When most people hear that I’m a rock climber, their face normally drops – often I’m told that they picture a gangly man with unkempt facial hair covered in an assortment of ropes and axes intent on falling to their death off a sheer cliff face. In truth when done correctly, rock climbing is a very safe and enjoyable sport. All you need to get started is a friend or two, a good command of ropes and knots, a few pieces of gear and a rock face to climb. Most people I have taken out for an introduction to climbing have enjoyed this exhilarating athletic activity. Rock climbing for beginners is a social activity and to be a safe climber, it is recommended that you have at least three people in your group.
First let’s have a look at the different styles of rock climbing.
The first and most well-known of all the rock climbing styles is free climbing, especially well used in climbing for beginners. Free climbers use rope and various pieces of gear to protect themselves from a potential fall. To begin a free climb, you strap yourself into a specially designed climbing harness to which a climbing rope is attached. As you ascend the rock face, you place various pieces of protective gear onto or into the rock and secure your rope to these pieces of protective gear. There are three different types of free climbing, namely traditional, top-roping and sport climbing.
A very popular form of climbing that is gaining popularity all the time is bouldering. Bouldering climbs are short, technically difficult climbs in which often no protection is used. Sometimes if the ground below the climb is rocky or dangerous, a bouldering pad is used which is a cushion that protects the climber from a fall. Bouldering climbs are not recommended climbing for beginners as they require a lot of muscle strength that those just starting out might not yet have built.
Solo climbers are the renegade climbers – they climb often dangerous, high cliff faces using no protection of any kind. Unlike bouldering, where the climbs are short or free climbing where protective gear is used, a fall can kill or seriously injure the climber. Soloing is considered the most dangerous and careless form of rock climbing and is responsible for most climbing related deaths.
By using specially designed gear, aid climbing is the practice of ascending rock faces aided by your gear. In free climbing, gear is used only to protect the climber from a fall, whereas in aid climbing the gear literally aids your ascent. This is accomplished either by weighted gear that is attached to the rock face or devices that allow you to climb up the rope. Often, climbing for beginners is introduced with aid climbing.
Whichever form of rock climbing you choose to partake in, the best way to learn the ropes is to go out with an experienced climber who already has a good command on the gear and techniques used. Rock climbers are usually very egotistical, proud people who are more than willing to pass on their knowledge on to anyone willing to learn. Those looking for an introduction to climbing often start with top-roped free climbing, as it is the safest and most kind on anyone wanting to start this adrenaline-fuelled sport.
Basic Rock Climbing Gear
The most popular and safest style of rock climbing, known as free climbing, is accomplished with the use of climbing gear and a specially designed and made rope. While the climber is still on the ground before starting a climb, the rock climber straps into a rock climbing harness and ties one end of the rope to a reinforced loop on the front of the harness. As the climber ascends the rock face, gear is attached to the rock and the rope connected to it so that, in the event of a fall, it will stop the climber from falling to the ground.
Traditional vs. Sport Rock Climbing
Before we look at the gear used, let me introduce you to the two types of free climbing.
In traditional climbing, climbers ascend an unchanged rock face. Gear is designed to fit into natural cracks and deformities in the rock face to secure the climbers from a fall. In sport climbing, bolts are pre-drilled into the rock face to which gear is attached. Sport climbing routes are generally more technically difficult and well documented. Let’s have a look at some of the basic gear used for free climbing.
Rope used in Free Climbing
The first and most well recognised of all rock climbing gear is the rope. This rope is constructed with a core made from a series of long twisted fibres sheathed in a selection of coloured fibres. The core of the rope is responsible for providing most of the strength of the rope, while the outer sheath of the rope protects the core. Ropes come in two types – dynamic and static rope, which are both constructed in very much the same way. Dynamic rope is the rope attached to the climber and has a fair amount of stretch, so absorbs the shock and cushions the climber in the event of a fall. Static rope is used for anchoring systems, to which the climber will use to attach protective gear.
Slings and Karabiners
Once you’ve placed your gear into the cracks in the rock face or, in the case of sports climbing, need to connect your rope to the bolts a karabiner is used. A karabiner is a metal device in the rough shape of the letter D that can clip onto a piece of gear. There are two types of karabiners – snap gate and the lockable screw gate karabiners. Snap gate karabiners are used for gear that you place on the route, and screw gate karabiners are used more often for more permanent gear placements like top roping anchors and in places where the gear will move around a lot as although the risk is very small, snap gate karabiners can open and the rope can work its way out of it, while screw gate karabiners can be screwed and secured closed. Slings, which look like the same material seatbelts are made from, are webbing loops that are used to attach to placed gear and are connected with karabiners to the gear.
A very good and solid knowledge of the gear you use in rock climbing is vital for safe and responsible climbing. In many cases, learning the types of gear and how they can be used from an experienced climber is a good idea and can often save you from dangerous mistakes while climbing.