Climb skills: how to move outdoors

Posted by Alex Messenger on 12/05/2014
Get outside to sample the great climbing on offer in the UK

Break out from the dust and plastic this spring and make the leap into outdoor climbing. Rob Johnson (MIC) leads the way.

Have you spent the winter climbing at your local climbing wall? Are you keen to get outside on warm rock for the first time this year? Heading outdoors can seem intimidating – all that extra kit, finding a crag and a partner and avoiding getting hurt – but don’t be put off, climbing outside will open up a lifetime of experiences. Here’s some advice on making the transition.

Where to go?

If you’re heading outside for the first time then pick a friendly crag to make your life easier. Choose a crag with plenty of single-pitch routes that you can walk off, rather than abseil. It’s also worth dropping your grade significantly for your first outdoor climbs. People often take time to learn to read the holds outside; they are never as obvious as indoors.

Get the guide

One of your first purchases will be a guidebook. The BMC shop sells a great range. Choose the area local to you to start with and then head out and spend some time deciphering the jargon, the crag topos and matching up the crag to the guidebook. If you buy a select guide, this will give you the best routes in the whole area rather than the definitive list of all routes in a specific area.

Trad or sport?

Sport routes are climbs that have bolts and lower offs in place already, in much the same way as a climbing wall. Some former quarries have become popular sport-climbing crags, many of which have easier routes suitable for novices. Many people find that sport climbing outside is a great transition from a climbing wall. But remember that although the bolts and anchors are all in place, it’s up to you to check they are safe. Make sure that you practice threading a lower-off on the ground, before jumping on the climb.

Watch our lowering-off video on BMC TV to see how this is done:

Trad climbs rely on natural anchors and your ability to place gear to protect the climb. There is a strong ethic in the UK of not damaging the rock and not leaving any trace of your passing. More judgment and skills on using gear are required with trad climbing than sport climbing, but you gain a much greater choice of routes and sense of adventure.

Climbing grades

Climbing walls grade their routes using the sport grading system. These can be compared to trad route grades using a grades comparison table. Having said that, when climbing outside for the first time, choose the easiest routes available for your first leads. It takes time to learn how to read the route, see the holds, trust the friction of different rock types and learn to climb three dimensionally. The strength and movement skills you have gained at the wall will serve you well outdoors, but you need to learn a host of other skills first.

Who to climb with?

If you can climb with someone more experienced than you then that’s going to make your life a lot easier. There might be outdoor climbers at your local wall who will show you the ropes or you could join a local climbing club. A lot of people choose to book an instructor for their first foray outside. Find someone local to you through the Mountain Training Association or the Association of Mountaineering Instructors.

What kit to take?

Climbing outside will mean buying a bit more kit, and exactly what you need to buy will depend on whether you’re climbing trad or sport. For sport climbs, you’ll need the same kit you use indoors plus a rope that’s long enough to lower-off safely, some quickdraws, and a couple of slings and krabs. You should also consider wearing a helmet. Once you begin climbing trad routes, the amount of kit needed will increase further. If you can share some of this kit with a climbing partner then that will keep the cost down. Many gear shops also sell starter packages that will give you everything you need with a bit of a discount.

Have fun

Heading outside started a lifetime of adventures for me and opened up travel around the world in search of new adventures. I hope it does the same for you!

Rob Johnson is a full-time climbing and mountaineering instructor based in North Wales. Read more about him and his courses at www.expeditionguide.com

Expert Q & A

Andy Newton is a long-standing BMC volunteer, who’s been climbing for more years than he can remember! As well as chairing the BMC’s Training and Youth Committee, Andy delivers his own climbing, walking and award courses – see www.andynewtonmic.org

Q. Do I need to seek permission to climb outdoors?

A. Generally, no, unless the guidebook mentions it. But before you visit any crag, check the BMC Regional Access Database. Many crags do have access arrangements for parking, approach and dogs.

Q. How do I retreat off a climb if I get scared?

A. On sport climbs, it’s often possible to simply lower off, as you would in a climbing wall. On trad routes this may not be an option or, even if it appears possible, will require some considerable faith in your ability to place runners! Climbing down might be the safest option, leaving protection in place, to be rescued later by abseil. Starting on relatively easy routes before embarking on difficult challenges is the best idea.

Q. What is a clip-stick?

A. An extendable fishing-rod-type contraption, allowing the first bolt of a sport climb to be clipped from the ground. This protects the initial moves and, hopefully, prevents the leader from hitting the ground should they slip off before reaching the first bolt. Worth considering if the first bolts at your local crag seem a bit high.

Q. Could I top rope outside instead of leading?

A. If the crag is suitable, and someone in your party is able to construct a safe and reliable anchor at the top of the climb, then it may be appropriate to arrange a top rope to allow the climbing to be sampled in relative safety. But remember that it will not be practical at every venue, and hogging particular routes on a busy crag is not acceptable behaviour. Going bouldering is another popular alternative to the complications of ropes, harnesses and runners.

Q. Is that all I need to know?

A. Not quite! Safe and successful outdoor climbing requires a gradual acquisition of skills and experience, which will then enable a wide world of possible adventures and challenges to be tackled. Good luck.

Further info

Active Outdoors

Book onto one of our subsidised skills courses.

BMC Rock Climbing Essentials DVD

Are you stepping outside for the first time? This BMC skills DVD is essential viewing.

Buy it now in the BMC shop

Watch the BMC Rock Climbing Essentials trailer on BMC TV:

BMC Climbing Outside Booklet: your free guide to heading outside for the first time. www.thebmc.co.uk/climbingoutside (pdf download)

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