Keep Calm And Climb On: Five Things to Expect When Getting Into the Sport of Climbing
By Ina Are you looking for a new pastime? An escape from the daily grind? Perhaps a break from your usual fitness activity? Or maybe you’re just bored and want to try something you’ve never done before? Whatever it is that led you to these pages, we're glad you found your way here. This post hopes to broadcast the less-highlighted but equally-important truths about the sport of climbing. (And yes, climbing is a legitimate sport, World Cups and our own Philippine Team and [...]
Or maybe you’re just bored and want to try something you’ve never done before?
Whatever it is that led you to these pages, we're glad you found your way here. This post hopes to broadcast the less-highlighted but equally-important truths about the sport of climbing. (And yes, climbing is a legitimate sport, World Cups and our own Philippine Team and all!)
Just to be clear, this is not a guide to fulfilling your elite climber ambition, though tips will surely be scattered here and there. This is more about sharing the less-hyped parts of being a climber, to give you a well-rounded perspective of why more and more people are drawn to it, and why it’s far more than an activity to tick off your bucket list.
Whether you've only tried "wall-climbing" in a school fair or some expo, or even if you’ve already visited a climbing gym a couple of times, our goal is to cast out any doubts you have about dipping your finger into the sport. Because the last thing we want are for newbie climbers to have crushed expectations after seeing the reality.
Are you ready? Let’s dive in!
Your arms will feel like jelly.
Your hands will develop calluses.
And maybe you’ll get a scratch or bruise.
These worries are completely unfounded because climbing is a full-body workout. This is especially true when you're just starting out. Climbing is a lot like going up a step-ladder: It’s mainly your legs working to push you up from one rung to the next, while your hands and arms assist by pulling your body in (closer to the ladder) so that you don’t lose your balance, or fall backwards as you move up.
Your arms, therefore, work in coordination with your legs and the rest of your body (back, core, etc.) as you climb. This clearly shows how your success in climbing isn't fully dependent on upper body strength alone.
So what kind of tiredness can you expect? To put it simply, you’ll feel a weaker hand grip. I remember repetitively dropping a bar soap when I took a bath after my first few climbing sessions. Some couldn’t turn a door knob, hold a water bottle, or grip the wheel of the car.
The good thing is it’s nothing permanent. There will simply be a distinct tiredness in your forearms that may last for few days, depending on how fatigued your muscles are. But this won't be happening to you forever. As you log in more climbing time, your hands and forearms will get used to carrying your body weight regularly, until eventually, it'll take a lot more than an hour of climbing to wear it out that way again.
What about the scratches and bruises? Don’t worry, that only happens to the clumsiest of us. Kidding aside, it also happens that you can be so focused on climbing that you don’t notice how your elbow occasionally grazes the wall, or your hip or knee bumps a climbing hold. It can’t be anything major, and you can even be proud of yourself for earning battle scars so early on.
You'll get grimy.
Maybe it was the sauna-like atmosphere in the gym, I can’t recall anymore. The point is, even if you’re climbing in an air-conditioned facility, climbing can make you sweat. A lot. It may not look like your typical cardiovascular workout, but carrying your body weight even on the most basic wall can elevate one’s heart rates and burn calories. Add to that the fear component of climbing, and one easily gets sweaty palms, underarms and groins.
Then there’s the chalk. Climbers use chalk similar to what gymnasts use, to minimize the sweat on their palms which affect their ability to grip holds. Chalk is kept in a “chalk bag” (one of the personal gear you will own as a climber). But because they are loose like powder, and the ratio of chalk bag to climber is 1:1, there is chalk dust inevitably floating around the gym all the time.
Combine this floating chalk with your sweat-drenched hair, nape, neck, and every other skinfold on your body, and you can really manage to dirty yourself up without effort.
Consider also the time of your climbing session. Mornings will always be the coolest time of the day. Noon is always the worst time to climb. Even if you’re climbing somewhere with air-con, the oven-warmth of our tropical climate can blanket you as you reach the top of the wall (closest to the ceiling). The heat gradually lessens in the afternoon. By the evening, the climbing temperature can become ideal again.
You'll learn about focus.
There are kids half your size hiking up the wall with unrelenting energy. There are adults that look twice your age, cruising up a boulder, or falling (what looks) haphazardly, but not flinching from the air time at all. People crank pull-ups between casual chats and finger taps on the cellphone. Everyone’s backs, shoulders and biceps look magazine-worthy.
The different characters in the gym may catch your attention as you wait for your climb. But as soon as you’re attached to the rope and signaled to start your ascent, the distractions that pre-occupied you a few seconds ago will start to fade away. The only thought you’ll be left with is: How the heck do I get myself up this wall??
Humans have an inherent fear of falling. It’s part of our instinct of self-preservation and avoidance of pain. Once your body gets off the ground, and the more height you gain, your mind will begin to zero in on the task of keeping you on the wall, its way of trying to “keep you alive”.
And in this day when we are constantly sidetracked by a notification (Hey, that's cool! Like / Double Tap / Share), or some errand that slipped our mind but can't not attend to (Time to panic!!!), climbing is a good teacher of how to turn off distractions, deal with our inner demons, do problem-solving, and stay in the present moment.
Climbing shows you clearly how each body is unique, and has its own set of strengths that can be used to each one's own advantage.
Observe this in your first session: You and your climbing partner will never use the exact same method to get up the wall. It doesn’t mean one person’s way of doing it is wrong and the other one’s right. It just demonstrates how each person’s body and way of "solving the problem" is different. The challenge for you is to figure out how to use your own body optimally to complete a climb.
To back this up a bit more, you should know that in the climbing world, there’s an international system for determining just how hard a climb is. For instance, I’m a Filipino climber and I’m on some mountain in France. Using the grading system, I'll be able to determine if a climbing route is above, below, or just within my level. (A climbing route is a set sequence or path up the wall or rock). Having this standard grading system emphasizes how a climber must focus on benchmarking his or her performance on the grading scale, rather than targeting to outperform another climber.
You'll constantly surprise yourself.
You’ll be scared out of your wits to let go of the rope. What if the rope breaks? The gear fails? My belay partner makes a mistake?? But after a few minutes, you'll be back on the ground, the moment of fear will have passed, and you'll be ready to go back up again.
You’ll be climbing a route three times, five times, ten times, never managing to complete it; your arms or your brain always fails you halfway through. But then you try it again, and on your 11th try, it finally sends ("send": climbing jargon for completing a climb).
There will be many surprising victories in your climbing journey, big and small. Many of them will not be seen by other people. But you will know it personally if you’ve conquered or surpassed something you’ve never done before, and that will make all the difference to you.
It can be as hidden as finally being able to climb without a tingle of fear in your body. Or it can be obvious, like doing your first pull-up, or learning to do a drop-knee (a technique where a climber rotates the hips in order to point their knee in and downward. This EpicTV video explains this super-important technique well).
Whatever it is, there will surely be many moments in climbing when you will prove yourself wrong, and just pleasantly surprise yourself about being able to do something more comfortably, confidently, and successfully.
Surprises can go the other way, too.
You may discover certain traits about yourself, like how you react to pressure and disappointment. Do you get agitated and anxious when you can’t finish a problem that everyone else can easily do? Or do you get more motivated to strive harder?
I remember one of my first visits to a climbing gym that opened my eyes to how I reacted to failure. I climbed an easy wall slowly and reached the top. I felt good. I climbed a second wall and surprisingly, managed to finish it, too. Naturally, I felt strong and optimistic. I climbed a third wall, reached the overhanging section, then flooded with panic at why my grip was loosening uncontrollably, until I just peeled off without a fight. I cried and didn’t want to try the same wall again.
I wasn’t used to failing, and having a failed climb witnessed by the “public” was one of the worst feelings for me at that time. I was shocked (and embarrassed with) my own self about how automatically the tears came, and how quickly I was discouraged. Thankfully, climbing has allowed me to experience hundreds of these “morale-crushers” and taught me to toughen up and fix my attitude.
I also learned that I mustn’t label these incidents as morale-crushers. These “bad surprises” of falling off routes served as eye-openers to what I still lacked and needed to improve on. I learned to accept that failing is part of the climbing life. And the more times I fell, the deeper each lesson was hammered into my brain.
You’ll get in shape while having fun.
In case it hasn’t been mentioned enough, it’s because there’s a mental side to climbing.
It’s not just about pushing your body to its physical limits. Successfully climbing up the wall requires the same approach as solving a puzzle: Planning your moves, refining your techniques, trial and error, adjusting methods and tactics, and last but not least, harnessing your sheer focus and determination to put everything together.
All this effort is part and parcel of getting to the top of a route. And these same things make for a far more interesting workout than counting laps, sets and minutes, doing the same movements over and over again.
Then there’s the social aspect of climbing. Have we mentioned that you can expect to find all body shapes, types, heights, ages, gender, and all sorts of profiles in the climbing community? Because you don’t need to be the “athletic type” to get into the sport, you’ll soon discover that there are lots of people – and different types of interesting people – to meet and join you in your climbing journey.
Put these all together and it’s fairly easy to forget that you initially went to the gym to just workout.
You’ll find yourself challenged by a route or a boulder problem, and will look for ways to make it happen for you. You’ll meet new people. You'll setup climbing dates with the friends you’ve made. Or you can start inviting your own friends or make it a family activity. You’ll be logging in more hours in the gym because you'll each have your own boulder problem that you want to finish. Or, if you prefer, you can also work on routes by yourself -- with your headphones, at your own time -- because climbing training can be done alone, anyway.
Sure, you’ll still feel the sweat and grime (all the time). But because you'll be consumed by almost getting to that last hold and giving it one last try for the 100th time, before you know it, your overall physique would have balanced out (you would've lost weight if you were bulky, or gained muscle if you were normally just skin and bones) and improved your general fitness.
But the bigger gain, I think, is how the sport gets the mind into great shape.
While climbing's most obvious lesson is facing our fear of heights, the truth is, climbing feeds our brain with a handful of valuable life skills, such as discipline, focus, patience, determination, and acceptance, among many others.
In my experience, it taught me to be more aware of what's possible or not; of my own potential as a person. It gave me confidence even outside the walls of the gym. It gave me courage to test my limits, and to occasionally jump into “what if’s”; things that were unthinkable for my naturally timid, safe personality.
But please, don't just take it from me. Though my 15+ years of climbing has seen far too many sound minds and bodies with crazy-fulfilled grins to count, you'll really only need a few climbing sessions to understand what I'm talking about.
We'd also love to hear your own stories. Do you have similar experiences when you first started climbing? Do you wish there were other things on this list that we missed out? Feel free to comment so we can plan for an updated post in the future.
Thanks for dropping by. Here's to getting ready for the climb, the grime, and all the fun that goes with it. Keep calm and climb on!
- 99Boulders: Climber’s Hands: How to Take Care of Calluses & Prevent Flappers. https://www.99boulders.com/how-to-take-care-of-calluses
- Time.com: Why Rock Climbing May Be the Ultimate Full-Body Workout.
- Book: Dave Macleod, 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes (2010)
- EpicTV Video: Rock Climbing Technique for Intermediates: The Back Step / Drop Knee). https://www.epictv.com/media/podcast/rock-climbing-technique-for-intermediates--the-back-step--drop-knee/605623
- Book: Arno Ilgner, The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers (2003)
- EpicTV Climbing Daily: So...What Do Climbing Grades Even Mean? Ep.889.
- The Guardian: Climbing has gone from niche sport to worldwide sensation. What is its dizzying appeal?