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How to Rock Climb

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Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up or across natural rock formations or man-made rock walls. It is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility, and balance along with his or her mental control. Both Fun, challenging, and an incredible workout, anyone can start rock climbing quickly, no matter how much experience you have.

Head to a rock gym or bouldering gym to safely learn basic skills and safety. You can also boulder outdoors, but you'll need to find out about safe, established bouldering sites before getting on a rock. Moreover, outdoor sites are usually more difficult, and require guides and deeper knowledge of rock formations. Rock gyms are safe, well-designed spaces for a variety of skill levels, and they often have classes and staff to help you learn. In general, you have two options starting out:

  • Bouldering routes are short rock climbing problems that don't require harnesses or ropes, and are a fantastic way to build your climbing skills safely, without complex introductions to belaying or equipment. Since these problems require no ropes certain constraints that come with roped climbing are avoided. Bouldering routes are great for learning to climb and are a fun way to climb although you lack the safety that you would have with a rope.
  • Top-roping is what most people think of when they think of rock climbing. You're tied in and scaling a large wall. In order to top-rope you'll need a partner. If you're brand new to the sport, check with the staff about "belay partners," or boulder until you feel comfortable asking for a partner.

Rent a pair of snug shoes and a chalk bag. Rock climbing shoes need to be snug so that you can feel the precise edges of the rock. They may feel uncomfortable at first, as the toes are often pointed in order to help you stay on small chips and edges, but you'll get used to them quickly. Just make sure they don't cut off circulation. Chalk bags, while not necessary, are used to keep your hands dry -- essential for holding onto the rock as you get tired. Simply dip you fingers lightly in the chalk and clap them together so you have a light chalky dusting on your hands.

  • Harnesses, clips, and belay devices are necessary if you're top-roping. The remainder of this section assumes you are already tied in, or are bouldering.

Climb to the top of the wall or problem any way you can to get used to the sport. Most walls are marked by routes -- specific sets of rock that you must use to get to the top. While these are more challenging and fun for experts, you need to get comfortable with the height, the holds, and the general feel of climbing first. Ignore the tape marks and just head up the wall, working on the basics of your form. Once you're comfortable climbing, you're ready to start tackling some basic routes.

  • If you really want to get to routes, looks for one labelled 5.4 or 5.5, which are good beginner ratings. (In French, sport grades are commonly used. These will be 3 or 3+, 4 or 4+.)
  • The fear of falling and the fear of heights are perfectly normal human instincts. Remember, however, that you have a bevy of safety equipment, padded floors, and a knowledgeable person holding you up. After your first few slips, you'll get used to it.
  • Starting with an expert, even just a friend who climbs often, is a great way to break slowly into the sport.

Push up from your legs instead of pulling up with your arms. This is the number one rule of good climbing, and the hardest thing to get used to. It feels natural to pull your body up the wall because your fingers feel like they're more firmly locked onto the holds. But your legs are much, much stronger muscles, and you'll tire out halfway up the wall if you're trying to do ten consecutive pull-ups. There are a couple of sure-fire tips to get accustomed to using your legs:

  • Keep your arms extended. Let your weight hang low, gripping the hand holds purely for balance and bending your knees for power.
  • Set your feet before moving your hands. Get good, solid footholds that you can put weight on.
  • Keep your weight on your toes, not on your hands, by dropping your heels lower than your toes.

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Plan your moves in advance, putting your limbs in position for each move. If you're struggling to reach a handhold with your left hand, you don't have to become Mr. Fantastic to grab it. You need to move your left foot higher -- elongating your left side and making the reach easier. Climbing is a deliberate, thoughtful sport, and muscling up the wall will only get you so far. Stop to think about the best way up a route, or ask experienced climbers for advice.

  • Learning to read a route from the ground, visualizing where your hands and feet will go in advance, is an essential skill you can never start practicing too soon.
  • The more time you spend gripping the wall, unsure where to go, the more tired you'll get.
  • The set of moves you use to get up a wall is called your "beta."

Find good resting points to plan your route and relax your arms. Most routes have 1-2 spots where you can catch your breath and loosen your muscles. A good rest spot is anywhere you can comfortably stand with most of your weight on your feet. You should be able to take one arm comfortably off the wall to get chalk and stretch out. While resting:

  • Plan out your next few moves. Memorize what footholds you have coming up and think about which limb you want to go where. If needed, ask someone at the bottom for advice.
  • Re-chalk your hands. Chalk runs off on rocks, so get some more.
  • Shake out your arms. Let them hang and give them a good shake to dislodge some of the lactic acid that has built up.

Move deliberately up the wall. There are advanced moves that require speed, rapid precision, and even small leaps (called "dynos"), but these are for later in your career. For now, you want to focus on fluid motion. The best way to do this is to focus on each limb first, then move your body. Also known as "static climbing technique," you move each limb, get set, and then move your body over into the new position. Think of yourself as a slinky, coiling and uncoiling up the wall.

  • Set your feet, knees bent.
  • Shift your body weight the direction you're headed.
  • Step up with a foot while simultaneously grabbing a new hold with the matching hand.
  • Re-set your feet and opposite hand.
  • Repeat.

Know that climbing muscles take some time to build. One of the biggest hurdles for new climbers is that they feel weak after only 1-2 runs. Your fingers will be sore and your forearms will be burning, so much so that you don't feel like you can even hold onto the wall anymore. This is natural, however -- your forearms are not frequently used at this intensity in everyday life. However, if you climb a few routes 2-3 times a week you'll quickly get over this hump and can focus on climbing technique, not how sore your arms are.

  • Take rest breaks in between climbs. Don't get back on the wall until your feel rested again.
  • Stretch your forearms by clasping your palms in front of your chest and elbows out as if you were praying. Slowly rotate you’re hands down until they point in front of you to stretch.

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