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I've been wanting to get into rock climbing for a while but I live in a very flat area with no climbing gyms around. I'm planning on moving to the Pacific Northwest soon and I wanted to know what the general consensus was about teaching yourself to climb. Obviously it would be easier to have a guide, but I'm also trying to save money wherever I can.

I've seen a lot of people recommend this book: Freedom of the Hills as a good way for getting into it and learning everything you can. I've been researching as much as I can online.

Is it a realistic goal to teach yourself how to climb or is it really necessary (and safe) to be taught by a professional? Does anyone have experiences or stories of this?

Thanks!

EDIT: I should mention that I won't be all by myself, I have a partner to climb with, just another novice, my fiancee. I guess I meant more like professional instruction vs. self-taught.

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I am an avid rock climber and have a couple thoughts. First, you will need to climb with a partner so you might as well find some experienced people to climb with. Second, I've met two kinds of climbers: those who does everything they can do to stay safe, and the reckless. Guess who gets seriously injured more often. –  theJollySin Jan 14 at 0:25
    
@Blackbear Listen to Mr.Wizard, your ligaments/tendons need time to heal! When you start climbing you are going to have so much fun that you will want to climb everyday for hours on end. This will only lead to injury, listen to your body and take a day off, your body will thank you and your climbing will greatly benefit! –  AM_Hawk Jan 14 at 20:07
    
When I read this question I have to think of the movie about Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker going for the Century Crack I've seen last year. They had no real challenges at home (England being very flat) and decided to learn offwidth climbing in a self build "torture chamber". Just search for "Wide Boyz", great movie :) –  EverythingRightPlace Jan 14 at 20:42

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

With dedication you could learn to climb at a top-rope or bouldering climbing gym without professional instruction. The key skill there is belaying, and you could learn that from videos. However I would never recommend this route if good instruction is available. You may have difficulty separating Internet know-it-alls from experts, therefore you may not know if you are following wisdom or nonsense unless you get professional instruction. While learning from an experienced climber may help, there are also a lot of experienced climbers with bad safety skills, so having survived X years of climbing is really no proof of good fundamentals. At the very least gyms usually offer a one-session intro class that teaches how to belay, put on your harness, tie in, etc.

If you wish to do real (outdoor) climbing you will want both instruction and someone experienced to climb with; there are simply too many things you don't know you don't know in my opinion. The books I've read don't cover everything, and some things just can't be learned from that medium anyway. Rather than "hiring a guide" I recommend that you find a rock climbing course. Vet the instructor. I took one at a local community college and I was fortunate enough to get a very good instructor, but I know that some people who took a course at the same place a few years before I did learned techniques that my instructor would have failed, saying they were deprecated by the AMGA over 20 years ago.

Books lay things out in an organized and systematic form that you can easily reference. How to Rock Climb! by John Long was required reading for the first climbing course I took, and I haven't seen a better book of the same type.


Blackbear asked:

I'm wondering what your opinion would be on what gear to buy first and what gear to possibly rent? I'm a bit hesitant to go out and buy all new gear if it turns out that we're not good at it, or don't end up liking it. As far as I can tell, buying a harness, shoes, belay device, chalk bag and some locking carabiners would be a good first step. Is climbing rope generally supplied in climbing gyms?

Shoes

If you have an interest in climbing and no nagging injuries that would make it painful or difficult I simply can't imagine you not enjoying some style of climbing. It takes a while to figure out what climbing shoes should feel like, but honestly I would just buy the first pair from REI so that you can return them if they don't work out or you realize they are the wrong size. I chose to use rental shoes and I got a nasty case of nail fungus for the first time in my life; it ended up costing me a lot more than new shoes would have.

Fit to the shape of your foot is most important. It doesn't matter how "good" a shoe is if it doesn't fit you right, and feet vary a great deal, so don't look at what other people are wearing as a guide. You want a shoe that feels like it was vacuum molded to your foot: zero gaps anywhere, but not compressive. In other words "fits like a glove" or as close as you can get. Some shoes stretch very little, some stretch quite a bit, so you won't really know how a shoe will fit until you've worn it for a while. I highly recommend buying from a place that lets you return them even after they are worn, rather than guessing they will stretch and fitting them too tightly. Good climbing is usually about using your feet well rather than hauling yourself up with your arms, and you won't use your feet well if they hurt; avoid that.

Top-rope or Bouldering

You'll want to decide whether to start with bouldering or top-rope climbing. I recommend top-rope, but I'm a scaredy-cat and like the safety of a top-rope. Ideally I think you should start out on top-rope to safely learn fundamentals and good footwork, and to give your tendons and ligaments time to strengthen. Muscle grows faster than connective tissue; injuries are common for those who push too hard right from the start. Avoid hang boards and other training devices in your first year of climbing; you'll build both strength and skill by actually climbing, and do it more safely. (Excessive focus on strength may cover bad technique; this is probably why girls often seem to learn faster than guys.) After perhaps six months of top-rope climbing switch to indoor bouldering for a while to build power and additional skills. After that you should have a sense of the kind of climbing you want to do and a decent foundation for whatever direction you choose.

If you have an athletic foundation and don't mind a little risk you may prefer (indoor) bouldering. (You could e.g. dislocate an elbow or break a wrist if you fall wrong, even with pads.) There you'll only need shoes; you can improvise a "chalk pot" or the gym may provide one.

If you choose top-rope look for harness packages that include a belay device and belay carabiner (also known as an HMS carabiner) and sometimes a chalk bag; you'll usually save a bit of money this way. (As you will by getting last year's model on closeout.) The Black Diamond Momentum package is a popular choice. Don't spend a fortune on a harness; the very light and expensive ones are for competition climbers and won't make a lick of difference to you, other than possibly being less comfortable. (An exception is if you are doing mountaineering and want a low-profile harness to fit under a hip belt, as my instructor explained, but I have no experience with that yet.) Learn to belay with an ATC or other "tube-style" device (my preference is the Black Diamond ATC-XP); a "Gri-Gri" or other such device will only lead to bad habits at this point and cost far more.

I have never heard of a gym where you bring your own rope for top-rope climbing, so yes, they are provided. (You'll need a UIAA certified Dynamic rope for lead climbing but you aren't ready for that yet.) A number of gyms even have auto-belay devices now which let you climb without partner; it is an auto-braking system that lowers you slowly when you fall off.

Safety

Make sure all your safety equipment (harness, belay device, carabiners, etc.) is properly certified. Look for a logo like this:

enter image description here

Be aware that there are counterfeit climbing goods in existence so buy only from reputable sources.

Carefully read all of the instruction booklets and labels that come with your gear; they will warn you against various kinds of misuse that could kill you, such as improperly loading a carabiner or using bleach on your harness. Make sure that you are using all equipment as intended. (For example, there are climbing ropes that are meant to be used only in pairs; the booklet should make this clear, even if an incompetent sales person does not.) If a piece of gear does not come with a booklet contact the manufacturer for this information; every piece of gear I have purchased has come with such a booklet.

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Thank you for the response. This answered my question perfectly! This is somewhat related to the original question, but I'm wondering what your opinion would be on what gear to buy first and what gear to possibly rent? I'm a bit hesitant to go out and buy all new gear if it turns out that we're not good at it, or don't end up liking it. As far as I can tell, buying a harness, shoes, belay device, chalk bag and some locking carabiners would be a good first step. Is climbing rope generally supplied in climbing gyms? –  Blackbear Jan 14 at 2:58
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@Blackbear I'm glad you found my answer helpful. I added my response to your follow-up question to my answer because it became too long for comments. –  Mr.Wizard Jan 14 at 12:03
    
Thanks for the additional information. The knowledge available to those who ask for it never ceases to amaze me :) –  Blackbear Jan 14 at 19:27

Being as your talking about climbing gyms I'm going to limit my answer to indoor climbing only.

First things first:

Is it a realistic goal to teach yourself how to climb

I'd say no.

is it really necessary (and safe) to be taught by a professional

Necessary: Depends on who you know. If you don't know any other climbers to teach you Yes. If you do and they are willing to teach you, then No.

Further expansion:

To get into rock climbing there are a number of skills you need to learn. Some of these skills you can pick up with practice, some you need instruction on. By instruction I wouldn't necessarily say a paid instructor, if you have friends who have (good) experience climbing they can teach you a lot of the basics by climbing with them.

In fact I would recommend this way to learn, you're going to learn a lot more climbing twice a week with an experienced climber than spending one afternoon with an instructor and it'll be much cheaper. Also who's to say the "instructor" is particularly experienced anyway? I know plenty of gyms that employ minimum wage low experienced instructors that are in no way especially skilled at showing you the ropes.

When starting your likely to begin top roping. This is where the rope is already connected to the top of the climb, you tie into one end and your belayer belay's you using the other end of the rope. This method limits the amount of distance you will fall should you make a mistake. Most people start using the discipline as it is the safest form of climbing (even bouldering it's easy to twist an ankle or land awkwardly)

Another option is to learn the basics with an instructor and then join a local climbing club. This again gives you the benefit of learning from experienced people day in and day out.

There are two different types of skills to learn:

Hard skills

These are the types of things that you need to know to climb safely and competently. These are the skills you will learn on a course or can be taught by an experienced climbing friend. Examples include:

  • Figure of eight knot
  • Belaying
  • Safety protocols and communication (Checking each other knot, ensuring locking carabiner is closed before starting, communicating on the wall effectively)
  • Use of different belay devices (Gri gri vs belay plate, etc.)
  • Essential kit

Soft skills

This is the kind of thing that you can learn from trainers but which you can equally pick up with practice or even (some anyway), by reading information on the internet:

  • Confidence!
  • Footwork (climb with your feet not your arms!)
  • Hand placement (different holds will react differently depending on how you grip them)
  • Body position (the amount of times I've tried a move over and over and over again only to drop my shoulder or something minor and suddenly it becomes possible!)

Bouldering is a very good way to develop this technique in a (relatively safe environment). I love bouldering as a climbing discipline in it's own right but it's a great teaching tool also.

Enjoy it, it's addictive!

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why the downvote? –  Liam Jan 14 at 14:59
    
Not sure about the downvote, but I appreciate your answer. I'll definitely look into working on the stuff I can on my own, and it seems smart to at least find a friend to show me the ropes, if not a real instructor. Thanks! –  Blackbear Jan 15 at 1:36

Freedom of the Hills is a book about mountaineering, not rock climbing. They overlap somewhat, but they're basically different things. Rock climbing can mean a lot of very different things: climbing on top-rope in a gym; lead-climbing in a gym; outdoor sport climbing; and outdoor trad climbing (which has different roles for the leader and follower).

Mountaineering is basically an extension of hiking, and mountaineering includes lots and lots of different types of skills and activities. Some of these you can learn on your own, but others (e.g., self-arrest with an ice ax) you're better off getting professional instruction in.

All forms of rock climbing (with the exception of free-soloing, which is probably not something you should try as a beginner) require a climbing partner, so no, you cannot learn rock climbing all by yourself.

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Thank you for clarifying about the book. I guess I envisioned self-learning (through internet, books, etc, definitely not just random trying) how to top rope with just myself and my partner. Your answer covers a lot, but do you have any specific thoughts on the ability to self learn (if at all) vs. hiring a guide? Thanks! –  Blackbear Jan 14 at 1:04
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@Blackbear: From your comment on Mr.Wizard's answer, it sounds like you're interested in gym climbing. In that case, go to the gym, rent gear, and ask for instruction on how to give a top-rope belay. Have fun! –  Ben Crowell Jan 14 at 6:06

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