Everything you need to know about indoor climbing

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Did you know you are a great ape?

Recasting this, humans are members of the same zoological family (hominids or great apes) as gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. We all evolved from a common ancestor. Considering our cousins, it’s no exaggeration to say that we have the genes to hang on, climb and cling. Anyone can do it, and it’s not as strength-dependent as you might think.

Climbing is as much about technique as it is about physical ability. You don’t need to be able to pull up to climb. Skill and strategy are paramount, and the best way to learn the basics of rock climbing is via an indoor climbing gym.

Here is your guide to getting started.

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1. Equipment

On your first visit to the gym, wear comfortable workout clothes. Be sure to bring water and snacks. At the gym, you’ll want to rent climbing shoes and chalk. If you plan on rope climbing (more on that below), you’ll also need to rent a harness.

[Also Read: How to Find and Fit Your Next Climbing Shoe]

2. Understanding space

Climbing gyms vary, but most will have what is called a bouldering area and a rope section, the latter of which can be divided into top rope and head rope climbing areas. Bouldering involves free climbing on a wall (no harness needed!) 10 to 15 feet high. Pads under the wall cushion your fall. Rope climbing and lead climbing both involve climbing higher walls – usually 30 to 60 feet high – while attached to a rope for added safety.

[Also Read: Rookie Mistakes: Seven Things Beginner Climbers Get Wrong]

[Also Read: Sure, it keeps our hands dry. But why did climbers start using chalk?]

3. Falling together

On your first trip to the gym, try a few practice drops in the bouldering area before venturing too high. Start from a low point on the wall, let go and try to roll onto your back as soon as you hit the floor. Never reach out to catch yourself. You’ll want to hit the ground in a squat position, so your knees bend as you punch. Gradually take falls from the top of the wall until you feel confident and in control. Keep in mind that falling is scary and will probably take some getting used to.

[Also Read: Overcome Your Fear of Falling: Part 1—Intro and History]

Rope climbing, as the name suggests, involves climbing with a rope. This is usually done on walls 30 to 60 feet high. (Photo: Getty Images)

4. Rope climbing tips

To climb the rope, you will need a partner to belay you. Belaying is the technique used to stop a falling climber. As a belayer, your job is to make sure your partner is caught by the climbing rope. You’ll learn how to belay in your orientation at the gym, plus some commands to use with your partner to make sure you’re both on the same page.

[Also Read: Don’t Drop Your Partner, and Other Ways to Not Screw Up on Belay]

5. “Climbing is inherently dangerous.”

Chances are you’ll hear that exact phrase during your orientation visit, and for good reason. Whether you’re trying to boulder or choose to climb a rope, simple mistakes can lead to serious consequences. Accidents happen because of complacency.

[Also Read: Safety First: Avoiding Climbing Accidents In The Gym]

6. The Holds (the things on the walls you grab)

  • Jug: Holds with a deep concavity and a wide rim to wrap your fingers around. Think of the handle of a gallon jug.
  • Ripple: A hold that has a thin edge to grab onto, like the top of a door frame.
  • Slope : A sloper has no clear edge. You typically grab it with all five fingers, like you would a basketball.
  • Pinch: As the name suggests, a pinch is a grip that you can wrap your thumb around to pinch it. Pinches can be thin or wide, like a 2-by-4 piece of lumber.

7. Where to start

Whether you’re bouldering or rope climbing, you can simply pull up the wall and grab the hold you want. But if you want a challenge, you can follow the marked “problems” (for bouldering) or “routes” (for rope climbing). Your gym will have a system to mark a path along the wall and rate the difficulty of that path. Most likely, your gym will distinguish different problems and routes with colored holds. If this is the case, for example, you can choose to use only pink holds to complete the problem or route. Some gyms, rather than colored holds, mark the way with tape.

Climbing is great for everyone, at any age. (Photo: Getty Images)

8. Understanding grades

Boulder problems range from V0 to V17, while routes range from 5.6 to 5.15d, with V0 and 5.6 being the easiest for each climbing style. You’ll want to start here. You can also ask the gym staff for suggestions.

9. How to progress

The best way to get better at climbing is to climb. Just by putting in the time, you will progress. It’s also helpful to take a course, watch other more experienced climbers, and ask a friend. No matter how good you get, climbers always look to others for advice.

[Also read: Climbing Terms and Definitions]

10. A few rules of etiquette to keep in mind

Always be aware of your surroundings. Before stepping onto the wall, make sure you are not too close to anyone else; give others space so that there is no risk of someone falling on top of each other. Also, if the gym is busy, remember not to hog a wall trying a problem over and over again. It is important to take turns. Finally, for sanitary reasons, take off your climbing shoes before entering the bathroom.

Virginia F. Goins