Climbing 101

by Kliff

You were sitting at home one evening, on the couch, doing your best potato impression, when you saw a commercial for an SUV, you know the one, if you buy this truck you’ll become one of these ‘extreme’ athletes. The ones that blast down a mountainside at mach one on a mountain bike or launch themselves over a waterfall in a kayak. But what really caught your eye was the shot of the girl rock climbing. Now you desperately want to be a rock climber, but you don’t know how to get into it. Well relax, it’is really quite easy.

There are all kinds of climbing to consider. Climbers have done their level best to confuse the issue by slicing climbing up into smaller categories, all of which require different techniques and equipment. Fortunately it’s not really important that you understand all of the different aspects of the sport to get involved. Most people would get started by going to the indoor gym for a while before venturing outside. There are several climbing gyms in Calgary. The University of Calgary, The Stronghold and the Calgary Climbing Centre all offer excellent facilities and instruction.

Before you go I should warn you that sometimes the most difficult thing about going climbing, especially when you’re getting started, is finding someone to climb with, so it’s a good idea to find a friend who is interested and get them to go along with you. Also worth noting, it is a rare thing that couples make good climbing partners.

In order to climb at an indoor wall you will need a harness, a pair of rock shoes, a belay device and a carabiner. A chalk bag would be nice to have but not essential. All of the local gyms rent harnesses and shoes for a nominal fee. It’s probably a good idea to go climbing once or twice at the gym and use the rental gear, for a couple of reasons. One, to see if you actually like climbing, and also so that you have a better idea of what to look for when you venture out into the big bad retail world to buy your own goodies. Most rental gear well used as you can imagine is. The shoes usually smell bad and fit worse. The harnesses are almost always one size fits most rigs that are gauranteed to be uncomfortable. By using the rental gear a few times you will probably make better decisions about purchases that will affect not only your personal comfort but your safety.

Look for a padded harness, adjustable leg loops aren’t necessary unless you are planning on doing a lot of ice or alpine climbing. Most adjustable harnesses have a longer rise which is good for mobility while walking (alpine climbing) but puts more of the load on the waist than the leg loop. A good rock climbing harness will have a slightly shorter rise and pull across the back of your leg a bit more and put you in a sitting position. That should be more comfortable. Arc’teryx makes a nice padded harness for both men (Targa) and women (Isis) that isn’t too expensive ($70). Bear in mind that everyone is a different shape so you want to try a few on and find one that is comfortable. A few extra bucks spent here could save you some grief later. Allow $50-$100.

Climbing shoes are notoriously tricky to fit. Beware of the climbing shop employee who has you cramming your feet into shoes 3 sizes too small. Your first pair of climbing shoes shouldn’t cause unbearable pain. What you want is a good snug fit, so your feet don’t roll around in the shoes when you are standing on small edges. All climbing shoes will stretch, some more than others. The trick is to figure out how much stretch to allow for. For instance an unlined shoe will stretch more than a lined shoe. Shoes made of Synthetic materials will generally stretch less. For most folks a soft soled lace up shoe will provide the best bang for the buck as a starter shoe. Fit it snug to allow for stretch, but don’t go crazy. By the time you start falling off routes because your shoes are too big you will probably be looking for more technical shoes anyway. Same deal as the harness spending a few bucks more may save you from limping around. Allow $100-$190. (yikes)

You’ll need a big pear shaped locking carabiner and a belay device (to keep your friends from hitting the ground). A Black diamond ATC XP ($25) is a good starting place for the belay device. Black Diamond or Petzl make some nice carabiners in the $20 range. Grab yourself a chalk bag. This is your chance to make a fashion statement, they all work just fine. The chalk keeps your hands from slipping off the holds. That should cover it for toys, at least for now. You should be good to go for about $200 – $300. Remember it costs more to buy everything twice, make sure you’re happy with what you’re getting, the first time.

There are a couple of places in town to buy your climbing gear. Everyone matches prices so there really is no need to go bargain hunting, find someplace you trust and buy your stuff from them. MEC is the big box retailer, and they definitly have the most selection. Don’t go on a Saturday if you actually want to speak with the folks in the climbing department, it’s usually a zoo. While the quality of advice is usually quite good, their reputation for having the item in stock is questionable. (out of equipment co-op) Coast Mountain sells some climbing gear but it is usually difficult to find someone who works there that actually climbs. A good place to go if you know what you’re looking for and it’s on sale. My personal favorite is Wicked Gravity. It’s a small local shop and while they don’t have the buying power of the big guns you’re almost always the only one in the shop so you get very personal service from people that actually climb. Climb globally, shop locally.

Okay so now you’re crankin’ the hard routes at the gym, but what you really want to do is climb outside. Now what? The next logical step is to go sport climbing. There are places to go climbing outside that kind of resemble climbing at the gym, with a few very important differences. Firstly there are no ropes provided, and secondly the environment is not as controlled. These areas (there are lots of them) are called sport climbing areas. The climbs are usually 30m or less and they are equipped with bolts (to clip your rope into) and anchors at the top (so you can get down). In order to go sport climbing outdoors you will need a few more things (don’t panic).

First a good rope. A 60m 10.5mm (diameter) rope is a good starting point. This would be a good place to spend your money wisely since you will be hanging on it. Expect to spend $150-200. A Mammut Flash 10.5 x 60m rope is an excellent choice (think Honda Civic of ropes). Ropes are fairly complicated so go get your advice in person. You can buy smaller diameter ropes (9.5-10mm) which are lighter, but you will give up some durability and pay a little more. A Mammut Galaxy 10 x 60m would be a good choice ($190) The Galaxy has a dry treatment which you probably won’t use unless you are going ice climbing. They make it without the dry treatment but no one around here sells it (?) See what I mean about complicated.

The other thing(s) you will need are some quickdraws. These are basically two carabiners with a short sling between them. You use them to clip your new rope to the bolts on the large piece of rock you are climbing so that you don’t hit the ground when you fall off. Prices range from about $12 to $30 each. You will need 8 to 12 of these. They will all keep you from hitting the ground, the differences are in the manufacturing methods , shapes and gate mechanisms. A good basic rig is the Black Diamond Enduro $17. Cadillac models like the Petzl Spirit and the BD Positrons run $25-30. Remeber the part about spending your money twice here, it happens a lot. Try out your friends draws if you can and pay attention to the ones you like. This is where the buddy system becomes more important. Splitting the cost of the rope and quickdraws will ease the burden on your wallet.

Knowing how to use the rope and the draws will be especially handy, so ask at the gym and see if they offer a lead climbing course. If they do, take it. If they don’t go find one and take it. This will teach you how to climb sport routes from the ground up to the anchors and more importantly how to get back down safely.

Where to go? Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, a guide book, is availble and will help you decide where to go. There are easily 30 different areas to climb at from Kannanaskis to Lake Louise, each with dozens of routes. You could climb a different route everyday for the rest of your life without repeating anything.

Sport Climbing is just one small aspect of the whole spectrum of climbing possibilities. There is also alpine climbing, trad climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing and bouldering. Each of which requires a different set of skills, equipment and experience. Start at the gym, get out there sport climbing and just keep on learning and having fun. A very famous climber once said ‘the best climber is the one having the most fun’.

Check out future editions of for tips on getting into other aspects of climbing.

  • Climbing 101
  • by Kliff
  • Published on August 1st, 2003

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