Imagine climbing a vertical wall of sandstone, searching for the best possible route to the summitÛ15,000 feet up. You inspect the face of the rock for features such as cracks or overhangs that will enable your ascent; then using hands and fingers to hold and balance yourself, you inch upwards. The rock face eventually becomes too smooth to climb unassisted, so you hammer artificial weight bearing equipment into the sandstone, removing it as you proceed.
During your trek upward, you are constantly vigilant to safety, traveling with a partner and using ropes to reduce your risk of injury. In spite of this, you are ever aware of the potential danger of avalanches, altitude sickness, rock fall, moving ice forms, and exposure to the elements.
At last, after two grueling days, you reach the top.
Sound exciting? Rock climbing is the kind of sport you either loveÛor youÌre simply not interested in. Passion for climbing requires an understanding of the risks involved and a willingness to face them. Some studies estimate that as many as 75 percent of those who regularly climb sustain some type of injury at some point during their climbing career.
For the Love of Climbing
For those who love climbing, there is great personal satisfaction. Rock climbing involves both physical and mental challenge. It is a physical workout that requires strength, coordination, and stamina. Regular climbing (2 or more times per week) can improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and flexibility.
Mentally, you must confront your fears both of injury and of heights (if you are wary of them) and make good decisionsÛbecause your life depends upon it.
Making it to the top, whether it is a 200-foot wall or the more than 29,000 feet of Mt. EverestÛcan be a huge adrenalin rush. And outdoor climbing also reveals the outdoors and nature from a vantage point that relatively few have seen.
Not for Everyone
Climbing isnÌt for everyone. You must be in good health and above average physical condition to climb, more so if climbing outdoors. You need to be flexible and agile, since climbing maneuvers involve stretching, bending, and precise body positioning. And you must have the strength to hold yourself up by your arms and handsÛor even just your fingers.
Most of all, you need time and commitment to learn the skills necessary to reduce your risk of injury while climbing. This includes learning hand and foot maneuvers, knot tying, and safety equipment use.
Types of Climbing
You donÌt have to climb Mt. Everest to enjoy the sport of rock climbing. There are many options. Some of these include:
Traditional Climbing is the type of rock climbing often seen in movies and on television. It is done in teams of two, taking turns ÏbelayingÓ (or securing with a rope) the other climber. Climbers carry ÏracksÓ of equipment and supplies needed for safety and sometimes to aid in the ascent. Traditional climbing can be Ïfree climbingÓ, in which a climber uses only natural configurations found on the rock (such as crevices and cracks or overhangs) to support weight and assist in climbing. It can also be Ïdirectly aided,Ó in which weight-bearing equipment is hammered into the rock, and then removed after using. Traditional climbing involves much planning and decision-making to determine the safest way to the top. It may take several hours to several days to reach the summit. Much of traditional climbing done, especially on steep mountain slopesÛis a combination of aided and free climbing.
Sport Climbing has gained popularity in recent years. In this type of climbing, aid equipment is permanently affixed to the face of the rock or a wall. The emphasis here is on athletic moves and timing in reaching the top. Belay partner and ropes are used to protect the climber if a fall should occur.
Free Solo Climbing is done without the use of aid or ropes. It is very dangerous, as a fall is likely to lead to injury or death.
Ice Climbing is done on ice structures rather than rock. Many of the steepest mountain ranges have some ice configurations as well as rock.
Bouldering is a less risky form of climbing because the incline and total height of a boulder is less steep than that of a mountain. It is not necessary to have a belay partner while bouldering, although it is safest to have another person at the bottom in case of a fall.
Indoor Climbing is done on a man-made wall, often in a gym. It is the ideal place for those who wish to experience what climbing is all about, and a good way for experienced climbers to stay in shape.
Clothing and Equipment
Minimal equipment and supplies are needed to begin rock climbing. If youÌre going to an indoor gym, most of the equipment and supplies are furnished, with the exception of shoes. When just starting, a good pair of athletic shoes will do. If you decide to continue with this sport and try some outdoor climbing, the minimum supplies and equipment needed are:
- Rock Shoes- The most expensive and one of the most important items for climbing, these shoes have a glove like fit and sticky rubber soles that help you to maintain your foothold on the surface of the rock. There are different models designed for different types of climbing, but for beginning climbers, a good generic climbing boot can be found for about $100-150.
- Harness-The harness is a piece of safety equipment that goes around your waist and has loops for your legs. It is attached to safety ropes, so that youÌll be caught if you fall. Different models are made for specific types of climbing, but for a beginner, a close but comfortable fit in a generic climbing harness will do. These cost from $30 and up.
- Helmet- Headgear protects your head from rock fall (rocks that have become dislodged) and in the event of a fall from the rock or wall. You can find a good helmet for $50 and up.
- Climbing Rope- An important piece of safety equipment, a good rope has a woven nylon sheath over a braided core and is 10-11mm in diameter. Sufficient quality and length of rope for an average climb costs about $130.
- Carabiners- These are snap-link pieces of hardware used to connect rope or webbing together to create an anchoring system. They cost about $7 each.
- Sling- A sling is nylon webbing tied or sewn into a loop. It is used to hold gear (gear sling) or to extend the anchoring system. Cost is about $3.
- Belay and Rappelling Device- This piece of hardware attaches to the rope to create friction to stop a falling climber (belay) or to allow a climber to descend by sliding down the fixed rope (rappel). This piece is about $15.
- Chalk- Made of carbonate of magnesium, this is applied to hands to soak up sweat and allow a better grip on sandstone. Chalk is usually carried in a bag attached to the harness. Chalk and bag run about $30.
- Active/Passive Protection- If using aid while climbing, various pieces of hardware are used to assist in climbing (wedges, bolts, cams, nuts).
When choosing clothing for rock climbing, think comfortable and breathableÛyouÌll be grateful for this when you start sweating. If taking a long trek up a steep mountain, dress for the elements. At the summit of a high mountain, temperatures can be as low as 100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero!
If you think you may be interested in rock climbing, start by reading books or climbing publications. There are many books available that outline the basics of rock climbing. Others have essays written by climbers that can give you a feel for this sport. Publications are good sources of gear advice and reviews, technique and training tips, and climbing destinations.
Rock climbing is not a Ïdo it yourselfÓ sport, though. Before attempting a climb, you should look for a professional instructor. These people are trained and certified to teach you climbing maneuvers, safety precautions, knot tying, and what kind of equipment and supplies youÌll need. You can find instructors through a climbing gym or by using your search engine on the Internet. If after a short instructional course you wish to proceed, you may find lengthier rock climbing instructional programs through the recreation department of your local college or a climbing outfitter.
Even when you believe that youÌre ready to climb without an instructor, take a guide or experienced climber as a partner in the beginning. YouÌll benefit from this personÌs lead and help.
To excel in rock climbing, youÌll need to condition yourself. Such training includes warm-ups and stretches (Yoga is great!), cardiovascular exercise such as running, bicycling, or jumping rope, and weight training (to increase strength and flexibility). You may want to purchase equipment especially designed for a climbing workout, such as a Ïhangboard.Ó This is a piece of equipment that is mounted on a wall and used to grasp and do pull ups for upper body strengthening. Consult an instructor or experienced climber for advice on a training schedule.
If youÌre passionate about rock climbing, youÌll want to find others who share your love of this sport. Ask about groups or clubs at a local climbing gym or search the Internet. The more you learn, the more youÌll want to know and share!
Within the United States (and recognized internationally), a classification system is used to describe the difficulty of routes during a climb. These are as follows:
- Class 1: An easy walk up an established trail
- Class 2: Slightly more difficult hike, some off-trail climbing
- Class 3: Hands must be used for balance while climbing; no equipment needed
- Class 4: The angle of the climb is steep enough that rope and other protective equipment is recommended to protect against a fall
- Class 5.0-5.4: Steep incline but easy enough for beginners. Rope and protective equipment must be used
- Class 5.5-5.7: Intermediate level, requiring more skill and experience and good rock shoes
- Class 5.8-5.10: Advanced climbing skills and strength required
- Class 5.11-5.12: Requires expert skills and strength
- Class 5.13-5.14: Only a very few climbers are skilled and strong enough to attempt
- Class 6: The surface of the rock is too smooth to climb