Rock Climbing 101: an Introduction to the Crag

The wonder of climbing is that it challenges you both mentally and physically. It forces you to be in the moment and requires you to focus on the task at hand, whilst working muscles you didn’t even know you have. With countless routes to the top of a wall, it is the epitome of exploration: to reach new heights in a way no-one has before ‒ what could be more adventurous?  But for me, climbing is more than an aspiration to explore where others have not. Climbing is a way to settle a restless mind, a way to feel normal and a never ending puzzle to challenge myself. It has become my way of life, and I now like to help others see the beauty and the therapeutic side of the sport.

climbing dusting hands with chalk - tyson-dudley via unsplash

"I had no way of driving into the mountains to explore... what I did have was a bouldering gym just down the road, and a mother who was eager to get me out of the house"

After I was diagnosed with epilepsy, I felt trapped. My life became very sedentary, and I could no longer do most of my favourite hobbies. I had no way of driving into the mountains to explore, and because the fear of drowning was now too real, I was unable to kayak in the river. But what I did have was a bouldering gym just down the road from my folk’s house, and a mother who was eager to get me out of the house in between seizures. A bouldering gym is unique from other fitness gyms: the floor is padded and the walls have been outfitted with rock climbing holds and overhanging slanted sections of walls.  The focus is on learning the climbing skills needed for larger routes, rather than how much weight you can bench press. I began visiting the gym two to three times a week and learned the basics of climbing, quickly finding my place in the climbing community.

What is Bouldering?

Bouldering focuses on routes or problems that go no higher than about 17 feet (5m) off the ground. There are no ropes or safety devices used, which means a person can boulder on their own without the assistance of a partner. By purchasing a pair of climbing shoes and a bag of chalk, you can start bouldering on your own any day of the week. Bouldering teaches a climber the importance of how to position their body while on a route, and how to grip different types of hold. It is incredibly physically demanding, and you learn how to think about the route you take when climbing.

I spent the better part of a year bouldering, building strength in my hands and arms, and learning the fundamentals of climbing in my gym before I ventured outside to climb. I wanted to be sure I was strong enough and understood the safety precautions before heading into the wild. I live in Boulder County, Colorado, so I am lucky enough to have multiple canyons filled with crags at my disposal: all I needed was the confidence to begin my adventure.

Climbing at the Crag

So let’s talk about what it means to take climbing to the next level, and explain some climbing jargon. Besides bouldering, the most frequently practised types of climbing are sport climbing and traditional, also known as trad climbing. A crag is a cliff or rock face that is used for climbing, containing multiple routes. Sport crags will have bolts drilled into the wall, and fixed anchors at the top, while trad crags will use established routes following natural cracks in the rock. I have not ventured into the world of trad climbing too deeply – I spend most of my time increasing my experience and skill on sport routes. On a sport route there are two types of climbing: lead climbing and top rope. In lead climbing, the climber ascends the wall carrying the rope with them and using equipment called quickdraws to create safety points. Once the climber reaches the top of the route, they create an anchor and are then lowered back to the ground. By doing this, the rope is now secured at the top of the route and fellow climbers can now ‘top rope’ the route. In top roping, climbers are not required to carry gear or build safety points during the climb.

" A climber-code of numbers and letters shows the difficulty grade, and (just to make it more confusing) different countries use different climbing scales"

climbing shoe on orange rock cindy-chen-via unsplash

Now for the tricky part: for both indoor and outdoor climbing, the difficulty of a route is determined and graded. Overhanging sections, the types of holds and the movements required to ascend all pay into the difficulty of the climb. A climber-code of numbers and letters shows the difficulty grade, and (just to make it more confusing) different countries use different climbing scales. In the US the most common method for grading a climb in known as the Yosemite Decimal System, which grades both hikes and climbs on a scale from 1-5. Class 1-4 refer to hikes and scrambles, and class 5 is climbing and ascending. The grade within the climbing class is given after a decimal point, so climbing routes typically start with a grade 5.5 difficulty and progress to a 5.16 difficulty. At 5.10, suffixes of a-d are added to further describe the climb (5.10a is easier than a 5.10d) and this continues all the way to 5.16d, currently the most difficult climbing grade ever set.

Europe tends to use the French sport climbing grades for indoor wall climbing. Like the Yosemite system, most climbing routes start at class 5, with suffixes of a-c used to show increased difficulty in class. An extra subdivision ‘+’ shows particularly difficult routes in a class (so 5a is the easiest route and 5c+ is the hardest in that class). As climbs get more difficult, the number increases up to 9b, which is currently the hardest.

Trad climbing grades in the UK and Europe get much more complicated. I am not familiar with them myself, but the BMC has an article for those interested.

Basic Climbing Equipment

Both sport and trad climbing require safety gear and a partner, and allow the climber to reach great heights off the ground. A rope is required for both, which costs anywhere from $100-$400 USD, or about £50-£300. Bear in mind that your rope is your best friend and keeps you alive in the event of a fall. If you are buying your own equipment, it is important to invest in your rope and take care of it between climbs. Next you will need a harness, which is worn like pants or trousers, with straps around your legs and above your waist to keep you secure when climbing. Most harnesses are very similar: some are made to be extra light for long climbs; others have lots of extra loops for carrying gear; some are adjustable for extra comfort, and some are fixed in size to minimise the amount of fabric on the harness.

A belay device attaches to the rope to help support the climber. When looking into buying a belay device you will see there are lots of different options offering many different features. My two favourite devices are the ATC (Air Traffic Control) by Black Diamond and the Grigri by Petzl. Both offer bomb-proof construction and dependability, but their benefits differentiate them.

cams and gears for climbing - cameron-kirby via unsplash

"I began using a Grigri when my seizures became more frequent ‒  if I were belaying my partner and had a seizure, the auto-lock would keep them safe"

Let’s look at the ATC first. The device itself is simple and reliable: by putting the rope through the device and a locking carabiner you have a dependable means of lowering the climber and catching them in the event of a fall. An ATC can also be used as a means to rappel (abseil) yourself down from the top of a climb, which is useful if you are setting up a top rope for a route, and also if you are cleaning the route by removing gear on your way down. The Grigri offers a different set of benefits that can be incredibly important to both the climber and belayer. A Grigri is slightly more sophisticated than an ATC in its design, in that it can auto-lock the rope in case the belayer is unable to hold it. While a Grigri cannot be used to rappel from the top of a climb, it can make some climbers feel safer to know that their belay will never fail. I began using a Grigri when my seizures became more frequent ‒  if I were belaying my partner and had a seizure, the auto-lock would keep them safe.

Assembling a Rack

Whether it is sport or trad, in order to ascend a route outdoors a more particular set of gear is required. This is known as ‘a rack’. A sport rack consists of carabiners, quickdraws, and slings. Carabiners are used to clip to the wall, and can be used to create safety points on the route, as well as creating a static anchor for a way down. They can be locking or non-locking (both variations serve different purposes when climbing). Quickdraws are needed to create safety points on the wall to attach your rope to as you climb. Quickdraws are made of two carabiners and piece of webbing (known as a dog bone) connecting the two. One carabiner attaches to a fixed bolt on the rock and the other carabiner is used to hold the rope, creating a safety point in case the climber falls. Slings are loops of webbing that serve multiple purposes such as creating static anchors, holding a climber in direct contact to the rock, or they can simply be used to carry gear.

A trad rack is like a sport rack, with the addition of cams. Unlike sports routes, most trad routes do not have bolts permanently fixed in the wall: in order to climb a trad route, the climber is required to set their own gear in the rock. They slide cams into cracks in the rock to create a safety point as they ascend. A set of cams can cost upwards of $300 and often a climb requires multiple cams of the same size, so trad climbing can get expensive.

"Whether it is sport or trad, in order to ascend a route outdoors a more particular set of gear is required. This is known as ‘a rack’"

Climbing rope Photo by Brook Anderson on Unsplash

More Accessible Than Ever

Climbing is no longer just an outdoor activity: the creation of climbing and bouldering gyms have made rock climbing a four season sport. Gyms typically consist of bouldering areas, top rope routes and lead climbing routes. The creation of these gyms has made climbing a much more accessible activity, drawing more and more people to participate in the sport. What used to be an all-day event of hiking to a crag and building top rope routes can now be achieved by simply signing in at reception and putting on your gear. If it weren’t for my local bouldering gym, I doubt I would have been able to build the skills required to climb outside. And I doubt I would have been able to deal with my epilepsy in the same way I have.

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