I recently realized that not only is Rockgrrl.com 10 years old this year, but I started climbing over 20 years ago! It made me think back on when and how I started and how it might have changed since then.

On top of Balance Rock
On top of Balance Rock

I started asking climbers how they got started. “A friend asked me to go bouldering in a gym and I said, ‘Sure!’” this was from a climber who started climbing recently. Another climber said he started by getting into mountaineering, then going rock climbing with a friend and eventually taking a class. He started in the early 90s. Other answers from climbers who had been climbing five years or less included taking classes, scrambling around on one’s own and seeing if they could do it, having a boyfriend take them out, having a lover take them out, and having a girlfriend teach them.

My own rock climbing story began with a slight fear of heights and a class I took at a university which was held at a rock formation I had wondered about for years. I took the beginning class, got hooked, took another class, made friends… and the rest is history as the saying goes.

So what are your choices today?

  • 1. You can take a class indoors or out
  • 2. You can hire a guide
  • 3. You can have a mentor / friend teach you
  • 4. You can teach yourself

For many folks just starting out I would recommend the first two options. Taking a class is a great way to just see if climbing is for you. Classes or guided instruction also usually offer equipment rental which is better than buying gear before you know if you’ll love climbing or what kind of equipment is best for you. Formal instruction is offered in a variety of ways: through a climbing gym, through outdoor equipment stores, through schools, and through climbing or adventure guiding companies. Instruction can be held indoors or out, as single or multiday outings. While a class in a gym is convenient, I think learning outdoors in nature is still a great way to learn.

When researching your options, find out if instructors are accredited with the American Mountain Guides Assocation (AMGA) http://amga.com/ This association certifies guides and climbing instructors and is the United States’ representative to the 21-member International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA), the international governing body responsible for guiding standards and education around the world. If an instructor is certified with the AMGA I’d personally give that class priority, especially for higher level classes.

There are a number of books available about rock climbing and mountaineering, and on the internet these days you can gain not only information about rock climbing in general but also find local recommendations for classes, guides or mentors in your area. One warning though, if you do read about climbing before taking your class, don’t take the information in the books (and especially on the internet) as the final word. Climbing has evolved over the years and is continuously evolving and your instructor may have more up to date information.

If you are lucky enough to have a friend or find a mentor who is willing to teach you, keep in mind the above information. Also, realize that you are putting your life in your friend’s hands and what that kind of responsibility could mean to your friendship.

As far as option 4 goes, for the brand new climber, I would advise against it. I think it’s a fine thing to research climbing on one’s own but when it comes to actual practice, it’s best to first do it with someone who knows what he or she is doing and who can advise you on what gear to rent or borrow.

With so many options for a beginner climber these days, I think It’d be hard to beat a class or guided experience for the best and safest introduction to the sport.

Still interested in giving climbing a try? Go forth and research your local options (or take a plunge and book a vacation with an accredited and well reviewed guide). But remember, climbing is an inherently dangerous sport. It’s not always like how TV specials or Citibank commercials show you, but it should be something that you try with an eye towards fun AND awareness.