So You Want to Try Rock Climbing?

Article contributed by Kris Holbrook
So, you want to try out rock climbing?

Maybe it’s something you’ve always been interested in, or you have a friend that does it, or you live in an area that has an abundance of outdoor climbing and you’re not sure how to start out. Well, how do you just… start?

Your first decision to make is whether you want to start out inside a climbing gym, or outdoors on some real rock (called a crag). Luckily for you, in LA there is an abundance of both.

Let’s talk about the indoor option. The pros to starting indoors is the fact that it’s safe, there are professionals that can answer any questions you have, gear rentals, and pretty much everything is already set up for you.

A gym is also good place to start if you want to understand how things work in a super safe almost risk-free environment. There are several climbing gyms in Los Angeles as rock climbing as a sport is increasing in popularity – some of them offering bouldering and sport climbing, and some of them being just bouldering gyms. Almost all gyms have introduction classes to climbing.


Wait what’s bouldering and sport climbing?

Bouldering is rock climbing without the use of ropes or harnesses – on a wall only up to about 15 feet tall. At bouldering gyms, the floors are padded with mats so you can have a soft landing. Don’t be fooled – bouldering may sound like the easier way to go since you only need climbing shoes, but it’s a more like a concentrated form of climbing that is trickier to start with (like hopping on a bike for the first time, except no training wheels). If you do decide to start with bouldering, coming down from the wall by either jumping or climbing down will feel scary at first – so if you feel yourself slip don’t try to break your fall by putting your arm out behind you, just let yourself roll back onto your butt/back.


Sport climbing is roped climbing, using harnesses, some sort of belay device – essentially partnered climbing. Starting out, you’ll probably be doing something called top-roping: one end of the rope is secured to you, goes up to the top of whatever you are climbing, and then back down to a partner. The partner threads the rope through the belay device and carabiner to their harness. This way, you can climb up the wall while your partner pulls out the slack, and if you let go you will simply stay in place vertically – no actual falling involved whatsoever.



Sport climbing generally refers to lead climbing, which is when someone has the rope tied into their harness, a partner has that same part of the rope threaded into a belay device and carabiner on their harness, and as the climber goes up on the wall the rope is fed out to them. As they go up, they’ll put the rope through quickdraws every 5 – 10 feet or so. So, in the case of a fall, the last quickdraw that they put the rope through will catch them. This sort of climbing does have actual falling involved.


So, what do you need? 

Rock climbing shoes. They are different from regular street shoes. Climbing shoes usually have special rubber covering not just the bottoms but the sides, back, and front of the shoe- allowing you to fully harness the almighty power of thine foot. They are generally worn without socks because it’s important to really feel with your foot through the shoe. They should fit tight on you, with your toes against the very front of the shoe.

If you’d like to rent shoes for outdoor use, Adventure 16 has them available for a reasonable rate ($10 for the first day, $2 a day after). Most gyms tent them. Chalk is also available for you to dip your hands into to dry out any sweat that may form, making it easier for you to grip holds. If you don’t want to wear rented climbing shoes for hygiene purposes, another option is to buy new climbing shoes from REI – and if you choose not to continue climbing you can always return them (within one year).

If you want to try roped climbing, harnesses are also available for rent at gyms (plus belay device, carabiner – pictured). You just either have to have a partner that already is versed in belaying, or take an intro class with someone to learn how. Almost all climbing gyms offer intro class for belaying and climbing technique. Another alternative that lots of gyms these days offer is an auto-belay – so you don’t need a partner.


What do those ratings mean? 

Bouldering uses a V system – starting with VB or V0 being the easiest. As the numbers go up (V1, V2, V3, etc…), the difficulty goes up. A bouldering problem in a gym will either have tape marking the holds, or a certain color hold itself to indicate what hand/foot holds to use to go up. If you climb up to the top using just those specific holds for your hands and feet then you’ve successfully completed that problem, or sent the problem.

Sport climbing uses the Yosemite Decimal System, which rates hikes and climbs. The easiest climb in a gym will usually be a 5.5 The 5 preceding the decimal indicates “technical rock climbing” so it can be disregarded. The higher the number after the decimal point, the more difficult the climb is. That number goes up up to 5.10 where letters are introduced (5.10a, 10b, 10c, 10d, then 5.11a, etc).

Currently the rating systems for both bouldering and sport climbing is still going up as rock climbers are evolving into more and more superhuman (i.e. Chris Sharma, Ashima Shiraishi), climbing more impossibly hard things, and goes up to 5.15b/c now. The bouldering scale currently goes up to V16.

For climbing outdoors, rock climbing guide books will indicate where bouldering problems and climbing routes are with maps, diagrams, notes, etc. There are established climbing areas with extensive guide books, and generally rock climbers go to these spots – rock climbing as a sport is not going to a random rock and trying to climb to the top of it (unless that’s the climber’s particular goal, first ascents).


How fit do I have to be?

If you can move, you can climb! If you’re already active or strong, props to you! However, climbing itself is a skill that develops with time and experience – luckily for all of mankind, it works you outin addition to being super fun. Girls, you don’t need to be able to do pull-ups in order to climb – consistent climbing will make you be able to do pull-ups.

What if I’m scared of heights?

This will probably help with that. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be with being up high. Everyone starts out not knowing how to trust the rope or trust their feet. That’s totally normal. As a human being, you can adapt to anything. Discovering that through climbing may be one of the more rewarding things you do.

Where can I climb inside?

Photos © 2015 Kris Holbrook

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