LEARNING THE ROPES
While climbing doesn’t require the cardiovascular strength of marathon running or the power of competitive weightlifting, focused training–on muscular endurance, balance and flexibility-can help you avoid the, um, inconveniences I experienced during my first foray into the vertical world. And training at an indoor climbing gym can boost your skills and confidence. With more than 500 indoor climbing gyms throughout the country and even more climbing walls tucked away at universities, YMCAs, sporting-goods stores and even cruise ships, climbing indoors is accessible and never subject to Mother Nature’s whims.
The first and most important thing to do in a gym is to familiarize yourself with the equipment. Rock climbing can be dangerous. The best way to be safe is to understand the tools of the trade. After getting your knots and harness in order and learning how to belay, or secure your climbing partner with a rope so she won’t fall, you’re ready to go up. As with most sports, the key here is to start slow. Climbing gyms usually have designated routes, often marked with various colors of tape and graded on a scale from 5.0 to 5.14, the latter being the most difficult.
As you’re racing for the top, remember your legs. “It’s natural for people to climb with their arms and forget their legs,” says Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, a four-time World Cup climbing champion and current climbing coach. “But legs are so much stronger than arms. You want to push with them instead of pulling with your arms.” Erbesfield-Raboutou recommends that beginners try a foot work exercise she calls “crushing ants.” On every foothold, make a motion like you’re putting out a cigarette-twisting your foot back and forth on the hold. “It makes you pay attention to detail, and eventually you’ll start to develop a feeling of where to best place your foot on a hold,” she says.
Good technique-getting your foot work down, learning how to place your body-is the part of indoor climbing that translates the best to outside, Erbesfield-Raboutou says. But don’t expect it all to translate.
“I’ve seen indoor climbers quit the sport after trying it outside,” says Mattie Sheafor, founder of the Women That Rock climbing clinic and a guide with Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based Exum Mountain Guides. “They’re used to climbing 5.10 or higher inside and expect to do the same outside but find they can’t right away. Initially, holds aren’t as obvious and might not be as optimally placed as in the gym. Just have some patience and be willing to adapt.”
As with many sports, technique doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have the strength and endurance to back it up. And, as most of us don’t work our fingers and forearms on a regular basis, these muscles need the most work. Again, indoor climbing can help.
Abby Watkins, the co-founder of Women’s Mountain Adventures rock and ice climbing clinics, “boulders” to increase her strength and endurance. Instead of climbing up the wall, she goes in circles around it, staying close enough to the ground that if she slips off, she won’t hurt herself. If she hits a dead end, she goes back the way she came, seeing how long she can go without stepping off the wall. “It’s a killer,” she says. “After an hour, I just can’t hold on anymore.” And unlike vertical climbing, bouldering requires no partner.
Watkins hits the weights, too, to prevent injury and build strength. Pull-ups and chin-ups are staple exercises for any rock climber.
“Every climber can benefit from a strong chest and shoulders,” Watkins says. “Military presses, lat pulls and bench presses-they all make me stronger and help keep me injury-free.” While Watkins prefers to strengthen her fingers by climbing indoors and bouldering, occasionally she does weight training for her digits, too.
Her recommended exercise: Hold a weight bar in both hands, palms out and arms straight. Let the bar drop to the very tips of your fingers, and use your fingers to roll it back up.
FOCUS ON FLEXIBILITY
Climbers who aren’t flexible quickly realize they’re missing something big. The more you can twist, turn and otherwise contort yourself-and be comfortable doing it-the better able you are to reach holds and the less prone you are to pulling muscles and tendons (the most common injuries in climbing). A yoga session or two a week is an easy way to increase flexibility, but if that’s not your style, try a five-minute cardio warm-up followed with a plain old head-to-toe stretch, focusing on fingers and forearms, shoulders, back, hips and groin.
Five years after my first climb, I’m still not nearly as flexible as I would like, but I’m much better off than I was. I know how to tie my knots backward and forward, in the dark and in the rain, and how to provide a safe belay for my partner. Every once in a while on a climb I miss that rush of disbelief that I could do this, but it’s been replaced with something infinitely better: self-confidence.