10 Questions (& Answers) for your First Rock Climb Outdoors
By Libby Peter
1. What should I bring with me?
Don’t go out and equip yourself up to the hilt until you’re convinced it’s for you and you've had a chance to ask advice on brands and models. A helmet, harness belay device and rock boots are the only absolute essentials and the ones you already use in the climbing wall will be perfect. Once you’re a regular second, following a leader up climbs, you could to add to that list a nut key, spare screwgate karabiner, long sling with another screwgate and two prusik loops on any old karabiner.
Gear for your first rock climb outdoors. Photo: Mike Robertson
2. What knots should I learn?
If you’ve been climbing indoors you’ll already know how to tie a figure of eight and that’s the one you’ll use to tie on outdoors too. Remember the resulting loop should be no bigger than fist size and the stopper should sit right up against the figure of eight. If you want to impress your leader then practice a clove hitch too so you can attach yourself to the belay when you arrive at the top of the pitch. Look at the diagrams below for a reminder of these.
Figure of eight knot tied into harness. Diagram: MLTUK
Tying a clove hitch - 1. Diagram: MLTUK
Tying a clove hitch - 2. Diagram: MLTUK
3. How will I belay the leader?
Just like you have been doing indoors. Stay close in to the base of the crag where you can see what’s going on. Keep a hand on each side of the rope all the time and pay out slack smoothly. As a bonus try and anticipate exactly when your leader needs some slack and pay some rope out just before they make a move or clip a runner so they don’t have to shout for slack or give the rope a yank.
Attentive belaying in the Dinorwig slate quarries. Photo: Mike Robertson
4. What if we go to a sea-cliff like Swanage, should I be tied on at the bottom?
Yes, it's a good idea to be attached to the cliff if you’re next to the sea - with enough slack so you can move around a little and dodge flying stones but not enough to get swept into the sea by a freak wave. Tie onto the end of the rope and use that clove hitch again to connect yourself to a good solid anchor at the base of the climb.
5. What will it feel like to hold a fall?
Chances are it’ll feel gentler than holding leader falls in the wall as there will probably be more friction with the rope running through runners and rubbing against the rock. Just keep an eye on your partner so it doesn’t come as a shock and don’t have your hands too close to the belay device so your skin gets pinched (ouch!).
6. But what if my partner is heavier than me?
A small weight difference is no problem but, yes, if your leader is much heavier than you and takes a reasonable leader fall they may pull you off the ground. This is alarming rather than dangerous, unless they are close to the ground but you can always find a ground anchor (one that will take an upward pull) and tie yourself to this, like you would attach to a sandbag in the climbing wall.
7. How do I get the gear out and carry it so I look like a pro?
First get yourself really comfy so the weight is off your arms and on your feet. Get your nut key off your harness but clip it to the rope (so you can’t drop it). Look carefully at how the runner was placed and manoeuvre it into the wider part of the crack with the nut key if needs be and then lift it out. It you leave the runner clipped to the rope while you do this you’re less likely to drop that either; smiles all round. Then to make it all neat, shorten the dangle by clipping the middle karabiner of a wire/extender link. Put short slings across your chest (they’re too long to hang off your harness) and carry long slings doubled around your chest with a karabiner clipped through them so they can’t strangle you.
How to rack gear on your harness. Photo: Mike Robertson
8. Any last minute climbing tips?
Don’t rush. Focus on good basic body position and neat footwork; the rest should follow. It’s often hard to believe your feet won’t slip, especially if you’re used to climbing wall footholds. Keep pressure through your feet to hold them in place and weight on them rather than your arms.
9. What if I can’t get up?
Well, make sure your first route isn’t something too ambitious like A Dream of White Horses at a big sea cliff like Gogarth – in other words choose something that if you can’t get up your partner can lower you back down.
10. Will I need to know how to abseil?
Not necessarily. Some sea cliff routes require you to abseil in to the start of the route and occasionally the best way off a climb is to abseil but these are easily avoided if you don’t fancy it. That said; it is a very useful skill. Learn how to use a prusik knot to act as a backup in case you lose control of the rope and it won’t feel as intimidating. The photo below shows a popular set up using a French prusik wrapped around the rope below the abseil device and clipped to a leg-loop.
Abseil set-up backed up by a French prusik. Photo: Mike Robertson
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - LIBBY PETER
Libby has been climbing for over 20 years, she is a qualified Mountaineering Instructor and International Mountain Guide and is author of Rock Climbing – Essential Skills and Techniques published by MLTUK. She produced Get Out On Rock – the definitive instructional DVD, you can see a taster of this at www.libbypeterclimbing.co.uk