Indoor Climbing Basics: Your Leg Up On Outside Adventure

March 26, 2015

  • by
  • Peter Reese
  • andrew tower

Outside looking in, rock climbing is a beguiling-but-intimidating venture.  Without a patient friend or professional guide, this parallel universe of techniques, terms, gear and quirky social conventions can be confounding.

Yet the compelling desire to defy gravity and push upward calls many of us.  Even the anxiety connected with roping up and trusting another to “belay” our efforts becomes part of the process – and spurs the sense of accomplishment attached to overcoming fear.  Unlike climbing outside where the wind blows, the temperature shifts and the consequences are dire, inside is a sweet setting for the novice.

Hundreds of climbing gyms across the country stand ready to launch your exploration skyward (ceiling-ward, actually).  Within the boundaries of a gym, new climbers explore their bodies’ capabilities, mental ingenuity and interest in pursuing one or more climbing disciplines.  Yes, there’s more than one approach to reaching the top, some more reliant on gear than others.

Each reputable location centers on core principles of safety, gear and rope handling and communication.  Many have installed caves and bouldering challenges with thick floor mats to shed the complexities of rope management in favor of pure athleticism; don’t be surprised if a passion for ropeless climbing at lower heights fires up your competitive spirit.

Early-stage climbers take advantage of in-gym rentals.  While Active Junky advocates this approach for the first four to six sessions, the confidence that comes from well-chosen climbing shoes (plus the hygiene factor) makes this item a must-buy; amazing choices range from under $100 to about $200 for more specialized styles from leading brands. 

In the same way, owning a chalk bag and easy moving shorts is within reach.  Chalk bags land in the $30 range, while shorts (good for other athletic activities as well) come in under $50.  Next in the process likely is a harness, where a preliminary decision needs to be on whether your climbing career may well progress to outdoor roped climbing; design, fit and features vary between pure indoor and outdoor harnesses.

Before stepping into a climbing gym or a health club with walls, Active Junky offers five insider tips to smooth entry into the parallel universe of climbing.

Pay attention (“I’m talkin’ to you”)

The gym welcomes new climbers, but it’s a very serious environment. Despite the protection of thick pads for boulderers, pre-hung top ropes and permanent, assisted-braking belay devices, climbing remains inherently dangerous. Look out (meaning, up) for climbers, pay attention to signs; being oblivious imperils everyone.  Within seconds, a climber can crash down on you should you trespass under their fall line.

Obey the rules and fit in

Gym rules may seem arbitrary, but they’re issued with your safety in mind. The planning and money it takes to facilitate multiple, simultaneous climbing routes is extraordinary.  Common sense is a strong start but the technical nature of the sport requires more; observing others climb for even an hour brings home the importance of standards. Gyms are not for risk-addicted renegades focused solely on their personal achievement.

Ask tons of questions

An informed athlete is a good gym climber. Most fellow climbers appreciate sincere questions – when they’re not fighting through a route’s “crux” (sticking point). If you’re ignorant about queuing up for a certain route or boulder problem, ask. If you’re anxious to learn the “secret” to a specific move, go ahead and ask.  Want to move pads around?  Ask rather than get tagged as arrogant, clueless or dangerous. 

Try to relax

It may feel like the entire gym’s watching your first efforts, more so if you’re struggling on climbs rated as low in difficulty. Remember that everyone started there and, apart from a few prodigies, the currency in climbing accomplishment is perseverance. Unless you’re causing a real scene, no one pays much attention to your struggles.

Feel the thrill

Pushing hard and seeing results. Or popping off the wall despite your best efforts. This is where adrenaline and lactic acid collide in beautiful ways. Take it all in. Welcome to the world of climbing.

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