I’ve been climbing regularly for about a year now. Mostly bouldering (no ropes, just a crash pad), at a great indoor wall in Bermondsey called The Arch. While I’ve still got a long way to go to becoming a good climber, there are a few key things I’ve learnt that let me progress from the beginner stage. As these things seem to be common among climbers but not obvious to beginners, I’ve shared them below to save anyone starting out the trouble of figuring them out for themselves.
Don’t do pull-ups
Overhangs. These climbs, where the wall has a slope of more than 90° (more than vertical), tend to be the hardest for beginners. The key is to expend as little energy as possible by keeping your arms straight and pushing from your legs to move up. Whenever you’re static for more than a second, make sure your arms are straight. Think about doing pull-ups — is it easiest to rest halfway through one, or at the bottom with straight arms?
Twist your body
Most people have their body square to the wall when they start climbing. This feels natural, just like climbing a ladder, but has several disadvantages. Having your body (hips and/or shoulders) twisted will keep you closer to the wall while allowing you to reach further — watch an experienced climber at work on an overhang problem and notice how often they twist their body from left to right depending on which way they have to reach for the next hold.
Pushing on a hold with your thumb while pulling with your fingers makes for a much stronger, more stable grip, and is less tiring. Good grip technique will allow you to progress more quickly without having to spend time doing boring finger strength exercises.
Pay attention to your feet
It’s easy to focus on the arms and hands, but if you’re climbing right then your legs will be doing most of the work. Think about where you place your feet, and place them carefully and deliberately. It’s almost always best to use the very tip of your toes rather than the balls of your feet. If there’s only one foothold available, the second leg doesn’t have to dangle. Place it somewhere deliberate on the wall or even in the air for counter balance.
Flag. Drop knee. Smear. Rock over. Toe hook. Heel hook.
While it took me a while to realise this as a beginner, good climbers largely rely on a combination of standard moves, and knowing what these are gets you a long way. The trick, especially in bouldering, is figuring out how to combine the moves around the available holds. This is why boulder routes are called ‘problems’ — they’re as much a puzzle as an exercise.
Try this book if you like taking a methodical approach to learning. It’s £15 for a used version, but if you ask nicely I’ll lend you mine.
As with anything, if you’re not failing regularly then you’re not pushing yourself enough. Once you get comfortable climbing at a certain level, start trying harder problems. If you struggle with specific types of problems (like I do with overhangs), then spend more time trying those.
As Einstein said, the best way to learn is by “doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes”. I find climbing enjoyable, but as with anything there are times when other things take over, you become busier, and find it hard to keep making time for it.
To counter this, remember why you want to climb. Watch amazing videos. Read inspiring books. Try different types of climbing. Challenge yourself. Find a group of people to go with. I was lucky enough to have some people in my group of friends happy to go climbing with me, and am making more friends along the way.
I feel like I’ve learnt a lot this past year, mostly about how much there is to learn. This year I’d like to learn more about rope techniques, and climbing outdoors. While I’ll still be bouldering too, I’ll be making time to go on some trips to the Peak District and other UK climbing sites. Get in touch if you’d like to join me.