I checked my knot—through two, two in, two out, a clean and sturdy figure-8—and sank into the heady reality of my present.
Bamboo stalks clacked with the breeze and dried leaves clattered noisily to the forest floor. The swirling limestone cliffs towered above me, as much home to wax bees and honeycombs as tufas and overhangs. An anthropologist and lifelong wanderer, I always figured one day I’d wind up in Thailand. But I’m quite certain I never imagined I’d eat my best meal from a metal to-go bowl, lounging on a hand-built bamboo shelter beneath Crazy Horse Buttress. I never thought I’d establish my own ritual, each summer stemming up a flawless vermillion corner beside a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe in southern Colorado. And I never pictured myself, suspended from webbing 100 feet in the air, wind gusting and sun blasting as I belayed my partner up the next pitch of soft Vegas sandstone.
Rock climbing devotees glean a slew of concrete benefits and untouchable joys. Since coming to the sport over eight years ago, I’ve gained confidence and resilience, built unexpected physical strength, and reveled in the elegance of movement and the power of moments. It’s a great way to deepen trust and develop new social networks. But those of us who step out of the gym and shimmy up some real rock may reap the finest gifts our vertical playground has to offer: the chance to interact, intimately and adventurously, with some of the world’s most enticing landscapes.
An estimated seven-million people climb on artificial walls each year, and just over one-third of these take the sport outside. While women may benefit the most from getting out of the gym and into the wild—climbing is increasingly used in empowerment trainings—we remain outnumbered by our male counterparts five-to-one at the crags. But getting outside for the first time can feel intimidating, laden with insurmountable obstacles. Below are some tips, tools and resources to help rookies safely and joyfully take their love of ascent outdoors.
STARTER EQUIPMENT AND GEAR
What you probably already have:
• Chalk bag
• Belay device
Other stuff you (or your partner) should have:
• Rope (70m is ideal for most single-pitch, and make sure it’s dynamic)
• ATC (if your belay device is something different)
• Rack (14 quick draws should get you up most sport climbs; a trad rack will require a much larger investment in an assortment of nuts, cams and other gear)
• A system for clipping into your anchor when cleaning.
Building the skills you need to climb safely outside can be daunting and overwhelming, but there are plenty of resources out there to ease the process. Former wilderness guide and avid rock climber, Kristin Anderson recommends taking a class through a local gym or climbing guide service. These organizations “usually offer some intro outdoor classes to get you solid with the safety skills you need to start climbing outside (top rope anchors and/or intro to leading). Though they can be expensive,” she explains, “knowing how to do things safely, or at least knowing enough to make sure that your friends are being safe, is worth a lot of $$ and can save lives!”
There are also some great books out there. I like any of Craig Luebben’s work, including Rock Climbing Anchors, Knots for Climbers, and Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills, for a solid intro to all levels of skills.
A quality climbing partner or group is the ultimate key to a great introduction to the outdoors. If you’ve been climbing in a gym, you may already have a partner whose skills and knowledge you trust. Otherwise, gyms and websites often host “partner search” boards, which can be a great place to start. You may also find a compatible partner if you choose to take the lead or anchor classes mentioned above. And don’t be shy about approaching people. Most climbers love sharing their passion and introducing newbies to the joys of climbing outdoors. Regardless, I prefer to climb with a person inside first, just to make sure I’m comfortable with their skills and that we communicate well.
FINDING THE RIGHT CLIFFS
Once you’ve got your gear, practiced skills and found a partner you trust, it’s time to get outside. But where? Choosing the best climbing area for your experience level is important. Some places offer routes for all levels, while others appeal to moderate or perhaps advanced climbers. To get started, unless you opted for an outdoor class with a climbing service, ask around at gyms or climbing stores or post a question in an online forum.
The best way to select climbs within the area and to find them on-the-ground is to fork over the standard $25 fee for a guidebook. Guidebooks are written by people who have spent the time developing and climbing in the area. They provide a history of the area, an overview of the rock, approach information, route descriptions, and quality photos of the cliffs. It’s well worth the investment and supports the authors’ efforts. Websites like Mountain Project provide updates and supplement details.
To avoid getting lost once you find the actual cliff (sometimes too easy to do!), pick a prominent feature in the book—a large shady overhang, boulder at the top, or tree—then find it on the wall and use this to orient yourself. Stay oriented as you comb the base of the cliff!
Climbing ethics center around protecting gear, environment and experience at the crags. I’ve included some of the key do’s and don’t’s below, but The Access Fund is a great resource for more detailed information.
Don’t top-rope on fixed gear. Use your own anchor!
Try to rappel off once you’ve cleaned the anchor.
Respect the sanctity of the outdoor experience—this typically means no radios, making sure kids or dogs don’t harass other climbers, things like that.
Leave no trace: Pick up your trash and use designated toilets when they’re around. If they’re not, bring a shovel and dig a hole.
• Climbing Free, by Lynn Hill
• Sender Films’ awesome series of climbing films
• The annual Women of Climbing calendar
Stacey McKenna is a PhD-trained cultural and medical anthropologist, health researcher/consultant, and nonfiction writer who applies ethnography in the exploration of diverse aspects of human experience. In addition to writing, Stacey is the VP of Operations for CANTER Colorado, an avid horse-rider and rock climber, food and travel junkie, fledgling yoga teacher, tattoo collector, and animal adoption advocate.