A day at the crag: What to expect when you go outdoor rock climbing
One of my favorite experiences is watching someone discover a new passion outdoors. Thanks to indoor climbing gyms popping up everywhere, there has been a growing interest in people taking their climbing outside. I personally love taking new people out for the first time to climb on rock (and anyone who doesn't is probably a selfish meanie-face and you don't want to adventure with them anyway, let's be real) and I've been lucky enough to facilitate that experience for quite a few individuals. Some have had experience climbing inside, but others haven’t. Something they’ve all had in common? They’ve not only gotten hooked on climbing outside, but they also started with the same questions and concerns. By knowing what to expect when we got to the crag (what you call a large rock face with lots of routes to climb), everyone felt more comfortable and prepared to take on the day. Maybe you've thought the same too. So, let's talk about it. What should you expect for a day of crag climbing?
Outdoor Rock Climbing: The Gear
There are two main types of rock climbing: sport climbing and trad, or traditional, climbing. Sport climbing involves clipping gear onto bolts that are drilled into the rock. In trad climbing, the leader is placing gear into cracks in the rock (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but that’s your one sentence description!). If it’s your first time climbing outdoors, you really don’t need to worry about that part. The experienced people you are going with will have all of the gear and rope you need. You may, however, be asked to carry some of the gear on the hike in to divide up the load, so make sure you have a little bit of extra space in your backpack.
For yourself, you’ll need your climbing harness and climbing shoes. I personally wear good trail runners for the hike to the climbs and bring sandals to wear in between my climbs. Snacks, water and a few layers are essential as well. If you have a belay device or chalk bag, you’ll want them. A helmet is a great early investment to protect your head from rocks falling from above or if you fall. People will usually share more of the sport specific gear if you’re just learning and don’t have one. I’m a firm believer in not spending tons of money on gear until you’re sure you love something (and then your bank account can pay the price of your new obsession!).
Outdoor Rock Climbing: The Day
Most places, you’ll have to hike from your car to the crag you’re climbing. These hikes can be almost any length (seriously - right next to the car to a few hours or more!), so it’s ok to ask how far you’re going so you can wrap your head around it and be sure you’re ready. When you get to the crag, you’ll drop your packs and get ready to climb. Depending on your group size and how many ropes you bring, you may have some down time to hang out, take pictures, and watch others climb.
Each route will begin with someone leading the climb (they are placing the gear on or into the rock as they go and bringing the rope up with them) and someone belaying them (on the other end of the rope to keep the person who is climbing safe). When they get to the top of the route, they’ll leave the rope attached at the top so that everyone else who climbs that route can climb on top rope (you don’t have to place the gear and falls are much more controlled). That’s how the rest of the day goes, people lead, climb top rope, belay or just hang out.
Different groups have very different dynamics at the crag. I love to work hard and climb as much as possible and not spend a lot of down time. Some people hang out a lot and climb a little. Some people are religious about their crag beer, others won't climb with you if you bring one. Music or no music. Sharing gear or using only yours. As you get more into climbing, you’ll figure out what you like and find the tribe you vibe with for your crag days.
As with all adventures, there is always risk.
If you remain aware of your surroundings and listen to the advice of the experienced climbers in your group, the risk can be minimized. If you ever feel unsafe, voice your concerns! Don’t be afraid to ask about the equipment that is protecting you. Ask why an anchor (what holds you to the rock) was built the way it was. Ask how to tie a knot and why that one was used - even if you don't need to tie it. No one will ever judge you for trying to understand what’s keeping you safe (and if they do, find new people to climb with).
The most important part is to relax and enjoy the experience. You’re outside and getting to challenge yourself with something new! Fear is normal, but have fun with the process of working through it and the feeling of accomplishment from overcoming it.
Those of you that do climb outside, what other advice would you give people for their first day at the crag? What do you wish you had known early on in your climbing experience? If you get outside, don’t forget to tell me about it on social media!