This is the first part of our “How to Start Rock Climbing” series. Stay tuned for How To Start Rock Climbing Part 2: Your First Visit
So, you want to start rock climbing. You’ve picked a great time to get started: the rock climbing community is growing fast, thanks to the accessibility of climbing gyms as well as mainstream coverage of the Dawn Wall ascent, the Oscar-winning Free Solo documentary, and the addition of climbing in the 2020 Olympics. You’ve probably even got a few friends who’ve started to climb, plastering their Instagram feeds with all their “sendage.”
But how do you actually get started? For those who haven’t yet set foot in a climbing gym, here’s where to begin:
1: Find your local gym
Climbing gyms are everywhere now, and new ones open every year. A good climbing gym will empower you to try out climbing in a controlled and fun environment. Trained climbing staff and guides will teach you everything you need to know to get started. Starting your climbing career at a gym is also a great way to meet fellow new climbers, who could become future climbing partners.
Even if you’re in a geographically flat area like metropolitan Chicago, it’s easy to find a place to climb. Google’s the easiest way to find a gym: try searching “rock climbing gym in [YOUR CITY].” Here in Chicago, First Ascent has 4 locations in different parts of the city: FA Avondale, FA Uptown, FA Block 37 (in the Loop), and FA Humboldt Park. If you’re in Peoria, you’re in luck too: check out FA Peoria.
2: Sign the Waiver
It’s important to note here that climbing is a dangerous activity. Managing the risks associated with climbing is of course our top priority at First Ascent – we manage risk through visitor orientations, climber education, proper personal protective equipment, etc. – but not all of the risk of injury can be eliminated when you’re climbing off the ground.
Before you get started climbing at First Ascent, we ask everyone to acknowledge that they understand that climbing is dangerous and that they take personal responsibility for their own safety by signing a waiver (click to sign online). You’ll find the same thing at any modern climbing gym you visit.
If you have any questions about the risks associated with climbing or our waiver, please feel free to ask one of our friendly staff members.
3: Choose your type of climbing
Most gyms provide a few different types of rock climbing. In climbing gyms, there are two basic types of rock climbing: roped climbing and bouldering.
Roped climbing involves attaching a climber to a rope using a harness to protect you as you climb up a route. Watch the video below to get an idea of what roped climbing is like at First Ascent Avondale.
There are a few different kinds of roped climbing: autobelay, top rope, and lead climbing. Most modern gyms offer autobelays, which allow you to clip in and climb after a short orientation. Top rope and lead climbing require knowledge of belay devices and rope management, and you need to pass a belay check at most gyms in order to climb on top rope or lead. If you’re new to top rope and lead climbing, you can typically take a class to learn what you need to know (see below for more on that).
Bouldering, on the other hand, features much shorter, more physically challenging rope-less routes (called “boulder problems” in climbing lingo) with thick pads below you to cushion your falls. Watch the video below to see what bouldering is like at First Ascent Block 37.
Some say bouldering is the purest form of the sport – it’s just you, a pair of climbing shoes, and the wall. Bouldering is also the quickest way to get started climbing because it doesn’t require knowledge of ropes, harnesses, belay devices, etc. It is worth noting, though, that if you have any ankle, knee, or back issues, bouldering is probably not the best option for you, since every fall is a fall back down to the pad when you’re bouldering.
Not sure whether roped climbing or bouldering is right for you? That’s okay—plan a visit to your local gym, try both, and see which you like better!
At First Ascent Avondale and First Ascent Peoria, we offer both roped climbing and bouldering—and we’ll show you how to do whichever style you choose! At our other locations (Uptown, Block 37, and Humboldt Park), we offer bouldering only.
4: Sign up for a class
Taking a class is really the best way to get started climbing. In a basic climbing course, you’ll learn about the gear you need to climb and the techniques you’ll need to use that gear properly to manage climbing risk. You’ll also learn some basic climbing technique—how to use your arms and legs efficiently so you can climb more challenging routes or boulder problems. But even with all that knowledge, you’ll probably still be sore afterward, since climbing uses a lot of muscles in new ways that you’re not used to if you haven’t been climbing regularly.
At First Ascent, we offer classes for beginners, including our Learning the Ropes classes at our rope climbing gyms, where you can learn how to belay and gain full access to all of our top rope lines. The class also includes a day pass and gear rental. For aspiring boulderers, we offer Learning to Boulder, a one-hour class where you’ll learn the basics of bouldering safety and technique.
5: Get ready, then go to the gym!
Once you’ve picked your gym and the style of climbing you’re interested in, it’s time to get ready to go to the gym!
But what should you wear? We recommend wearing comfortable athletic clothing when coming to the gym: a t-shirt or tank top is usually best for tops, and yoga pants, sweat pants, or other stretchy, form-fitting pants are best for bottoms. Shorts are okay too, but be aware that you may scrape your knees on holds or the wall while climbing.
Once you’re dressed and ready, head on over, and the staff at your local climbing gym will guide you through the process, making sure you understand what you need to know and have fun while you’re at it. We’ll talk you through what that looks like in How To Start Rock Climbing, Part 2: Your First Visit. Stay tuned!