Guidance for new outdoor climbers

Posted by James Mchaffie on 14/05/2020
Rosa Maya bouldering in Northumberland

As the lockdown comes to an end in parts of the UK and many climbing walls remain shut it could mean that more people than usual are thinking about venturing outdoors to get their climbing fix. This article is aimed at giving some general advice for people who wish to make the transition.

Courses such as NICAS and NIBAS are also unlikely to be available at the moment.  Before going out be sure to make sure you check the BMCs up to date information regarding CV-19 which can vary for where you live.

The main types of climbing outdoors are: Bouldering, Sport climbing and Trad climbing.

We’ll look at each, with more emphasis on the first two types which are the easiest to get acquainted with. Trad climbing requires a lot more gear, time, knowledgeable friends, family or instruction to gain the skills to do it competently. If you want instruction or training you can email your local climbing walls who may offer indoor to outdoor courses for information and the AMI (Association of Mountaineering Instructors). The BMC run courses in partnership with the AMI for under 18s and adults in England and Wales, links to the course pages are in this article and feel free to drop the individual instructors a line.

This is a very general article. If you would like more detail you can download the BMCs New Rock Climbers by following the link in the text. This will give more detail and tips about climbing outside.

If you are a parent of a young person who climbs its worth reading our Parents guide to climbing, hill walking and mountaineering.

Bouldering

We’ll start with the easiest type of climbing to make the transition from indoor to outdoor:

Bouldering is the easiest pathway into the outdoors, requiring rock shoes, chalkbag and most people also use bouldering pads unless the landing is exceptional. There are tons of great places to go bouldering in the UK and there are guidebooks to many, the Lake District, North Wales, Yorkshire, the Peak to name but a few of the guidebooks and Niall Grimer has produced one for the whole of the UK, Boulder Britain. There is a good article about how to get into bouldering from UKClimbing here.

Before you go out its worth having a guidebook to read up on where to park, access to the problems, grades and it may give info on how friendly the landings are. You always want an awareness of where you are going to land if you fall, preferably on the middle of a crashpad. If there are rocks nearby you may land on or ricochet off the pad onto try to mitigate this however you can, such as by climbing in your ability, downclimbing rather than falling and padding out knarly rocks. If you are out with a friend you can have them ‘spot’ you which is when you fall and hit the bouldering pad they cushion your back with both hands to stop you going over backwards. A spotter does not stand right underneath to catch the climber unless they want to injure both climber and spotter. Bouldering is really good fun but accidents do happen so enjoy it but take care.

How to bouldering videos:

  1. What kit do you need for outdoor bouldering
  1. How to arrange bouldering pads
  1. How to land safely when bouldering
  1. How to get off the top of boulder problem

Sport Climbing

Sport climbing is the next obvious way of transferring from climbing indoors to outdoors. This is on sport climbing cliffs where bolts are already in place, hopefully in abundance. All you need is you rock shoes, chalkbag, harness, belay device, rope (normally 50-60 metres), quickdraws (normally 10-16) and many people will take a sling (120 cm or 240cm) and a couple of screw gate karabiners.

If you have been regularly lead climbing indoors then you will have an understanding of the risks it entails, outdoors is similar but the bolts may be further apart, there can be loose rock, the ground uneven for the belayer and you need to know how to thread the belay station at the top safely before retrieving your quickdraws. Belaying well and with great vigilance is always important and outdoors where the landings could be rocky and bolts further apart it’s vital that you are ALERT at all times, and if using a standard belay device you have the tail rope locked off, low, all of the time. Many sport climbers will use Grigris for belaying on sport which are excellent devices but still require a hand on the tail rope at all times and take a bit of getting used to for feeding out rope to a lead climber. The sport climbs outdoors are often much higher than indoor routes and great care should be taken on making sure your rope is long enough and making sure the tail end of the rope has a knot in or is tied off to a ropebag. This sounds simple but many people have died or been seriously injured from the belayer lowering them off the end of the rope, its more easily done than you think. If you are building your own quickdraws from carabiners and short slings its essential to get each one checked by a competent climber before using them as fatal accidents have occurred such as when Tito Traversa was tragically killed in 2013.

Sport climbing in the slate quarries in North Wales

It is worth getting a guidebook for sport climbing as there are fewer sport cliffs in the UK than in Spain or France where most of the cliffs they have are set up for sport climbing. Some of the ones we have in the UK are pretty damn good, many are on limestone which often gives pretty physical and steep climbs when compared with traditional routes.

How to sport climb videos:

  1. Introduction to sport climbing gear
  2. How to do pre-climb checks before sport climbing
  3. How to lower off a sport climb
  4. How to strip a sport route
  5. How to clip stick a sport climbing route

The BMC run sport climbing courses for under 18s in England and Wales in partnership with the AMI (Association of Mountaineering Instructors). These require parents to be present who can also gain guidance and skills necessary for sport climbing.

Trad Climbing

Trad climbing is the last type of climbing we’ll look at and is the trickiest one for the indoor climber to transfer to which is slightly unfortunate as it’s the main type of climbing done on the majority of UK cliffs. There are no bolts on traditional cliffs so climbers have to carry more than just quickdraws to safeguard the climbs. They carry slings for trees and rock spikes, wires and hexes to secure in constrictions in cracks, and friends camming devices) for parallel cracks. Its critical that people who are trad climbing have learned how to use this equipment effectively and there is a good deal more to learn to make good safe decisions to trad climb. Most people will second an experienced trad climber quite a bit and ‘learn the ropes’ from their experience, there is also the option of paying for a course with an qualified instructor or centre to gain skills to climb independently.

Ellie leading during the BMC Youth Meet in the Lakes.

Guidebooks give a good idea about places to go. People starting out normally climb difficult or very difficult (Victorian grades-nowadays this means easy) routes to build up the skills before progressing onto Severes or harder if they feel able to. Although it can take a while to learn the ropes for trad climbing it has a huge amount to offer and can open up another world, from climbing small gymnastic routes in the Peak, exposed sea cliffs, great mountain crags to even ascending faces such as El Capitan in Yosmemite, California.

How to trad climb videos

You can click on the links below for videos covering some skills for trad climbing:

1. How to rack up and prepare for a lead

2. How to lead a trad climb

3. How to lead climb with 2 ropes

4. How to attach to anchors at the top of a climb

5. How to set up a belay at a stance when multi-pitch climbing

 

The BMC run trad courses for under 18s in partnership with the AMI (Association of Mountaineering Instructors). The BMC also run some adult trad skills days called Ready to Rock, looking at how to use some trad equipment effectively. Mountain Training also offers Rock skills courses throughout the UK

If anyone wants any advice feel free to drop a line to James Mchaffie, the BMCs Youth & Equity officer: james@thebmc.co.uk


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