With indoor climbing becoming dramatically more popular in Australia and new gyms opening all the time, there are plenty more keen climbers looking to dip their toes in the outdoor scene. As a fellow gym rat, once deep in the NSW climbing competition scene all through high-school, it feels foolish to say that my first couple trips outdoors went like this:
“Why do I have to do all this bush bashing just to get to the wall?”
“There’s dirt on my climbing shoes!”
“I know we barely arrived but I’m already out of water” - (This one still happens)
But it didn’t take me long to realise just how valuable and meaningful adventure climbing would become. Finding a sport route just perfectly at the edge of your limits, testing your comfort zone on runouts or trad cracks and epic multi-pitch adventures are what real rock has to offer.
Most people get into climbing outdoors through making friends with a more experienced outdoor climber, but not everyone has these resources to tap into. There are other excellent ways such as joining outdoors clubs at a local indoor gym or University (if you are a student). There are also online groups in places such as Facebook where it is common for people to ask to join in with a friendly group of climbers heading to the crag. By doing an outdoor climbing course, you are also in the mix with other keen climbers who are stoked to climb real rock and together have the training to do it safely.
Say hi to the person on the rope next to you in the gym, the climbing community is overwhelmingly supportive of keen newcomers and can help point you in the right direction.
There is plenty of information on different areas to climb, the types of routes, difficulties, approach or access tips, maps and much more available in guidebooks and online on websites such as TheCrag.com. Guidebooks are an excellent item to carry in with you to the crag where some areas lack phone service. They contain photographs of the walls at each crag and lines drawn over each route to make them identifiable, numbered and named to provide information about what to expect, the climb difficulty and other really useful route information. Planning and research about where you intend to go is very important, ensuring you both have a great day out and prevent uninformed mistakes.
Besides the staple climbing supplies that every climber needs like a harness, chalk bag and pair of climbing shoes, it’s now time for an investment in a set of quickdraws. Outdoor sport routes are all bolted and unless you’re at a crag where you have walking access from above, top-roping is dependent on a partner to set one up for you, which won’t always be the case. 12 draws are an ideal place to start, getting up to around 16-18 if you start to look for longer routes or multi-pitches as you advance.
You will also need to purchase your own belay device, there’s enough on the market that the internet is full of comparisons and reviews, but I’ll mention a couple here to consider. Most likely you will already have experience belaying using an ATC or something similar, which is very suitable for belaying outdoors. There are also brake-assisted devices to consider learning how to use such as the Gri Gri 2 or Megajul, which can save your arms a lot of energy during difficult problems where the climber may be sitting on and off the rope frequently. You will also need a PAS (personal anchor system) to clean anchors, which could be a sling or daisy chain attached to the safety loops on your harness, more on that later.
Rope! Unless you feel like starring in a movie about the first free solo of El Cap, this should be very high up your list. I would recommend getting a 70m dynamic rope as it is the most versatile for climbing routes outdoors. It is very important to always check the length of the route in whichever guide or info resource you are using, it is not a situation you ever want to get into where you don’t have enough rope to lower your belayer back to the ground!
Unlike indoors, it’s also important that we protect our head from any potential falling objects or a bad fall. Make sure to always have a helmet with you to look after your mushy and fragile brain. The consequences of accidents are multiplied outdoors, and this sport isn’t without risk, so it is important not to be complacent.
Intro to Outdoor Climbing:
Here I’m going to go through what to expect and some of the skills you will need to know when climbing outdoors. As a forewarning, the appropriate place to learn any skills you will use while climbing in down on the ground. Once you are competent and comfortable then it would be the time to take that skill outdoors and up the wall. Also consider doing an outdoor climbing course offered by a climbing gym, outdoors club or outdoor sports company. The final thing to mention is that it’s important that everyone in your group climbing outdoors knows how to climb safely because everyone is responsible for the safety of each other.
Lead climbing, clipping quickdraws, belaying and catching a fall are all essential no matter if you are the climber or the belayer. It would be a good starting place to have successfully complete a leading ticket at an indoor gym where a staff member can assess your technique and provide tips for improvement.
You’ve lead climbed a route, and now it’s time to come down and try another. How do you get your draws down? Retrieving gear from the route is essential if you would like to avoid leaving your gear behind, and so it’s important to know how to safely clean the anchors on each route. A sport climb will generally comprise of metal U-shaped ring bolts that are drilled and glued into the rock spaced about 1.5m apart, up the length of the climb. At the top there are two bolts about 30cm apart which are called the ‘anchors’. As you finish the route these are clipped with quickdraws and your rope just like any other ring bolt and, once the belayer takes the rope tight, you clip you PAS into one of the ring bolts. Once the anchors have been cleaned safely and the rope is through both ring bolts (the quickdraws at the anchors have been removed), it is then time for the belayer to lower you down and you can unclip all the quickdraws from the wall, ready for the next route. A full description of the cleaning process should come from a hands-on lesson, this is only a guide on what to expect. All members of the party should know how to clean anchors before climbing outdoors, an experienced staff member at a climbing gym or an outdoor climbing course are two good places to learn this skill; be safe, aware and prepared.