Learning to climb - where do I start?
For many climbers indoor bouldering gyms will be the first step on their climbing journey as it requires the least equipment to participate. The climber will only require climbing shoes and, if they feel it's appropriate, chalk, meaning it is a very accessible style of climbing. Most gyms will have shoes available for rent, meaning beginners can try climbing (and get hooked) before committing to any large expenses. Indoor Bouldering comprises a short artificial wall, usually 2-4.5m in height at a variety of angles. The floor is padded with gymnastics style matting which allows for a soft(ish) landing if you were to come off the wall. The routes are short, usually made of 5 or 6 technical moves and will follow either the V grading system or the Font Grading system.
In essence outdoor bouldering follows the same format however unlike indoor gyms where the floor is made of thick cushioned matts, in outdoor bouldering you have to contend with uneven surfaces, tree stumps, bushes, rocks and if you're in the UK probably wet grass and mud! Therefore it is recommended you bring mobile crash matts with you. These pads can come in a variety of sizes and each brand has its own nuances so do your research before buying them. Depending on the terrain you can have as little as one matt or potentially 6 depending on how adventurous you are being. Note that in outdoor bouldering you will also climb with at least one spotter whose job is to guide you into the matts if you are to fall off and ensure you land where it is safe.
Outdoor bouldering is usually around 3-4m high but you can also have highball bouldering which can be up to 15m high.
With outdoor climbing there is also the etiquette of ensuring you leave no waste, no one wants to slip on your banana peel on the approach to the crag so please ensure you take everything you bring with you home again and dispose of it correctly. On top of this be mindful of other people wanting to onsite a route- unlike indoor climbing there are no colourful holds to show you the way and the climber is required to read the rock themselves, if a climber wishes to onsite and you have left chalk all over the wall that is a clear indication of where the “holds” are and some people are not fans of this. So, where you can, try to remove the chalk with your brush before you move onto the next climb.
Indoor Climbing Walls - Auto Belay
Indoor climbing is where the climbers wear harnesses and are required to have a buddy or belay partner to climb with. If you don’t have a belay partner or you don’t yet know how to use a belay device but you want to try out wall climbing, the easiest way to transition from bouldering to indoor climbing is to use what is called an Autobelay.
Auto Belays clip into your harness in the same place where you would tie-in with a rope and as you climb the auto belay pulls in the slack. When you get to the top, or decide to end your climb early, you simply let go of the wall and the auto belay will slowly lower you back to the ground. Please note that because you do not need a partner for this type of climbing, failure to properly secure the clip can lead to accidents, so please be cautious when using them and ensure you check yourself properly or if you have kids climbing with you ensure you check they are clipped in before they start to climb. Auto belays can be a great way to climb a lot of climbs in quick succession and focus solely on your climbing technique, especially if you are a solo climber.
You would be lucky to find a climbing centre which is fully equipped with auto belays in Ireland (the only one with an auto belay at every route that I know of is Gilford Community Center), so the next step would be Top Rope climbing. This is the most common style of indoor climbing.
Top Rope climbing is where you start to learn about how to use ropes, tie knots and use a belay device. It is a fundamental skill if you wish to traverse across into outdoor climbing or progress to lead climbing or trad. Within top rope climbing the climber ties a figure 8 knot (or equivalent) into their harness, the rope then travels up the wall to a fixed anchor at the top, and then back down to the ground where it is inserted into a belay device which the belayer/buddy will utilize. As the climber climbs, the belayer will pull the slack in through the belay device, if the climber were to fall or wants to have a rest, the belayer will stop the climber from descending by breaking the rope using the belay device. When the climber has finished the route the belayer will lower them slowly by passing the rope back through the belay device. The experience is the exact same whether your indoor climbing or outdoor climbing, the difference is simply the wall you are climbing on- rock or artificial and the type of anchor - fixed or built on the day.
Lead / Sport Climbing
As you progress your climbing skills you might want to try out indoor sport climbing/ lead climbing. The difference between lead and top rope climbing is that the climber ties into the rope at their harness and then rather than the rope going up through an anchor point at the top of the route, the climber actually clips the rope into quickdraws along the route, usually spaced every 1-2 metres. The belay activity is slightly different too in that the belayer must ensure not to have the climber too tight on the rope that they would pull them off the wall, but also not have too much slack out in case they were to fall as they will fall the distance of slack past the last point of clipping. The belayer must be much more active and observant in their actions. For the climber, lead climbing will require you to find a safe position to stop, pull up the rope and clip - this action will slow down the climbing and will require more endurance. Lead climbing can be extremely rewarding and is an excellent step to move onto if you are interested in advancing your climbing skills.
There is a bit more to outdoor lead climbing than indoors. The difference being that indoor centres usually have the bolts pre-clipped with quickdraws so you are just clipping the rope into an existing piece of gear and you would pull the rope through when you have descended to the ground. Whereas outdoors you must carry the quickdraws with you, clip to the bolt and then clip your rope into the other end. When you have finished the climb, the climber must rethread your rope at the top through the anchor and then collect your quickdraws on the way down again.
Trad climbing is the ultimate test of outdoor climbing - there are no bolts in the walls and no chains at the top for you to use as an anchor. Trad climbing is traditional climbing on un-spoilt outdoor rock. In this type of climbing you will learn to place your own protection into cracks and pockets in the rock, build your own anchors at the top, provide top and bottom belaying to your partner and abseil into crags. You will be required to carry all of your own gear on your harness as you climb - nuts, cams, slings, carabiners, quickdraws, etc etc and become proficient in how to read routes and the rock and understand safe and effective gear placement. You must be risk averse, understand your gear, your knots, the rock, the weather, the area you're climbing in etc and have an epic climbing buddy or group of friends that you trust with your life. My advice is if you want to start your trad climbing journey to go out with someone you trust that has done it for years- I was told once that it should be seen as an apprenticeship and since I started the journey myself I totally understand why. It takes a lot of time, mental energy and commitment to become a strong trad climber, it is not for the faint hearted and kudos to anyone in this stage of their climbing development especially those that are in the E grades. Hats off to you!
Something for everyone
Some people love bouldering, some people love lead and some people love trad, some people like indoors and some like outdoors. Everyone is different and has a passion for different types of climbing. Find what you love and do what makes you happy. There is no one size fits all and there is no mapped out developmental path that you must follow. If you have any questions about the different types of climbing available to you in your area check out the Climbing Courses near me page or Climbing Centres near me.