Climbing can be enjoyed on many levels. At its most spontaneous and basic, just footwear is required. On the other hand, in cold and remote locations a range of equipment and clothing is essential just for survival. It’s difficult separating the essentials from the luxuries, and impartial advice is hard to find.
Not that long ago, most people took their first tentative climbing steps on real rock, but these days it’s much more likely to be on an indoor wall. Artificial climbing walls have seen an enormous surge in popularity over the last few decades, and have improved beyond all recognition from the early basic efforts. Now there are few towns in the UK that don’t have a wall, making them a very accessible place to start.
Most large walls run introductory taster sessions, with all equipment provided. These are by far the best way to start out, since they will familiarise you with the skills and risks involved. In fact if you’re a complete beginner most walls won’t even let you in until you’ve taken such a course. It’d be great to just turn up and start climbing, but they cannot run the risk of novice climbers making serious mistakes. The better of these courses will also include an element of coaching and an awareness of how indoor climbing relates to the outdoors.
This will usually be picked up when you fill in the registration form on your first visit. The purpose of this form is to both make you aware of the risks involved, and to alert the wall to your level of skill, so don’t be tempted to bend the truth. If you don’t know how to belay, admit it now!
Under 18’s not on an organised course will have a few more stages to go through. On BMC recommendations, 16-17 year olds should have to pass a basic competency test, 14-15 year olds should have this test plus a parental visit, and under 14’s are only usually admitted at the manager's discretion. OK, now that you’re through the door, what can you expect to see? These days most walls feature a mix of roped climbing and bouldering. What do you need for these?
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Bouldering is a distillation of climbing movement; cutting out the rope-work and paraphernalia to tackle “problems” no more than a few metres above the ground. Outdoors this takes place, unsurprisingly, on boulders, and indoors cunning wall designers have pulled out all the stops to mimic the natural world; steep walls, slabs, roofs, caves, arches, all preferably with some good padding underneath. Some dismiss bouldering as not “real” climbing, but at every stage in your climbing development you’ll benefit from it. Your body learns a broadening repertoire of muscular adjustments, fingers strengthen, relevant muscle groups tone up, and the mind adjusts to noticing opportunities for movement and recovery - eventually subconsciously.
But before leaping on the wall, it’s a very good idea to warm up first. Hauling your body weight by the fingertips puts intense strain on tendons and ligaments, and over the years this will lead to chronic finger and elbow injuries. A short jog, followed by some light movement and gentle stretching is all that’s needed. Try to include finger stretches in any routine, holding the outstretched hand and gently pulling back.
Bouldering is safer and a lot more fun with an attentive and encouraging partner. Take turns to “spot” for each other - standing by, ready to slow or control a fall. Rather than trying to catch the climber, the spotter should field the shoulders to prevent a head-first landing. Work with your partner to develop problems by setting challenges such as eliminating holds or using only certain kinds of features. But remember that bouldering is an intensive activity, especially for newcomers, so don’t be afraid to stop before you’re worn out, most injuries occur when tired, having just one last go on that problem.
A top-rope is a pre-fixed rope threaded though a strong anchor point at the top of the climb, with both ends on the ground. The climber is attached to one end of the rope, while the other end is threaded through a belay device and continually adjusted in order to remain reasonably taut as the climber makes progress. Having reached the anchor point the climber is lowered back to the ground by the belayer.
The first stage is to fit the harness correctly around your legs and waist. Read the harness instructions and check each others’ harnesses and knots as a matter of course. To attach a rope to the harness, I would recommend using a figure of eight knot threaded through both the waist and leg loops of the harness.
The completed knot should be pulled tight and have a ‘tail’ end of at least 30 centimetres - not much longer or you will find yourself standing on it. Practise this knot. It's normal – but not essential – to tie an overhand knot around the main rope with the tail end, to act as a “stopper” (i.e. preventing it creeping undone). Another popular knot is the bowline, which is easier to undo after being loaded in a fall, but this is harder to tie and easier to get wrong.
Belaying allows you to hold your partner’s weight or even arrest a fall. Using one of the many devices on the market, sufficient friction is applied to the loaded rope to allow you to stop a falling climber with your hands.
Belaying is a fundamental skill in climbing, but is often taught quite badly. Read the instructions for the device, and if you’ve been lent it by your partner, examine how it works. Most create friction by forcing the rope through some tight direction changes. Pulling the unloaded end increases this friction, usually in the opposite direction to the loaded rope. It is possible that you might be handed a more complex mechanical device to use, probably a Gri-Gri. This needs a little more training, particularly in how to pay rope out, otherwise it is easy to get it wrong and drop your partner when you attempt to lower them.
Thread the rope through the device as shown in its instructions and clip it onto your harness belay loop, taking care to lock the screwgat. The rope should be pulled back away from the direction taken by the live rope (i.e. the rope travelling towards the climber). This Z-bend is what provides the mechanism for holding a fall; otherwise the only friction is provided by the bend around the karabiner, forming a simple 1:1 ratio pulley. A belay device clipped to the belayer’s harness should ideally be used with the belayer positioned sideways to the climb; this allows the belaying hand to be pulled backwards without being restricted by the belayer’s hip. If in any doubt, do not hesitate to ask the advice of the climbing wall staff. Even experienced climbers find it hard adjusting to new devices, and it’s far better to make mistakes on the ground.
Taking in slack rope
Taking in the slack rope requires attention. As you move your belaying hand back toward the plate to take in again, hold the rope in the locked position with the other hand. If you get into the habit of doing this properly, the rhythm will become natural. While your partner climbs, you need to take the rope in at the same rate, so that it remains reasonably snug. That way, if the climber slips, the fall is simply a little stretch in the rope as it absorbs much of the energy. This is another vital skill, and needs practice to do well.
With an attentive belayer, the climber should be able to concentrate on movement. On steep climbs the rope may be threaded through intermediate anchors to prevent a huge swing outwards in the event of a fall. These need to be unclipped as the climber progresses beyond them; however, it is vital that the top anchor is left fastened. To minimise the risk of this anchor becoming unfastened the rope should be threaded through a locking karabiner or twin karabiners. Carelessness over this point has led to several accidents in climbing walls, so both partners should be particularly vigilant as the climber approaches the top anchor. The climber should clip the rope back through one or more intermediate anchors (often referred to as “runners” “quickdraws” or simply “draws”) while being lowered to the ground if the climb is overhanging.
The lead climber trails the safety rope from the ground upwards, clipping it into quickdraws as progress is made. A fall can again be limited by the belayer, but as the leader moves beyond the runner, some distance must be travelled before that rope can tighten and field the fall. Lead climbing is thus both more exciting and inherently riskier than top roping or “seconding” a climb, and it should never be forgotten that an attentive and skilled belayer is essential. Communication is important, often distilled to curt unambiguous commands such as “slack!” when extra rope is required by the leader (probably in order to clip the rope through a quickdraw), or “take-in!” usually meaning that the leader is nervous or about to be airborne.
However sociable the atmosphere, the belayer should never lose track of the lead climber’s position. In climbing walls it is not uncommon for climbers to lead climbs after relatively little experience. The pre-requisites are confidence in rope-handling by both partners and sufficient practice at belaying not to get muddled at critical moments. However, a healthy respect for gravity should be maintained, and the potential distance and direction of a fall should be calculated before committing to a move. This is particularly important when pulling over an overhang or passing protruding holds.
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