energy gels or chews with me since I tend to "bonk" easily due to my smaller frame.
The most important thing to remember when climbing is: Always Do Your Safety Checks!
For the climber, make sure:
● Your figure–8 knot is tied properly.
● The harness is buckled and double–backed.
● The rope is through the connection points of your harness.
For the belayer, make sure:
● The harness is buckled and double–backed.
● There are 3 items inside the locking carabiner: the rope, the belay device, and the belay loop of the harness.
● The carabiner is locked.
● The rope is tail–side down exiting the belay device.
Important: Reading this article does not make you a climber. If you're new to climbing, always seek out competent, professional instruction.
Making a Home Climbing Wall
Many climbers feel if they cannot climb once or twice a week, they do not improve as quickly as they wish. One option to make practice time more convenient is to build your own climbing wall (training holds) or mount finger–boards at home. These climb–specific tools let you practice techniques and build endurance. It is beyond the scope of this article to advise how to get your home gym set up, but reference books and other materials are available.
Outdoor climbing is quite different from indoor climbing. In fact, many experienced climbers will say "real rock" is nothing like "gym rock." Although this may be true, gym climbing allows you to focus on technique and lets you practice using your leg muscles more than your arm muscles. Trad (traditional), sport and lead climbing outdoors may be a whole different game, but it doesn't lessen the experience of building strength and honing your skills indoors.