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15 things I wish I knew before I started climbing

January 1, 2020

Found in Activities, Skills and tips

If you’re gearing up to try indoor climbing, there are a few things that will likely come as a bit of a surprise. So we’ve sourced this list of 15 “good-to-knows” from MEC staff and Ambassadors to help give you a solid head start from day one. After all, it’s always nice to have a leg up (or 15) when you’re trying something new, right?

1. It’s totally doable

There’s a common misconception that rock climbing always resembles something like that scene from Mission Impossible or Alex Honnold free soloing.

While climbing can be the one of the most intense things in the universe, it’s actually completely accessible. Climbing gyms are safe, fun, welcoming environments to try it for the first time, and almost all of them offer intro clinics and bouldering areas.

2. Climbing gyms are amazing

Before I started climbing, I thought indoor climbing gyms were dark, smelly places where Gollum-esque creatures dwelled. It turns out that’s not so (well, mostly). Modern indoor climbing gyms are often architectural marvels with ridiculously cool walls, and some even have yoga classes, exercise bikes and super nice training areas.

Need proof? Allez Up in Montreal features a crazy sport wall, sick bouldering, and lets you climb silos outside. Yes, silos.

The Hive in Vancouver is a boulderers paradise…

While Basecamp Climbing in Toronto looks amazingly modern.

Most gyms also have a student rate, so it’s a stellar way to keep active during the school year.

3. Your life will be covered in chalk

Chalk is essential to keep your hands dry while climbing. Expect it to cover everything you own, especially dark-coloured clothing. This is normal.

4. Technique trumps strength

Footwork and technique are far more important than upper body strength when you’re starting out. Watch how experienced climbers use and position their feet in relation to their body – little tricks go a long way. So even if you feel like your pipes might not be up to the task, don’t worry – you’ll have plenty of time to develop some burl after mastering your technique.

5. Your hands will hurt… a lot

Yes, sometimes after climbing, it might be difficult to brush your teeth, open a can of beer, or apply hand sanitizer (oh the humanity!). But you’ll get used to it quickly and your hands will get tough. If you want to climb days in a row but don’t want to be held back by sore skin, invest in climbing-specific balms and tape.

6. Climbing shoes matter

They make a big difference, so use them. Rental shoes work okay, but the difference between rental kicks and a pair of climbing shoes that’s just right for you is pretty huge.

7. … and climbing shoes can be comfortable

Your climbing shoes will fit smaller than your street shoes. But that doesn’t mean they have to leave you struggling to walk (let alone climb). Check out our guide on how to choose climbing shoes.

Close up of climbing shoes on a hold with grades on it

8. Grades are weird

You’ve just sent your first 5.10a or V1 for the first time. Holy smokes – that’s a big achievement! You’ve worked hard, you’re super proud, and you want to skip through the streets yelling, “I’m a 5.10a climber!” You proceed to tackle every 5.10a in the surrounding area. But…

Here’s the thing: grades are weird. A 5.10a can sometimes feel like a 5.6, while a 5.7 can feel like a 5.11a. Grading is very subjective; depending on the style and physicality of the route setter, a route of a certain grade may feel hard or easy.

Take grades with a grain of salt. If you’re a 5.10 climber, you might come across a downright impossible 5.9 climb. And then – miraculously! – you might climb a 5.11a on the first try. Some days you’ll have huge victories and other days will be a little deflating, so try not to stress about grades too much.

9. Don’t climb in short shorts

Short shorts might do the trick for running, but when paired with a harness… not so much. To avoid a next-level wedgie, opt for a longer pair of bottoms. I like slightly loose-fitting shorts that hang around the knee. (Oh – and bashing your knees will happen; longer shorts can help with this too.)

10. It’s really, really social

Want to meet like-minded people to go camping, climbing or road-tripping? Get into rock climbing, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by good people obsessed with rocks, tight-fitting shoes and camper vans.

11. Lose the socks

Climbing with socks on is a bit of a no-go. You won’t be able to feel small holds under your feet, and your feet will overheat. (When wearing rentals, however, socks are a little more understandable.)

12. Straighten your arms

Bouldering in the cave

As a new climber, the impulse is to constantly pull yourself closer to the wall. Don’t! Whenever possible, keep your arms straight. Bent arms = tired muscles, so straighten your arms to reduce the pump. On that note…

13. You will experience the pump

Long sport or bouldering routes will make your forearms burn as intensely as 1000 suns. Deeply satisfying, the pump will help you develop strong forearms. Embrace the pump.

14. Climbing outside is different… way different

After lots of time climbing indoors, you’ll likely get the chance to try rock climbing outside. Whoo! It’s a total blast.

Thing is, climbing outside is way different than indoor climbing. You know those meticulously taped routes indoors? Outside, you’re on your own for route-finding, which takes some getting used to. It also might take time to trust your feet more. Compared to footholds in a gym, footholds on actual rock are often smaller and harder to see.

Your first couple of times outdoors, don’t expect to climb quite as hard as you have been indoors. Don’t beat yourself up about it – this is common.

Two people climbing outdoors

15. Climbers are super friendly

Stuck on a bouldering problem? Not sure how to get through the crux of that 5.10b? Ask a fellow climber. For whatever reason, climbers are really friendly, and 99.5% of the time they’re happy to help out another climber. Don’t be shy, say hello, ask for a bit of beta (that’s a climber’s word for “how to do something”), and you’ll probably get a good answer – and, possibly, a new climbing partner.

New to climbing? MEC offers a 10% off climbing package when you buy a harness to help you get set up – see the climbing special offer details.

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Originally published in 2016. Updated in 2020.

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