The Jump from Gym to Crag

Picture yourself climbing up the third pitch of a massive rock face that overlooks the valley floor below as the sun is setting on your back during a late summer climbing trip with your friends. Or at least that’s what Instagram has implanted in your mind of what climbing is, and you are ready to take the plunge from the gym into the big-time world of climbing outdoors. Assuming you’re like most climbers, you started in the exciting, yet controlled environment of a climbing gym close to your house. You’ve finally gained the confidence on all the 5.10s the gym has to offer and want to make the jump from Gym to the crag (area with climbing routes).

 

Minimum gear you need to top rope outdoors
(in addition to the gear that you use in the gym)

  1.       Climbing Rope(+60ft): A length as least twice the height from the ground to anchor point on the top of the cliff.
  2.       Webbing: Nylon strips used to connect the rope to your anchor point (explained later).
  3.       Locking carabiners (2): To secure the belay rope to the webbing at the top of the route.
  4.       Static Rope(optional): A non-elastic rope that can use to reach objects further from the cliff’s edge to use as anchors.

By now you should know the different styles of climbing, but for now, I will only focus on top roping and lead climbing. But for those of you that don’t know, the difference between the two is top roping, you belay from a fixed anchor point above the climbing route and in lead climbing, the climber attaches the rope to anchors as the climb up the route. Lead climbing can be either traditional (trad) or sport, both require a tremendous amount of skill and a ton of gear. Fortunately for the new outdoor climber, there is an easier option. Though most outdoor climbing is done by lead, there are a ton of routes than can be top roped by hiking or scrambling to the top of the route via hiking trails and securing a rope to a “fixed” object at the top.  So, grab a friend, or two, that you climb with (hopefully ones that are equal or better climbers than you) and follow these steps to begin rock climbing in the great outdoors.

What you should do before you even get to the crag?
First, do you research. Head over to MountainProject.com to search for your nearest climbing area and look for routes that are labeled with a TR. This means that there are either fixed anchors at the top, stable trees, or large rocks at the top of the route. Try to learn as much about the location, route, and conditions as possible before you get there.
Next, thoroughly check over your gear for its strength and capability. Unlike the gym anchors that rotate/replace old ropes and have fixed anchors that could support a rock climbing elephant, your setup will only be as strong as its weakest point. So it’s most imperative to check over every inch of your rope and make sure nothing looks wrong, head over to singingrock.com for a compressive guide on how to inspect your rope.  Afterwards, go through and inspect your harness, carabiners, and any other gear you’re bringing along.
Lastly, learn how to tie different knots! You will potentially need to tie static rope around anchors once you are the crag. Fortunately, the figure-8 knot that you use on your harness in the gym is the most versatile knot you can tie in this case.
*Knots to know (ones I’ve used): Figure 8, Girth Hitch, and water knot.

What you should do when you arrive at the crag?
You’ll be top roping the route, so head on up to the top of the cliff via a hiking trail or scramble and begin to look for anything to be used as an anchor. I suggested finding a live tree with a solid base (greater than 12” diameter”) and set all your gear down by that anchor. Flack out the rope and webbing a few times so that you know it’s completely unwound and untwisted. Note, you never want a single point of failure at any point of your setup, so keep that in mind as you begin to tie your knots and clip in the ropes. If your anchor is close to the cliff edge, then tie your webbing together with water knots and wrap more than one webbing strips around the anchor so that two the loops come together and attached two locking carabiners through the webbing. The webbing should be long enough so that the carabiner should fall easily over the edge without resting on any rogue rocks or plant-life. For a how-to and what this looks like, check out canyoneeringusa.com For safety’s sake, repeat this process with another strip of webbing and connect both webbing strips passing through two carabiners (redundancy).
So you have two webbing straps around the anchor and two locking carabiners connecting the two, now you take the rope and pass it through the two carabiners until you reached the halfway point. Once you fed half of the rope through, hold the carabiner and the rope together, and toss the other half of the rope down to the bottom. Make your way back down to the bottom of the cliff and get ready to test your setup. The rope, now being held midway by the anchor, should be resting in the air or on the ground just like the top rope routes look in the gym.
Now, don’t just tie right in and make your way up the route without testing the setup first. You and your partner should pull on each end of the rope with all your weight and be able to hang for as long as you want. Next, both partners tie in as they normally would for a climb and have the climber perform a drop test. Climb up a small portion of the rock, allow for a slack in the rope, and jump off to test the dynamic strength of your rope and the anchor under a sudden load from a fall. Make sure the belayer is alert before you jump to stop your fall before you touch the ground. Both of these test should be enough to confirm that the anchor, webbing, rope, and carabiners will hold in both static falls and dynamic falls of the climber.

The rest of the instruction is to simply enjoy your time climbing outside as you top rope this route. Climbing is a different experience completely that must be had by all climbers. The holds are not as obvious as they are in the gym, cliff face is exposed to the elements which makes them smooth and potentially unstable, but as you move up the route the views will be incredible and your first ascent will be one you’ll never forget.

 

Stay tuned for my next post about the different routes you’ll come across when climbing outdoors.

*Disclaimer: You should seek professional instruction on how to tie knots, which knots should be used and where, and follow an experienced climber when setting up your ropes outside. As tying a knot incorrectly could lead to serious injury or death. Any activity that involves ropes is potentially hazardous. Lives may be at risk – possibly your own. Considerable attention and effort have been made to ensure that these descriptions are accurate. However, many critical factors cannot be controlled, including: the choice of materials; the age, size, and condition of ropes; and the accuracy with which these descriptions have been followed. No responsibility is accepted for incidents arising from the use of this material, this is simply an explanation of how I climb outside.

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