5 Things To Know About Outdoor Rock Climbing


on Nov 01, 2018

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By Andrea McHenry from Far Away Horizons

Photo credit:
Andrea McHenry from Far Away Horizons​

I’ve been indoor rock climbing on and off for the past few years.  Mostly off. I don’t have any new equipment. My shoes, harness, and chalk bag are second-hand from friends that weren’t using the gear. The hardest route I’ve ever climbed to-date was a 5.11 (on a scale of 5.1 – 5.15).  I can’t lead climb (yet), set up gear (yet), or clean an anchor (yet). But I can belay and I will try routes even if I’m sure I can’t make it all the way to the top.

This past weekend, I went outdoor climbing for the second time ever. I went with three other people and my trusted trail dog to Sand Rock, Alabama, USA. My first time outdoor climbing was in West Virginia, USA. It was at one of those outdoor adventure places where you book a ‘tour’ and the guides do all of the hard work (i.e. setting up the rope and belaying). We just climbed. Sand Rock is different. You set up your own rope, belay your own people, clean (i.e. remove) your gear, find the routes, etc. all by yourself.

Here are some of the things I learned from climbing at Sand Rock:

1. You are going to be terrified

But that’s okay.  From talking with other non-lead climbers that are newish to the sport, going outdoors for the first, second, third time IS terrifying. There is a huge mental difference between being at the rock gym where the routes are labeled, colour coded, and pre-roped and then going outdoors where you need to bring all of the equipment and the only thing already set up is a couple bolts and a metal loop at the top to provide something secure to anchor into (when you attach gear to the top of the route that allows the rope to be set up).

The first climb of the day was supposed to be a warm-up. An easy 5.6 that had plenty of large handholds that you could really grab onto. I was nervous – staring at a massive, solid rock is way different than staring at a fabricated gym wall…The nervousness wasn’t too extreme until suddenly I could see blue sky in my peripheral vision…

WHY AM I UP THIS HIGH?! WHAT AM I DOING?! That’s when the real mental game kicked in for me! To add to it, I could now feel the wind, which is again something you don’t experience when at the gym. In reality, the wind was just small gusts every now and again, but when I was above tree line, feeling air movement that I’m not used to, and already nervous, every small gust made me picture being blown off the rock like a barn door being blown open during a tornado! At those moments, all you can do is grab onto the rock, take a few deep breaths, and keep climbing (sure, you can technically, of course, be lowered down, but then your fear would have won and you wouldn’t have finished your climb.  Where’s the fun in that?).

Lastly, there is no longer a nice, big foam floor beneath you. Instead, there is dirt and more rocks. Which would suck if you ended up falling on. That brings me to my second point…

2. Love your belayer

You should always trust your belayer (the person on the ground that is attached to the other end of the rope and preventing you from falling to your demise). The trust is heightened when you’re outside and the previously mentioned rocks are beneath you when you’re 90 feet in the air. Due to this, saying that you should also love your belayer is not, in any way, an overstatement. Love them however you want, but love them. They are your safety, your lifeline.

3. Your fingers are going to hurt

They just are, so be prepared. After all, you are spending all day gripping onto the side of a giant rock.  Rocks are hard, rough, and sharp. Handholds at the gym are smooth and don’t make your fingers hurt.

On the plus side, your fingers are only hurting because there is a lot of friction between the bumpy, pebbly, coarse surface of the rock and your fingers/hand. This means that your hands/fingers are less likely to slip off of wherever you placed them. At least that’s my theory and it makes me feel better about my pained fingers, so I’m going with it.

Photo credit:
The view from the top of the rocks after a long day of climbing.

4. Be prepared to sit and wait

From what I’ve heard other climbers say, and based upon my experience this trip, you will end up sitting and waiting for a while. You will wait for the rope to be set up…You will wait for the other climbers in your group to complete the route before taking the gear down and moving on to the next place…And don’t forget that you’ll be waiting for other climbers to finish the route before you can use it…

Waiting around isn’t a big deal.  It actually gives you time to talk to fellow climbers – share stories, tips, etc. It’s a social situation, so be friendly and take the opportunity to meet new people.  Who knows, you might find your new best friend!

Photo credit:
Kiefer, the loyal trail dog, rocking the crag dog persona (crag dog = pups that hang out at the bottom of climbing routes)

5. You’re there to have fun

Climbing is fun.  You didn’t drive multiple hours and dedicate all day to this trip because you hate climbing.  You’re there because you like it.  So enjoy it!  There will be times when you are swearing at a really difficult part on your route, but then you get past it and all of a sudden you can see the top anchor.  Then you let out a huge sigh of relief that is so loud the people 50 feet below you can hear it.

Rock climbing is terrifying.  Rock climbing is both a mental and physical challenge.  Most importantly, rock climbing is fun.  Just push through the tough parts and you’ll get your reward.  Also, don’t forget, once you make it to the top, turn around and enjoy the view.  You earned it.

For more from Andrea McHenry check out Far Away Horizons.

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on Nov 01, 2018

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