Sport climbing first arrived in Britain from the Continent in the late 1980s and took our limestone crags by storm. It was initially controversial in Britain, where a trad ethic has always been strong, but gradually became popular on crags where it was difficult to place traditional protection.
Sport climbing provided an easy escape from day to day life without all the rigmarole of huge racks of hardware.
What's not to like? Sport climbing's 'clip and go' movement provided an easy escape from day to day life without all the rigmarole of huge racks of hardware. All you needed was a rope and a few quickdraws. It grew rapidly. All over the nation climbing walls sprang up for sport climbing style to be practised prior to getting out on the real rock.
Until recently the majority of people involved in sport climbing were also competent traditional climbers who had learned their skills before bolts arrived. However, today many people come into sport climbing directly from a few sessions at the local wall. Although this is fine it is important to note that, despite it all looking harmless - pulling on blue holds in a warm, dry, windless, sports centre - sport climbing is still a dangerous activity if sensible precautions are ignored.
Go with an experienced climber
Sport climbing outdoors requires more skills than indoors
For those venturing out to the crags for the first time, it is essential to go with someone who knows what they are doing. It won't take much time at all before you are well versed with the tricks of the trade and can organise your own climbs. For those who are sport climbing for the first time but have 20 years of trad climbing under their belt, clipping bolts will be extremely simple and you won't believe how safe you feel.
However, it is quite likely that the traditionalist will take longer to adapt than the newcomer. Cunning rope work and a huge repertoire of bizarre climbing moves take a long time to get used to. Also, as a traditional style climber you aim to never fall. In sport climbing, we go to the limit - that's what it is all about!
For those wishing to get into sport climbing, or even traditional climbing, there are a few ways to start.
Probably the best way is to be taken out by a friend who knows what they are doing - don't be afraid to ask, many climbers often enjoy a little teaching practise. You will decide fairly quickly if you like climbing and want to continue.
Don't be afraid to ask, many climbers often enjoy a little teaching practise
Without knowing anyone the next best things are to either join a club or book a beginner session down at the local wall. If you are the right age and in the right place, university clubs are ideal - a lot of likeminded people all doing the same thing, with the time to climb and there will be loads of equipment to borrow.
When buying equipment, unless you are rich, give it some thought. (See Checklist). There is a lot of second hand stuff available, especially boots. Boots are a very personal item and chances are that the first pair you get will not be the best for you. Also the type of boot you want will vary enormously as you progress through the grades.
Once hooked, by far the best place to begin learning sport climbing techniques is indoors. This is perhaps more important than for traditional climbing where it is possible to begin at a very low grade. Sport climbing is often hard, with a high chance of falling off. Falling off immediately puts us in great danger! Learn the ropework, there is not much to it but out on the crag it's not so simple. Get used to clipping quickly with either hand. If you fumble the second draw with loads of slack pulled up you may be looking at a ground fall. Get used to belaying and holding leader-falls.
Sport climbing holidays have a certain appeal...
Unfortunately, because of our strong traditions, Britain does not yet cater well for the sport climbing beginner. Sport climbing here is reserved for unprotectable faces and, as this means no cracks or pockets, it also means no holds and thus it is hard!
Britain does have a few places offering sport routes suitable for the advanced beginner.
Be aware that the grade you climb indoors will seem different to those outside until you are used to the style. If you lead 6c indoors easily, begin on a 6a outdoors.
By far the best place in the UK to start is Portland on the Dorset coast. Here there is a good spread of grades and all routes are well bolted, thanks to the local activists. Also, with it being so far south, climbing is possible all year round, so it's a good place to top up your tan!
Sport climbing really comes into its own abroad, and even many hard-nosed traditionalists will admit this. Acres of perfect rock and endless sunshine with fully-bolted routes of all grades provide the perfect place to get into climbing. (For the best places to go see 'Winter sun'). When choosing your venue, aim for the most famous places, as these are likely to be well-bolted. If possible, check out the guide books to see if there is a good spread of grades. Obviously you will need to be going out in a team, do you trust your belayer? Find out before you go!