Rock climbing has exploded in popularity in recent years thanks in part to death-defying documentaries like Free Solo with Alex Honnold, The Dawn Wall with Tommy Caldwell and Valley Uprising about the rise of the sport in Yosemite.
The sport has grown so much that it will be one of the new sports at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Lucky for us, the popularity of outdoor rock climbing has led to an increase of indoor climbing gyms in cities all over the United States.
Before indoor climbing, you had to venture to states like California or Colorado to even try climbing. But now, there are dozens of rock climbing gyms in mountainless places like Chicago and New York City.
In this article, I am going to explain the basic types of climbing and how to start indoor rock climbing.
Why You Should Try Rock Climbing
Indoor rock climbing is a great physical activity because it’s an intense upper body workout that doesn’t involve lifting heavy weights. Climbers possess near super-human strength in their hands and can pump out more pull-ups than almost anyone. Have you seen the back muscles and abs of professional climbers?
In addition to pure strength, climbing is a great core exercise that requires exceptional balance and composure.
It’s also a great social activity because it often requires a partner. Also, many climbing gyms facilitate a very social and inviting atmosphere designed to encourage meeting new people.
Above all, indoor rock climbing is the stepping stone to outdoor rock climbing. Who doesn’t want to get outside in nature and test themselves on some real stone?
Basics Types of Indoor Rock Climbing
There are three main types of indoor rock climbing. Some gyms offer all three types, some only have top roping and lead climbing, and some only offer bouldering.
We won’t get into the more advanced methods of outdoor climbing (like trad climbing), because this article is designed just to cover the basics.
Top Rope Climbing
Top rope climbing is the most common introduction to climbing with ropes. When someone says “top roping,” they are referring to the act of climbing a large wall with the use of a rope and harness. It is called top roping because there is a pre-set anchor at the top of the wall.
Unless the gym is equipped with auto belays, you will need a partner to “belay” you when top roping. I will talk about that more in a later section.
When climbing with a rope, the direction you use to get to the top of the wall is called the “route.”
Lead climbing is different from top roping because there is no pre-set anchor at the top of the wall. Instead of relying on the top anchor, climbers clip into anchors as they ascend the wall.
Lead climbing is not recommended for beginners and is intended for advanced climbers. Most gyms will not allow climbers to lead climb until they have passed some sort of certification test. If you are just starting out, don’t even worry about lead climbing.
Just like with top roping, you will need a belay partner.
Bouldering is the most basic type of indoor climbing. It requires the least amount of equipment and knowledge (but that does NOT mean it’s the easiest). Bouldering is done on shorter walls and does not involve the use of ropes or harnesses. To protect climbers from falls, gyms will have heavily padded mats to catch people when they jump or fall from a wall.
Routes in bouldering are called “problems.” In general, because they are shorter, bouldering problems are more technical than climbing routes. It’s kind of like comparing sprinting with jogging. Of course, when you reach the highest levels of sport climbing, the moves are extremely technical.
Since bouldering does not involve ropes, you don’t need a partner to start bouldering. But you may want a “spotter” to help you fall.
If you are completely new to climbing, bouldering is a great entry point because you don’t need to learn how to tie special knots or belay other people.
Equipment Needed for Indoor Rock Climbing
When you are getting into rock climbing, I highly recommend that you rent equipment your first few times. Most gyms have all the equipment you need to get started. Renting is a great way to figure out if you even like the sport before spending a few hundred dollars on fancy new gear.
Here is the basic gear that you need to start indoor rock climbing:
- Climbing shoes - Street shoes won’t do. Climbing shoes are designed to hold a lot of weight on your toes and are meant to be very tight on your feet.
- Chalk bag with chalk - Chalk is essential because it dries out your hands and makes it easier to hold onto small holds.
- Harness - The harness is used to tie you to the rope. It should be tight, so it can’t slide off.
- Belay device - A belay device is a small metal device used to catch your partner while they’re climbing.
- Locking carabiner - The locking carabiner is needed to lock your below device to your harness.
- Rope - Climbing ropes are extremely strong and built to withstand falls. Not any rope will do; you will need a climbing-specific rope.
If you don’t plan on lead climbing or climbing outside, you probably don’t need to buy a rope. All gyms will have ropes in place for top roping and many gyms don’t even allow climbers to bring in their own ropes.
If you only plan on bouldering, you only need climbing shoes and a chalk bag with chalk.
What to Wear When Indoor Rock Climbing
You don’t really need to wear anything special when indoor rock climbing, basic fitness apparel will do. I personally suggest wearing long pants because it is pretty easy to scrape your knees on the climbing wall. And on that note, try to wear durable clothing. You don’t want to get holes in your new $100 leggings!
In some gyms, particularly bouldering gyms, it’s quite common to see men wearing stretchy jeans when climbing. That should give you an idea of how casual the environment really is.
In general, you just want to wear something that allows you to move freely.
What to Expect/How to Get Started
When you walk into a climbing gym for the first time, it can be pretty intimidating. There will be buff guys without their shirts on, chalk flying in the air and groups of people using incomprehensible lingo like beta, flash, crux, crimp and a bunch of other things you’ve never heard of.
But don’t worry!
Everyone was new once and, in my experience, most people at climbing gyms are very helpful. If you’re not sure if you’re doing something right, just ask! Most climbers love to share their passion with beginners.
If you are going alone and don’t know what you are doing, call in advance to see if there are classes for beginners. I can’t stress this enough, it is very helpful to have a professional show you around the gym before you are let loose.
In order to top rope or lead climb, almost every gym will require you to prove you know how to tie a proper figure 8 knot and belay a partner. If you don’t know how to do these things, take a class! Most gyms have beginner classes that will show you everything you need to get started. They are usually reasonably priced and include rentals for all equipment.
If you start with bouldering, you may not need to take a class, but it’s a good idea to ask a few questions to get started. And I would still suggest calling ahead to see if there are good times for beginners to come. Where I’m from (Denver), there are some gyms that are absolutely packed between 6pm and 9 pm but completely empty in the morning. Obviously, going when it is super busy makes it even more intimidating for beginners.
Understanding Climbing Grades
One thing you’ll need to understand the first time you go to an indoor climbing gym is the grading system. Gyms use grades to rate the difficulty of a climb. This is important to know so you don’t get in over your head. Start with the lowest grade available and work your way up.
For top roping, indoor grades will typically range from 5.1 to 5.15. 5.1 is the easiest climbing grade and is a great start for beginners. To put it into perspective, only a small handful of professional climbers can even attempt climbs nearing the 5.15 difficulty.
Bouldering uses a different grading scale. In the United States, we use the V scale (in Europe they use the Font scale) to rate problems. The V scale starts at V0 and goes as high as V16 (there are only 12 problems in the entire world rated that high). Some gyms even offer a VB level that is lower than a V0.
I should mention that some gyms use their own scale. For instance, The Spot gym in Boulder and Denver uses its own proprietary dot system to rate difficulties. That’s why it’s important to ask questions when you go to a new gym!
Conquering Your First Climb
So now that you have the basic equipment, understand the climbing grades and know how to belay your partner, it’s time to climb your first route (or problem, if you’re bouldering).
As I mentioned above, start with the lowest grade available. Most adults will be able to climb a V0 or 5.1 their first day at the gym (but don’t worry if you can’t)!
After you and your partner go through your safety checks, walk up to the wall and find the starting holds. On bouldering problems, the starting holds are usually very clearly marked. On climbing routes, it can be a bit more flexible.
In most modern gyms, all routes or problems will be designated by a certain color hold. In other words, every grip or hold will all be the same color. Many old-school gyms will use tape instead to designate a route. Usually the same rules apply: you are allowed to use any hold with a certain color tape next to it.
If you can’t find a route that’s easy enough, make your own! Don’t worry about the color of the holds and just climb the wall and have fun.
I won’t get into climbing technique too much, but I will say that you should try to treat it like climbing a ladder. Once you have a strong hold with your hands, step up with your feet first. Then, after you’ve established a high foot fold, step up and reach higher with your hands.
Once you’ve reached the top of the climb, loudly let your partner know that you are ready to descend. Sit back in your harness and allow your below partner slowly lower you to the ground.
If you are bouldering, you can either slowing climb down when you reach the top, or simply jump (some gyms have rules against jumping down).
Either way, congratulations, you just completed your first indoor climb!
Tips for First Time Climbers
- Start on the bouldering wall. Test the waters on the bouldering walls before you put on a harness, it can be much less intimidating.
- Ask a lot of questions. It’s better to ask questions and do something right than to wing it and do something dangerous.
- Don’t worry about difficulty. Don’t worry that more experienced climbers are climbing much more difficult climbs. It takes years to work up to the more difficult grades.
- Use your legs. Your legs are stronger than your arms, so use them to get you up the wall! If you try to do 10 pull-ups to get up the wall, you’re going to tire out after one climb.
- Watch and learn. Take note of how your fellow climbers handle a route or a problem. You can learn a lot just by emulating their techniques.
- Take care of your hands. When you first start climbing, your hands are going to take a beating. Use tape to cover any blisters and use a lot of lotion at night to allow for recovery.