Ever since you wandered into the gym, whether it was with a friend or on a Groupon-whim, you knew you'd found your niche. You've made steady progress pulling plastic, transitioning from scrabbling V1 and top-roping 5.9 to onsighting V4 and leading 5.11a. Overall, you're feeling pretty confident in your ability to overcome cruxes of all varieties.
Now, the zen-like appeal of climbing has compelled you to venture beyond the padded fluorescent-lit cocoon of the gym environment. Suddenly, your palms are itching to feel actual friction--to experience rock climbing on, well, actual rock. Instead of resin lumps and bumps, you're imagining powerful moves on an alien-esque hunk of polished volcanic rock, or delicately navigating dime-thin edges on crystalline granite.
Welcome to the outside. However, before you crack a guidebook for directions to hit the nearest crag, here's what you need to know to get the most of your experience.
It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take Friends.
Preferably, those friends are also seasoned outdoor climbers. Odds are you probably already have some gym buddies who've made the leap to outdoor climbing, so talk to them. Learn where the best local spots are. Find out when their next climbing trip is, or propose one yourself. Surround yourself with awesome people, and you will become one of them. They'll let you in on the nuances of particular approaches, problems, and routes way better than any book. Plus, there's that whole safety-in-numbers thing. You may be able to get away without a spotter or a super-attentive belayer indoors, but once you're outside, your security blanket is tossed aside, and safety should always be your top priority.
Gear Up and Beta Down
First things first: leave your ego at the trailhead. No matter your gym climbing ability, you're going to be knocked down a few grades at the start (this applies to all styles of climbing, not just bouldering). Climbing grades are completely subjective, so don't be discouraged if an outdoor V2 leaves you struggling harder than an indoor V4. If you have any specific problems in mind to tackle, hit up Mountain Project to read the comments and watch beta videos--they'll give you a more realistic idea of the difficulty than the grade slapped on it.
Along with your climbing gear, you'll need a few essentials in your daypack for protection against the elements:
- -Sunscreen and lip balm
- -Climbing tape
- -Sunglasses First-aid kit
- -Headlamp. (this is important, you never know how long your day's gonna last)
- -Filled water bottles and/or hydration bladder
- -Insulating outerwear (jacket, gloves, hat, etc.)
- -Waterproof gear (depending on geography and weather forecast)
- -Approach and/or après shoes
Most of the people who got hooked on climbing got started bouldering because it is fun, requires little gear, and is amazing strength training. To start, all you need are some shoes, chalk, a chalk bag, a crash pad, and a spotter (see above), and you're in business. If you don't already have them, pick up your own pair of shoes. Compared to your basic gym rentals or soft slippers--which are great for training toe and midsole strength--boulderers generally prefer more aggressive shoes with downturned profiles since they need to be worn for brief bursts of power.
Don't go out and grab a pair of La Sportiva Solutions just yet, though. Ease into more aggressive shoes by wearing them in the gym (yes, the gym) to get accustomed to how it feels hooking, edging, balancing, and smearing with a new profile. As you get more comfortable outdoors, you can level up your shoes along with your skill. Generally, boulderers crush in shoes with a cambered design (bent downwards in the middle of the foot) and an asymmetrical toe box, which allows them to stick on steep routes, stand up on small features like crystals and balance on thin edges.
Crash pads are straightforward: line them up and they'll soften your fall or protect you from sharp rocks. Available in a variety of sizes and thicknesses, most pads fold in half and have closures and backpack straps for carrying convenience. (Bonus: in a pinch, they're great for catching afternoon catnaps.) In terms of size, the most common dimensions are around 48"x40" unfolded, although pads can be as large as 72". Pads either fold like a book, on a diagonal bias, or utilize the delicious "taco fold," which makes the pad quite thick but also creates a little space to serve as a storage area. Whichever you choose, look for pads with a heavy-duty 500" denier fabric shell; these can take multiple beatings and draggings, while flimsier materials will break down or rip.
Finally, you'll want that magic white powder. We're talking high grade, pure white chalk. Grab some MgCO3 in either loose or ball/sock/sack form, toss it in a chalk bucket or bag, and you're good to go. Oh! Except for one addition: a bouldering brush. These toothbrush-style accessories help you scrub away the handprints and tick marks your chalky palms make on the rock. Leave no trace!
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Yes, you can have the security of an upper anchor outdoors. The tradeoff is that you need to know which routes are top-ropable and learn how to build a safe, secure anchor using locking carabiners and slings. Check out guides online, but again, this is where those friends of yours will come in handy to ensure your anchor performs as bomber as it feels.
Alternatively, if you want to try a single-pitch route that's normally not accessible for top roping, a friend can trad or sport climb the route first, set up a top rope, and then belay you; in return, you can unclip draws and clean (remove) pro he placed along the way. Only try this out with a very experienced climbing partner!
In gear news, we assume you've already got a harness, a belay device, and at least one locking carabiner in your gear bag, so all you need to add are two key pieces: a rope and a helmet. For rope, you have one choice: dynamic. Dynamic ropes stretch to absorb shock, so when you fall, you'll have a soft(er) landing. That leaves you with length. To give you some perspective, most gym ropes are 30 meters, or around 98 feet. This is fine for a man-made wall, but generally, outdoor climbs are far longer than what you've sent indoors. The last thing you want to encounter is rope runout, so aim for a 60-70 meter rope, going for the longer option if you plan to use it for sport climbing as well. Keep in mind that the longer the rope, the heavier it is.
Recommended Products for Top Roping:
Feeling pretty solid on your gym lead climbing? Before you take your clipping game outside, there are a few things you need to know. Just like in top-roping, outdoor lead climbs are quite a bit longer than their indoor counterparts, so make sure your endurance is up to the challenge. Another is that your bolts are going to be spaced much farther apart. In the gym, you're accustomed to clipping every three feet or so. Expect at least double or triple that distance on the rock--so you'd better be comfortable with long falls (and have a belayer who's skilled with soft catches).
Finally, there's the clipping itself. You're going to have to place your own quickdraws, so make sure you have enough for the route--most routes under 30 meters require a dozen or so. Also decide whether you prefer, bent gate, wire gate, or keylock carabiners for your quickdraws. Most quickdraws have a bent gate carabiner on the bottom to make clipping easier, since the gate is slightly bent thus easier to open. However, wire gate carabiners have been shown to fail less often, and keylock carabiners' notched intersection between the gate and the carabiner keeps them from snagging and catching. Ultimately, the choice is yours as to what will benefit your climbing the most.
Before you go sport climbing, hit the gym to practice unclipping quickdraws from your harness and clipping them onto unoccupied bolts on the wall (away from occupied routes, and preferably in a training/testing area) so you can do it smoothly without fumbling. Become familiar with the quickdraws' orientation as well; proper placement; you want the carabiners' gates to face away from the rope's direction of travel to reduce the risk of accidental unclipping. One way you can become familiar with placement is outlined in the top roping section: climbing a route with quickdraws placed and removing them. You'll get a good idea of how the rope passes through the biners, dictating their direction.