How To Start Rock Climbing
Updated: May 20, 2021
By Winston Endall
I was drawn to rock climbing long before I ever had the chance to climb actual rock. I'm old enough that I started before climbing gyms were common so it was seeing it in magazines that was my first taste. As a kid who loved climbing trees and buildings, I was fascinated by the idea of climbing up cliff faces under just the power of my hands and feet. This was back in the mid 80s so climbing was still an underground movement and was drawn to its outsider nature the same way I was drawn to Punk music.
As a teenager I was lucky enough to live close enough to an outdoor crag that I could ride my bike there. I was almost 2 hours each way but for an obsessed kid that was still doable. Of course I didn't know what to do when I got there and had no one to climb with so I would just walk along the base of the cliff and watch other people climb. After doing this for a few months, a group of older guys (university age) who had seen me watch every weekend asked me if I wanted to try. I was scared and excited at the same time and timidly said yes.
They had a top rope set up and rigged me up with a make-shift harness tied with seat belt webbing. They tied me into the end of the rope and when I felt it pull tight on me they said "Belay on, climb when ready."
In a pair of ratty sneakers and no chalk, I fumbled my way up the rock. Using what little I had been able to glean from books and magazines I tried moves that I had only ever seen in pictures. It wasn't pretty but I made it to the top. I had that terrifying moment where I had to sit back on the rope for them to lower me down but once back on the ground I was elated. I couldn't stop smiling. I was well and truly hooked.
One of the guys wrote out a list of gear and told me where I had to go in Toronto to buy it. On that piece of paper they also wrote a phone number for me to call on Friday evenings to see if anyone would be climbing that weekend.
The following Saturday I took the bus into downtown Toronto which took almost two hours from where I lived to go shopping. Luckily I had some money saved up so when I made my first visit to Mountain Equipment Co-op I was able to get shoes, webbing to make a Swiss-seat harness, a locking carabiner, a chalk bag and chalk. The next day I rode out and started my apprenticeship.
When I started climbing, finding people to show you the way or just teaching yourself and hoping you don't die was just about the only path available. With the growth of climbing over the last 30 years that has all changed. You can learn to climb in a safe way now even if you don't have any friends who do it. And you don't have to rely on the kindness of strangers adopting you like I did.
And remember that learning the intricacies of rock climbing doesn't come with one session or class. It is an ongoing learning process that can take a few years to build enough knowledge and skill that you are competent to take people out climbing safely.
Below are my recommendations on how to learn to rock climb. Don't just choose one. It takes gaining knowledge and experience from lot of sources to be able to keep you and your partners safe.
Join A Climbing Gym
I wish this was available when I started climbing as it would have sped up my progress both in technique and fitness. Now I'm lucky enough to have a climbing gym just down the street from where I live.
Climbing gyms offer roped climbing and bouldering. Being able to do a lot of climbing regularly regardless of weather or day light will allow you to build fitness and skill faster than if you were only able to climb outside.
Bouldering is climbing short, relatively hard problems with thick crash mats for protection rather than ropes. It is great for the beginner as it requires very little equipment (shoes and chalk) plus you can do it on your own. But you will find it easy to make friends to climb with which is one of the benefits of a climbing gym.
Roped climbing requires a partner to belay and knowledge of how to do it safely. Gyms offer classes in this so don't worry if you don't know what you are doing to start. Most gyms also have a forum of some sort for people looking for climbing partners so even if you are starting on your own, it won't take long before you find people in the same situation.
Do an online search to find the nearest climbing gym. If you live in a medium to larger sized town there are probably a number of options available to you.
Once you have progressed in the gym to doing lead climbing you will only need to add a few skills to be set to start outdoor sport climbing.
Climbing gyms are usually the hub of the local climbing community making it easier for you find others who have the same interests.
Find A Mentor
A mentor is someone who takes you under their wing and teaches you. Sometimes this is to pass on knowledge and other times it is to get people to climb with. Either way you get to learn about the intricacies of rock climbing.
This has been the most common way for new climbers to get into the sport. I was adopted by a group of more experienced climbers and work to pay it forward with as many people as I can.
You can reach out and actively try to find a mentor or let it happen organically.
If you are a member of a climbing gym then the chances are that many of the members also climb outside. Finding people to climb with at the gym as training partners can often lead to finding a mentor to take you outside.
The negative of learning from a mentor is that when you begin you don't know enough to know if what they are teaching you is safe.
From what I have seen over the years there are a lot of people with bad habits that they picked up from the people who mentored them. Just like the news, double check information you get before you consider it to be true. Get your information from multiple sources so you can understand it better and have the confidence that you are doing things the correct way.
Whether at the climbing gym or at the crag, you can find rock climbing courses that will help add to your body of knowledge. From the basics of belaying to advanced multi-pitch climbing there are often group classes available that due to the number of students can be relatively affordable.
Aside from the technical safety aspect it is a good idea to take some classes on climbing technique as well. This will speed up your ascent through the grade faster than trying to figure it out on your own.
Hire A Climbing Guide
Professional climbing guides are certified and insured so you are dealing with the most guaranteed safe way to learn. You don't have to try to figure out if they know what they are doing like you would if you are learning from a friend or mentor.
If you want one-on-one instruction outdoors then hiring a rock climbing guide will be a great option. This will cost more than a group class but you get to tailor the instruction to the areas you need help with and get all the attention.
Going out with a guide gets you great instruction in a real environment while you are actually climbing so you see how all the systems work together. Plus it may allow you to attempt bigger or harder climbs than you are ready for on your own.
We know a number of climbing guides and they all are driven by a love of climbing and passing on their knowledge.
Where we are in Ontario we would direct you to On The Rocks which offers instruction at Rattlesnake Point in Halton and Metcalfe Rock near Collingwood. Catharine did anchor building, sport climbing and learning to fall with Steve Andrew who is both a guide and fellow podcaster. His approach really added to her understanding of the technical safety elements of rock climbing and gave her confidence in the things she had already learned.
The other local company we recommend is One Axe Pursuits out of Elora. Owned by Frederick Schuett, they offer rock climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering courses. Plus in Elora they have their own frozen waterfall they make every year for ice climbing and zip lines over the gorge.
If you are traveling to the southwest you should hit our friend Cody Bradford. He guides in Red Rocks, Indian Creek and the Grand Tetons. Not only is he a great teacher but he's also a great guy to hang around with which is nice when you are a thousand feet off the ground.
There are a lot of great books that can add to your body of knowledge. Rock climbing is such a broad topic that even the best guides or mentors aren't going to cover every eventuality. From different anchor types to climbing techniques for rock types you don't have access to, you can expand your understanding outside of being on the rock.
As well, climbers should keep an eye out for guide books for areas they want to climb at. Guide books have climbing route ratings, gear you may need, route descriptions, and directions to the crags as well as background of the area. You can get digital versions to put on your phone for convenience but nothing beats a real book for understanding an area.
And it shouldn't need to be said but don't try something you read in a book for the first time when there are serious consequences for getting it wrong. Practice on the ground or in a safe environment such as on top rope.
As you delve deeper into the climbing world, build yourself a library of books that you can refer back to adding to your skills built outside on real rock.
Here are some of my favorite books divided up into categories:
Crack Climbing By Pete Whittaker
Rock Climbing Technique By John Kettle
Climbing Safety and Technical Skills
Down: The Complete Descent Manual for Climbers By Andy Kirkpatrick
Climbing Anchors By Jon Long
Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills By Craig Luebben
The Trad Climbers Bible By Jon Long and Peter Croft
Training for Climbing By Eric Horst
The Rock Climber's Training Manual By Mike and Mark Anderson
There is a lot of good information on the web about rock climbing. People have put time and effort into making these online resources. I've listed a bunch of my favorite websites that I can vouch offer good information.
V Diff Climbing
Vdiff Climbing is a website by Neil Chelton. He has a unique approach as he takes industry accepted best practices, tests them and then makes step by step illustrations so they are easy to understand. It is like having an illustrated climbing book that has been laid out on webpages. All of his stuff is available in book form to purchase as well. There are sections on basics, sport, trad, big wall and knots. For both new and experienced climbers it is a great resource.
BTW. V Diff is a UK climbing grade. I think it stand for very difficult. Their system is confusing so don't ask me to explain it.
More online than print these days, Climbing is the mainstream source for climbing news and information. They have articles on technique, training, gear reviews and reports of notable climbing achievements. My favorites are the Gear Guy and Unbelayvable columns.
Gripped is the Canadian climbing magazine. It's where you find out about the Canadian scene as well as the usual mix of articles. Ontario climbing legend David Chaundy-Smart is the editorial director.
Listen To Podcasts
Rock climbing is a subculture with its own language and rituals. To start to fully understand the tribe you want to be part of, listening to climbing focused podcasts can help you gain a glimpse into the mind of the climbing community in a way that you often won't have access to.
From understanding the current events and history to cutting edge ways to train, there are podcasts that help you progress as a climber and member of the community.
There are a lot of climbing podcasts but these are some of my favorites.
I've linked their websites but you can find all of them on your favorite podcast app.
Hosted by climber Chris Kalous, this interview show connects with climbers of all stripes. From climbing celebrities like Alex Honnold and Adam Ondra, to lesser know climbers who are doing interesting things, Kalous brings a sense of humor and authentic knowledge to the conversations.
A climbing current events show hosted by Chris Kalous and Andrew Bisharat. They tackle serious issues and not so serious one. It can be funny and informative. And there is often a healthy dose of crustiness to cap it off.
If you looking to get stronger and fitter for climbing then this is the podcast for you. Hosted by climber and nutritionist Neely Quinn, the show features discussions with coaches, therapists, and climbers on how to be better at climbing.
I won't claim you will learn much from this podcast but if you are anything like me, you will laugh. Matt, Anna, Steve and Alicia crack wise about all things climbing which is fitting because if you think about it, climbing rocks is kinda silly. They release episodes very sporadically so it's a treat when a new one comes out.
This is the opposite of the previous podcast. Kathy Karlo hosts a deep dive into the human condition where climbing is just the backdrop. Dealing with issues like death and trauma, this show strives to bring vulnerability to the forefront.
This is one of the oldest outdoor podcasts. Created and often hosted by Fitz Cahall, The Dirt Bag Diaries tells stories of outdoor adventures and the wider effects they have on people. It's interesting and though provoking.
LiveWild Radio (Shameless self plug)
This little podcast that is recorded at Catharine's kitchen table is about how outdoor adventure helps you grow as a person. We talk to each other sometimes and other times we have really cool guests on. If you love the outdoors and want to find a more meaningful path in life join us as we try to find purpose in a messed up world.
Aside from movies like the Dawn Wall and Free Solo, there is the Reel Rock Film festival every year. It is a collection of climbing films that tours around. More aimed and creating stoke than teaching, it is still a fun thing to attend as everyone in the audience is probably a climber.
If you are looking to learn there are a number of good YouTube channels that can help you become a better climber with safer practices.
Another plug for our friend Cody Bradford. Cody's Youtube channel is full of great information that will help you climb safer and move faster on multi-pitch routes.
Oswaldo offers great tips on improving your climbing technique with effective demonstartions so it is easy to understand.
JB Mountain Skills
This UK based mountain guide offers easy to understand climbing knowledge with a lot of stoke. You can't learn everything from Youtube but it can add to your knowledge base.
Lattice Training is the the company run by Tom Randall of the Wide Boyz fame. Aside from being one of the best crack climbers in the world he is also a highly sought after coach who has developed some unique training approaches.
Climbing Tech Tips
Learn climbing safety from certified climbing guides. Lots of videos to help you be a safer climber.
Join Online Communities
The internet has made it easier to find people who are into the same things that you are. Various online communities give you the opportunity to connect with fellow climbers and gain knowledge that was hard to find offline.
If you live in Ontario, Canada and you are a climber then this is a forum you should be part of. Run by our pal Gus Alexandropoulus, it is the meeting place for most of the serious outdoor climbers in the province. Many of the most prolific route developers are on here so it is where you will learn about new crags and routes as they get released to the public. Learn about the ethics, controversies and latest crag conditions. Plus if you climb in Ontario consider contributing to the gear fund as all the hardware we use on the cliffs isn't free.
Part of the various online properties from REI, Mountain Project is the climbing hub for both information and community. There is an online route directory by area, message boards and a system to record your own climbs among other features. While primarily U.S. based it has routes and users from all over the world.
This is the UK version of mountain project but with original articles like a climbing magazine added on. You can log your climbs, find new routes and connect with other climbers. Plus you can try to figure out how their odd grading system works.
This app will help connect you to climbers and new locations. Listen to our episode with the founder Joe Castillo for an in depth understanding on how to use Climb Life to further your climbing journey.
The Wrap Up
Climbing isn't just a thing you learn in single session. For many of us it is a life long pursuit that has you learning new things regularly. That doesn't mean it will take that long before you are competent to go climbing on your own but understand it will take time to know enough to do it safely.
Enjoy the journey and the people you meet along the way.