Your First Outdoor Climb

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

5 Things the gym can’t prepare you for

There's no need to be intimidated by your first climb outside. Knowing what to expect can help fight nervousness and apprehension. In this article, we'll break down the 5 most common problems new climbers encounter when transitioning outdoors, and deliver solutions for a more comfortable experience.

The Problem: Routefinding

Indoors, this concept is simple: stick with one color and go up. Outdoors, this concept is a little more difficult to grasp. You may be lucky enough to have a vertical crack system stretching from the ground to the anchors (more on cracks in a bit), but more likely than not, you’ll be looking at a sea of knobs, shelves, and smearing opportunities that are likely to leave you confounded.

The Solution

While you develop an eye for features that can be exploited, remember to utilize static movement and rest positions to best work your way up a route. A topo or photos of the route are great, but the best beta comes from watching someone else climb the route.

The Problem: Cracks

Jugs, crimps, pinches, and slopers dominate the landscape of most gyms. While this prepares climbers well for moderate face climbing, most indoor climbers are woefully unprepared for one of the most common features of outdoor rock climbing: cracks. They can be vertical, horizontal, flared, finger-sized, offwidth, shallow, and described in so many more adjectives than this article can cover.

The Solution

Cracks are friends you just haven’t met yet; they are often the only source of usable features on an otherwise blank wall and the only way to get comfortable with them is to play around in them. Use a toprope to practice your jamming and lieback techniques, and don’t forget to look outside the crack for options!

The Problem: Smearing

Have you ever tried to climb up a wet, leafy hill only to slip down with nearly every step you take? Get used to it. Odds are good that your first outdoor climb will be on vertical or less-than-vertical terrain and be sparse on definitive holds. What you’re more likely to see are indentations that require you to get as much of your rubber (or palm) as possible on in order to tediously push your way up. You might even top out a climb without once finding anything remotely resembling a “hold”.

The Solution

Surface contact is key, the more the better. Drop your heels to force better technique and remember to keep your weight above your feet. Leaning too far forward into slabs will likely result in slipping.

The Problem: Gear and Protection

Whether you’re learning how to set up your own toprope or following a trad route, you’ll quickly notice a whole lot of things going on that look quite unfamiliar.

The Solution

It takes a while to learn the nuances of outdoor protection, so your best bet for a safe and enjoyable first experience is to seek a qualified instructor or partner to show you the ropes. The best qualifier to look for is an AMGA certification in the terrain you’re practicing in. There is no substitute for accurate knowledge about the different materials and engineering that go into the equipment you’re using, and ”figuring it out” is not a reasonable path when your life is on the line.

The Problem: Forgetting Everything You’ve Learned

Congratulations, you’re halfway up your first outdoor rock climb! Unfortunately, you clawed your way up the first 30 feet, over-gripping and forgetting to look at your feet the whole way, and now you’re out of energy and will have to save the second half for later.

The Solution

There is no such thing as a flawless transition to outdoor climbing. It’s a new environment with new sights, sounds, and smells, and you can’t expect to pick up where you left off in the gym the other day. Try to remember your first few days climbing indoors and intentionally apply the skills you picked up during that critically important time. Remember to catch your breath, conserve energy, and trust that its okay to fall. You did find someone qualified to set up the system for you, right?

Remember to keep an open mind and stay humble; while some of the skills you've learned in the gym will transfer nicely to outdoor terrain, others will not. There is no substitute for qualified instruction, like with the AMGA-Certified Single Pitch Instructors and Rock Instructors at Climbmax Mountain Guides!

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