Rock On!

5/2/2018

Spring/Summer 2018

Indoor climbing is all the rage, but taking those skills outside this season could make you fall in love with the outdoors all over again. 

The numbers don’t lie: The popularity of indoor rock climbing has reached new heights. In the last five years, more than 130 new climbing gyms have opened in the U.S., and hundreds more existing gyms have added climbing facilities. If you’ve done a few sessions, you already know that indoor climbing is a great way to build strength, confidence and brainpower – and now that the warmer weather’s here, you’re itching to reap those same benefits on an outdoor climb. Great news: There are pros out there who have made it their job to help you get up that mountain safely. As interest in indoor climbing has grown, so have the number of guide services for beginners who want to try an outdoor summit, says Jay Foley, field operations manager for Mountain Skills Rock Guides and an outdoor climber for three decades. Here, Foley and other experts give their best advice for climbers feeling ready to move from the gym to the great outdoors.

Indoor climbing wall
Photo: Morten Flarup Andersen / Cavan Images

Know Your Basics 

This one’s simple: Don’t try to climb outdoors until you know the essentials of rock-climbing, such as how to use a grigri (the little braking device that catches the rope) and how to tie a figure-eight knot. It’s not hard – after just a few indoor sessions, these words will be ingrained in your vocabulary.

The Outdoor Difference 

“If you climb inside a lot, you might become gymnastically quite capable,” says Phil Powers, CEO at American Alpine Club. But the climbing surfaces outdoors aren’t the same. Very little, if anything, on a mountain resembles those molded indoor grips, and nature’s “walls” have a much more variable pitch than the vertical walls found in gyms. Because of this, you’ll spend more time being creative, moving side-to-side to find footholds rather than aiming straight up, and resting to get a mental grip on what’s coming next. “I can see someone who has had a lot of gym experience,” says Foley. “They’re looking and reaching up. The more experienced outdoor climber will look down at their feet and consider where to put them.” Weather is another factor you don’t have to deal with in indoor climbing. Go out only in ideal conditions; a guide can advise you on what’s safe. Which brings us to …

Climbers prepare for the third pitch of Caveat Emptor in Grand Teton National Park.
Climbers prepare for the third pitch of Caveat Emptor in Grand Teton National Park. Photo: Louis Arevalo / Tandem Stills + Motion

Hire a Guide 

It may seem like a no-brainer, but experts stress the importance of never climbing without an expert guide. You can seek instruction through a local chapter of a nonprofit club such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Colorado Mountain Club, or Powers’ American Alpine Club. Or you could hire a professional guide service, which can generally be found in every climbing area. To vet the pros, ask about their years of experience in the area, as well as whether their guides have certifications from the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) or the Professional Climbing Guides Institute (PCGI). Just know that these certifying bodies are relatively new on the scene, so not all longer-term experienced guides will have them.

Gear Up 

Harnesses, carabiners (those spring-latched metal loops, possibly known to you as a heavy-duty keychain before you took an interest in climbing), shoes and even ropes can be the same between indoor and outdoor climbing, though you’ll want a small zippered backpack to carry everything. You’ll also likely want to dress in layers, as shady trails and sun-drenched overhangs can create markedly different microclimates. No matter what, check with your guide as to what to bring along, and what to leave at home. Many guide services will provide some or all of the necessary equipment, which is especially handy if you’ve been renting equipment from your gym.

Respect the Outdoors 

The other aspect Foley stresses: Unlike at the gym, there’s no one to clean up after you in the great outdoors. “You have to be aware of the ethics of being outdoors, practicing LNT, or Leave No Trace,” he says. “Clean up your own trash and take care not to disturb the wildlife or others’ experience of the outdoors.”

A climber celebrates a successful ascent of the East Ridge on the summit of Wolf’s Head, Popo Agie Wilderness, Wyoming.
A climber celebrates a successful ascent of the East Ridge on the summit of Wolf’s Head, Popo Agie Wilderness, Wyoming. Photo: Ethan Welty / Tandem Stills + Motion