Starting out in climbing

Starting out in climbing

Find your best route into the vertical world of the climber. This article will guide you through your first tentative moves.

'The essence of climbing, as of dance, is creative movement' Michael Loughman.
Stories of talented climbers who stole their mothers washing line and taught themselves how to climb are legendary, but for most of us this road to excellence is fraught with pitfalls and hazards. You will progress much faster and more safely with expert companions but finding an expert partner is not easy.

Climbing clubs and climbing walls (contact the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) for a list) are a great place to meet other climbers, but it can be difficult to know when you are receiving the best tuition. Most club climbers can teach enough rope techniques to keep you safe, but when choosing a partner avoid those that talk about equipment and safety procedures all the time, carry huge amounts of equipment, talk a good route, but then move like a melted flip flop on rock. If you can, latch onto those climbers who move most gracefully, even if they cannot teach, you will learn a lot about movement and climbing just by watching them. 

Alternatively, go on a climbing course at one of the many outdoor centres or climbing walls that have sprung up near every major city or book a course with an individual mountain guide or instructor. A good instructor will aim to speed up the learning process and tailor sessions to your skills and needs. But even with these you need to proceed with some wariness; most climbing courses cover the basic safety skills of belaying, abseiling and rope techniques, but very few teach the more important skills of movement.

Look for the logos of the British Mountain Guides (BMG), International Federation of Mountain Guides (IFMGA) or the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI)

Look for the logos of the British Mountain Guides (BMG), International Federation of Mountain Guides (IFMGA) or the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI) when choosing a course or instructor. Talk to other climbers about courses and ask questions of the instructors to find out what they understand about movement and whether they can teach you to move efficiently.

There are two areas to focus on when starting to climb:

Be aware of danger  

Learning the rope techniques to be safe is surprisingly easy; the difficult part is how and when to apply them on a climb. Rope techniques only become skills when they are used at the correct time and in the correct place. Being safe involves an understanding of the hazards and how to minimise the risks. Ultimately this can only be learned by time spent climbing.

Learn to move efficiently

This is vital at the start of your climbing career because it will lay down a foundation that will enable strenuous or 'powerful' routes to be climbed more efficiently and will allow you to reach your true potential. Take movement out of climbing and all you have left is weightlifting. Don't worry too much about your fitness or your age, just concentrate on climbing lots: specific fitness will come as you improve. The time to start training is when you stop improving.

Key terms
  • Bouldering - low-level practice on small rocks.
  • Sport climbing - routes that have the safety equipment permanently fixed in place.
  • Traditional climbing - routes where the climber places removable equipment, in the cliff, to protect himself or herself.
  • Free climbing - uses only the hands and feet to progress upwards.
  • Aid climbing - uses equipment placed in the cliff to progress upwards.
  • Solo climbing - without a rope.
  • Gear, Runners, Protection - equipment placed in the cliff to protect your progress up the cliff.
  • Belayer - person who holds your rope to prevent you seriously hurting yourself should you fall.
  • Belay device - equipment the belayer uses to make holding a fall easier.
  • Leading - climbing while trailing a safety rope that you clip into protection.
  • Top rope - climbing with the rope above you.

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