Rock Climbing


For a rock climber, reaching the top is not the point. Rock climbing is the journey that matters most if you are climbing for fitness.

Whether their journey lasts two hours or two days, rock climbers can benefit from a mental workout as well as a physical one, according to the Colorado-based American Sport Climbers Federation (ASCF). Physically, rock climbing burns fat while strengthening muscles if pursued at a vigorous pace. Mentally, rock climbers exercise their ability to focus fully on a single task. Climbers also get practice confronting their fears- the fear of heights, the fear of falling, the fear of failure. Ultimately, the sport can improve your self-confidence – if you learn how to climb safely, that is.

What is rock climbing?

Until recent years, scaling cliffs and huge mountain peaks was considered the most legitimate form of climbing and shorter routes were considered practice for these longer endeavors. More recently, indoor climbing on artificial walls, shorter outdoor climbing routes and competitive climbing have gained popularity. During the last 10 years rock climbing has become a relatively mainstream adventure activity.

Increasing numbers of people are introducing themselves to rock climbing in indoor climbing facilities, or rock gyms. The number of rock gyms in this country has soared. Located in schools, universities and commercial facilities, rock gyms provide climbing walls of varying difficulty levels equipped with movable holds, ropes and pulleys. Reputable rock gyms provide expert instruction and rent climbing shoes, harnesses and other equipment you will need to climb safely.

Many basic climbing skills mastered in a rock gym can be transferred to outdoor climbing – a more exciting, albeit more dangerous, pursuit. “Bouldering,” or climbing boulders (large rocks), is probably the simplest and safest form of outdoor rock climbing because boulders are low to the ground and can be climbed without ropes or other gear. Sport climbing involves rope and other safety gear but is associated with shorter, safer routes and more difficult athletic movements.

Traditional “trad” climbing on big rock faces, such as El Capitan in Yosemite, emphasizes the use of holds and various protection devices inserted into cracks as the climber ascends. Because these devices take some skill and effort to place correctly, trad climbing moves are slower and less powerful compared with sport-climbing moves. “Free climbing” uses natural rock features to climb with ropes and other devices to protect against falls.

How many calories will rock climbing burn?

Ascending a natural or artificial rock wall burns up to 700 calories an hour if you weigh 140 pounds or up to 974 calories an hour if you weigh 190 pounds. Rock-climbing sessions tend to last at least two or three hours. However, due to its great intensity and physical demand, duration is more limited than most activities.


In addition to offering an anaerobic and aerobic workout, rock climbing exercises almost every muscle group, according to the ASCF. Rock climbing two or more times a week improves your strength, muscular and cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and mental toughness.


Rock climbing, particularly the outdoor version, is inherently dangerous and potentially fatal. It is particularly dangerous for a beginner or even an intermediate rock climber to pursue the activity without sufficient instruction and hands-on guidance from a qualified instructor or a more experienced climber. Even experienced climbers should take the necessary precautions such as being equipped with all of the proper gear and working in pairs.

Surveys have found that 75 percent of climbers sustained some form of injury during their climbing careers. The injury risk seems more closely tied to how long a person has been climbing as opposed to experience levels or degree of difficulty of climbs performed, the researchers concluded.

Most rock-climbing injuries involve the hands and arms. Common overuse problems reported by climbers include spinal syndromes, tendonitis of the forearm and shoulder, carpal tunnel syndrome and finger strains. Another frequently reported problem, especially among older climbers, is a spinal syndrome known as “belayer’s neck.” The belayer, or person feeding the rope out to the lead climber, is responsible for stopping the lead person’s fall by means of friction devices attached to the rope. This necessitates long periods of direct upward gaze, as the belayer usually positions himself underneath the lead climber. This prolonged posturing commonly triggers neck ache and headache.

Deaths associated with outdoor climbing usually stemmed from equipment failure, human error, or simple recklessness. Rock gyms are designed so that the falling distance is much shorter than you would encounter in most natural rock-climbing settings. However, the more difficult climbs and maneuvers that can be performed repetitively indoors place a big strain on soft tissues, which can be – greater than the demands of outdoor climbing.

Who can participate?

People wishing to condition themselves to tackle challenging outdoor climbing courses should make sure their training sessions in the climbing gym involve speed work, power work and stamina training.

It’s important to check with your doctor before you start any rigorous activity like climbing, especially if you have heart disease, diabetes, asthma, or another condition.

Learning to climb

Rock climbing, even in the controlled environment of a gym, should never be attempted without expert instruction. Your introductory lesson will include basic safety rules. They are how to tie yourself into your harness and how to belay (the act of taking up slack in the rope as the climber ahead of you ascends, so the climber will fall just a couple of inches in case he or she loses a grip). You are also taught holds, various climbing maneuvers and how to tie basic knots, such as the figure-eight knot. Be sure to practice what you have learned under the watchful eyes of a qualified instructor. The number of beginner lessons you’ll need depends on your aptitude for knot-tying, your fitness level and other factors.

Outdoor climbs are best tackled through a reputable climbing school, rock gym or guide company.

Before making the transition from indoor to outdoor climbing, climbers need to learn resting positions, how to place protection devices in rocks and other skills.

Rock climbing guidelines

  • Always climb with a qualified instructor or climber who is much more experienced than you are.

  • Always wear a harness that fits you properly. Various types of harnesses are available. Try on several until you find one that is snug but not too tight.

  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for keeping all your gear in top condition.

  • Don’t expect your harness to last indefinitely.

  • Replace your ropes after any hard fall, or if it develops flat or soft spots, becomes stiff or shows other signs of wear and tear.

  • Don’t use your climbing rope for anything other than climbing.

  • In general, the longer and more vertical your course, the higher your risk for injuries.

  • Lower your risk for belayer’s neck by rotating belayers regularly and doing flexibility exercises between climbs.

Rock climbing gear

A basic set of gear costs about $200 or more, half of which goes to climbing shoes.

The basic equipment consists of:

  • Rock shoes, which protect your feet as well as grab, hold and interact with rock. Different shoes are available for different climbing conditions.

  • Carabiners, or lightweight, metal snapping links that are used for a wide variety of climbing tasks. Your instructor can tell you which style will best suit your needs.

  • A hardness that will accommodate your body shape and climbing style.

  • Rope specifically designed for climbing.

Glossary of terms

Anchor: point where the rope is fixed to the rock

Belay: to secure a climber who is above you

Belayer: the person at the belay station securing the climber

Boulder: climbing without being roped on boulders or at the foot of climbs to a height where it is still safe to jump off

Buttress: part of the mountain or rock that stands in front of the main mountain face

Chalk: powder that counteracts perspiration for a better grip on a smooth rock

Clove hitch: a useful, easily adjustable climbing knot

Crag: small climbing area

Feet: footholds

Handle: big banana-shaped hold often found in rock gyms

Harness: a piece of clothing worn around the torso, where various climbing equipment is attached

Hold: anything that can be held onto

Pocket: a hold formed by a (small) depression in the rock

Rack: gear carried during an ascent

Rappel: descending by sliding down a rope

Rating: number denoting the technical difficulty of a climb

Scrambling: easy climbing without being roped

Slack: word yelled when the climber needs more rope

Sport climbing: competitive climbing

Tick marks: chalk marks used to locate holds when bouldering

Top-rope: free climbing a route that has a safety rope attached to the top of the climb

Traverse: climbing horizontally


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