Gym to Crag Handbook: 36 Tips from the Pros

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Photo: Andrew Burr

Photo: Andrew Burr

What’s unique about your climbing community? What do you feel is most crucial for addressing the growing number of climbers? What are the top issues facing your community and the climbing resources in the region? And what are the important next steps? This is the series of questions we tackled at the Access Fund’s Rock Project Roundtable, which was held with 30 or so other climbers from around Colorado’s Front Range. They are great questions to reflect on no matter where you live or how long you’ve been climbing.

After nearly two hours of discussion (there was beer), my group agreed that all of the little things that annoy us and the big things that may threaten safety or access boil down to this: “We all love the same thing, but we don’t love each other,” as AMGA Climbing Instructor Program Director Ed Crothers so succinctly put it. If we applied the Golden Rule to other climbers and the crag itself, many issues might disappear—or at least be easier to solve.

As our crags see more use, our community will face many challenges, and the first step in addressing them is knowing that we are all in this together. In that spirit, we reached out to climbers of all stripes for tips and ideas. For the most part, we focused on social and environmental issues (the biggest threats to access and enjoyment), but there are a few outdoor safety tips, too. These ideas are for everyone, from the gym climber making his first trip outside to the 25-year veteran.

“Your climbing ability and a conservative attitude toward it are your greatest assets. Aim low when transitioning outside and put an emphasis on volume not difficulty.” —John Dickey

“Gyms are the conduit for new climbers, but they may also present someone’s first experience outside, beyond a trailhead, ever. For a lot of folks climbing outside for the first time, it’s also outdoor education from square one. Realize this and be compassionate.” —Chad MacFarland, Climbing School Director, Momentum indoor Climbing

Pick up all trash, even if it’s not yours. 

“When heading outside to climb, brand-new climbers should be aware of the context. It’s really easy to have your nose in the guidebook—trailhead, trail, go climb. That’s the idea. Conversely, in a new gym, you go through a belay test and rules overview, and you’re told exactly how to do things at that place. Outside, no one is there to do that. So new climbers need to take a bit of time to understand their new setting. Is this public land or private? Superficially it’s just a cliff on some land, but each area will have its own sensitivities. Take time to learn the ins and outs of each particular place. From a practical and Leave No Trace standpoint, a key question often forgotten until too late is: Where am I going to poop? Add these things to your mental checklist in addition to packing your harness, shoes, and rope.” —Brady Robinson, executive director, Access Fund 

Climbers historically aren’t joiners, but if you’ve been climbing a while, you need to join your local climbing advocacy group and do something to make it better.” —Chris MacFarland

“Know where and how to go to the bathroom outdoors. Take it as seriously as climbing. This includes possibly packing a trowel to dig a cat hole, or packing and potentially using a Wag Bag or Restop.” —Sam Elias

Since you’re using your own equipment or a friend’s, it’s doubly important to inspect everything beforehand. is anything too faded or worn out? Ripped in any way? Cracked? Are quickdraws set up correctly?

“Mentorship is only as good as the mentor. People will pay to learn to cook or putt a golf ball, but will go climbing for free with someone who simply has the gear. No one would ever SCUBA or skydive like that. Don’t be too proud or afraid to take a class or hire a guide for a day and learn everything you can from them.” —Carl Deck, Owner, Red River Adventures

“Make checking your knot and belay device a ritual with your partner, without exception, no matter where or when you rope up.” —John Dickey

“Outdoor crags are not controlled environments. There is no staff that regularly checks the area for safety, that the bolts are tightened correctly, or that your knot is tied right. Outside, you are responsible for your own safety, so be aware. Look at the bolts you are clipping to make sure the nut is on tight, that the bolt is not rusted out, or if there are fixed draws in place, that the slings and biners are not too worn. Fixed draws can be very dangerous since they stay in place for years and get worn in exactly the same way, often creating sharp edges that can cut your rope if you fall in an unusual place.”
—Mayan Smith-Gobat

Bolts and fixed anchors are paid for by the people who put them in (or local climbing associations), not gym dues, so treat them with respect and donate your own time, money, or sweat to keep crags safe. 

“We are playing catch-up in terms of stewardship and managing climbing areas better. Mitigate impact by staying on trails and keeping your staging area under control and on durable surfaces. Donate to local access funds and join in on stewardship projects.” —Julia Geisler, Executive Director, Salt Lake Climbers Alliance

Wipe your shoes off before getting on the rock. 

“You’re only climbing on whatever you’re actually climbing on. At a busy crag, having a rope hanging on a route doesn’t make it yours, so if someone else wants to climb on it, make it available to them. Be courteous and try not to camp out on popular routes at popular crags. Everyone deserves a chance to climb, and you don’t own anything other than your gear.” —Andrew Tower, Contributing Editor

“We’re often too closed off at the crag. Smile and say, ‘Hey! How’s it going?’ to other climbers.” —Sam Elias

“Mind your crag footprint. Keep your gear collected and not strewn all over the place. I’m not saying you have to pack up everything into your bag when you’re not using it, but be mindful of space and don’t yard-sale.” —Sasha Digiulian

Don’t spray beta unless someone asks for it.

“Is a two-minute belay lesson enough? If you were teaching someone to drive a car, would you say, ‘OK, here’s the gas and brake, now drive me to the airport’? That’s how friends often teach each other to belay. Take time to ask your friend or mentor some tough questions. I love it when friends I take out for the first time ask things like, ‘How do you know those anchors are OK?’ or ‘Who owns this land?’” —Rich Connors, Facilities Director, Momentum Indoor Climbing

When leading, be aware of ledges and any big hazards that you might hit during a fall, which are not found in the safe confines of a climbing gym. 

“The very positive side of outdoor crags not being controlled is that there really are no rules and no prescribed hand or footholds. If you cannot do a sequence with the obviously used (chalky) holds, look for other small ripples in the rock. You will be surprised by how well tiny holds or feet can still work, and how much difference half an inch can make. Be creative with your sequences and try out all the possibilities, even if they seem very unlikely. Because there are generally more possibilities for feet and hands outdoors, sequencing can be much more complex and the movements a lot more subtle than what you generally find in the gym. And you’ll love that.” —Mayan Smith-Gobat

Belaying is a skill and an art that must be done attentively. We even have 25+ belaying tips for you!

“Let’s erase the word ‘gumby’ from our vocabularies. When you call someone a gumby, it creates an ‘us versus them’ mentality. And frankly it’s dehumanizing. You know what? I’m a hopeless gumby to some and an elite climber to others, but those terms promote an unhealthy way of thinking about other climbers and climbing areas. The better way to think of it is ‘beginners’ or ‘novices.’ There are more and more climbers now; we can’t change that. New climbers have an equally legitimate claim to be outdoors. If you feel your crag is crowded, remember that you are part of that crowd. All units of the crowd are equal.” —Brady Robinson

Wear closed-toe shoes and gloves while belaying. 

“My advice is to those with the ability to mentor and will sound like the TSA tagline: If you see something, say something! It’s corny but true. People don’t know any better sometimes. Other times, they do know better and just need to be called out. Climbing is a culture, one that is shifting under our feet, and we get to define it. Our raucous, independent roots can coexist with an awareness that our actions have impact.” —Kevin Jorgeson

Stand close to the wall when belaying, and spot your climber before she clips the first piece of pro.

“Little things make a big difference. I know it’s easy to walk past trash on the ground, but pick it up and pack it out. Brush excessive chalk off routes as you lower down, or off holds on boulders. It also does a world of good to join local and national climbing organizations.” —Chris Weidner

“Tie your knot and then put on your climbing shoes. Minimize foot-suffering time and avoid tracking ground dirt!" —Sasha Digiulian

“Know that every single thing you do has an impact—where you go, what you bring with you, the noise you make, the attitude or vibe you have. Try to make it as good and as small as possible and know that no one is perfect. Just do your best.” —Sam Elias

“Stop debating. Stop whining. Just wear a helmet.” —Andrew Tower

“If other people are climbing where you are, be conscious of the fact that they may not want to listen to the music blasting from your iPhone. Ask before playing at least!” —Sasha Digiulian

Rockfall is real, even at highly trafficked crags and on well-worn routes. Be aware at all times, don’t stand or sit below a climber (unless you’re the belayer), and wear a helmet.

“The growth of climbing is certainly a lot less important of an issue than many other things facing the world these days. Growth in climbing is to some extent just an offshoot of population growth and greater affluence in general. It makes sense that there are more and more people out enjoying natural places. And I think that’s a great thing. I love climbing, so why shouldn’t other people?

"But it’s important for folks who learn in the gym to pick up proper outdoor ethics, though that’s true whether they’re climbing or not. People should be minimizing their impact in general, whether it’s at the crag or just on the street downtown. Being a good environmental steward should not be exclusive to the climbing world.

"Think about your impact in a greater sense. If climbing helps with that, then great. If not, just enjoy it for what it is.” —Alex Honnold

Use names when communicating with your belayer (“Take, Kevin!”) to prevent confusion at a crowded crag.

“Don’t expect that the landings will always be safe just because you put a few pads on the ground. Crashpads are an invaluable and essential tool for outdoor bouldering, and they work incredibly well when used properly. But they aren’t magic carpets or Care Bear clouds that will save you from all evil. A few extra minutes spent properly padding a landing is far better than the months you’ll spend being injured if you expect that the crashpads will place themselves. Likewise, don’t expect that someone will jump in to save you with a spot when you’re flailing on a topout over a death hole if you haven’t asked for one. Don’t put those around you in the uncomfortable and scary situation of having to attempt to save you from certain injury without prior communication. Take responsibility for yourself.”  —Angie Payne