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Take it Outside: 4 Tips for Climbing Real Rock

For me, there are few things as rewarding as the days I spend outside climbing. Don’t get me wrong: I truly enjoy a good session of pulling plastic, but for me there is no substitute for real rock. When I first learned to climb in Kentucky in the early 90s, there was no indoor climbing option. A local quarry was my closest spot and I would spend hours top-roping the lines there crimping on the limestone edges and hoping that the crux flake wouldn’t rip off in my hand. It was not what you would describe as a sweet crag. Fortunately I had the Red River Gorge on the weekends and days off.

So let’s consider some key features of climbing outside:

Weather/ Nature: This one is probably the most obvious right? Take the time to check the weather for where you are climbing and bring the appropriate clothes to have fun and stay safe. Some of our approaches here in the Southeast are fairly short, and if it starts to dump rain or gets too cold it’s pretty easy to get back to the car and get warm and dry. It’s a good idea though to choose synthetic layers over cotton and have an extra warm layer with you. The temps can change quite a bit, especially up in the High Country around Boone and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Keeping a lightweight rain jacket in the pack is also a good idea. The ability to see and interact with the plants and animals is also a highlight for me, except when I get the seeping ooze of a poison ivy reaction or the joy of a wasp sting. Learn to identify hazardous plants and watch out for critters when you climb. We have two types of venomous snakes in the region including rattle snakes and copperheads. Just leave them be and give them some space.

Climbing outside really requires you to use your senses and pay more attention to what’s around you. Watch where you step and where you sit things down. We also want to be cautious not to crush sensitive vegetation.

On that note there is a climbing and conservation workshop scheduled 11/16/17 at Black Dome in Asheville. Go check it out if you’re in the area. Also remember to wear sunscreen and be UV aware.

Actual Rock versus Plastic: The variation of rock types we have in the region is fantastic. From the tremendous range of quartzite in areas like the Linville Gorge, to the amazing swaths of granite at places like Looking Glass and Cedar Rock, the state of North Carolina has some great options. Sandstone meccas like the Red River Gorge, the New River Gorge, the Obed, and Chattanooga are stellar places to explore as well.

From finger locks, to pinches, slopers, bullet hard edging, and airy arettes, there is no shortage of variety. Holds can break though and things can be knocked off or dropped from above. Wearing a helmet is a fantastic choice. The comfort and range of styles available in helmets now is the best it’s ever been.

Ropes/ Pads: This is another fairly obvious one. Outdoor climbing areas are not as engineered as an indoor gym. Take the time to get to know the beta about an area as much as possible before you go or be prepared to scout things out. For bouldering a big one is figure out ahead of time how you get down if it’s a top out. Learn the best techniques for using pads and spotters. Plan where you want them and how you are going to ask the spotter to move or adjust the pads as you climb. Remember, every bouldering fall is a ground fall and the ground outside is not naturally padded. With setting up top ropes be sure you have learned your systems for anchor construction and know how to keep yourself safe when you are setting up.

I have a good friend who stumbled while setting up ropes at the Chimneys near Table Rock and the tether that they were using likely saved them a serious accident. You’ve likely heard this before, but please make sure you run the rope through your carabiners as part of your anchor and avoid top roping directly off ring type anchors. The person who replaces and maintains them will thank you.

That touches on fixed gear. A good gym regularly inspects and maintains it’s equipment. Outside that job falls on you. Inspect bolts or other fixed gear before committing to it. When I come across fixed slings I look at them and feel them trying to visually inspect the entire loop. You can often rotate the webbing to get a look at the section behind the tree or rock. Cary a small knife and extra cord or webbing to replace worn slings. Make sure you tie the knots correctly and check the knots on fixed stuff. I have seen many a poorly/incorrectly tied fisherman’s.

Ethics/ Courtesy: Different climbing areas have some slight variations in norms and what the community generally expects in terms of acceptable behaviors. Check with locals if you are new to an area. As a new climber you might find yourself committing a climbing party foul. I hope that the folks around you point it out nicely. Climbers in general are an awesome bunch of people, but we also tend to have some strong opinions about how our resources should be treated and what “Best Practices” in climbing means.

If you’re excited about climbing outdoors, then take the time to do some research and learn how to be a good community member and steward in advance. Get involved with your local climbing organization such as the Carolina Climbers Coalition or Southeastern Climbers Coalition. They will often organize fun and educational events as well as opportunities to volunteer.

Happy climbing, and I hope to see you out there.

Adrian Hurst is a Fox Mountain Guides AMGA Single Pitch Instructor, North Carolina Outward Bound Climbing Specialist, Wilderness First Responder, and member of the Appalachian Mountain Rescue Team.

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