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I am a long time gym climber, and I climbed outdoors for a couple of times. I fail to understand why climbing outdoors is more appealing than climbing indoors.

If the goal is to climb harder, while outdoor climbers are wasting time driving and hiking to the climb, I have already did a few climbs and a hangboard training session in the gym.

If you have a full time job and family obligations but still want to project a climb, it is way more possible to do so efficiently in a gym because of the accessibility and immunity to bad weather and no sunlight.

Risk of injury and overall safety is also a lot better in the gym.

From what I can infer from talking to other climbers, the only appeal of climbing outdoors seems to be it’s somehow perceived as “cooler” than climbing indoors, and I have no idea why.

Additionally, on multiple forums I can see outdoor climbers constantly taunting on gym climbers with stuff like “if you don’t send outdoors you are not a real climber” or “indoor climbing is just a form of training for climbing outdoors”. These people also look down on IFSC comps as well. Constantly complaining Ondra should focus on outdoor ascents instead of the olympics. Why? What’s so appealing and holy about climbing outdoors? I really want to know.

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    I don't climb, but I've rejected the gym compared to outdoors for other things. I love the wind, the smell of plants and water, the sun. I hate people, crowded environments, unsanitary public stuff that everyone and their snot-nosed kid has been using... Oh, and have I mentioned the outdoors doesn't charge me a fee? – user18163 Dec 16 '19 at 14:19
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    I would love to see the gym that can hold El Capitan. – Mark Dec 18 '19 at 2:55
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    if you don't see the appeal of being outdoor, you might not be in the right place here – njzk2 Jan 6 at 7:57
  • You probably prefer iFly to real skydiving too, huh? – pacoverflow Mar 18 at 3:05
  • This question can be rephrased as: What is the main appeal for choosing sex instead of masturbation? Btw, I'm sure some people prefer masturbation. – QuantumBrick Mar 18 at 14:22

11 Answers 11

19

To me, and I'm no climber, this is about outdoor activities in general. You could equally ask why people kayak in the wilds rather than going to the artificial whitewater centre that's always reliable, or why I spent all of yesterday cycling through headwinds and a hailstorm rather than sitting on a spin bike in the gym for 12 hours.

For many of us there are a few overlapping reasons. Modern life is mostly controlled, sanitised, and predicable. The natural world often isn't like that, and properly managed risk is part of the fun. If something goes wrong you deal with it. Of course there's also the nature aspect - yesterday's ride gave me some good wildlife sightings; birdsong makes a good change from canned music. But it's not for everyone all the time. Those same unpredictable experiences can be unpleasant even if not dangerous, and some people don't appreciate type 2 fun.

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16

This touches quite a lot of different dimensions so it will be hard to answer everything in a single post.

One of the appeals of climbing outdoors is that it is outdoors. Consider a nice sunny day in spring. Would you rather climb in a crowded, loud and dusty gym without much daylight or outside in the warm sun? For me, the choice is quite clear. (This is slightly idealizing outdoor climbing as it an be crowded as well and the weather is not always that nice ;))

Another important aspect is diversity. Going to the climbing gym 2-3 times a week turns the gym routes stale after like 3 weeks as you will have done all routes that are doable in few tries and only few routes remain that are doable but not yet done. Therefore a lot of the gym climbing consists of repeating routes I already have done. Outdoors there is a lot more routes to be climbed. In the nearby Donautal crag there is still quite a number of sectors I have not even tried to climb after years.

Diversity does not only affect the number of routes but also the style of climbing. Gym climbing is mostly about face climbing on vertical and overhanging walls on holds sticking out of the wall. This means that you can almost always step a handhold (although these modern dual texture holds change this a bit). Outdoors you often have negative holds (holes in the wall) that you cannot step well. Outdoors there is not only face climbing but also styles like crack and slab climbing which are rarely available in climbing gyms. (I am aware that there are slabs in almost any gym and some gyms have cracks but they are still only a very poor approximation of outdoor slabs or cracks)

Another aspect of climbing outside is adventure. This is not so present in sport climbing but in alpine climbing. Finding your route through a wall hundreds of meters high is quite exiting for me. I definitely prefer climbing a lower grade on poorer protection over climbing at the very limit in well protected climbs. This is just about knowing with 100% certainty that you can do the moves, that you can reverse them if needed and you can do them even in poor conditions (especially relevant for alpinism).

Even if you don't like it dangerous, climbing outside can be an adventure by doing a sport climbing trip to southern France, going camping, etc. Discovering new beautiful regions is one aspect of going climbing outside.

On the matter of time invested, of course a climbing gym wins mostly, as long as you live close to one. However, if you are living at a good place, you can reach a lot of outdoor crags within 1h of driving and less than 30 minutes of walking. Considering that going to the gym is about 25 minutes for me, this is not so much worse and definitely something suitable for the weekend.

All in all, the question of indoor and outdoor climbing is not about what is better. Each has their advantages and disadvantages and they are a great complement to each other. I can only recommend a pure gym climber to try climbing outdoors. If you don't like it, no problem.

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    Last but not least, climbing outside is free. The climbing gyms in my home town are actually rather expensive... – fgysin reinstate Monica Dec 16 '19 at 9:50
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    Well it depends...the climb itself might be free but outside one needs a lot more gear. In the gym a rope, harness, shoes and chalk are all you need. Outside about a dozen quickdraws (depending on the lenght of the climb) and a helmet are required for sport climbing. While this is still rather affordable, it is no longer for free. And once you start trad climbing ... a good cam is at least 50-60€, a set of stoppers is about the price of a cam. And you will need quite a lot of this, possibly adding 2 half-ropes to reduce rope drag... – Manziel Dec 16 '19 at 10:14
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    I'm not sure where you climb, but at most gyms in my area they re-set at least a portion of the routes each week, resulting in probably 100s of new routes per month. There are slabs, dynos, bathangs, aretes, dihedrals, etc. There are frequently types of moves that are rarely, if ever, seen outdoors. – jhch Dec 16 '19 at 14:18
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    Seems you are lucky. 4-5 months route lifetime are the norm here and more than 6 months not unheard of. That is the problem if there is only one gym within reasonable distance and the manager considers resetting routes mainly a cost to be avoided. – Manziel Dec 16 '19 at 14:24
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    @fgysinreinstateMonica it may also be expensive to travel to outdoor climbing spots (or time-consuming). – Chris H Dec 17 '19 at 15:36
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Mainly a gym climber here as well, no lengths just bouldering. Some reasons why outdoor climbing is appealing to me and others I climb with; most of these are obviously about personal preferences of course, so YMMV:

  • It's outdoors, some people like spending time outdoors.
  • More often than not boulders are located in nice scenery, really 'in nature'. Most gyms don't have birds flying around and not a lot of plants.
  • Things like sending a route at the end of the day when it's getting dark and people support you with flashlights give a different kick (for me at least) than routes in the gym.
  • No matter how hard gym route builders try, rocks are just different so you learn different techniques. Both for climbing and for how you look at problems. When I come back from an outdoors session, things in the gym seem easier and more straightforward.
  • In places for which there are no written down routes, you have to find your own route which is challenging and fun at the same time. E.g. once I saw a picture of an amateur photographer I follow online and there was a lone boulder in it which seemed interesting enough to drive there. So we tried to find out where it was, drove there, strolled around for an hour or so and located the boulder. Then spent several hours trying all kinds of different routes. Can be more interesting than pre-made gym routes, and again teaches you to look differently at things.
  • Just for completeness: outdoors (also indoors, but less) there can also be a variety of man-made structures one can climb. There's something appealing in using things in a way for which they weren't meant (similar to skateboarding/bmx/...). It's not something most climbers typically do, but once you get the hang of spotting possible ways to climb things you start seeing things everywhere :)

I can see outdoor climbers constantly taunting on gym climbers

Yeah there's people like that in all disciplines/hobbies/sports. Ignore them. That is a crippled, narrow, almost religous, view on reality.

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9

One key aspect that has not been mentioned: routefinding indors is almost trivial, outdoors it becomes a real challenge and makes climbing a much more creative experience.

In the gym, hold color (or tape) tells you exactly what features "exist" that you could use to proceed, and the number you can reach at a given point is usually small, half a dozen at most. And that in turn makes the number of moves you can choose from relatively small.

A real rock wall does not have that small number of marked holds for you to choose from. It (sometimes) looks like this:

Tape this![1]

At any given point you have literally hundreds of rock features to choose from! Even just identifying those that provide the best grip is far from trivial, even before you consider that your exact position (and thus the angle you reach them from) changes this.

Outdoors, you really have to work hard not just to execute the moves, but also to identify which moves they should be!

Of course on popular walls this factor can be mitigated by chalk residue that tell you what holds the climbers who came before you used. But who says they actually found the best moves? At higher skill levels, it's actually fairly common for people to find an easier beta on an established route and even downgrade the difficulty as a result.

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3

The variety of climbing in the gym is limited by the creativity of the setters and the availability of mass production plastic holds from commercial manufacturers. It is an activity bound by humans and their ability to create challenges for each other.

The variety of climbing outdoors is only limited by the random processes of mother nature and your ability to access the area. The vast majority of an outdoor climbing wall is not sendable, and only a relatively few, delicate lines have been taken down for the ages as climbing routes

For many, it is finding and climbing these improbable lines in places that no human has any business being that gives a personal reward. Additionally, for those on the cutting edge, establishing new routes, nature provides a challenge that is different than one limited by human imagination in the gym.

The views also can't be beat.

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2

There is a simple explanation that transcends the idea of rock climbing for the sake of it:

Some people have other motivations that require rock climbing as a skill, for example peakbaggers. If you need a certain level of proficiency to reach the top of a mountain - let's say climb a 5.8 crux in the middle of 3rd and 4th class terrain - you'll want to have some solid experience.

Gym climbing is good for the physical conditioning, but climbing rock is so different from climbing artificial walls that you need to practice on the real thing. Especially if you consider the gear management and safety and rescue aspects, climbing outside is required and indoors doesn't do the job.

That's why I know of a couple people who don't particularly enjoy rock climbing but will train intensively in the months leading to an ascent, then completely stop when it's over.

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I've been climbing off an on now for over 25 years, although I've never been particularly great. I climb mostly in the gym but have been on a few outdoor trips here and there. I am frequently outdoors, but can scramble most of the things I want to do without equipment.

While there's some great answers here, there's one point that none of them touch on that I feel is important. For my answer, you have to think about Rock Climbing before it was a popular sport. The first rock climbers took ladders with them, drove spikes into the wall, hung the ladder from it, climbed it, and repeated. Over and over until they were at the top. Their motivation was different, for them it was about being able to say, I've done something no one else has.

That evolved into free climbing. Ok, so the rope is just here so I don't die, but can I climb this piece of rock on my own? Because people had "done" that particular piece of rock before, now people could say they'd done something different, even more spectacular.

Gyms are a relatively recent invention as climbing has become more and more popular as an actual sport. They were "fairly" rare even just 25 years ago when I started, and you're right. For climbing as a sport, they offer a lot of advantages that you mentioned, and outdoor climbing has some advantages that other answers have mentioned.

All of that is irrelevant though when you think of climbing outside of the scope of the sport. If your goal is to "walk" up a mountain and not be deterred that the final 25 feet to reach the actual summit is a fairly smooth piece of granite, then the gym is a means to an end. If you want to be the best sport climber out there and nothing else matters, than the gym might very well be all you ever need.

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1

Gym climbing will never be more than just exercise. Outdoor climbing can be a religious experience.

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To me it's not a question of climbing outdoors is "cooler".

There is a reason that there is such a rich collection of books, magazines and other literature on the subject of mountaineering and rock climbing outdoors.

I can look back on many experiences I have of climbing on local crags and in the Alps over many years. I can almost relive those experiences in my memory and also of the people I shared the experiences with, both when everything went to plan and especially when things didn't and we survived.

I must say I don't have any amazing memories of many trips to the local climbing gym over the years...

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The views

I'm predominantly a gym climber who dabbles with some outdoor sport climbing occasionally

More often than not climbing crags are in wilderness areas, be they remote or little pockets nestled into urban setting. These area in themselves are often quite tranquil and pretty. Get to the top of a climb, clip in and lookout, the views are often spectacular, even on the little 10 - 20m routes I climb.

Length of route

This doesn't apply as much to bouldering. The highest artificial climbing wall is ~40m, with the average gym probably in the 15m - 20m range. Outside, the sky is almost literally the limit. Single pitch climbs of 50m are not unheard of with 20 - 30m quite common. This introduces a new level of endurance, and the mental aspect of overcoming the height, particularly on exposed routes.

String a few of these together as a multi-pitch route and you'll find yourself climbing literally hundreds of meters on single route.

Making a day of it

Sure sometimes you need a quick climbing fix, and gyms fit this need perfectly. Sometimes you want a whole day adventure. My regular outdoor spot is about 2hrs drive away. We generally get on the road around 7am stop for breakfast around 8am and hit the crag around 9:30. We spend the drive variously catching up on life and talking about the day ahead, potential routes etc so the drive isn't wasted and builds the hype.

We climb till about 3-4 with a lunch break some time in there. We'll then have a beer (hopefully still cold) before walking back to the car. We generally stop again at a look out after an hour to test the temperature of the remaining beers :) (only 1 for the driver, don't panic). Get home about 7:30 - 8pm, completely exhausted but immensely satisfied. You just don't get that from a couple of hours in the gym.

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Gym climbing is not rock climbing because...well, you are not climbing rock. You are climbing artificial holds made of sand and resin in a controlled atmosphere. True, gym climbing is easy, safe, and a great way to build strength but the fact remains you are not a rock climber- you are a gym climber.

Rock climbing involves leading pitches, route finding, climbing beyond your comfort level leading pitches, setting up creative belay stations, setting up safe rappel stations, placing gear, and doing all this with a consideration of time and weather. Most climbing gyms do not even offer cracks and most gym-rats can't even do a hand jams, finger jams, fist jam, or off-width - all of which are integral parts of rock climbing. All gyms are bolt only protected routes. Do you know how to set up equal-tension and opposition anchors? You cannot consider yourself a rock climber unless you can do these things.

Established climbing areas have a long history of ascents and the climbers that do those assents discuss the ratings over a long period of time and form a consensus of the route ratings. It is hard to really know the ratings at your gym wall as they get a few ascents and then the configuration of the holds get changed by the staff. Pick some rating that you feel comfortable with, then go to Eldorado Canyon and see how well of a rock climber you are.

Finally, rock climbing is better because you get to go to places like the top of this.

enter image description here

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