Curing Cabin Fever: An Intro to Gym Climbing
You have energy to burn and a huge heap of New Year motivation, yet you don’t want to convert your limbs into ice blocks outside. We can help: here’s a basic introduction to indoor gym climbing and training.by Joe Ballent and Beth Lopez
With the new year comes a steamy new pile of motivation to get fit, but the outdoor world is looking a tad frozen-over. There’s too much cold, white stuff outside for you to throw on your running shoes, and your bicycle calls to you, but it isn’t outfitted with snow treads and anti-yeti mace.
All your pent-up energy is starting to fog up the house (and your brain) …. But wait: there’s new climbing gym in town, and it’s time to give it a shot before your front door becomes barricaded by what Inuit refer to as a “good foundation.”
You head out the door, enlist a friend to be your climbing partner, brave the tundra of city roads, snap the icicles out of your nostrils, and enter the climbing gym. Where to start?
After a quick thaw, you rent a pair of shoes and a harness (unless you scored some gear for the holidays). Fortunately, gym climbing doesn’t need to be a super money-intensive activity. A basic set of shoes and a harness will provide instant wall access. Between the gym access fee and equipment rental fee (should you need it), expect to pay between $10 and $15 per adult for a day of climbing. The gym supplies ropes for beginner top-roped climbing (more on that later), and you may want to purchase a chalk bag if your palms perspire when you’re 30 feet off the ground.
Hopefully, your partner is already well-versed in the ways of climbing, knot-tying, and belaying, and is willing to show you the ropes (pun acknowledged). If you both need to learn from scratch, sign up for a beginner class at the gym so you can learn the basics. Some gyms even require this before you’re allowed to start climbing—and they do so with good reason. If you and your partner don’t want to mess with the time or expense of taking a class, you can always go straight to the gym’s bouldering corner. (More on bouldering below.)
By The Numbers: What the Rating System Means
Once you’ve geared up and paid, you notice so many color-coded holds and tape that it looks like a rainbow took a dump on the gym wall. A lot of holds have corresponding numbers attached to them—some with letters too. You didn’t come here to do algebra, so what’s the scoop? The climb rating system for roped routes ranges from 5.6 to 5.15, progressing in difficulty from the former to the latter. Most gyms will accommodate a wide range of ability levels.
- For perspective, your stairwell at home is about a 5.5 or easier
- A reasonably fit and active beginner can scramble up the typical 5.6 or 5.7 climb without much difficulty
- For climbs around 5.8, 5.9, and 5.10, you need some technical skill and experience; and from 5.10 up, each rating has four sub-ratings (5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, etc.) to further pinpoint difficulty within that grade
- The few people in the world who can climb 5.14 or 5.15 have been genetically enhanced by mad scientists and have had their hands coated with industrial-grade superglue
Top-Roping vs. Lead Climbing
You’ll also notice that there are a few distinct areas in the gym with different types of climbing. You’ll probably start by top-roping, which means the rope is already secured to the top of the wall and is hanging above you. You recruit your partner to belay you up your route (remember, most gyms offer training in belaying if you’re new to it); you tie up to the end of the rope, and you make your first effort.
While beginners generally try top-roping first, there’s also an area with no ropes anchored to the wall. This is where people can “lead climb,” which is a bit more difficult than top-roping, but it’s a skill you’ll eventually want to have to climb routes that aren’t easily top-roped.
When lead climbing, climbers fall farther and thus have a higher risk of being injured (or of being frightened enough to soil their pants). You’ll need to buy quickdraws and carry them up with you—they’re the clips used to secure the rope (and you) to the wall as you make your way up. Keep in mind that before they’ll certify climbers to lead, most gyms require a class and a minimum skill level.
Bouldering: How it Differs from Roped Climbing
Maybe you want to get your pump on, but heights cause you to tremble uncontrollably and break out in hives (which is not ideal when you’re trying to impress the cutie two routes over from you). Fret not, for bouldering is calling your name. You’ll find a bouldering area in the gym alongside the top-roping and lead climbing areas.
Bouldering is simply climbing shorter heights without a rope; it’s practiced by many climbers to hone their technique and strength, and a belay partner isn’t necessary. If a tough hold spits you off, you just fall a few feet and land on a cushy crash pad, which you may find preferable to dangling from a rope 60 feet off the ground. (Most gyms supply crash pads, which safely absorb the impact of shorter falls—but beware that some bouldering routes go high enough that you could be injured if you fall, even if you land on a pad.)
The rating system for bouldering differs a bit too—the sport’s demanding gods wanted their own rating system. Routes are called “problems,” and they range in difficulty from V0 to V15.
- V0 “problems” are generally no more difficult than a 5.7 roped climb
- Boulder problems rated between V1 and V3 can equate to anything from a 5.8 to a 5.11
- Climbers on problems rated from V4 to V9 can find themselves tackling moves that might be found on a 5.12 or 5.13
- Go higher than that on the V-scale, and you may be a genuine comic book hero
Bouldering is also less gear-intensive than roped climbing. The relative lack of vertical exposure eliminates the need for a rope and harness, but you will want a chalk bag to keep your sweaty ol’ paws dry. And if you dig bouldering enough to venture to outdoor boulders when summer comes, you’ll need to purchase a crash pad of your own.
And, You’re Hooked
You’re psyched to visit the climbing gym regularly, so it’s best to keep the folks at the gym equally psyched to see you. Make sure you learn and observe proper gym etiquette: don’t throw loose chalk around like it’s pixie dust, don’t distract people who are belaying, be aware of who is climbing near you, and don’t go strolling right underneath other climbers. Stay courteous and aware, and you’ll stay welcome at the gym.
Since you’re hooked, it’s time to buckle down and get strong, or at least stronger than the smelly showoff at the gym who always takes off his shirt before even warming up on a few routes. If you’re hooked on the sport and aspire to train at home, it’s time to invest in a few holds for your basement bouldering wall. If you don’t plan to fully renovate, you could try a training board for some grip exercise options. After a few weeks of using one of these bad boys, you’ll be making applesauce with your bare hands.
Tapering, Resting, and Cross-Training
Whether you’re hell-bent on perfecting your one-pinky pull-ups or you’re simply super-excited that you just completed your first 5.8 lead route, don’t forget the importance of tapering and rest days. Burnout among climbers is very real, and your friends and family will worry if they see you weeping and writing obscenities on your fingers with permanent marker after a discouraging gym day.
Make a four- to six-week training plan with tapering (i.e., mellow days) and rest time thrown in. Cross-training is clutch: if you only build the obvious climbing muscles like your upper back and arms, you’ll get in shape, but you’ll do so unevenly. You’ll risk tweaking things out of alignment, and your core muscles and legs won’t get their share of attention. (And, trust us, a strong core will help you in any sport.)
Many climbing gyms also have weights, cardio fitness machines, and even yoga classes. Explore your options. As you build muscles that support your primary climbing muscles, you’ll improve your overall climbing strength. As you work up your cardio endurance, you’ll burn fat that would’ve weighed you down, and you’ll be all set for long approaches to outdoor climbs this summer. So consider swapping your climbing shoes for your running or cardio shoes a few days a week.
Yoga is a fantastic way to cross-train; it boosts your endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility all at the same time. (If you’re new to yoga and are intimidated, keep in mind that the only way to get flexible is to start working on it, and you have to start somewhere.) Some yoga studios and instructors even offer special Yoga for Climbers classes, which work and stretch the muscles you need most. So equip yourself with a mat, comfy yoga clothes, and an easygoing attitude about occasionally toppling over.
Finally, make sure you rejuvenate your soul with the occasional day of rest and relaxation. If you’ve been training hard, you’ve earned a lazy Saturday afternoon of beanbag toss, beer, or both at the same time. After all, training is supposed to be fun, right?
Have winter training experiences to share? Do you have a great climbing gym or yoga studio in your area that others should know about? Feel free to add to the conversation in the comments section.