Rock Climbing FAQs

It's not hard to learn to climb -- but it's important that your lessons come from an experienced instructor. Here's a brief introduction to rock climbing.

This site is sponsored by Alyson Adventures, which offers rock climbing, mountaineering, hiking, and other active vacations for gay men, lesbians, and friends. We hope it will be of use to anyone interested in this sport. We also invite those interested to read more about our other gay adventure vacations. 

Additional FAQs about a particularly vital piece of climbing equipment are on our climbing rope FAQs page.

Rock climbing has a reputation as an extreme sport. But modern techniques and equipment have greatly increased the safety level since the early days of climbing. Today, climbing can be an exciting, challenging, and enjoyable experience that involves far less danger than it might seem at first.

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What's the difference between rock climbing and mountaineering?

Rock climbing typically involves getting to the top of a cliff or crag. The challenge, for most climbers, comes from getting through sections of rock that are difficult to climb. There's also the challenge of placing protection (explained below), to protect against a fall.

Mountaineering usually, though not always, involves getting to the peak of a mountain. Some mountains require extensive rock climbing skills, others require little or no climbing. Mountaineers find their challenge, and satisfaction, in handling a wide spectrum of skills and strengths to achieve their goal. Good planning, physical endurance, teamwork, hiking and climbing skills, and route-finding ability, all come into play.

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How can I learn to climb?

This page is sponsored by Alyson Adventures, which offers active and outdoors vacations for gay men, lesbians, and friends. Our trip The Grand, in Wyoming, is designed for people who have never climbed, but would like to learn how. It includes two days of expert lessons, and an ascent of the Grand Teton.

Some outdoors clubs, such as Appalachian Mountain Club, offer rock climbing instruction, often with volunteer instructors and at a very reasonable cost.

Climbing stores and popular climbing sites may have notices posted for classes or instructors. Most of these will be reliable, but do find out more about their credentials taking lessons from them.

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Should I start doing chin-ups to get ready for climbing?

You could. But you might climb worse as a result!

Rock climbing instructors often comment that the best students tend to be small, thin teenage girls. The worst: Boys on the football team. The boys think they can just pull themselves up the cliff. It works for a while -- but the cliff outlasts their biceps.

The girls, on the other hand, know they haven't a chance of pulling themselves up. So they focus on their footwork. Your legs are far stronger than your arms, and will go much further without tiring.

So sure, do those chin-ups. Extra arm strength will help -- but only if you still focus, first, on using your leg muscles, rather than arms, as much as possible.

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What happens if you fall?

As you're learning to climb, whenever you're too far off the ground to be protected by a simple hand spot, there will always be a rope tied at your waist, running to a belayer above you. The belayer takes in rope as you climb, using a technique that allows him to easily keep the rope from slipping back if you fall.

So: If you fall, you may slip a foot or so due to slack and rope stretch, but then you can try again.

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How does the rope get to the top of the cliff?

Sometimes you or the instructor will walk to the top by another route, find an anchor, and set up what's called a top rope.

The other approach is for one climber to lead the route. She'll have the rope attached at her waist, and bring it up with her.

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Is it true some people climb without a rope?

Yes. Not as many as there used to be.

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What happens if the lead climber falls?

When you're on a top rope, you won't fall far if everything is set up properly.

A lead climber faces the possibility of a longer fall, but still within the limits of safety. As she climbs, she'll put protection into the rock. Protection can take many forms, but often it's a simple wedge-shaped chunk of steel with a wire attached to it, known as a chock. The leader finds a small irregular crack, and wedges the chock in, so that a downward pull will merely drive it tighter into the rock. Then she runs the rope through a carabiner, which is attached to the chock.

The rope can pull through the carabiner as the climber ascends, but it's attached to the rock at that spot. If she gets 10 feet above the protection and then falls, she'll fall 10 feet down to that protection, then another 10 feet until the slack in the rope is taken up, then a few more feet due to rope stretch. Climbing ropes are intentionally designed to stretch slightly; it reduces the jolt on the rope, the protection, and the climber.

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What if there's enough rope for a 25-foot fall, but there's a big rock ledge at 20 feet?

That's a scenario that climbers try to avoid.

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Isn't this a lot for a new climber to learn?

You shouldn't do lead climbing while you're just learning to climb. You should know the principles involved, but as a novice climber, you'll want to focus on the basics: climbing technique, knots, giving a secure belay to your partner, setting up good anchors, and so on.

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How dangerous is rock climbing?

Any outdoor sport involves some element of risk. If you learn rock climbings skills from a knowledgeable instructor, are careful to follow established safety procedures, and choose to do only top-roping (in which case there's always a rope going from you to a higher belay), the risk is small.

Lead climbing creates somewhat more risk, but choosing well-protected routes that fall well within your abilities, the risk still falls within what many people consider an acceptable range.

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What usually causes climbing accidents?

Most climbing accidents are the result of one of the following:

Overconfidence. You've been climbing with more experienced leaders, and now you think you know what it's all about. So you buy a rope, and take a few friends out for a good time, without realizing that there are big gaps in your knowledge.

Carelessness. Your first time on a belay ledge, you'll double-checkthat you're clipped to the belay, before you lean over the edge. Your two-hundredth time, the height no longer intimidates you as much. You got interrupted just as you were about to clip in, and it never happened. Now you lean over the edge, your foot slips, and you fall.

Bad luck. A freak storm moves in when you're half-way up a full-day, exposed cliff. A climber above knocks a rock onto you. An apparently solid rock below you gives way. You can reduce these risks by checking weather reports, noting escape routes as you climb up, wearing a helmet, not climbing below another party on a cliff known for loose rock, and so on. You can't eliminate these risks entirely.

Calculated risks gone wrong. Some highly experienced climbers play it safe, and don't attempt a climb unless they feel it can be well protected the entire way. Others will take risks, and sometimes lose.

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Is rock climbing an expensive sport?

It's cheaper than many sports (skiing, for example), and roughly comparable to many others. As with most activities, you can spend more by getting the latest equipment and flying off to popular climbing destinations around the world. Or you can keep it very economical. Most Americans live within a few hours drive of a good climbing site, and if you camp out, a climbing weekend costs very little.

You'll need a harness ($35 and up, but will last for years), and some climbing shoes (around $100 to $150 and will have to be replaced periodically). If you're just learning, you'll probably be with a partner who has a rope and most of the other equipment.

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Join a lively gay and lesbian group for an exciting rock climbing vacation:

Rock climbing in Wyoming's Tetons: The Grand. 7 days. Learn rock climbing in Wyoming's majestic Tetons -- no experience required.

Mountaineering in Switzerland: The Matterhorn. 9 days. Sharpen your climbing skills in fresh Alpine air, then climb the Matterhorn. For people with some climbing experience.


Getting to the base of your climb is sometimes as challenging as climbing up it. Two pages that we provide for hikers will also be helpful to climbers: MAP AND COMPASS | ROUTE-FINDING

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