12 Things I Wish I Had Known About Outdoor Climbing

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I went climbing outdoors for the first time about a month ago. I had only been climbing in my rock gym prior to this first outing, so I really had no idea what to expect or how to prepare. My friends, who just so happen to be way more experienced than I am, were obviously very well aware of what we would be doing that day, and how the outdoor experience differs from the gym. But I, an outdoor climbing virgin, was clueless. So, in efforts to help out my fellow beginner climbers, I would like to enlighten you on some things I really wish I had known before my first outdoor rock climbing trip. Hey, I’ll bet even a seasoned veteran could learn a thing or two from this list.

1. It’s scary! Outdoor climbing is absolutely nothing like indoor climbing. You are no longer hooked to your familiar ropes and metal beams. You don’t have nicely bolted synthetic rocks to grab onto, and the ground isn’t covered in a bunch of padding. The second you start up that first outdoor wall, your heart will be beating out of your chest, and your hands will be shaking and sweaty. Your body isn’t used to the wind blowing up against it. Your mind isn’t used to the idea that your equipment hasn’t been tested, your handholds aren’t bolted in, and there’s nothing stopping you if you fall. It’s a rush like none other, and it definitely takes some getting used to. If you’re preparing for your first outdoor climb, realize that it’s normal to be scared, and you should probably expect it. The real rock shock is no lie. Ready your mind and body for a completely different experience, and you’ll be able to conquer your fear in no time.

2. That 5.9 is NOT a 5.9! Ratings outdoors are way different than ratings indoors. If you’re used to the way your gym rates climbs, then you are probably familiar with your level (the highest you can climb). I was climbing 5.10 at my gym, so naturally I assumed I should also be able to climb 5.10 outside, right? Wrong. The highest I have climbed outside so far is a 5.8, something I would consider a warm up in the gym. The rating system is drastically different outside, because the rocks are real, the routes are harder to determine (since they aren’t marked with colored tape), and it’s just a very different environment. Don’t be discouraged if you get outside and are suddenly struggling to climb ratings you would find simple at the gym. It’s normal. One of my friends who can climb 5.14 at the gym struggles with 10’s outside. No sweat, climb on.

3. You need food! My first time outside, I made the fatal mistake of not bringing any food along with me. I know, how could I be so stupid? But indoors, I can climb for hours and not feel hungry. Well, there’s something about being outside, sun beating down on you, hiking from route to route, setting up all your gear, climbing, packing it up, and hiking more just to do it again that really wears you out. You need to make sure you have sufficient snacks to keep your energy up throughout the day. Also, water. Obviously. Water is essential, especially outside where you’re sweat evaporates almost instantly, and you are using ten times the energy. Remember your basic human needs, and you’ll be set.

4. It takes forever! Inside, you can easily climb five or ten routes in less than an hour, but outside is a totally different story. Outside, you have to set up all your own gear, which takes about twenty to thirty minutes just by itself. You also have to take hiking time into account, as you will usually have a decent trek between routes (not always, though). On top of that, you have to clean each route once you’re finished, and then pack up all your gear to move to the next route. In a full day, you might climb five to ten routes, if that. Of course, this varies from person to person and group to group, but in general, outdoor climbing takes much longer. The routes are harder and generally taller (the average gym might reach 45 feet, but outdoors, you’re looking at twice that height). Patience is going to be paramount for your first outdoor trip. So bring a book, some music, or something to keep you entertained while you wait.

5. It’s okay to fail! If you haven’t figured it out already, the world of rock climbing is one of try, try again. You might not send a route the first time around, heck maybe not even the tenth time, but eventually, you will get there. And in the process, it’s okay to fail. Inside a gym, it can feel scary to mess up around a bunch of other people. You might feel like they are judging you or waiting for you to make a mistake. Truth is; most climbers are extremely friendly and totally willing to help you get better. I used to be intimidated by better climbers until I realized how much I can learn from them. Don’t feel bad if you don’t finish a route your first time outdoor climbing. No one is there to judge you, and if you ask around, chances are you’ll actually find quite a few people to give you beta (tips) on how to complete the route next time.

6. You’ll get hurt! No, I’m not talking broken bones or anything, but chances are you’ll return home from your outdoor adventure with more than one new cut, scrape, or bruise. I discovered about fifteen bruised coating my legs and arms, as well as several cuts and gashes on my hands, legs, and back after my first trip. You don’t really realize it while your adrenaline is pumping and your focus in on the climb, but real rock has the tendency to beat you up pretty well. In a gym, you don’t have to worry about stray tree branches or loose pebbles. You don’t have jagged handholds or rough landings when you fall. It’s definitely not as safe or comfortable an environment as the gym, but there’s just nothing like being outdoors.

7. Music is great! When you’re fifty feet in the air, fingers clasping a tiny pinch hold, dripping sweat from head to toe, a little Bob Marley in the background can help ease your stress and tension. Seriously, there’s nothing better than being able to keep your mind off your pain by humming along to your favorite tunes on your way up the rock. Not only does music help your mind relax, but it also loosens your body. For me, anyway, climbing with some background music gets me into a much more comfortable, relaxed rhythm where I can just take my time up the wall and really focus on every move without overstressing or freaking out.

8. It’s a load of crack! When I imagined climbing outdoors, I imagined hand and footholds similar to the ones in the gym. Jugs, pinches, slopers, all that good stuff. But when you’re outside, nothing is man-made (except your gear, duh), so no two holds are quite the same. And, hate to break it to you, but a lot of outdoor climbing is crack climbing. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great routes out there that don’t involve cracks, but the majority of outdoor routes really utilize the natural shape of the rock for the best path, and that’s usually along a crack. If you like crack climbing, this is wonderful news. If not, just make sure you know the basics of crack climbing before you get out there. I had very little practice with this technique, so I was less than prepared for my first outdoor route, as it was almost all crack. As long as you know what to expect and how to get through it, you won’t have any problems.

9. Yelling helps! In the gym, it can be a little intimidating to let out your inner rock climbing warrior. But outside, you should feel free to yell, scream, laugh, and cry as much as you want while making your way up that route. We’ve all heard those famous tennis grunts. Well, I bet you didn’t know there’s such a thing as a climbing grunt. It’s true. Sometimes all you need in order to reach that next hold is the perfect grunt/groan/scream/moan. And the best part is, you’re outside, so no one cares. You no longer have hordes of people staring at you while you climb, and no one can tell you to use your inside voice. So, go ahead. Let it out.

10. You’ll never be prouder! Okay, so maybe the birth of your children, or the time you won the pie eating contest in 5th grade might be your proudest moments, but I guarantee that you will definitely rank your first outdoor climb up there with the best of them. Even if you fall, take a couple breaks, or have to completely start over, there’s really no feeling like finally reaching the top of your first real rock route. The wind in your hair, the sun on your face, the sweat drenching your clothes—it’s an indescribable feeling. Just make sure to pause long enough to take it all in. You’ll never be quite as proud of yourself as when you push through fear, pain, and exhaustion to accomplish something most people wouldn’t even attempt.

11. It’s expensive! There’s a reason people join climbing gyms instead of trying to make day trips to the cliffs on a regular basis. Rock climbing is not a cheap sport. A good harness might cost you $70, a pair of shoes $60, a chalk bag and chalk $30, a belay device and carabineer $35, a set of quick draws $60, and then you have to add in rope ($200+), extra bineers, a rope bag, anchor equipment, slings, and so on, and you’re racking up dollars pretty quickly. This is one reason why it’s great to go in a big group. Many times, one person will have rope, someone else will have anchors, and another person will bring something else until everyone is pitching in whatever gear they have to make the trip a success. Plus, when it comes to climbing, “the more the merrier” is my personal opinion.

12. It’s addicting! Once you get that real rock high, you’ll be dying to go back any chance you get. It might be scarier, take longer, and wear you out faster, but climbing outside is unbeatable. The rush you feel the first time you fall is like new breath to your oxygen-starved lungs. It just doesn’t get much better. Oh, and also, wear sunscreen. My currently lobster-red, peeling shoulders are good evidence that climbing outdoors for long periods of time should always involve some kind of sun protectant. I still haven’t learned my lesson.

So, to all your adventure seekers, you lovers of life, you daring souls with a lust for new horizons, don’t be afraid to grab your climbing gear and get outside! And maybe print this list to take with you. Climb on! TC mark

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