How to Ace Your First Indoor Climbing Gym Experience

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Alex Honnold has sparked a lot of interest lately in climbing with his adrenaline rush of a movie, ‘Free Solo.’ If you’re like many active viewers inspired by the movie and want to try your hand at climbing, you need a basic outline of what to expect before getting started. The indoor climbing gym is a far cry from ascending a rock wall minus the harness, like Honnold, but it can be a good introduction to the sport and a valuable gateway to many more adventures in climbing and mountaineering. Plus, it’s a great winter (or nighttime) activity. Here are a few tips on how to ace your first indoor climbing gym experience.

Leave the old ego at home

You’re trying something new. And the skills and techniques are a lot different than say, riding a bike or catching a wave, things you’ve done since you were a kid. Allow yourself the room to make mistakes and to do so humbly. As you’ve probably heard before, others who are learning with you are probably just as concerned about embarrassing themselves in front of strangers that they probably won’t even notice your mistakes. Just focus on yourself and you’re halfway there.

Get over the harness

If the thought of stepping into a climbing harness makes you want to run away, we get it. The anticipated discomfort is enough to keep a good number of new climbers away. However, there are a ton of great climbing harnesses available these days and almost all of them place an emphasis on comfort. Rent a harness to be sure that you like the sport, and then if you do, get properly fit for one to suit your climbing needs (harnesses vary depending on the kind of climbing you intend to do).

Dress comfortably

Though you may see a few people climbing in jeans, showing up in comfortable athletic wear is a safe bet — especially clothes that allow fluid body movements with minimal restrictions. Though you could go out and purchase an entire climbing wardrobe, it’s not necessary. What you’d wear to the gym for a strength training or cardio session should do just fine. Oh, and when it comes to your shoes, leave your knee-highs at home. Most rock climbers opt to go commando, feet straight into rock climbing shoes without socks.

Pay a visit to your local climbing gym

This tip is a no-brainer but it’s worth stating because a drop-in visit before even touching the wall can reduce some of the initial anxiety (did someone say dread?) from that first true session. Many climbing gyms have an observation area where visitors can hang out and watch. Do just that and if it feels right, consider signing up for a lesson or two. Check out this video from Colorado gym Earth Treks, currently the nation’s largest indoor climbing facility at 53,000 square feet.

Sign up for a class

As you might have guessed, you’re going to have to learn some safety protocols and basic techniques before the gym allows you to climb. The easiest and most common way to get those skills is to sign up for a class. Most indoor climbing gyms have them. Some are offered in a small group setting and others have private lessons. It can be a fun thing to do with a buddy or a great way to meet new people. Either way, it’s one of the best ways to learn your way around not only the gear and the wall but the gym itself. Like most activities, there’s an etiquette to the gym and your instructor will help steer you away from some common ‘fouls’ so you don’t end up being ‘that guy.’ Check out this list of beginner-friendly classes put on by REI, many of which do not require any prior experience.

Watch a video

There are some amazing people in the climbing world who have been filmed doing what they do best. Take the time to check out a video before you ever set foot in the gym and just observe. Like with any new sport or skill, once you’re ready to start learning something, it can be helpful to immerse yourself in the subject. You’d be surprised at what you might pick up from a video or two. Check out this video of the 2019 IFSC Climbing World Championships to see some of the world’s best on the wall.

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Use it or lose it

Day One at the climbing gym will throw a lot of initial information your way. The best way to apply that info and integrate those new skills is to practice several days in a row after you first learn. Those skills are more likely to become part of your muscle memory if you go back to the gym the very next day. If you can’t make it back immediately, at the very least, practice the commands and knots you were taught.

As with a lot of new experiences, sometimes the first go-round is the toughest. It can also, with the right mindset, be exhilarating. You get points for trying something new, but you get a new hobby and sport to call your own if you end up going back for more. How’s that for starting 2020 off on the right foot?

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