8 years ago, I took a leap of faith: I’d been religiously climbing at an indoor gym for about six months and decided to take my passion outdoors.
I had no clue what I was doing. While I’d been consistently climbing 3 days a week and making great progress in terms of grades, climbing outside was a whole different ballgame. Suddenly it wasn’t about just holds and tape; suddenly, a lot more was at stake.
I call making the transition from indoor to outdoor climbing a ‘leap of faith’ because in addition to the knowledge that must be learned with regards to equipment, safety, and technique, one needs to have thoroughly convinced oneself ‘I got this, ‘cos sh*t just got real’.
What is outdoor rock climbing? Check out REI’s super handy guide to the most common kinds of outdoor climbing:
Bouldering: This requires the least amount of time and gear. Basically, bouldering is close-to-the-ground climbing without a rope, going only as high as you can jump off without risking serious injury. Beginners can traverse (move along the rock horizontally, parallel to the ground), thus working on strength and movement without going high. Bouldering requires only climbing shoes, a crash pad (to cushion your jump or fall off the rock) and perhaps a chalk bag. You can also bring along friends to “spot” you. See the REI Expert Advice article, Bouldering, for more information.
Sport climbing: This “clip-and-go” style of climbing allows the leader to progress upwards without the worry of placing protection. A “bolted” climb requires only a rope, quickdraws (described below), shoes and a chalk bag. It refers to routes that have pre-placed anchors and protection where you can attach your rope (just like you would with indoor climbing). Carabiners and quickdraws clip into the anchors and connect your rope to the rock. See the REI Expert Advice article, Sport Climbing Basics, for more information.
Traditional (“trad”) climbing: Trad climbing is true adventure. A trad route is one that has few permanent anchors. The lead climber protects himself from a catastrophic fall by placing protection—nuts or camming devices—into fissures in the rock. The second climber removes the protection, and it’s then placed again for further pitches. Carabiners and quickdraws are used to connect the rope into the protection. See the REI Expert Advice article, Traditional Climbing Basics, for more information.
Other types of climbing—such as soloing, ice climbing or big-wall climbing—are outside the scope of this article. For a definition of basic climbing terminology, see the REI Expert Advice Rock Climbing Glossary.
You need to believe in yourself to translate your indoor training into outdoor execution. Stakes are often high, whether you’re leading multi-pitch trad or highball bouldering (unroped climbing up a boulder 25 ft. off the ground, with only shoes, chalk, and pads below to protect you).
But let’s start with the basics. Here are some things to keep in mind as you take your climbing to the next level and get outside.
- Hire a best-in-class guide from a reputable climbing company like EMS, or climb with a highly experienced and knowledgeable outdoor partner to show you the ropes and lead the way.
- Develop a strong mental game. Rock climbing (especially outdoors) is just as much psychological as it is physical. As you cut your teeth on physically demanding indoor routes that require strong mental commitment such as reachy and dynamic moves on the overhang wall or in the cave, practice slow, steady breaths, complete calm, and mind control.
- Study rock climbing safety like your life depends on it. Because it does. There are literally at least a dozen safety checks to remember when it comes to outdoor climbing, and the list grows as you advance from following routes outside to leading them.
- Pay attention. From rock climbing safety checks to route finding and sequence, outdoor climbing requires a lot more focus and attention than in the gym.
- Take it easy. Start out following two number grades below your gym ability. This may seem self-defeating but for your first few climbs outside, you’ll want to focus on retraining your mind to handle the mental aspects of being outdoors: loose rock, safety and equipment, longer fall potential, etc.
- Learn to read real rock. Let your mind and body readjust to problem solving on real rock and study the route before you jump in and climb routes. Outdoors, the holds aren’t as obvious and there is no tape guiding your every move. The need to improvise and problem solve on the fly are what make outdoor climbing much more challenging and exciting.
And most importantly, remember to have a blast doing all of the above!