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From Plastic to Rock

The most recent issue of Climbing magazine included a short article by Justin Roth devoted to the effects gyms have on the world of outdoor climbing.  Supported by quotes from old-school trad climbers and modern-day gym owners, Roth presented the following points:

1. Gyms lead to an increased number of climbers who are not as likely to be well versed in leave no trace ethics.  Beautiful, often fragile climbing areas can become overrun and the surrounding ecosystems may suffer.

2. Many of these climbers have no experience on real rock and are woefully unprepared for the litany of things that can go wrong outdoors (runouts, hail storms, loose rock, venomous mini-monsters waiting in the cracks to bite your fingers off, among others).

3. The traditional entry into the sport by long-term, careful mentorship has too often given way to risky trial by fire.

4. Gyms provide a safe, controlled atmosphere to learn the essential basics.

5. Many gyms host a variety of sessions geared to teach people how to climb safely outside.  Some even offer guided climbing that introduces beginners to the outdoors.

The overhung arete at the BRC

Roth’s points all have merit, but with the unlimited space of the blogosphere, there are more positives and problems associated with gym climbing to explore.

First, being a good climber has definite safety advantages.  A strong climber with good endurance can usually get out of a mess.  These physical tools can be developed in the gym.  Runouts, route finding and bad gear aren’t quite as scary if one has the contact strength, fuel and skill to stay on the rock.

The most dangerous routes outdoors are often 5.6s and 5.7s with huge ledges.  Ledge falls can be as bad as ground falls.  In fact, just last year a climber died after taking a spill, several pitches up, on a popular Bolder Canyon 5.7.  If you’re climbing hard and training in the gym, not only are you less likely to fall on such a route, you are better equipped to immediately pursue harder climbs outdoors.  Harder routes, especially sport lines, are usually much safer because ankle-breaking ledges between slabs are instead a terrain of small features on vertical to overhanging rock.  Such routes facilitate clean falls.

Though I don’t think gyms are responsible for under-prepared climbers getting in over their heads, they could incorporate a few ideas to help educate and keep expectations in check.  Aside from offering outdoor clinics, gyms should be vigilant about monitoring their climbers for errors that might cause minor issues inside but serious problems outside.  Aside from backclipping, two of the most common problems I see in the gym are:

1. Leading with the rope behind a leg.  If you get turned upside down in the gym, most of the time you’ll be fine because the fall will be relatively short and gym walls are usually slightly to severely overhung, which ensures a fall away from the wall.  Outside, the consequences of getting tangled in or turned upside down by the rope are much more likely to be severe.

2. Belaying too far out from the wall with the rope between the climber’s legs.  If the climber falls early in the route, even inside, prepare for a nasty racking and some ugly rope burn.  Outdoors, when the bolts are 15 feet apart instead of 6, such an event can be much worse.  Belaying with enough slack out to lasso an elephant is also a common belaying mistake that should be remedied indoors before climbing outside.

In a gym, I think it’s also important to establish a rating system that accurately reflects what one is bound to find outside.  A gym does beginners no favors by setting “5.9” jug hauls and “5.10’s” without any difficult or tricky moves.  In my estimation, gym ratings are often at least a half number grade inflated and seem to often account only for a route’s pump factor.  For instance, 20 legitimate 5.9 moves in a row may make the line a 5.10, and may be great for training, but finding such a homogenous route outside is rare.

The BRC has addressed this to some extent by taking a consensus vote before rating the route.  Unfortunately, the survey pool consists of other BRC climbers used to the BRC ratings.  The existing routes provide a standard for a climber’s response to a new line.  The Boulder Canyon, Flatirons, Eldorado Canyon, Clear Creek sandwich at the immediate disposal of any Boulderite with a shiny new rope and draws each have their own history, style and ratings standards.  The local gyms should try to split the difference as best as possible in determining ratings, but now routes tend to be significantly overrated even when compared to outdoor areas of “new school” ratings.  A green 5.10 gym climber around Boulder is prone making the understandable mistake of thinking he/she can and should be able to safely tackle that rating outside.  On the bright side, I’ve enjoyed the spoils of collecting bail pieces off of plenty of 5.10s with an actual crux.

There are several ways climbers can use the gym to better transition to the outdoors.  Aside from training, getting pumped and taking ratings with a grain of salt, climbing a variety of indoor routes is important.  In other words, work on your weaknesses – at least don’t ignore them.  If you’ve never done a foot jam, climb the lonely crack everyday until you can get it.  If you aren’t comfortable with overhangs or roofs, force yourself to climb those styles indoors.  The gym will never be able to simulate everything you’ll encounter outside, but you can usually find arêtes, overhangs, roofs, cracks, dihedrals, slopers, crimps, pockets and giant smiley faces to help you establish a large repertoire of moves and techniques before ever touching real rock.  If you can’t get off the ground on the splitter crack, climb it once using the neighboring hand holds while foot-jamming.  Then climb it again burying your hands in the crack and using whatever you need for feet.  Similarly, if you can’t struggle over a roof, use whatever holds you need to advance and come back to it until you get it clean.  A little work can go a long way in learning a new technique and having it at your disposal outside.

Ryan crack climbing indoors!

The various cracks at the BRC.

In too many instances I’ve seen tears spilling off the chin of someone who should be having a great time in an amazing place because frustration with the climbing itself boils over.  Then back at the gym complaints of routes being “reachy” or “awkward” or having poor “flow” fill the air.  Climbing should be fun no matter what.  But beyond being a good time, pushing yourself to become a better climber can be so much more than an amusing day at the park.  Just like learning a new instrument will make you a better musician, learning a new type of climbing and visiting new areas will deepen your experiences, strengthen your friendships and make you a better climber.  Just like practicing the guitar is beneficial before joining a band, preparing in the gym can eliminate much of the frustration of outdoor lines.

Like most climbers today and every climber that’s ever come from Nebraska, the gym has been an integral part of my climbing training and experience.  Before ever stepping foot outside I was a gym rat for months at the UNL wall.  There I learned how to belay, use a harness, the basics of leading, communication and rope management.  The first time I ventured outside, I had a fantastic teacher in Jon Cannon.  The combination of having developed my abilities indoors and benefiting from excellent mentorship made my early climbing trips fun, challenging and safe.  Then having veteran teachers while learning how to trad climb on Moab’s desert sandstone allowed me to get comfortable with a new, expanded set of techniques and skills.

I was lucky to be introduced to the sport in such a stepwise fashion.  Now when I see examples of the opposite I’m both thankful for my experience and amazed that significant accidents aren’t more common.

I’ve tried to give others in our Boulder climbing community the same positive process.  I’ve made mistakes along the way, mostly in not giving enough weight to the fact that everyone’s learning curves are different.  But the gym is where I encourage people to develop initially.  Take a few 15 footers, climb the crack and have fun.  Then wrangle up somebody experienced with the outdoor sport who is familiar with your abilities and will challenge you when real rock beckons.

If you can get past the dreaded mouth, you can do anything.

Gyms can be good or bad for outdoor climbing.  They can facilitate learning to climb safely, but mentorship in the actual outdoors is vital to becoming competent and confident.  What do you think or suggest?  There are certainly more gym climbing issues related to the outdoors I didn’t get to.

Tyler - Man, great article. I can identify with almost all of those mistakes and dangers that the gym can both teach and hide. I used to hate that UNL’s ratings were so damn tough, until I moved to the BRC and found out that just because I can climb 5.11 there doesn’t mean I won’t poop a little on a 5.9 outside. I think commercial gyms need to stroke some egos to keep business up, whereas a gym like UNL can concern themselves with making sure their climbers are safe.

I think that gyms themselves can be dangerous places when we get distracted by our friends. I’ve nearly dropped Adam, the author, and my own brother, 2/3 of the wall to the last draw, just because someone was talking to me, and I wasn’t paying full attention to a climb that I was sure he wouldn’t fall on. It scared me enough as a belayer to limit my conversations while belaying to monosyllabic grunts, or just a quick “I don’t really like to talk while belaying.” But, I suppose that’s a lesson I’ve learned, better in the gym than outside.February 10, 2010 – 8:26 am

E.F.R. - Fantastic article, Adam. For the record, I hate the big smiley face. It mocks me. However, if I could find one outdoors … I would think that’s pretty awesome. Eerie. Perhaps I’d consider it a message from God. Having been dumped by a belay who had enough slack to lasso an elephant (I didn’t take it personally, as some rhetorically silent, but cutting jab), I can only say that I was very thankful we were indoors – where I could catch him and smack him around. Thanks for the thorough breakdown, too, and I’ll be looking into “leave no trace.”February 10, 2010 – 7:51 pm

Adam - Thanks for the feedback. It’s funny how in so many instances it’s fine to learn from mistakes. In climbing you want to learn by doing everything right.February 10, 2010 – 9:15 pm

kris - Great perspective, Adam. I learned a lot by trial-and-error (a la mistakes) in my climbing learning curve. I had a thorough introduction by a certain future OA dept head, and then set out with another like-minded adventurer. In the process, we became seasoned through our majority of successes, but likewise by our “failures” (e.g. epics, etc). The opportunity to continue your learning curve is rewarded by not making the big mistakes – which entails good common sense and taking precautions. You are correct that a good mentor in the beginning can be invaluable.February 11, 2010 – 10:24 am

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