Climbing – There’s Enough Up for Everyone

Jessa Younker rock climbing at Monitor Rock, Aspen, Colorado [Flickr Creative Commons]
Jessa Younker rock climbing at Monitor Rock, Aspen, Colorado [Flickr Creative Commons]

Me, climb?  I’m neither Spiderman nor Sherpa…

Climbing? That equates to either kids plus trees, or extreme sports superheroes plus death-defying cliffs and mountain-tops, isn’t it?  Well, no – with a greater variety of climbing styles, and more opportunities to climb safely, at every level from beginner onwards, than ever before, you are likely to find that you, plus the right climbing challenge for your time, taste and talent, can equal one of the most physically and mentally rewarding of experiences.

Trad climbing

Trad climbing in New River Gorge, West Virginia [Jarek Tuszynski, Creative Commons]
Trad climbing in New River Gorge, West Virginia [Jarek Tuszynski, Creative Commons]

Traditional, or trad, climbing, is a style of rock climbing in which the lead climber places protection into the rock to safeguard the group against falls, and the rearmost climber removes them as the group progresses. Protection comes in the form of nuts, hexes and mechanical cams, all cleverly designed to achieve the safest purchase in the most unforgiving rock surfaces. Old school in the best sense, trad climbing allows a group of climbers to be self-sufficiently safe without leaving a trace behind.

Sport climbing

Sport climber at Railay, Thailand [Rsriprac, Creative Commons]
Sport climber at Railay, Thailand [Rsriprac, Creative Commons]

Sport climbing allows climbers to express their athletic prowess without the nuts and bolts of placing and removing protection. Anchor points have already been placed, often drilled into the rock, along what may be a very challenging route, and the climber is able to quickly clip themselves into each anchor as they ascend. This is the chance for YouTube heroes to flex their pecs and perform mind-boggling feats of athleticism, with their only nemesis a spectacular but safe swing down from the last anchor point, and a chance to fill the mountain air with choice expletives…

Bouldering

A competitor at the 2012 Bouldering World Cup [Henning Schlottmann, Creative Commons]
A competitor at the 2012 Bouldering World Cup [Henning Schlottmann, Creative Commons]

Don’t like heights? Don’t like ropes? Then bouldering could be just the thing for you. This is a form of climbing which ascends a few meters at most – outdoors it takes the form of climbing (you’ve guessed it) boulders, or the lowermost portions of cliffs, with your only essentials your climbing shoes, chalk and a portable crash mat. Indoors, bouldering centers are springing up in many towns and cities – Google your hometown and there’s a good chance that there’s a friendly center with safe, color-designated problems and a generous crash carpet to flop onto when your fingers fail.

What gear do I need?

Sport climbing equipment. From left to right, top to bottom are: rope, helmet, climbing shoes, harness, chalk bag, belay device, and quick draws [Creative Commons]
Sport climbing equipment. From left to right, top to bottom are: rope, helmet, climbing shoes, harness, chalk bag, belay device, and quick draws [Creative Commons]

Head along to any reputable climbing center or course, and you will find much of the necessary equipment available to hire. But this list will give you an idea of some of the kit you might want to buy when the climbing bug fully bites…

Climbing shoes

Lace-up climbing shoes [akeg, Creative Commons]
Lace-up climbing shoes [akeg, Creative Commons]

Yes, climbing barefoot won’t get you far. The super-sticky rubber soles of modern climbing shoes have changed everything. They give you tremendous adhesion on even a small point of contact, and the more confidently you apply your weight, the greater the grip. Climbing shoes should be a snug fit – it’s a good idea to trim your toenails beforehand – and are usually worn without socks. They come in lace-up, velcro strap and slip-on versions, the former more convenient for longer climbs, but all subject to personal taste. Do go along to your local center and have a good try before you buy.

 Chalk

Climbing chalk, that's the stuff
That’s the stuff

You’ve seen climbers and gymnasts slapping the stuff all over their hands – it’s magnesium carbonate, and it dramatically improves your grip as well as drying the sweat on your skin. It’s cheap and readily available from any climb store, and comes in the form of loose chalk, block chalk and chalk balls (indoor centers often prefer the latter as it reduces chalk dust). Now all you need is a bag to put it in…

Chalk bag

Make a fashion statement with your chalk bag
Make a fashion statement with your chalk bag

It’s a bag, that you put chalk in. Make sure it has a good waist belt with a buckle that you can tighten securely; that the opening is a good fit for your hand; and that it has a drawstring to stop you cascading chalk all over your friends below. A small pocket is handy for spare finger tape and your locker key.

Carabiners

A range of carabiners old and new [Creative Commons]
A range of carabiners old and new [Creative Commons]

Carabiners, or ‘biners, are metal loops with spring-loaded gates, used to quickly, securely and reversibly connect climbing components. They come broadly in D-, oval- and pear-shapes, and may have auto-, manual- or non-locking gates. Locking carabiners are essential for securing a belay plate to your harness, setting up a top-rope system, and many other critical applications. Originally of steel, modern ‘biners are usually made of tough aluminum. Get plenty of good instruction on their use before you buy.

Harness

A climbing harness
A climbing harness

This is one of the most essential pieces of kit for any climb beyond bouldering. As with carabiners, ropes, helmets, belay plates and other mission-critical kit, you should never buy second-hand – you just don’t know the life-story of a second-hand item. A climb harness is a super-tough set of webbing loops for your waist and thighs to securely attach you to the rope. Go to your center and try some harnesses on – you want it to be comfy as you could be sitting in it for quite some time. Four gear loops on the belt will give you space for all the gear you need for trad or sport climbs. As with all key kit, get proper instruction before you contemplate going off on your own.

Belay plate

A carabiner (left) attached to a belay plate (right) [Creative Commons]
A carabiner (left) attached to a belay plate (right) [Creative Commons]

If your partner is climbing, you are belaying, and the belay plate attaches to your harness and allows you to control the movement of the rope past your body – if your partner falls, and you have correctly locked off the rope, you and the plate will create enough friction to arrest the fall. Modern belay plates are made of strong aluminum and are attached to your harness with a locking carabiner.

Rope

A range of climbing ropes
A range of climbing ropes

Goodbye and good riddance to the risky organic-fibre based twines of old – modern ropes use sophisticated polymers stretched into thing, but very strong fibers. A rope consists of an inner kern, or core, made of long, strong, stretchy fibers, and an outer sheath which protects the kern and makes the rope grippy and easy to handle.

Two key factors are length and diameter. Many ropes are 50 meters long, but some sites and sages recommend 60 meters, with the security of the additional length more than offsetting the extra weight. As with length, choices of rope diameter reflect a trade-off between weight and security. 9.5 to 10.5 mm gives a good middle range for trad climbing and sport climbing. A thicker rope, above 10.5 mm, is rated to higher weight capacity and more falls, but you pay in carrying weight. Conversely a thinner rope, 8.9 to 9.4 mm, may be used for high performance sport routes or long trad expeditions where minimizing weight is key, but safety is compromised because a thinner rope is rated to fewer falls and is harder to arrest in a belay plate.

Consider paying extra for a dry-treated rope – a rope that is not dry-treated will quickly degrade if it gets wet. Don’t buy a used rope, because you don’t know where it’s been. Don’t buy a static rope, because when you fall your body will bear the full brunt of the arrest.

Busting some basic moves

Use your legs!

Climber demonstrating good use of the legs
Climber demonstrating good use of the legs

Where are the strongest muscles in your body? Your legs, right? So it makes sense to have your legs do as much of the heavy lifting as possible. Think of your legs as pistons, driving you upwards until your hands find the next set of holds. Look down to find the next pair of footholds, bring your feet up to these points, and you are ready to drive again with your legs, up to the next set of handholds. Remember, you have a super-sticky pair of rubber soles attached to your feet – trust them, apply your weight to them, and they will adhere to even the smallest points of purchase. Trust the rubber, get your feet secure, and drive those mighty pistons upwards…

Hang like a funky gibbon

Right
Right
Wrong
Wrong

If your legs are stronger, then your arms are weaker – so it makes sense to give your biceps as much of a break as you can. Learn from the gibbon, who dangles with the minimum of muscular effort. If you hang with straight arms your skeletal structure bears the majority of the strain. It’s not immediately intuitive, but with a bit of practice and keeping these principles in mind, it won’t be long before you are hanging with straight arms to view the footholds beneath you, confidently raising your feet to these holds, then driving up with your quads to the nest handholds, whereupon you can dangle and repeat the process.

3 points of contact

Climber using 3 points of contact
Climber using 3 points of contact

The ‘3 points of contact’ rule keeps you safe and in control throughout your climb. With three limbs in solid contact with the cliff, your fourth limb is safe to move up to the next hold. With practice you will develop a rhythmic pattern of using your limbs in rotation, balancing the muscular exertion while staying safe at every move.

For more climbing safety tips go to

www.climbingtechniques.org/safety-checks-and-commands.html

climbing.about.com/od/staysafeclimbing/tp/10ClimbingSafetyTips.htm

But bear in mind that there is no substitute for good instruction at a reputable climb center.

Climbing in Colorado

Climbing at Garden of the Gods, CO
Climbing at Garden of the Gods, CO

Colorado is red rock heaven. From bouldering to scaling cliffs and spectacular wall formations, you’ll find a myriad of challenging rock climbs all over Colorado.  For first-time climbers, Colorado has plenty of outfitters who can kit you up with the appropriate gear, give expert advice, and point you towards rock-climbing sites and routes you’ll never forget.

For extra peace of mind while venturing to remote areas, or undertaking climbs or other strenuous activities, consider purchasing a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) Card.

Garden of the Gods 
Garden of the Gods is a local climb favorite and for good reason — it's almost on the doorstep of Colorado Springs. It's also wonderful to look at, with paved hiking trails that wind through a natural rock garden of red sandstone, glorious at sunset. While there are a wide range routes to conquer, not all of the rocks in the park are designated for climbing. Do check in with the visitor center before venturing into the park. 

Rifle Mountain Park
For some of Colorado’s best limestone climbing, Rifle Mountain Park is a must. Here you can chalk up with local aficionados as they take to their favorite routes. Overhanging problems  are the norm, and some jut out in exaggerated fashion, demanding the best of a climber’s biceps. If crowds aren’t your thing, don't worry: a wide spread of routes and wall options makes it easy to find a climb all your own. For multi-day outings, Rifle Mountain Park boasts 25 drive-in camp sites.

Rocky Mountain National Park
In Rocky Mountain National Park, you can rock climb, ice climb or boulder.  The choice is yours.  With more than 265,000 acres of space dedicated to the granite heights of the Rockies, Rocky Mountain is a climber’s heaven between Grand Lake and Estes Park.  Guided tours are available for newcomers, to ensure you have the kit and routes to match your ability level. If you’re an expert, there are no limits to the heights you can aspire to. 

Andrew Murray 2015

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