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101: Intro to Climbing

Blue Ridge Outdoors - 101: Intro to Rock Climbing

What’s with the numbers?  

The Yosemite Decimal System is used to rate the difficulty of a climbing route. Any route that demands technical climbing (the use of ropes for protection) is class 5. The number after 5 signifies an increase in difficulty. Climbs rated 5.10 and harder also have a letter (a,b,c,d) denoting further difficulty. The hardest routes in the world are currently graded 5.15b, though climbers continue to push the limits on routes previously thought “unclimbable.”

Best Reason to Climb in a Gym

Most people today begin their climbing careers in a climbing gym. The safe environment with padded floors and air conditioning can be welcoming. But here’s another reason you should pack on the gym time, whether you’re a beginner or pro: footwork.

“You have to concentrate on your foot work when you’re climbing a gym route,” says Daniel Luke, owner of Stone Summit. “Outside, everything’s a foot hold. Inside, you have limited holds for your feet on any given route, so you have to get the footwork down before you can send.”

Boulders or Routes?

A lot of beginners think bouldering will be easier simply because the rocks are smaller and you’ll have less distance to fall if something goes wrong. But top roping is actually the most beginner-friendly form of rock climbing. The anchor point is set above the route, so there’s little chance you’ll fall more than a foot if you slip, and a good teacher can use the rope as a pulley, helping you surpass a particularly tough move in the route.

“Top roping a route takes endurance, but bouldering is more power-centric,” says Daniel Luke of Stone Summit, the largest indoor climbing gym in the country. “The commitment level in boulder moves can be more intimidating, and the moves themselves can be more difficult.”

Top Rope Destinations

Sunset Rock, Tennessee: This dramatic cliff line sits on Lookout Mountain just outside of downtown Chattanooga. Routes can be 80 feet long with plenty of top roping for beginners. The crag is sacred to climbers. Be on your best behavior.

New River Gorge, West Virginia: This climbing mecca has some of the hardest routes in the Mountain State, but also great beginner options with good top access and killer views.

Sandrock, Alabama: On the southern end of Lookout Mountain, Sandrock features massive boulders stretching 60 feet high, many of which have fixed anchors for top roping.

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