What is climbing to me?
If you were to ask me what some of my fondest memories are, ask me at which times I felt the stress of our cluttered lives dissolve, ask me when I’ve felt the most relaxed…my mind wanders back to warm and still summer afternoons spent climbing with dear friends on Peak gritstone edges. I think of slowly placing the ball of my foot onto a rounded arête, focussing my weight through the thin rubber of my climbing shoe against the ancient rock that was formed millennia ago on the bed of a distant tropical river. Sure footed, attached, connected not only to the crag, but the landscape, to nature. I think of sitting atop Froggatt edge or Stanage with my bare feet dangling in space while I belay my friend behind me, grinning to myself that I managed to lead the route for him. I survey the view from my perch and smell the air. Birch and Rowen in summer health fill the valley before they thin to give way to emerald carpeted fields kept manicured by the sheep. With height, the hills darken with heather and peat until they are topped with famous brooding Peak District tors, guarding over us.
Of course this is just my perception of climbing, a relaxing experience where I find peace. To others, it is the physical challenge, training and pushing their body to go places humans were not really meant to go. To some it’s the mental challenge, can they get through psychological barriers or overcome their instinct for safety? Climbing’s a very personal experience.
I want to get into climbing. Where do I start?
The obvious problem you have is a beginner is gravity! You need to be able to make sure gravity doesn’t get the better of you which, in the words of Liam Neeson (Taken), you need a “very particular set of skills.” There’s a variety of equipment you need to be able to climb safely using ropes which can appear bewildering to the beginner. However, it’s not as complicated as you might think once you get familiar with it all. Your first thing might be to go to a climbing wall, where staff should offer basic instruction on how to belay (this means holding one end of your climbing partners rope so they don’t fall), this may or may not cost you money. The wall may also be a good place to make other climbing friends. If you can make friends with climbers, you may then be able to venture outside to real cliffs and crags and gradually learn the skills to enable you to climb safely.
A good book to buy would be Rock Climbing by Libby Peter; this is the bible for everything relating to summer rock climbing and is the officially approved book of the Mountain Training Association. Libby’s book is the handbook that aspirant climbing instructors use to prepare for their vigorous assessments and is the only book you’ll ever need. You may also want to look at UKClimbing.com. UKC is the UK’s premier climbing site which is full of advice on everything climbing. UKC also has a very good forum where you’ll be able to find like-minded climbers, from beginners to experts that may become your climbing partners. However, time is a premium in our busy lives so you may want to look at our climbing courses, which are aimed at all levels from absolute beginners to those wishing to learn to lead climb.
Attending one of our climbing courses will help fast track you to become a competent climber. For the time pressured, a day climbing with Gritstone Adventure Activities will massively boost your skill level and allow you to reach your required level of skill much more quickly. Our courses have a structure, but can be tailor made to suit your needs. Courses typically cover climbing techniques, rope work, equipment use, route selection, belay setup and abseiling – or indeed anything you need to know. Most our courses take place in the heart of the Peak District, our venues being nationally and even internationally renowned for their quality climbing and beautiful setting. Our instructors are drawn from all over the UK and are selected not only for their vast mountaineering experience, but for their patience and ability to relate well to people not used to climbing. Check out our courses here.
What Gear do I need as a beginner?
All equipment is supplied if you book one of our climbing courses. But if you’d like to start out on your own you will need the following items as a minimum. We have an ethos of inclusivity here at Gritstone, so we advocate that you don’t need to spend a fortune on gear. The more you spend, the longer it will last and if it’s something that you wear; expensive equipment is often more comfortable. As far as safety is concerned, all climbing gear has to conform to an international standard, the UIAA standard, so cheaper gear does not mean less safe gear. To make sure, you should look for the UIAA mark on any climbing gear you buy that is considered safety gear. Have a look at the list of essentials below. I’ve put an estimated price next to each – this price represents the average you will probably pay the item:
Harnesses come in sizes so you’d need to check the individual manufacturers sizing guide. There is little difference between cheap and expensive harnesses; expensive ones may be lighter and have more cargo loops for attaching gear to when you’re climbing. Your choice may come down to a matter of fit and how you like the look of it. Go for one that looks as durable as possible as harnesses get scuffed on rock a little.
The best helmet is the one that fits! Try a few until you find a comfortable one and it’s also important to find one that you think looks good – you are less likely to wear it if you think it makes you look silly. You can pay as little as £20 for a helmet and these are fine, but they won’t last as long and won’t be as comfortable as they will have less adjustability. You are faced with a choice of a solid plastic design or a cycling helmet style Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam helmet. Solid plastic helmets are more durable and sometimes cheaper, with the EPS helmets being lighter and in my opinion, more comfortable – but these helmets are more expensive.
Belay Device £12
This is the friction device which you feed your rope though so that you can keep your fellow climber safe when they are climbing – pretty essential! There are many designs but the all work in the same way. Again, more expensive doesn’t mean safer. In fact I’d argue that cheaper ones are safer as they are simpler in design and therefore easier and less complicated to use. I’d go for a DMM bug or a Black Diamond ATC. These are widely used, classic and trusted pieces of gear.
Rope: 50 Meters (long) by 10mm (diameter) £80
If you are climbing indoors you won’t need a rope unless you intend to lead climb indoors, which is a little more advanced. However, for climbing outdoors your standard rope should be 50 meters long by 10mm in diameter. There are thinner lighter ropes around but these are for more advances styles of climbing. The thicker the rope, the more durable it will be. A thicker rope will obviously weigh more, but this shouldn’t matter to much unless you plan on carrying up to a higher mountain crag.
Climbing Shoes: From £40
Like many things that you wear for climbing, the most important factor is fit. The best thing you can do is go to an outdoor shop that’s staffed by climbers so they can advise you on fit. The idea of a climbing shoe is that it forms a tight fit around your foot, so that the inside of the shoe has no space in it where your foot can move around. Any movement of the shoe could cause your foot to slip. However, there is a fine line between the perfect fit and…pain. This is why you need to try many shoes on. What you may find is that a particular brand seems to always fit you, as each manufacturer has a kind of foot template (called a ‘last’) which they tent to use. Once you’ve found the right brand you usually go back to them time after time. You may find that a shoe with laces gets you a better fit, though a Velcro fastening shoe is easier to quickly release when you need to allow some blood back into your foot!
There is of course a plethora of gear to buy as you become more involved in climbing, but you can share gear between climbing partners and that way, gradually get to know what other gear you need.
Where do I go?
The best place in the UK to begin climbing is the Peak District, Derbyshire. Why? Because the Peaks have miles and miles of easily accessible crags (small cliffs) with routes of between 6 and 25 meters high. The crags of the Peak are often very close to the road so you don’t have to be a mountaineer to get to them and you can quickly divert to a nearby crag which may offer more shelter is the weather goes bad. The Peak’s crags are mostly ‘single pitch’ which means that each climb can be completed within one length of the rope and when you get to the top, you can simply walk down an easy path. Many Peak District crags face East, which means they face the prevailing westerly winds and get a good deal of sunshine – which means they dry quickly after rain. The quality of climbing in the Peak District is world famous and attracts climbers from all over the world from beginners to professional. The pretty stone villages of the peak are also beautiful places to stay, with lovely accommodation and excellent pubs and restaurants selling local produce. The Peak is where it’s at.
Rock Climbing Glossary
Crag: Small inland cliff
Trad Climbing: Traditional climbing using removable, leader placed protection to ensure the climber’s safety (also known as ‘free’ climbing)
Sport Climbing: Where permanent bolts are attached to rock for protection
Lead Climbing: The climber who climbs first – more dangerous as the chance falling a long way is more likely
Winter Climbing: Climbing in snowy or icy conditions using crampons and axes
Bouldering: Climbing up or around a boulder – very technical but less dangerous
Mountaineering: Climbing a mountain by a variety of means
Belay: A method by which a climber ensures the safety of another climber
Protection: Equipment used to try to ensure a level of safety in trad climbing
Abseil: To descend using a rope
Solo: Climbing without ropes