Transitioning to Climbing Outdoors
“One great thing about the pandemic is”... not something you hear, but one positive aspect of this whole thing is that people are getting outdoors like never before. With that, many gym climbers are making the transition to the crag (rock faces and cliffs) and many sport climbers (bolted anchors) are exploring trad climbing (temporary anchors placed in rock).
Regrettably, these transitions also have some drawbacks, as people with tools from one kit attempt to apply those tools in a wholly different context. Instead of trying to hammer in a nail with a screwdriver, these people would do well to add some new climbing tools to the kit. Three recent episodes I experienced illustrate this and provide some solid takeaways:
On my first crag visit after the confinement time, I heard a crash and scream from a nearby climb. My climbing partner and I rushed to the scene. A fellow had gotten off-route and then took a big fall. After lowering him to the ground and noticing his cracked helmet and generally “out-of-it” state, we called for rescue support. Fortunately, he was released from the hospital later that day. But this story provides a couple of key warnings to gym climbers heading outdoors.
- Takeaway #1:
Route-finding is more difficult when the holds aren't all the same color, like they are in the gym. Pay attention to the surface of the rock. Is it clean or mossy? Is it the same color as other unclimbed parts of the cliff--which are typically darker--or generally lighter? These are useful ways to tell if you are off or on route.
- Takeaway #2:
Fortunately he had a helmet. No one climbs in the gym with a helmet. Most lead routes at the gym are vertical or even overhanging, making them (counterintuitively) safer to fall on. Climbing outside, many challenging routes are less than vertical. And, unlike the gym, at the cliff there's loose stuff that can fall off. Wear a helmet when climbing outdoors!
Thin Air is probably the most popular moderate multi-pitch climb in New Hampshire. But the second pitch includes a long traverse. Last month, I arrived at the base of it just after a guide friend had provided a rescue to a party of three at the anchor for that second pitch. The third climber had passed out after finishing the traverse. I would have too, because the leader had asked the second climber to remove all the protection on the traverse, so that the third climber was essentially soloing across the traverse!
- Takeaway #1:
Gym climbing doesn't include traverses. On traverses, it is important to remember that the falls for the person following the pitch are as big—or bigger—than for the person leading it. When tackling a traverse, both climbers should be of similar ability and the leader should put in plenty of protection.
On the July 4th weekend, I was teaching a course for rock instructors at my local crag. While at the top of the cliff, a fellow traipsed by, went right to the muddy edge of the cliff, and began to set up an anchor on a small tree right near the edge. Already, our alarm bells were humming, but we continued on with what we were doing. A few minutes later, he attached himself on rappel and began leaning back on his anchor. Looking at his anchor, I saw he had enchained four quickdraws, then put a locking carabiner through two of the enchained non-locking carabiners. As he leaned back on this anchor, two of the carabiners torqued in towards the tree and began to be pushed open, such that the rope could fall out. At that point, I stepped in. The guy was friendly, and explained that due to an ankle injury, he couldn't lead climb at the gym or outdoors, so he was trying out top-roped climbing.
- Takeaway #1:
Quickdraws are not effective tools for building top-rope anchors. Develop a basic understanding of top-rope anchor-building fundamentals. More broadly, get the appropriate tools and training as you enter new climbing environments.
Outdoor adventures are more popular than ever and climbing areas are seeing an influx of climbers moving out of the gym into sport climbing and sport climbers moving into trad climbing. The above episodes are just a few of the many hazards that can occur in making these transitions. All climbers need to remember the old adage, “Don't bring a knife to a gunfight.”
Each new area of climbing has a host of important new skills to learn. As you broaden your climbing, be sure to broaden your climbing education, with training from an certified rock climbing guide (see the American Mountain Guides Association website www.amga.com for more info).
As always, be sure to bring enough food to fuel your adventure. Climbing is hard work and takes a lot of strength to accomplish. Kate’s Real Food offers delicious and energy fueling bars that are easy to pack and bring with you. Check out the selection < href="https://katesrealfood.com/shop?shopdropclick=$c#cases">here.