by Hilary Oliver
Belay? Gri-Gri? If that sounds like a foreign language to you, you’re just like most people who feel intimidated walking into a climbing gym for the first time. Full of people who seem like they were born pulling down on climbing holds, the gym can seem a little scary at first. But it can be incredible fun—and a great place to meet new people, enjoy a fun workout and gain climbing partners. Here are a few things to know that will make your first trip to the climbing gym more fun, and less confusing.
What gear will you need?
Most gyms have rental gear, so the only thing you need to worry about is wearing stretchy or loose clothing that allows you to move freely. When you get there, these are the things you’ll need to rent:
- Climbing shoes, which have sticky rubber on the bottom
- Harness, to tie into the rope and protect from falls
- Belay device, to belay a partner while they’re climbing, keeping them from falling
- Chalk bag, to dip your hands in when they inevitably get sweaty, to help you grip the holds better
What does belaying mean?
Most gyms require all climbers to pass a “belay test” before they can climb there. Some will give a quick lesson about how to do it, but some will want you to know ahead of time. You can learn by attending a class at a gym, reading a book or by watching online how-to videos.
For toprope gym climbing, the person climbing will tie one end of the rope to her harness with a figure-eight knot. The rope will run from her harness upward to an anchor at the top of the wall and then back down to her partner—the belayer. It’s the belayer’s job to hold onto her end of the rope at all times. As the climber ascends, slack will appear in the rope, which the belayer will constantly pull in through her belay device, keeping a taught line between the belayer and climber.
The belay device, often a gri-gri—one particularly easy-to-use type of belay device—is attached to the belayer’s harness and adds friction so if the climber falls it’s easy to hold onto the rope, keeping the climber from falling any farther than the amount of slack that’s in the rope at the time. Here’s a good introduction to belay devices if you want to learn more.
When the climber reaches the top of the route or decides she wants to come down, the belayer will gently let rope slide back through the belay device, which will lower the climber to the floor.
What is a toprope?
Most people who climb at a gym will climb a toprope. This means that the rope is already hanging from the anchor at the top of the route, and the climber ties in to the end closest to the wall while the belayer uses the end on the outside. With a toprope set up, the climber will only ever fall as far as the amount of slack the belayer allows to accumulate between them. So with a tight, attentive belay, the fall should be more of just a swing away from the wall than a downward fall.
What is a figure-eight?
The only knot you need to know to climb in a gym is the figure-eight knot. It’s what will connect your harness to the climbing rope. Grasping the end of the rope hanging closest to the wall, the climber will tie a figure-eight knot leaving a couple feet left over on the tail. Then slide the leftover tail through both the leg and waist loop in the front of the harness (the ones attached by the belay loop), and then weave the tail back through the figure eight. Here is a great video that will make tying a figure eight super easy.
What do the grades mean?
Climbing routes are rated on a scale called the Yosemite Decimal System, from easier to harder. It starts at 5.4 and goes up to 5.15. The confusing part is that at 5.10, letter grades are also added in after the number, from A to D. So, for example, a 5.10a is easier than a 5.10d, but a 5.11 is still harder than both of them.
How do you climb like you know what you’re doing?
It takes lots of time and effort to develop good climbing technique, so don’t worry if your forearms and fingers feel like they’re turning to cement the first time you try it. Climbing requires strength in muscles we don’t use for very many other activities, so acquiring that strength takes time. In the meantime, here are three tips to help you climb more efficiently and have more fun, even if it’s your first time ever:
- Focus on using your legs to push you upward, instead of pulling yourself up with your arms. Reach one arm up to a hold, but use it mostly to balance yourself on the wall, while you straighten your legs. Your leg muscles are a lot stronger than your arm muscles. This will help keep you from getting fatigued too fast.
- Don’t be afraid to hang on the rope and take a rest. Just because you get tired part way up a route doesn’t mean you have to give up and come down. Strong climbers will “project” a route, trying the hard parts over and over again.
- Use the “straight arm” technique to save energy in your arms. Instead of holding yourself up on the wall with your arm bent, like you’re doing a bicep curl, relax the arm and hang on it straight, letting your elbow joint lock and your legs do the work of holding you up. This way, your muscles will have much more rest on the way up.