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Climbing

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The Basics



Spiderman, Spiderman, does what ever a spider can...

Climbing really brings back your childhood. You can hear that distant voice of your mother, "Get down from there. You're going to fall and hurt yourself." Well, leave it to adults to rig it so you won't fall and hurt yourself. That's right, at least while you're learning "falling" is part of it. Though you're not really falling since you're strapped to a harness which is tied to a top rope. Your "belayer" has the rope secured so when you loose your grip you don't "fall" more than an inch or two. Not too scary.

The real question is when did climbing become so hard? Didn't we climb all the time when we were kids? If there's anything scary about it, it's the reality check on our age and our ability. Though, kids being lighter probably also use better climbing "technique". Children don't use their upper body to pull themselves up, but instead use their legs to "walk" up like a latter. In fact to begin with women are typically better climbers than men are because they don't rely on their upper body strength either. Also, women in general have better balance than men have. Successful climbing requires proper technique and balance.

Now that you're an adult, you must try climbing at least once. It is truly a different kind of sport.

Climbing comes is many forms. "City" climbing (not to be confused with scaling buildings) or climbing an indoor wall is the most common form. Indoor climbing walls are becoming a sport and industry unto themselves. Yet, they have little in common with climbing's roots, mountaineering. Not that indoor walls are a new concept. They've been around a long time for practicing outdoor maneuvers. Indoor climbing seems to be a new alternative to the normal gym workout, providing an excellent mental and physical workout.

City climbing is the urbanites answer to the outdoors; build a replica of nature indoors where it is accessible. Climbing walls are easy to find with walls springing up in gyms across the country. They're actually very challenging and rewarding even if they're not outside. It's also easy to schedule a quick climb after work with a friend. Of course for many the ultimate is to climb outside on the real thing.

The sport is physically challenging and will get you in shape fast, if for no other reason than you don't want to lug that 1/4 lb. cheeseburger up 25 feet of wall. Lean and mean is where it's at. You know those incredible cut arms and physiques we envy? Climbing will get you those. It's also mentally challenging in a way that's difficult to explain. You're 3/4 of the way up, you're tired, and can't find your next grip... It's like being in a maze, lots of problem solving. You need to find a path and at the same time you're hanging onto a tiny ledge.

There are two types of climbing, top roping and lead climbing. Most climbing images are of climbers on the top of the world clinging to a pinnacle rock. Obviously, this is for expert climbers and requires lots of experience and specialized gear. To get there these climbers used "lead climbing". When leading, there is no top-rope so the lead climber must climb above their protection. As they move up the face, they continually place new anchors that are closely space. This reduces the distance the climber might fall, which for a lead climber will be much farther than a top-rope climber.

As a beginner, you'll be introduced only to top roping. This is where the rope is run through a previously secured anchor at the top of the climb's route. An indoor gym might use a metal bar or steel ring bolted to the ceiling. In the outdoors, you might use a tree at the top of a ledge.

Between beginner and expert there are wide expanses of skills and experience. You can be an expert indoor top-rope climber with all the moves, but you would still be quite novice to the sport of climbing. The intermediate climber has perfected those techniques outdoors where the paths aren't obvious and problem solving is crucial. As an intermediate you'll begin lead climbing; learning the equipment, angles in which to properly place protection reducing loads. As an expert you've master the equipment and science aspects and are pushing the extremes, such as multi-day big wall climbs.

Most of what you've been exposed to in photographs are masters at their sport. It is a long climb to get to that level, but with great rewards the entire way. Each level offers major challenges and victories. Whatever height you dream of, climbing is an amazing sport.

First Climb of Your Adulthood

First and most importantly, learn from an expert instructor not a friend. It can be a dangerous sport. You need an instructor that is experienced, patient and thorough, so you get all the information you need. Secondly, strive to become a safe climber from the beginning. Start a routine early of double checking you and your partners knots and gear.

Most people's first climb is on a climbing wall. This isn't required, just more accessible for most. When climbing indoors, you don't have to worry about rain or weather. There is also something reassuring about the controlled environment of the "wall".

Your instructor will get you the right size equipment and discuss the proper harness fit. A proper fit is essential to safety and comfort while dangling from the top rope. Though a proper fitting harness isn't necessarily comfortable while standing. You will appreciate its snugness when you're up on the wall.

Next you'll cover the proper knots for your first day of top-rope climbing. Pay closes attention and asks lots of questions. Know your knots! For you to climb on your own, you'll need to be proficient in this area. You don't want to find out it was tied incorrectly.

Climbing is a partnership between you and your climbing buddy. You will take turns climbing and belaying each other. Take this relationship seriously. No foolin' around. When belaying, the climber's safety is in your hands. It's important to hold up your side of the agreement: pay attention at all times and know your equipment and knots.

Learning the art of belaying is the most important lesson. The belayer is the safety person and manages the rope. The primary rule for a belayer is to never take your hand off the brake line until the climber is on the ground. NEVER! That hand prevents the climber from falling to the ground. The belayer stands on the ground with the end of the rope lead through the belaying device. For top roping, the other end of the rope has been lead through the top anchor and back down to the climber. The rope is then secured through the climber's harness. The belayer should get in the habit of checking that the climber's harness is on properly, that the rope is lead through the harness properly and that the knot is correct.

You might be concerned that you're not strong enough to hold the weight of the climber. Because the rope is run through a purchase system, the pressure is greatly reduced at the belayer's end. Even a petite woman can belay a large man.

As soon as the belayer is ready, they call "On belay". Then when the climber is ready they call "Climbing". At this point the belayer steadily takes up the slack in the rope as the climber moves up the wall. The rope shouldn't be too slack so that it gets in the way of the climber or allows the climber to fall any distance. Additionally, the rope shouldn't be too tight hindering the climber's freedom of movement. Once the climber has reached the summit, they'll call out "Ready to lower". That's the signal that the climber will be leaning back and putting their full weight on the rope. The belayer then calls out, "Lowering".

Communication is often minimal, so it comes down to the belayer paying close attention the whole time. Communication is difficult because as the climber gets higher it gets harder to hear, and neither party has free hands to use hand signals. The climber is completely focused on their challenge at hand, which means the belayer must be totally focused and reading the climbers moves. You and your partner should review commands before the climb, then keep the commands to those few basic calls. This will help eliminate confusion.

As soon as you have covered all the belaying methods, your instructor will typically send you up the wall. Many instructors don't talk about climbing techniques on your first day. If you use poor technique, you'll be out of breath by the time you get to the top of your first climb. This can be very frustrating, making you feel like you're not strong enough. Before you go up the wall, ask your instructor to discuss climbing techniques, and demonstrate proper moves.

Most people will use their arm muscles to pull them up to the next step. Performing hundreds of pull-ups will exhaust you immediately. However, you are capable of standing all day and can climb many more steps. This is the key to technique. Focus on using your leg muscles. When resting put your weight on your body's frame to relax your muscles. Efficient movement is what climbing technique is all about.

Once you've done your first climb and been checked out, you and your partner will be left alone to get a real taste for the challenge. The first wall will be quite easy with many foot and handholds. Try a number of paths to get a feel for the problem solving aspect of the sport. After your first day of wrestling with "impossible" climbs, take a look at an expert scale an overhang. You'll be truly humbled and amazed at the holds they discover. But don't despair, you too can learn to do that. Besides, most of 'them' have been climbing for years. If you love it, just stick with it and go at your own pace. It's great exercise and a great mental workout.

Getting To The Top

Now that you've got the bug, to continue climbing regularly you'll need to organize a few climbing buddies. They'll help you get motivated. Your buddy doesn't have to be at the same level either. You will learn a lot from watching an experienced climber. Even at this stage a qualified instructor can help improve your skills.

Once you decided you're hooked, you should buy the basic equipment right away; climbing shoes, harness, and the chalk and chalk bag. They'll be more comfortable and a better fit. You won't need to buy the rope or the belaying device until you go outdoors.

At this point you've got a lot of techniques to learn and some aren't so obvious. A great way to learn and practice your moves is by bouldering. Bouldering is traversing a boulder or rock, which is only a foot or two off the ground. It doesn't require any gear or equipment because you can simply jump down. And because it is safe, you're free to try new and difficult maneuvers.

Movement is the name of the game. You'll often hear climbing described as a dance, using light and loose maneuvers and hip swings. Good climbers almost float up the wall. Like dancers, climbers are focused on maintaining balance. Rarely do you see the power house guy grunting and wrestling every foot up.

The first trick is to use your legs instead of your arms. You can stand around for hours without getting tried, so use those muscles for all your upward movement.

Secondly, you'll need to learn to rest and relax while climbing. Finding a balancing position may take some time. You'll need to be able to rest each of your limbs. When resting an arm, you should let it hang down, allowing blood to flow easily to all the fingers. Taking frequent brakes will keep you from becoming over tired as you make your way to the top. Whenever possible use your body frame or skeleton instead of muscle. Hanging from a straight arm is less exhausting than from a flexed arm.

The secret to most movements is applying opposing pressures. By pulling with your arms and pushing with your legs at the right angle you can hold your position. Many moves have technical terms, but it comes down to finding what moves works for you. Some of the techniques include handholds, footholds, jamming with your hands and your body, smearing, and chimneying.

There are many techniques your instructor can easily demonstrate. Additionally, watch and talk with other climbers about their movements and techniques. You can get a lot of ideas for maneuvers by watching others climb.

The indoor gyms are a great place for regularly practice. However, you must try an outdoor climb. Finding those footholds and handholds are much more difficult when they're not bright red man made attachments. It adds a new intensity as well as a greater understanding of the forefathers of climbing and mountaineering.

At this point you're ready to try the second type of climbing, lead climbing. Lead climbing adds the new dimension of placing your own protection and then hooking into it. You've seen all the other equipment in the climbing stores? Now is the time to get familiar with them. As well, you can no longer just lean back placing your weight on the rope. If you let go of the wall you will fall a substantial distance, double the distance of your last protection. So if you're hooked in 2 feet below, you will fall 4+ feet. The "+" relates to the amount that the rope will stretch during a fall. It's important to keep the "+" in mind.

Your first lead climb should be on a preprotected route. This is where the protection is already placed and you just hook into it. These preprotected routes allow you to get comfortable with climbing above your line and equipment, which takes a little getting used to.

The equipment you'll need (quick-draws) are secured to a "rack" either on your harness's gear loops around your waist or over your shoulder. You're main focus when beginning to lead climb is learning to clip into protection. It sounds easier that it is. With practice it will become second nature. Additionally, the rope must be placed in the quick-draw's carabiner correctly. If not, the rope could pull against the opening gate braking it open.

When climbing a preprotected route or sport route be very cautious of the existing bolts. Many factors can cause bolts to weaken: manufacturing defects, improperly inserted, weather, etc. And it's impossible to tell a bolt's strength just by looking at it.

Only once you've mastered the preprotected indoor routes and outdoor sport routes are you ready to climb traditional clean routes outdoors. At this point you must learn to place your own protection. Keep in mind, no protection is fail safe. Always have a back up.

Traditional leading provides many new challenges. To be prepared for those challenges you must have completely mastered the previous techniques, such as maneuvers, clipping-in, managing your rope, etc. There's no room for panicking, while on a traditional climb. Unlike the gym, you'll be exposed to many new issues:

  • sharp rocks which make any falls hazardous
  • loose rocks which can give way under your feet or fall from above
  • weather changes which will require you to finish your climb abruptly
  • poor communication because of distance and noise
  • even the odd confrontation with a critter.

In addition to these challenges, you'll need to place you own protection and clip into it.

Lead climbing requires a full spectrum of climbing tools, tools that sound like they should be in a toolbox. In essence, you're looking for the right tool for the job at hand.

Determining the right equipment or rack will depend on the rock. If you're unsure of the rock's fašade and the size of cracks you'll find, you'll need to take a wide variety of protection devices. The most common today are chocks or wedges. They come in many sizes and shapes. A wire is run through them with a loop at the end to secure a carabiner. They are wedged into a crack in the rock providing an anchor point. As well as chocks, there are spring loaded camming devices. These are mechanical devices in which outward pressure forces them to widen and become tighter. Learning to use these devices properly takes time and experience.

These devices are not left in the rock. The lead climber has a partner, the second. As the lead moves up placing protection, the second is the belayer. The lead then anchors themselves and belays the second. As the second climber moves up they remove the anchors and attach them to their rack.

Placing protection takes time to master. Start off on easy routes and be conservative.

Reaching Amazing Heights

When you get to the expert level, you're really feeling like spiderman. Though don't forget, part of what got you there is good safety practices. It's no time to change. Most expert climbers will tell you, they never stop learning. Each climb is a new challenge with new lessons.

The rewards of becoming an expert climber are incredible. Very few people are able to go where master climbers can. And they are the most spectacular places on this earth. Just image a multi-day climb a 1,000 feet up on a sheer mountain face. The stuff dreams are made of.

Don'ts

  • When belaying, never take your brake hand off the rope.

  • While climbing, never joke around. There's plenty of time for goofing around afterwards.

  • Don't put all the responsibility in your partner's hands even if they're more experienced. It's important to work together to prevent mistakes.

Tricks

  • Knee length tights or bike shorts are probably most comfortable to start with. When the harness is properly fitted, it feels like a giant wedgie. Not exactly glamorous. And loose clothing can get in your way.

  • When starting off, take your time and go at your own pace.

  • Learn to rest.

  • Don't forget it's supposed to be fun. The challenges are energizing, but remember to enjoy it too.

Safety

  • Double-check yours and your partners knots and gear.

  • Be conservative. There's little room for error.

  • Never put all your trust on one device.

  • Buy the best equipment. The equipment isn't that expensive and it will save your life.

  • Choose a partner you're comfortable with. You need to trust them.

  • Wear a helmet if you're climbing outside.



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