Ever since going to a climbing gym for a birthday party in elementary school, I've thought of rock climbing as a) scary and b) not for me. I've played a lot of sports in my life and I love being active, but I've never been one to seek out adrenaline-pumping activities. I tend to stay far away from them, actually. Skydiving? No thank you, not in a million years. Bungee jumping off a bridge? Hard pass for me. So imagine my surprise when I found myself hanging onto the side of a rock for dear life in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park this past May. (Still sends chills up my spine when I think about it.)
How did I get there, you ask? Well, the North Face brought me, along with a small group of journalists they gathered to teach how to climb as part of their She Moves Mountains initiative. They hooked us up with three months at a local rock climbing gym, and then the whole thing culminated with a trip to one of the most popular climbing destinations in the country. When they invited me to join, I hesitated, but ultimately said yes because my job as a fitness editor has definitely changed how I look at opportunities like this. It was a chance to learn a new sport, a new skill that I could maybe do again in the future if I liked it. I love hiking and camping, so it seemed like something that would fit in nicely with those other hobbies if for some reason I took to it. But I wouldn't know unless I tried.
So I said yes, and then spent three months toting my harness and climbing shoes to The Cliffs at LIC, where I’d work my way up the wall, learning small ways to navigate the holds and hoist myself up more efficiently. My grip strength improved a bit (if you think you are strong, try climbing and you will quickly learn that your forearms have probably not kept up with the rest of your arms) and most importantly, I started to trust the belay system. I trusted that the way the rope was strung from the top of the wall, the way my belayer (the person on the ground who secures the climber) anchored me, and the way my harness was clipped into it all, worked. I could take my hands off mid-climb and I wouldn't plummet to my death—I'd just kind of hang, maybe scrape my leg a bit on the wall if I swung. No biggie. By the time we headed to Joshua Tree, I felt confident in my climbing skills. I was ready.
But then we got there, and I felt like I had barely spent any time learning to climb in the first place. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was a million times scarier climbing outside, and I wish I had been a little more prepared for the differences. You can take a “Gym to Crag” class at most climbing gyms, which I did and learned key differences between the wall and an actual rock, but there are some things that are just hard to know until you get out there and feel it for yourself. That said, there were things I would have loved to know ahead of time, in much more blunt detail than a class usually gives you.
If you’re considering climbing outside for the first time, here are the top things I think you should know.
You’re going to feel so much more vulnerable and exposed. There's no avoiding it, but you can prepare for it.
This feels like kind of a no-brainer—climbing hundreds of feet up on the side of a rock is, of course, going to be scarier than climbing in a gym with mats lining the floor beneath you. But for some reason, it really surprised me just how scary it was. By scary I mean terrifying. Like, my-whole-body-was-shaking terrifying. I thought my hard-earned confidence climbing in the gym would translate 100 percent. It didn’t. I realize now that it was unrealistic for me to think it would.
I asked North Face-sponsored athlete Emily Harrington, professional rock climber and adventurer and five-time sport climbing U.S. National Champion, why climbing outside feels so wildly different. She pointed out that, for starters, there’s the fact that the gym is a controlled environment. There’s a lot in place to make it feel safe and welcoming and comfortable—and that all goes away once you venture outside. Plus, at the end of the day, the stakes are higher outside, she adds. You never want to fall (and shouldn’t if your gear is set up correctly and your belayer knows what they are doing) but falling onto a padded gym floor is always preferable to falling onto the hard ground or a rock. It’s normal that you may feel afraid about the possibility (no matter how small) of the latter. It’d be surprising if you didn’t.
The rope will actually feel less secure, which definitely doesn’t help with the whole fear thing. Don’t worry, it’s still safe.
After climbing in a gym for a while, I finally got comfortable with the feeling of being strapped into a harness and dangling from a rope. I eventually felt secure and trusted that when I told my belayer to “take” (which means "take up the slack in the rope and fully anchor me"), so I could sit back to take a break from climbing, that I’d be fine to let go.
But once we went outside, things felt very different. That’s because the equipment used to set up the rope is not totally the same, Steven Bolella, certified climbing instructor at the Gravity Vault in Hoboken, New Jersey, and a licensed guide in New York State, tells me. “Inside the gym we use what’s called a belay bar, which is a really thick bar, and we double wrap our ropes around it to cause friction. We also use static ropes, which stretch up to about 3 percent,” he explains. “Most climbers outside are on a dynamic rope, which stretches 30 to 35 percent,” he adds, and instead of a belay bar, there will usually just be two carabiners anchored into the rock, through which the rope is strung. This setup results in significantly less friction in the rope at its source, and paired with extra stretch (plus natural differences in the angle you’re at on a rock vs. a wall) you will feel a lot… freer, in a not-so-reassuring way. It’s not any less safe, it just feels that way.
Being scared is totally normal, even for veteran climbers.
You might think “climbing isn’t for me, it’s too scary!,” says Harrington. “But it’s scary for everyone, it’s intimidating for everyone, even for me,” Harrington says. “I still have days where I’m afraid to fall and am intimidated. That happens multiple times a year and that’s just what climbing is.” After all, “humans aren’t meant to be dangling off the side of cliffs,” she says. That said, because the fear is probably not going to go away, the best thing to do if you want to keep climbing, is to learn how to work with it.
One way you can do this, Harrington says, is to spend some time learning to “trust the system.” You do this by sitting back on the rope when you’re not very high off the ground to experience and remember that you’re secure. And start slow. Try a less-complicated route than the ones you climb inside. “Understand that it’s somewhat of a different sport and it’s going to be a process, similar to the one in the gym, to get to that point outdoors,” says Harrington.
Always, always, always climb outdoors with someone you trust and who is experienced.
Rock climbing is safe if you have the right equipment and it’s all set up properly. The thing is, there are so many things to think about that you really should be doing it with someone who is experienced and can make the right tweaks in different scenarios. For example, do you need to add an additional anchor (like to a tree or rock) to support the belayer? What needs to be done to set up the top rope? Are any parts missing?
At the climbing gym, I learned how to put on my harness and clip myself onto the rope the right way, depending on if I’d be climbing or belaying. I learned climbing commands, like “on belay?” “climbing,” and “up rope,” that help a climber and belayer communicate. But if someone asked me how to set up a top rope on the side of a cliff, I’d have to Google it. And I don’t want my safety to be in the hands of someone like me. Bolella suggests hiring a guide your first time; when I climbed outside, I was with professional climbers.
You have to find your own hand holds. Sometimes, there really aren’t any good ones.
This is another thing that seems obvious, but I never thought about the implications until I was a few feet up the rock. Outside, “hand holds” are tiny little cracks in the rock that you can barely notice until you feel them out. If you’re unlucky, they’ll crumble a little when you try to grip them. (It depends on the type of rock you’re on.) That first crumble was probably when I really started to get nervous.
Turns out, even someone like Harrington has to take some time to adjust to the hand hold situation when climbing outdoors. “As someone who has been doing this sport for years, I am pretty well adjusted to switching [from inside to outside]. But even for me, if I’ve only been climbing in the gym, I go outside and I’m like, ‘Oh wow, I have to find the holds myself,’ and it just feels so weird and so different.”
But—silver lining!—that also means you have a chance to be creative and make the climb your own.
If your only experience climbing is in a gym, the lack of obvious hand holds can be jarring. But Harrington has a enlightened way of looking it and she says that this is actually one of the things she loves most about climbing. “In a way, it’s more creative being outdoors because you’re not following someone else’s vision of a route.” When you hit a tough spot, there are multiple ways you can move past it, and you get to choose the one that works best for you. “There are basically holds everywhere, for the most part, and you can create your own sequence and path up.”
Yes, it takes some getting used to so you’re not just hanging there paralyzed by fear and wondering when a very large neon yellow hold will suddenly appear on the rock face to save you. But looking at it like a puzzle you have to solve, as Harrington describes it, can make a tough spot feel more like an opportunity than a setback.
Definitely rely on your feet—specifically, your shoes—even more than you did inside.
Harrington says that many people aren’t aware of how well climbing shoes actually work until they go outside. “A lot of times in the gym, you’re just standing there on massive holds. When you go outside, the footholds tend to be quite a bit smaller and you learn how to trust your feet more.” If you think a foothold is too small and you’ll slip, remember that the rubber on the shoes is there for a reason. It’s meant to help your feet grip onto tiny crevices. “If you’re afraid of them slipping, they’re probably going to, because won’t put your weight into it,” says Harrington. The more you trust your shoes, the better you’ll be.
Bolella adds that learning how to use and trust your feet is one of the most important things a climber can do to be successful.
The most important thing for me? Trying and then trying again, despite being afraid.
Climbing is hard and scary, but it's also exhilarating and can make you feel like you're on top of the world (literally). You just have to push through your nerves—and be confident in yourself and your gear—to get there. Oh, and give yourself a break. You're scaling a mountain, after all. It's more than OK to check your ego at the door.