Climbing guide: everything you need to know

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As spring approaches, climbers everywhere are dusting off their gear. The warmer weather is a welcome sign for those looking to scale nature’s obstacles. However, if you’ve never had the chance to experience rock climbing for yourself, the sport’s technical demands and seemingly exclusive nature can be off-putting. In this guide, we’ll break rock climbing down to its basics to find out why it’s something anyone can do.

Although rock climbing is not an impossible sporting task, it is still one that requires basic fitness levels. Before heading to your first climbing gym, you should make sure you are comfortable moving your own body weight through the space. Good home workouts can include assisted pull-ups and dips as well as core strengthening workouts. Once you understand how to manage your body weight, you should be ready to attempt your first ascent.

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Once you finally step into your first climbing gym, you’ll notice an assortment of different styles. Most climbing gyms offer more than one type of climbing to their customers. Whether you’re a first-time climber or a frequent guest, contemporary gyms have something for everyone. Let’s break down the different types you might encounter:


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If the saying “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” is true, then for climbers that first step is bouldering. According to REI’s Beginner’s Guide to Climbing, bouldering is the “easiest form of climbing”. For those looking to try, all you need is a pair of climbing shoes, a chalk pouch and a “crash pad” to soften and protect the landings. Most climbing gyms offer all three.

Since bouldering lacks the rope and harness system present in other forms of rock climbing, every mistake you make on the wall will land you flat on the bottom. While other types of climbing can involve 30-40 foot climbs, bouldering routes (also called “problems” by experts) are much shorter – think falling 9-12 feet on a mattress. Despite their small size, bouldering problems can still help climbers retain their fundamental climbing skills. This could be a great way to keep your strength up during the offseason.

Free climbing

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Once you have graduated in bouldering and put on a climbing harness, you will begin your free climbing journey. However, despite the scary name, you will be safe at all times. If you fall in a climbing gym while free climbing, you will usually only fall a short distance until your safety rope engages, keeping you suspended above the ground and able to resume your ascent. Another benefit of free climbing with a belay is the ability to take a break when needed. Your climbing partner below will use their weight with a pulley system to help keep you weightless on the wall when needed. Rope free climbing breaks down into three categories: top-rope climbing, lead climbing and traditional (or cleverly called “trad”) climbing.

Rope climbing

top rope rock climbing is what most beginner climbers are familiar with. This technique requires a climber’s rope system to be anchored above them at all times. On the ground, a belay partner will act as a counterweight, “eating up” the excess rope thrown back by the ascending climber. Communication between the climber and his belay partner is essential. Since the belay partner is responsible for keeping the climber’s rope safe, each time a climber begins to climb faster (or slower), the belay partner should adjust their technique to keep up with the rhythm. Rope climbing can be done in an indoor gymnasium or on an outdoor wall.

lead climbing

The next type of escalation that one might encounter is lead climbing. It is much more difficult than anything discussed so far. One of the most popular types of climbing for experts, if not the most popular, lead climbing is not for everyone. The most popular version of this technique requires the climber to attach their rope in bolted or secured locations along the route as they climb. In stark contrast to the more predictable top rope technique, lead climbing requires you to put your own safety in your hands with every step you ascend. Rightly so, most indoor gyms and outdoor guides require extensive training before you do your first lead climb.

Traditional climbing

A type of lead climbing, traditional or translation, rock climbing involves moving and removing your anchor gear as you climb the wall. An assortment of removable gear (such as nuts and cams) will accompany you on your way to the top, giving you the security you need to keep you from falling. Requiring additional knowledge of how to use a whole new class of equipment, trad climbing is not for the faint of heart – nor for casual climbers.

Help climbing

All of the types of rock climbing mentioned so far rely on the climber to use natural formations in the rock to help them climb the wall. Organic or replica toeholds and grips (in the case of a climbing gym) are required to successfully climb under the previously mentioned distinctions. However, assisted climbing, as the name suggests, involves an extra layer of assistance for the climber. According to REI, for particularly difficult or impassable sections of route, help climbers will use tools such as a special climbing ladder called a stirrup to pull yourself up rather than relying on the rock itself.

Free Solo

Alex Honnold free soloing on Freerider’s Scotty-Burke wide field on Yosemite’s El Capitan. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

For this type of climbing, the name is as scary as it sounds. No ropes, no help and no second chances. If you make a mistake during a solo free climb, there’s nothing stopping you from dropping dead below. Even the most expert climbers usually never experience this type of activity. We strongly advise against participating in this type of climbing; however, if you would like to see this type of escalation performed at the highest level, be sure to check out National Geographic Free Solo – featuring American mountaineer Alex Honnold’s infamous 2017 assent to the 3,000ft granite rock face known as El Capitan.

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