I was going back through some old photos the other day and stumbled across a batch from our first trip climbing outside, circa 2011. After my recent experience mountain-biking, it got me thinking about how quickly we forget what it’s like to be a beginner at something. So in an effort to try to ease the minds and egos of other newbs, here are 8 things I wish someone had told me before my first outdoor climb…
1. You might get rock dementia
Remember that scene in Armageddon where Steve Buscemi loses the plot on the asteriod and starts riding the giant nuke? Well the rest of the wannabe astronauts quickly diagnose him with ‘space dementia’ and trust me, the same thing can happen on the rock. The picture below shows my very first ungraceful steps onto the glorious granite of Trewavas Point, Cornwall. Despite having climbed indoors for a year or more, I completely forgot what to do when I was outside and (as you can see) my technique went out the window.
2. It’s fine to freak out
The aforementioned first climb (let’s not call it an ascent, I didn’t make it to the top) was ironically called ‘Joy’. After fretting about which handhold to use on my second move, a little critter scurried across my fingers and I was having none of it. I now know that this is a very common occurence in the great outdoors but at the time it didn’t help me get into the zen mindset of the ‘chill outdoor climber’. I think as you get more experienced you learn to challenge that impulse to freak-out into something more productive; for me, I definitely climbed the fastest route of my life when one of my hand holds was occupied by a snake skin in Italy.
3. Wear a helmet
There’s a bit of a problem in the world of elite rock climbing whereby a lot of the professionals don’t wear helmets when they climb. Yes, they might look marginally less cool wearing one but, you know, avoiding a traumatic brain injury probably trumps that. Stupidly we went along to our first outdoor climb without one between the two of us. Fortunately, the guy who was showing us the ropes (sorry) had one and shared it along with the following wise advice: if you’ve only got one helmet and are belaying from the ground, make sure the belayer wears it and not the climber because rocks get dislodged and well, gravity. If you need any more convincing read this amazing story.
I’ve decided to post the incredibly flattering image above because looking cool is super important to me.
4. Take photos
Unless you’re a complete idiot, the chances are, on your first climb outdoors you’ll be accompanied by at least one person who knows what they are doing. More likely than not there’ll be a few of you so exploit this group situation and take some photos of the momentus occasion. For us this would be only one of only a handful of times where we weren’t climbing with just the two of us – living in the UK means our outdoor trips are often spontaneously decided when the weather is good and buddies aren’t always available – as such, these days, our hands are typically too busy climbing or belaying to take pics. If nothing else, the photos will provide some amusement when you look back on them in five years time and see how far you have (or haven’t) progressed.
5. Forget about grades
Most people know that climbing outside is more difficult and will adjust their grade accordingly but on your very first trip outside it can be hard to know how many grades to drop. There’s also more time pressure outside because it takes a while to set-up a top rope or lead a route so you definitely won’t get through as many climbs as you would in a day spent in the gym so starting on a ladder-like warm-up might seem off putting. Obviously it’s different strokes for different folks but if you can, ask someone else in your group who’s been there before to recommend a first climb for you and approach it without even knowing the grade. With all that amazing scenery to look at you probably won’t care. Alternatively, you’ll freak out a few moves in, abseil down and then be more mentally prepared for your second route.
6. Enjoy the approach
I’m often guilty of being so excited about getting to climb that I’m just on auto pilot trekking the approach. Crags are often in beautiful, hard to reach places so drink it up. And drink up. Seriously, the approach is a really good place to get hydrated before you start sweating it out of the rock. Furthermore, with so many amazing places to climb, can you be sure you’ll even come back to this same spot again? Cement those memories.
7. Wear sunscreen
‘Cause you’ll like totally be outside all day, duh.
8. Have fun
The best climber is the one having the most fun. Don’t worry about what you look like, how hard other people are crushing it or whether or not you make it to the top. This will be your first of many trips outdoors so pick routes based on enjoyment quotient alone and have a blast.