So this was a slow roller for me. It really took me awhile to get into it, almost 2 years. But let me tell you, once you cross a certain threshold, climbing will get it’s hooks in you and never let go. It’s truly a gateway drug as now I’m contemplating glacier and alpine climbing classes….as if I need another recreational hobby to buy gear for….
Anywho, the person who initially got me into climbing was my friend Melinda. Her face would light up as she would talk about climbing and her joy about it was infectious. She invited me to come to the climbing gym with her and try bouldering around a bit. So I obliged thinking, ‘Hey why not? It’s something to do…’. My first impression was that it was…interesting, and surprisingly hard and….I got kinda freaked out a bit while climbing around. I realized I indeed do have a healthy fear of heights and it was getting the better of me, even only a few feet off the ground with padded flooring everywhere. After that first evening at the gym, I would go back maybe once a month with her just as something do to, but not really take it too seriously as the heights thing just seemed to be something I had a hard time getting over….and I just felt awkward most of the time.
Then I committed to a canyoneering trip to Zion trip and I was forced to get to the know the gear, the ins and outs and the terminology. Climbing wasn’t a huge ‘must have’ for this trip, but the knowledge of rappelling, how the harnesses worked and what a belay device did was essential. So naturally, bouldering (climbing freely without a harness and only a few feet from the ground) led into top roping (climbing with a harness, rope and a belay partner) because in order to rappel, you have to get to the top of something in order to get back down off of it. So naturally, you climb it. I really did not like stepping too far out of my comfort zone with top roping. I would get shaky legs, sweats, felt like my heart was beating out of my chest…the works. Over the summer before our trip, I would only climb the stuff that was super easy so I could feel comfortable practicing tying knots and getting just high enough so I could rappel. It was a hard first few months and the fear of heights and shaky legs just wouldn’t subside. But then gradually, as the gear became more familiar and I became more confident in what I was doing, I was able to concentrate on climbing and the shaky legs started to fade. They faded enough that I did my first outdoor climb right before Zion and realized that it was a whole new ball game. It was so completely different than climbing in a gym. The routes aren’t laid out for you so it’s up to your own volition to find your way up the rock. Plus, being outside on a sunny day doing something active is an added bonus. When I got to Zion a month later, not one rappel made me nervous and I had an absolutely amazing trip.
After Zion, I went through 6 months of recovery after knee surgery in the fall of 2013. After I felt strong enough, I would go to the gym once every month or so to try and get comfortable with climbing again. I still had a fair share of ‘PTSD’ from my fall in Zion (read more on that here) so bouldering was particularly difficult for me mentally…and it still is. After a while, around the summer of 2014 I was introduced to a few more outdoor climbs at Exit 38. I would sporadically go in spurts of climbing for a while, then stop, then climb again, then stop…again. I was on another climbing spurt when a weekend trip to Vantage was in the works. As I understood it, Vantage was this warm and dry mecca that climbers flocked to when the weather in Seattle was promised to be full of rain. So I said I was in for the weekend, because once again, why not? A warm and dry Mecca is exactly what is was. My interest in climbing had been sparked again and over the summer of 2014, I climbed more and more and went back to Vantage 3-4 times that summer. I even snuck in a lead climb of a 5.4 which for me was a big accomplishment. (lead climbing is where you are the first one climbing and setting up the rope on a series of bolts, so you don’t have the luxury of having the rope above you at all times to catch you, only a person below to catch the rope only as far as the last bolt you passed). My friends, especially Ben and Mel, were instrumental in my climbing progression as they were my two most super patient and motivating coaches I could have asked for.
And then late summer came and I stopped…again. For about 3 months. As it happened, a fluke warm weekend arrived and a few friends were headed out to Exit 38 again. I went along and did a few climbs and was disappointed in how I had regressed. With that, something hit a trip wire in my brain and I decided to commit to trying head to the climbing gym 2x a week to see if I’d stick with it. And I did….I purchased a membership to Stone Gardens and have stuck with climbing consistently ever since.
Since climbing regularly (and still with the motivation of my friends who are all better climbers than me), I’ve climbed a 5.10A (just one!) outside, 5.9’s consistently in the gym and even lead a 5.7 a few weekends ago. I spent a lot of time watching and learning from other climbers, seeing how they use their body and getting tips from others on how to position myself in the best possible way to make it up the rock to the next move. It has been super fun mental and physical challenge that I never thought I would find myself addicted to. Now I’m setting my sights on bigger and more exciting climbs to take me to bigger and better places.
So, with that, here are a few things I would suggest if you’re looking to start climbing.
Find a buddy that already climbs, hell if you’re in the Seattle area, contact me! If you want to learn, learn from a buddy. If you don’t know anyone that climbs, I suggest signing up for a class at your local climbing gym (climbers are generally super amiable people and you’ll make friends fast) or see what the Mountaineers are offering. They have a slew of climbing courses at all levels to get started with.
Make an effort to get to know the gear. It will help you feel more comfortable and confident so you can focus on climbing vs. fear the gear will fail (because in 99.99999999999% of cases, it won’t).
Don’t be afraid to fail. Sometimes climbing can be intimidating. It seems like everyone around you knows what they are doing and you’re the only noob in the room. So. Not. True. Everyone had to start somewhere, everyone has been where you are so just relax and have fun.
Rent or borrow gear. There is no reason to invest in any gear until you know you’re really going to stick with it.
When you do buy gear, buy in sets if you can. Black diamond sells great starter sets like this one that include a harness, chalk bag and belay device. Totally perfect starter set that will last for years.
When you buy shoes, buy them small. Yes, climbing shoes are supposed to hurt. But they also stretch after use. They’re supposed to fit like a second skin so go a half to a full size smaller in size. If you have questions on how they should fit, don’t be afraid to ask. Climbing shoes can be tough and it’s better to get advice from the employees or friends at the climbing gym.
Don’t be afraid to go beyond what you think you can do. I always try and quit. Every time. And my friends know this of me and don’t let me. Eventually, I finish the route I’m on and proud I did it (and happy they didn’t let me quit). Challenging yourself only makes you better and I’ve been challenging myself to try harder routes whenever I can. Because trying and failing is better than not trying at all, amirite?
The American Alpine Club released a pretty cool site dedicated to the history of women in climbing in honor of Women’s History Month. It’s totally worth a peruse, pretty inspiring stuff.
For instance, I learned that Arlene Blum made the first American Ascent of Annapurna in 1978. She raised funds for the trip by selling t-shirts with the slogan ‘A women’s place is on top.’ How can you not love it?
Check out the site here: http://americanalpineclub.org/clubhouse/iwd/
I never will claim to be an expert when it comes to climbing, ever…but I do have some basic knowledge as once being someone who has been right where you are, wanting to start but not knowing what to do. Just wait till you get to the point where you just think about climbing and it makes your hands sweat in excitement. That’s when you know you’re hooked. So…get started and go climb a rock.