Advice for novices and (slightly worried) would-be climbers

© Charles Arthur
NB: This article was first published on UKC in 2003. It has been reformatted and republished for 2011.

An introduction to rock climbing for the novice and (slightly worried) would-be climber:

If you have never climbed before, your views on it will probably include some or all of the following:

1) I would never do that - those people are mad. It's such a dangerous sport. I read about climbers getting killed all the time.
2) I would never be able to do that - I'm terrified of heights.
3) I would never be able to do that - I'm not nearly strong enough to lift myself up by my arms. I can't even do a pullup.
4) I would never be able to do that - I don't know where to start.

If you think that any of those reasons are enough to put you off, here are the responses to put it in perspective - and show that you, too, could actually become a climber.

1) Did you know that 35 people are killed on Britain's roads every week? That's 1,820 people every year. That driving, it's a terribly dangerous pursuit, you read about people getting killed doing it in the newspaper all the time... well, you have to look quite hard, actually.

Selecting routes at Castle Naze  © Dan Matthewman
Selecting routes at Castle Naze
© Dan Matthewman
Real-life climbing isn't like this at all. Tom Cruise in the very improbable Mission Impossible

Climbers and mountaineers aren't mad. In fact they are often very careful, because they realise that what they're doing could lead to their death if they don't pay attention. In that sense, yes, climbing is dangerous; but so is driving at 95mph in the fast lane of the M1. The difference is that you don't see rock climbers cradling a mobile phone to their shoulder as they climb.

The reason why you may think you read about climbers - actually, it's usually mountaineers or walkers - being killed (more usually, injured) is that the events happen in unusual places, such as remote mountains (where extreme measures are needed to recover the victim) or moors. An old lady with a broken leg is not news if she falls over in a chip shop; it is if she falls over on the path on Snowdon.
And only a very small number of climbers (and it's usually mountaineers, as opposed to people rock climbing on Britain's crags) die every year following their pursuit. The rest are alive and would like it to stay that way, thank you. As the saying goes, you're more likely to die driving to and from the crag.

2) Being afraid of heights is natural, healthy and sensible. Many climbers feel worried if they're high up and not attached to anything solid, such as a cliff. Climbing teaches you to separate the times when you should worry (say, standing in your street shoes on the sloping wet grass of a very high cliff) from the times when, despite being high up, you're safe. Ropes and other climbing equipment are able to take many times your weight: used properly, you can be as high up as you like and feel completely secure.

3) It's a common misconception that climbing requires strong arms. If you pursue it, your arms will get stronger, but so will most of the rest of you. Climbing is actually like climbing stairs: you use your feet to take most of the weight, while your arms and hands work for balance.

You can imagine this in a four-step sequence. First, imagine a normal set of stairs, and how you'd climb them. Now imagine that the stairs are more vertical: you would still put most of your weight on your feet. Third, take away the banister: you would use your arms for balance, but your feet still do the work to get up up.
Now the final stage: imagine that the steps of the stairs get narrower. Think how you'll climb them: it's still your feet which do the work, you arms which balance you. And that's how it is with climbing.

In real life, it's often lower and safer - like toproping at Bowles Rocks in the south of England
© Charles Arthur
4) There are some alternatives for starting climbing, of varying use:
  • just go out to a nearby crag and start doing it. Some famous names have done this, but then again lots of not-famous names probably got completely put off in the same way. This site has a searchable database of more than 1,000 British crags - you can search by distance from the town where you live.

    Advantages: probably cheap. Might meet people. Disadvantages: since you won't know what you're doing, you're facing all of the risks while not knowing what things you're doing right. Not recommended when there are better options available.
  • join a club. There are clubs all over the country, catering for most tastes, and almost all interested in getting new members. We have a searchable database of them: get in touch with a membership secretary.

    Advantages: should put you in touch with experienced climbers who will show you the ropes; likely to get you out onto the real stuff. Disadvantages: hard to know how good the learning experience will be.
  • take a course at a climbing wall or with an instructor. There are more and more indoor (and outdoor) climbing walls all over the country, and a growing number of people qualified to teach you how to get from bottom to top and down again safely. (These are known as SPA-qualified instructors; SPA is the minimum requirement to officially teach people about climbing and safety.) This site has a searchable database of climbing walls, with numbers to call to see about courses - you can search by distance from the town where you live. You could also find a qualified instructor from another of our searchable databases.

    Advantages: rapid way to get climbing expertise; likely to put you in touch with climbers of similar ability (through the course and climbing wall, as a venue). Disadvantages: some people start climbing indoors and take ages to move outdoors - which means they miss the real joy of moving over rock.

Find a local wall or climbing club on UKC Classifieds

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1 Jun, 2011
The article spent so much time discussing death, made me more afraid of climbing :) Good advice, i think the best part of climbing is that pretty much anyone can do it, i can't think of a sport (or whatever) that is such an open playing field to people of both sexes, all ages and pretty much every body type.
2 Jun, 2011
2 Jun, 2011
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