The first thing to know about rock climbing is that anyone can do it, regardless of your strength, size, age, experience or fear. Wherever you are at, you can start at that level and improve from there. Secondly, while you absolutely cannot start on your own, it’s easier to start than you might think. Thirdly, climbing is very safe if done properly, but very deadly if done wrong, so learn, practice and perfect the safety systems of climbing before you go vertical.
In 1995 I left the Bay Area for a teaching job in the mountain town of Idyllwild, in southern California. I arrived late and slept fitfully my first night there, short of breath from the meager elevation, unnerved by the silence of the incense cedars outside my window. In the morning I stumbled out into an open sky of Platonic blue, transfixing in its purity and disorienting in its cloudlessness. My gaze drifted and a great dome of white, an embedded alien ship or jagged lunar fragment, swelled above the trees, breaking the blue.
I would come to know this stone soon enough. Every day I walked a hushed trail to my classroom, the vanilla fragrance of the Ponderosas rousing as coffee. In the afternoons I biked toward the looming 1000 foot monolith, finally close enough that it seemed to arch dizzyingly above me, an impossible granite tsunami. I would then turn tail and tumble down the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail, the world hushed save the hum of wheel bearings and the spit of sand under my tires. I was not yet ready.
Sean Owen, the Dean of Students at the school, was a seasoned climber who knew the stone well: Tahquitz Rock (pronounced “ta kee tz” by non-natives). He told stories of the vertical and Tahquitz came alive. Sean gave me a tattered pair of climbing shoes and took me to the South Ridge boulders, rocks the size of Tahquitz’s toes. We bouldered, climbing 4 to 10 feet at most, spotting each other and falling to a specialized mattress called a crash pad. The shoes were essential, allowing the toes, painfully at first, to feel every crystal of the smooth granite and adhere to the rock with sticky rubber. We chalked our hands to dry sweat and tried a dozen boulder problems. Mostly I failed, learning incrementally, stumbling home exhausted with raw fingers and red toes, ravenous for more.
I learned to balance myself on the merest smear in the slightest divot, to move my toes precisely from crystal to crystal, to lock my fingers mightily on an essential edge. I stretched my body in new ways and learned to rest, conserving energy in relaxed positions between moves. Eventually I learned to use a rope and gear to safely climb over Tahquitz’s toes, and beyond. I still climb several days a week with climbers from ages 8 to 80. You don’t ever have to stop.
Climbing is a great way to experience the world. The elevation gives you a breathtaking perspective and the rocks are in spectacular settings worldwide. You become attuned to the fine details of geology and meteorology which shape your climb, and over a full day of the dance your body moves as if entranced, wholly absorbed in the nuances of the line you track upward. But climbing is social too — the climbing community is a fun mix of outsiders, professionals, weekenders, stone-stewards, kids, grandpas, athletes, softies, brave warriors, slow-pokes, gym rats and mountaineers. There is a place for you, and although a select few crags near urban areas can get crowded on weekends, there is space for you.
Most people are not lucky enough to work near Tahquitz Rock and encounter a mentor like Sean Owen. But below is a straight-forward pathway to safe, fun rock climbing which anyone can undertake.
1) Understand that climbing fundamentally requires good technique. Most people can physically hoist a basketball towards a hoop, but few of us will make 90% of our free throws. The technique of shooting a basket is learned through practice — it’s not a matter of strength. It can sound absurd to say it because lots of climbs look really difficult and lots of climbers look really strong, but climbing is completely the same. You don’t have to be strong to climb well, rather, you must learn the technique of moving your body effectively. With poor technique, shooting hoops is exhausting. When you first go climbing, you’ll be so thoroughly tired afterwards that you’ll think your problem is a lack of endurance or power, but no. You just need to practice technique. For roughly the first year, don’t try to get stronger, just try to climb better.
2) It might seem unnatural, but cut your toenails and take an introductory class at a climbing gym. If you are lucky enough to have a wise mentor in your midst already, you might be able to skip this step. For the rest of you, this is a great way to meet climbers of all levels. You’ll see avid gym rats with tendons of steel, legends of climbing staying fit for their next big adventure, regular Joe’s and Josie’s who play at the gym and climb outside on the weekends, and newbies like you! Class tip: Take one that teaches beginner technique through bouldering. It can be tempting to start with roped climbing but it’s hard for someone to coach you to move better if you are 20 feet up. Don’t be fooled — bouldering is so captivating that it’s an obsession for some climbers. Warning 1: Despite involving minimal gear, bouldering still has crucial safety methods that you need to learn, in a class or from a mentor.
3) Time to go shopping! Buy some cheap, snug climbing shoes, a chalk-bag and a gym punchcard. Your shoes should be just slightly tough to put on and slightly painful to wear. No socks. If they are too loose or too painful then they won’t work for you. As beginner, it’s impossible for you to really judge how good your climbing shoes are for your feet, for the style of climbing you’ll do and for the rock you’ll prefer. It’s inevitable that your first pair will be imperfect. Save money at this stage — you can get better shoes once you know what that means for you. Keep going to the gym and keep bouldering, in part because it’s easy to meet people bouldering. If it’s in the budget, take more classes. Warning 2: Gym climbing is dangerous if you do it wrong. Learn, practice and perfect the safety systems before you go vertical in the gym. Warning 3: The worst assumption you can make at this stage is that your experience at the gym means you are ready for the outdoors. Real rock is much more complicated.
4) Time to study! Read, and before you go vertical, practice on the ground, to perfection. To be able to climb safely with a rope you must learn how the safety systems work. While one crag is going to require different tools and approaches than another, and individual preferences vary, the general theory and practice of climbing safely is pretty consistent across the board. No matter how many classes you take, eventually you’re going to climb outside with mentors who will teach you how they do things. Choose your mentors wisely. Even though you trust them and their gear, you should be politely, ruthlessly skeptical — after all, your life is in their hands. Read, so you can express informed skepticism, ask good questions and put your learning in the context of the whole safety system. Ask how it’s different if you go to another crag, how other climbers do it, what can go wrong and what to do in those cases. Practice on the ground for as many days or weeks as you need to before you go vertical. Correct usage of the safety systems needs to be second nature, so that you avoid errors when things are going well, and so that if there is an unforeseen problem, you aren’t struggling to recall systems correctly in a stressful situation.
5) Time to get some gear! Get your own harness and some limited gear, based on the careful recommendations of your teachers and mentors, the type of climbing you are doing, and the local requirements. Now that you’ve got some gear, you can practice on the ground or even at your home on the couch. Rehearse knots, build and clean anchors, practice belaying, and so on. Never stop learning, practicing and perfecting the safety systems.
6) Climb safe and within your limits, so you don’t make mistakes, get in over your head or risk injury. If you’re not 100% sure you can do it safely and stay within your limits, back off. If you do that, you’ll be able to climb for a long time. It’s tempting to reach beyond your limits because you want to achieve success on a particular climb, but your success on that climb will be much sweeter if you reach the top safely and confidently. A one-off survival epic might feel like a win, but that’s not sustainable.
Climbing is casting off into a vertical world of unknowns. With each small step another secret is revealed. A weathered pinyon pine clings to a crack, a red-tailed hawk circles in the thermals below you, a white quartz seam draws a line upwards. You place gear in the crack, cool air emerges from the recess, a whiptail lizard darts out — a blue blur that tracks the quartz seam up and away. You follow, shifting your balance on delicate edges, your breath shallow, your cheek against the granite wall. The pinyon needles rustle gently in a rising breeze, you close your eyes briefly and slow your breath, visualizing the next dance moves. Ready, steady, go: vertical and wild.
Chris is taking his analytical writing skills (former math teach – figures) in a number of different ways. Roadless Ready is more outdoor focused, The Negatory delves into politics and science, and Courage to Core is more educational.