Is Rock Climbing Hard to Learn? An Introduction for Beginners


If you’re planning to begin rock climbing, there are likely several questions or concerns that immediately come to mind. The idea of rock climbing can certainly be a bit frightening for beginners, but just how difficult is rock climbing?

Is rock climbing hard to learn? Rock climbing can be a bit of a challenge at first, but as your body warms up to the challenge, you’ll find the sport to become increasingly more easy the more you climb.

We’ve conducted the proper research and have come up with some tips and pointers for any first time rock climber out there who is just beginning to pursue an interest in the sport.

How Difficult Is It To Begin Rock Climbing?

Before beginning any sort of rock climbing, you need to make sure that your body is up for the challenge. Rock climbing will put a lot of stress on your muscles and joints, and certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. These exercises may prove to be tiresome and push your body to its limits, but they are essential for any beginner climber.

Rock climbing is not difficult to learn, so long as you are properly prepared. It’s suggested a beginner climber complete these exercises daily for two full weeks before the first climb. Follow these tips and you’ll be on your way to your first climb in no time.

  • Hand grip: Many beginner climbers find that the use of a hand gripper is quite helpful when first starting out. It’s recommended to begin with 15 minute hand gripper workouts, and squeeze around 50 times per day in each hand.
  • Core strength: Following this, you also need to ensure that your core body strength is well enough to keep your torso as close to the climbing wall as possible. Many trainers recommend planks or bridges when first starting out, or even leg-circles. These exercises will dramatically improve your abdominal strength in a very short amount of time.
  • Flexibility: You also need to work on stretching your muscles and flexing your joints. This can be done in a variety of ways. Yoga is one option. Though, some basic stretches and hip/shoulder movements can help to work your joints as well and improve your flexibility. Squats and lunges are a great idea as well.
  • Cardiovascular health: You also need to be sure your heart and lungs are up for the challenge. It’s not uncommon to lose your breath during the first few climbs, but practicing for cardio before your climb can certainly keep this to a minimum. You want to establish a good cardio routine very early into your training.

Indoor Rock Climbing: The Easiest Place to Start

One of the easiest ways to begin rock climbing is with an indoor wall or gym. Many climbers are quick to attempt their transition to outdoor climbing, but choosing to climb on an indoor, well-monitored wall is always the safest option.

There is an abundance of rock climbing gyms located all across the country. These gyms offer you a more relaxed atmosphere to begin your efforts into rock climbing and are often times staffed when individuals who are more than happy to help you learn your way around the wall.

For most of these gyms, if not all, an entrance fee for subscription will be required. Be sure to contact your local gym for exact pricing on this, but it typically isn’t too expensive.

Many gyms will charge different prices, depending on what type of wall you are planning to climb. This certainly shouldn’t deter you from beginning your training in a gym. It’s just something to keep in mind if you’re a bit tight on funds.

Once you’ve chosen a gym, you will oftentimes be met with several different walls or courses to choose from.

Top-Rope Climbing

Top-Rope climbing is a great place for a true beginner to start. This will help you get used to wearing a harness, while also teaching you the fundamentals of the sport. A common term for this is also ‘top roping,’ and when top roping, your rope is secured to an anchor above you.

You tie yourself onto one end of the rope, and the other end of the rope will be secured to protect you from any unexpected fall. On some occasions, these ropes may be held by an attendant who will manually stop your fall, or you could even entrust the task to a friend. Some top-tier gyms even have mechanical devices known as ‘belayers’ that will automatically detect a fall and prevent it.

Nearly every gym will have a cushioned mat located beneath the wall, so even if something goes horribly wrong with your entrusted belayer, or an automated belaying device, you can rest assured that, while the fall may hurt, you’ll almost certainly be just fine.

Bouldering

Bouldering is another option for beginners, but can sometimes be a bit more difficult than top-rope climbing. Bouldering usually involves no harness or a rope to hang onto. Typically, a bouldering course is set up closely to the ground, so that if you fall, you won’t be seriously injured. You may request a spotter who can help you if you begin to slip or fall, but this won’t always be necessary.

Bouldering is just what the name implies – the climbing of boulders. Bouldering is great for helping to build your upper and lower body strength before taking on some of the more challenging rock climbing tasks. It’s much more simple and top roping, and many beginners find it to be the most enjoyable.

Bouldering allows you to really get your bearings around a rock climbing course without all the complexity and safety concerns of top roping or lead climbing.

Lead Climbing

Once you’ve really established yourself as a climber, you may decide to move on to lead climbing. This type of climbing involves you being tied to a rope with a clip or carabiner on the other end of it. In an indoor setting, you will make your way up the wall while moving your carabiner from bolt to bolt as you ascend.

For lead climbing, you’ll once again need a belayer. This is certainly one of the more dangerous forms of rock climbing, but again, in a gym setting, the risk of injury is minimal. Lead climbing is considered one of the more difficult climbs, simply because a fall will typically hurt quite bad.

There are definitely precautions put in place at any gym to keep injuries minimal. Though, with the increased risk of injury and the incredible amount of strain that your upper-body muscles will be under, lead climbing is quite the challenge.

Many climbers find that lead climbing on an indoor course is the most similar to outdoor climbing. The true difficulty in lead climbing is being sure not to slip. You’ll often times be clipped to multiple bolts, so even if you do, you won’t fall very far. However, the fall is much more intense than top roping.

Accept Assistance from Other Climbers

Indoor climbing comes with its own unique set of challenges, much like outdoor climbing. It’s always best to remember that rock climbing is not a race. The sole purpose of rock climbing, to begin with, is to push yourself to the limit without overdoing it.

Because of this, having a buddy about is always a good idea, as they can keep an eye on your throughout the climb, and vice versa. If you have no one to go with you, however, there are often times staff members at the gym who can help out. Take heed to their advice, and work hard to put it into practice. They are there to help you – after all, it’s their job.

These workers spend day after day training individuals just like you. They understand the ins and outs of rock climbing and know all the ways that you may be able to improve your performance.

Difficulty Rating Systems of Rock Walls

When you first begin your gym climb, you’ll likely notice that the gym’s walls or courses are graded on a scale from 5.0 through 5.15. This scale is used in most gyms around the world and even applies to outdoor courses as well. You’ll find that courses closer to the 5.0 range will be much easier. This is done by making the hand grips and foot grips much larger than on the more difficult walls.

You can use your own judgment to determine where to begin, but it is often recommended that beginners go no higher than 5.3 on their first few climbs. The simple guide below can better illustrate the differences in ratings.

Beginner Courses:

  • Walls rated 5.0 through 5.3 are well suited for beginners.

Intermediate Courses:

  • Ratings 5.4 through 5.10 are typically a good match for an intermediate climber.

Professional Courses:

  • 5.11 through 5.15 courses come with increased risks that are not advised for beginners or intermediate climbers.

Bouldering scales are a bit different, as they are graded on a scale that begins with a ‘V’. Courses listed as ‘VB’ are going to be your simpler, more beginner-friendly courses. They will then range from V0 through V16, with V16 being the most difficult.

Beginner Bouldering Courses:

  • Ratings of VB through V5 are going to be beginner friendly boulders.

Intermediate Bouldering Courses:

  • These courses will typically be numbered V6 through V11, and can become quite difficult without proper training.

Professional Bouldering Courses:

  • V12 through V16 courses, similar to climbing walls, come at an increased risk of injury to any beginner or intermediate climber and should be reserved only for those with several years of skilled experience.

Choosing the Right Clothing for Indoor Climbs

Though rock climbing can be perceived as difficult for many beginners, using the proper gear will keep your journey as simple as possible. You’ll need several key items for a successful rock climb. These include proper clothing, a harness, a locking carabiner, climbing ropes, chalk, and rock climbing shoes.

  • When choosing your clothing, you need to test fit different outfits to determine a product that is both comfortable and fitting for you. You need to allow yourself proper mobility, but without the clothing being too loose. Many instructors recommend wearing yoga clothing, as it is tight-fitting but very flexible. Your clothes will likely be very dirty after a few climbs, so be sure that you’re not wearing anything too terribly important, or you may be rather upset by all of the chalk and dirt markings that a climb can leave on your clothing.
  • Your harness is arguably one of the most important parts of your gear. Harnesses can be used for both indoor and outdoor climbing and are often times adjustable in size. Just be sure to pick a harness that, much like your clothing, is not too tight but not too loose.
  • A locking carabiner is yet another essential to your climb. However, you typically can’t just go to your nearest supermarket and buy a cheap carabiner off of the shelf. These will usually not withstand the stress and weight that you will be putting them under. It’s usually best to go to a sporting goods store, or even an online retailer, and order a proper carabiner. Great carabiners can be expensive, but you need to remember that your life will be in the hands of this small metal object. Don’t skip out on buying a high quality carabiner.
  • Typically, ropes will be provided by the gym that you are attending. This is done to cut down on any potential liability issues that could come from a climber using a poor quality or worn rope. There are some gyms that require you to bring your own rope, but these are fairly rare.
  • Chalk is used in a similar way to gymnasts – its sole purpose is to keep your hands dry and free from sweat, humidity, or debris. You’ll want a chalk bag as well, as this will allow you to reapply chalk as necessary throughout your climb.
  • Finally, you’ll need to invest in a good pair of rock climbing shoes. These shoes can usually vary dramatically in price between brands, and it’s usually most important to just find a shoe that fits you well and doesn’t cause any amount of discomfort. Many sporting goods stores can help you locate a pair of shoes that will work best for you, so don’t be afraid if you’re having difficulty. There are even online forums that can help you find the best shoes for you and your climbing plans.

 

Outdoor Rock Climbing

Outdoor rock climbing is by far one of the most exciting, yet dangerous rock climbing endeavors that you can pursue. You need to be entirely confident in your ability before even attempting an outdoor climb. Many times, the outdoor terrain can be unpredictable, and you always need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Hire a Tutor or Guide

It’s never a good idea to begin attempting outdoor climbing alone. You will always want to hire a tutor or a guide to accompany you on your journey. Guides must be certified and experienced in order to assist you – a close friend will likely not be equipped with the knowledge and expertise to guide you, even if they are expert climbers on their own.

Guides are there to teach you the ins and outs of outdoor climbing, as well as help you understand how the natural elements will react to your climbing. You’ll be taught the most efficient and safest way to perform climbs or courses, and many guides can even teach you how to properly use your gear.

Many gyms offer classes for outdoor climbing, and often times a guide can be found at an indoor gym. Be sure to contact your local gym for any questions or details you may have about locating a guide.

Types of Outdoor Climbing

This list may seem a bit redundant on the surface, but it’s certainly not. Even though these types of climbs share the same names as their indoor counterparts, they are wildly different and require a completely different skill set in order to complete them safely.

Outdoor rock climbing is much more difficult than indoor climbing, do to the uncertainty of the terrain around you. Rocks can fall, sand or dirt can cause you to slip, and you even need to take the weather into account in order to have a safe climb.

Outdoor rock climbing also increases your risk of injury tremendously, because many climbers do not climb with any sort of lead. If you happen to slip and aren’t properly clipped on to your nearest bolt, your life could be in danger. Only well-trained and skilled climbers should attempt outdoor climbing without a guide present.

Top Rope Climbing

Top roping is going to be the most similar to your gym experience. You will have an anchor attached somewhere to the ground or rock above you, and an instructor or guide will remain below you to act as a belayer. The key difference here is that there will typically be no marked hand grips or foot grips. You’ll need to use the natural rock formations as grip points and find your own way up.

Since this is likely to be your first attempt at a course like this, its not uncommon for your guide to start you on an exceptionally easy course. This can be a bit frustrating at first, as you obviously want to skip ahead to the more exciting climbs, but it’s important to pace yourself. As simple as they may seem, these climbs are important to teaching you the safety and proper maneuverability of outdoor courses.

Bouldering

Outdoor bouldering can seem vaguely similar to indoor bouldering, though it is notably more difficult. You’ll be climbing across rock faces that can often be completely smooth, causing your grip to be less than ideal. These boulders are usually quite low to the ground, so you don’t stand a substantial risk of being injured, but it is always a possibility.

Outdoor bouldering is rarely ever done with any sort of rope or restraint system. You will not need a harness, or much gear at all. Outdoor bouldering has proven to be very popular with beginners, because it requires the least amount of training and investment.

Bouldering can usually be used to test out new techniques that your instructor may teach you, and it isn’t uncommon for rock climbing classes to be held near bouldering courses. This is the safest environment for a beginner to really get their footing.

Sport Climbing

Sport climbing is comparable to indoor lead climbing. On most sport climbing courses, bolts will be drilled into the rock formation, and you must clip your carabiner to these bolts while climbing from ledge to ledge.

It’s not uncommon for beginner sport climbers to tie themselves up with a rope before beginning their climb. This is obviously done in an attempt to minimize injury in case of a fall. This isn’t required, but it is certainly recommended for first-timers. This is the easiest way to put your skills to the test without risking major injury – or worse.

Once you’ve become skilled enough to ditch the lead, you’ll need to be extremely cautious with your climb. You’ll be solely relying on each bolt and carabiner to hold your weight, and if you slip or miss a bolt, you could become injured from the impact of smacking against the rock.

This type of climbing is reserved strictly for the most experienced climbers and should never be attempted by a beginner.

Understanding Climbing Slang

There are several different types of rock, soil and terrain that you will need to be familiar with in order to properly educate yourself on the fundamentals of outdoor rock climbing. In addition, there are certain slang words that would be beneficial for you to learn as well.

  • Choss: This usually refers to rock or dirt that is loose and crumbling. It could even refer to certain types of plant life. This term is generally used to describe a type of terrain that is difficult to grasp and is commonly the cause of falls or slips during climbs.
  • Gripped: This is the mental state of being frozen by fear, and it is usually experienced when you become exhausted, or when you encounter an area of terrain that you are unsure of
  • Beta: this is the name given to information about a route that is used to help fellow climbers prepare for the road ahead. This is essentially just advice that is passed on between climbers.
  • Pumped: this refers to swollen arms of a climber that have built up with lactic acid, causing them to “burn” and become weak. This will most often take place after a particularly difficult climb. Some use this term as a way to show that they conquered their set course, but others find it more frustrating, as it can limit your endurance severely
  • Bomber: finally, this phrase is used to describe an object that is nearly unbreakable, such as a large rock, or certain types of equipment, such as bolts

Conducting Yourself During an Outdoor Climb

Nearly every sport has a set of rules or guidelines that must be followed. Rock climbing is definitely no exception. During your classes, tutoring, and guidance, you’ll be taught a basic code of conduct when rock climbing. These rules can apply to indoor climbing as well, but since outdoor climbing is far more dangerous, following the conduct guidelines is a must.

Many climbers will be taught “The Pact,” which reads as follows:

  • Only park and camp in approved areas
  • Stay on the established path or trail
  • Clean up your chalk marks
  • Do not make any unnecessary noises or act out toward others
  • Clean up your trash
  • Clean up your human waste
  • Respect rock closures
  • Respect other climbers

How Gyms Can Help Your Climbing Experience

Rock climbing can be one of the most frightening sports to learn, but it doesn’t have to be. Many individuals feel as though they are ready to take the risk, but simply don’t know how to do so without risking major injury or other setbacks. This why it’s always best to familiarize yourself with a rock climbing gym before going out on climbs by yourself.

Gyms are well equipped to teach even the most novice individuals who may know absolutely nothing about rock climbing. Be sure to remain honest with your coach or trainer, and ask as many questions as possible. The instructor’s job is to ensure that you have a safe and entertaining climb.

Gyms and instructors can even help you find the best type of gear that will suit your needs, and some gyms will even loan you gear for a small fee. For climbers who are looking to test the waters before making a major financial investment, this may be the best option. Gyms will often times have various sizes of gear on hand for individuals who are unable to purchase their own.

Remember to Have Fun

The final note is to realize that rock climbing doesn’t have to be a stressful sport. Many perceive rock climbing as a nearly unattainable task. While it certain does push your body to the limit, in most cases, instructors will allow you to take all of the time you need to become accustomed to your surroundings.

Taking that first step – or leap – is always the hardest. But once you’ve managed your first wall, regardless of the amount of time it takes, the rush of adrenaline and dopamine is unrivaled. SO long as you surround yourself with instructors or belayers that you can trust, as well as properly educate yourself about the walls, equipment, and environment around you, rock climbing can be a highly rewarding sport for even the most fearful of individuals.

The key point to remember when setting up your first rock climbing trip is to remember to relax, stay focused, and have fun.

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