So You Wanna Go Climbing?

Climbing is one of my favorite things to do, but I’ll be the first to admit that I had a difficult time starting out.

Believe it or not, I’m actually terrified of heights. I went climbing for the first time years ago at a local Columbus gym, and well… let’s just say it didn’t go so well. I got about 10 feet off the ground when the panic attack set in, and unfortunately my belayer (a “friend,” not an employee!) was not understanding. Instead of bringing me back down to the ground, he let me dangle there for awhile, all while laughing his head off.

For some unknown reason, I kept at it, and the more I climbed, the more comfortable I became with the sport as a whole – the equipment, the movement, and pushing through the physical and mental challenges.

I know better than most that it can be intimidating to walk into a new place to do something you’ve never done before. It’s just like that first race – the one where you stood at the start line, absolutely convinced that everyone is staring at you and they can all tell that it’s your first time.

These days, my passion has shifted to running, but it’s been a blast to hit the climbing gym again, this time at my local Lifetime Fitness. Their wall is a BIG reason we decided to join Lifetime over other gyms, since it would mean paying for only one membership, not a regular gym AND climbing gym every month.

With the hope of sparing you all an introduction like mine, here are some tips that will help make your first climbing experience a positive one.

Wear Long Pants, NOT Shorts.

The first thing you’ll do is likely sign an assumption of risk, just like you would when you join a gym or sign up for a race. Then, you’ll throw on a harness. For your sake (and everyone else’s), do NOT wear short shorts. First of all, you want some clothing between you and your harness, and second of all… do you really want your undies on display for the entire gym to see? I didn’t think so.

The employees should help you fit your harness, but here’s the skinny so you look like a smartypants:

  1. Grab the waist band of the harness and pull it up above your hips so that the loop (where it says “attach here” in the photo above) hits right around your belly button.
  2. Tighten the waist band so that you can slip 2 fingers in between it and your body, but no more. It should be snug enough that it won’t slip over your hipbones, but not so snug that it’s uncomfortable.
  3. Tighten the leg loops. These don’t need to be as tight, but should still be snug-ish.
  4. Have an employee double check the fit and the buckles.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Most gyms use harnesses like the one above that do not have to be doubled-back, but if you decide to take up climbing and purchase your own harness, some require that you feed the belt back through the buckle to ensure it doesn’t slip out while you’re climbing. Just be aware of the equipment you’re using and be sure to familiarize yourself with it.

Don’t Get Overwhelmed.

The employees will likely throw a lot of information your way – gym rules, belay commands, how to tie in, what to do when you want to come back down. Don’t think that you have to master each and every skill 100% your first time out. Practice will make perfect if you decide that climbing is something you want to continue doing. Worry about knots, carabiners, and belay technique later – for your first visit, focus more on the climbing movement itself, and…

Use Your Legs!

Which are stronger, your legs or your arms?

Your legs of course!

A common excuse is that rock climbing takes tons of upper body strength. While strong shoulder, arms, and back are certainly an asset when it comes to climbing, good technique is just as important. To progress up the wall, move your feet higher and stand up, pushing with your legs rather than pulling with your arms.

Rest On Straight Arms.  

Try to keep your arms as straight as possible when resting or contemplating your next move. Think about doing a pull up – hanging straight-armed from the bar uses MUCH less energy than hanging with your arms bent. When your arms are bent, your biceps, triceps, and forearms are engaged and that tires them out. Hanging straight-armed means that your weight is resting on your bone structure, reserving your muscle strength for when you need it.


In most gyms, routes are marked using colored taped. A sea of colored duct tape can confusing at first, so try ignoring the taped routes at first and focus on getting accustomed to the movement. When you feel more comfortable, try to reach the top using only holds marked a certain color. Experiment with different foot placements, shifting your weight, and twisting your body. It may feel strange at first, but you’ll soon figure out what works and what doesn’t.

My first climbing experience was less than stellar. Even I can’t explain why I stuck with it, and while I wouldn’t say that I’ve “conquered” my fear of heights, I have learned to harness it. Climbing has given me so much over the last few years – it’s taken me to amazing places, introduced me to awesome friends, and taught me that nothing is impossible, even if it scares the bejeezus out of you.

3 thoughts on “So You Wanna Go Climbing?

  1. oh i love all these tips!! I am largely afraid of getting hurt, which woudl involve falling from really high up 🙂 I have tried on a wall in teh past but no one really explained how to use my legs

  2. I’m afraid of heights as well. I love the idea of climbing, but since I’m scared of heights, it doesn’t seem like a good financial investment for me! I climbed a wall once. I was so scared that I wanted to get to the top as soon as possible so that I could get back down again, so I went up really fast. The belayer/instructor couldn’t believe that it was my first time, since I did it so quick! Fear made me look awesome???

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