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The Progression of Plastic to Rock: Education Programs Helping Climbers Fill in Gaps

(Photo/She Moves Mountains)
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More programs are needed to help climbers fill in the gaps — particularly for those progressing from indoor to outdoor climbing.

Ever since rock climbing debuted at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and inspiring films like “Free Solo” and “Dawn Wall” were released, there has been a surge of people taking up the sport.

Since then, there’s also been a huge boom in indoor rock climbing gyms. According to the Climbing Business Journal, if future projections prove true, the number of climbing gyms in the U.S. alone will surpass 600 by the end of 2022.

female climber ascending a cack on granite
(Photo/She Moves Mountains)

Shelma Jun, an Arc’teryx climbing athlete and founder of Flash Foxy, reminds us that in the early days of climbing, there was a focus on a one-to-one mentee-to-mentor ratio, where experienced climbers took a couple of novice climbers under their wings.

But nowadays, with the influx of new climbers finding joy in the sport, that same type of guidance is challenging to find, leaving many climbers climbing with friends at or even below their skill level.

Climbing in a gym will never be the same as climbing outdoors. And given the nature of climbing, even minor mishaps can have devastating consequences. That’s why it’s important for new climbers or those who believe they need more training to have access to expert instruction to get them ready for the crag.

Some Differences Between Outdoor and Indoor Climbing

Climbing clinic outdoors
(Photo/Flash Foxy)

Here are a few things that outdoor climbers need to understand that differ from an indoor setting. Some were discussed with Jun, and some we added ourselves. This is only a partial list.

Climbers must understand the length of the routes and how it affects required rope lengths. 

Climbers must be careful to make sure they have enough rope for the route, both for ascent and descent, because climbing routes are often much longer than those in climbing gyms. And often, ropes are provided by the gyms, negating any consequences of not understanding route lengths or rope length.

The knowledge that climbing grades in a gym often don’t transfer outdoors.

It’s a strong misconception that if a person can climb a 5.11 in the gym, then they can climb that same grade outdoors. Indoor grades are a lot less complex than outdoor grades. A person won’t find a color-coded route or consistently spaced plastic handholds that guide them up the route.

Holds outside are not marked and can be inconspicuous, which is very different from the obvious holds indoors.

Climbing outdoors requires more gear and proper use of that gear.

Most climbing gyms supply much of what a climber needs, so members can show up with only their harnesses and climbing shoes, and in most cases, they can rent those too.

When it comes to climbing outdoors, it’s up to the climber to be prepared and have the proper gear. Equipment including rope, harnesses, quickdraws, helmets, belay devices, anchor building material, and proper food and clothing for outdoor climbing are not supplied.

Lead climbing is usually required outdoors.

Unlike a gym, where quickdraws are already clipped into the bolts or top ropes are already set, climbing outdoors can require the climber to bring the necessary amount of quickdraws and place them themselves on lead.

Another thing to remember is that the bolts are often farther apart — all of which vastly increases the amount of knowledge and expertise required to remain safe.

Climbing with a mentor experienced with lead climbing can alleviate some of this, as they can set the top ropes.

The weather matters.

Gyms often have comfortable temperatures, but climbing outdoors can be quite different. Unexpected weather, including intense heat, precipitation, and low temperatures, plays a role in when and where a climber should climb and what they should bring.

Rope management skills are required.

Rope management is probably the most common skill set most indoor climbers don’t get a lot of exposure to inside a gym. Routes at the gym are typically in a straight vertical path, whereas outdoors, the direction of the route depends on the rock’s features and natural obstacles.

Not understanding certain rope management techniques can create debilitating rope drag or dangerous situations should the climber fall.

Outdoor climbing also necessitates anchor building, setup, and cleanup, which you won’t have to deal with if you only climb in a gym. Inadequate anchor building and clean-up knowledge is a significant cause of ground falls outdoors.

Dangers from above exist.

Gyms don’t require helmets because the risk of something falling from above is low. But outdoors, the risk of rockfall or falling gear from climbers above you is significantly higher. Even a small rock can cause serious injury to unprotected climbers.

Lead belaying can be required, and there is no ‘safety staff.’

Climbing outdoors can mean lead belaying, which is much different than top rope belaying. Some gyms only have top ropes, and gyms that do have lead routes usually require a certification to lead belay.

Although this instruction is a great starter to lead belaying, it can still be different outdoors due to ledges, high first bolts, the potential ground falls at lower bolts due to rope slack during clipping, and other dangers that do not exist as much indoors. Mentorship and instruction outdoors are still prudent for lead belaying at crags.

When you’re outdoors, there will not always be staff or other climbers near you who can offer guidance or catch errors. As a result, it is 100% the belayer’s responsibility to belay safely.

Noise is more of a concern.

Loud music overhead and chatter from other climbers in a gym can make communicating difficult. However, the outcome of miscommunication is far more dangerous outdoors.

Wind, echoes from other climbers, and long distances between the belay and the climber can easily confuse an “off belay” command with someone else’s. In some cases, it’s almost impossible to hear your partner at all.

Lead falling can have greater consequences outdoors.

Indoor gyms have cushioned flooring and bolt spacing that prevents big whippers. When it comes to falling on lead outdoors, there’s a lot more that can go wrong, including hitting a ledge, tree branches, opposing walls, or decking on the unpadded ground.

Organizational Programs That Offer Mentorship

Thankfully, organizations like Flash Foxy and She Moves Mountains, which are sponsored by major climbing brands and are AMGA-certified, offer educational programs to climbers to provide the mentorship needed to bridge skill gaps.

Jun also reminds us that educational programs like Flash Foxy don’t just teach technical skills but also cultural and environmental etiquette, which we all know are equally important.

Flash Foxy

rock climbing mentorship at the crag
(Photo/Flash Foxy)

Flash Foxy, sponsored by Arc’teryx and others, is part of a community that empowers women, genderqueer, and nonconforming individuals and provides a safe space to make climbing accessible. Their education program provides quality hands-on education that provides climbers of all skill levels the skills they need to be safe on the wall.

A list of current educational climbing programs follows:

  • 2-day Clinic: Intro to Trad 
  • 1-day Clinic: Intro to Outdoor Top Rope Anchors

And since they are encouraging underrepresented folks to participate, all courses are offered on a financial sliding scale. Flash Foxy also provides full scholarships to those in need.

She Moves Mountains

rock climbing mentorship
(Photo/She Moves Mountains)

She Moves Mountains, sponsored by Black Diamond and other brands and organizations, was founded by Lizzy VanPatten in 2017. Through technical outdoor climbing clinics and events, the organization seeks to educate and empower women (cis and trans).

She Moves Mountains offers several educational programs for various skill levels, which are taught by AMGA-certified guides with extensive experience.

List of educational climbing courses:

There is also a Pay What You Can Program for those who can’t pay the full price.

Those who can’t join one of the above classes may have opportunities at their local climbing gym. Some gyms offer gym-to-crag programs to help indoor climbers transition to outdoor rock climbing.

flash foxy

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