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Experienced Utah rock climber offers advice to beginners

By Cara MacDonald, KSL.com | Posted - Mar 12th, 2019 @ 12:15pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — Rock climbing is a sport which incorporates skill, stamina, flexibility, balance, and intellect into one package, making it a growingly popular activity across the globe.

Utah, in particular, offers a unique set of conditions which make it a hot spot for climbing in the United States.

“Living in Salt Lake City means you are already starting with limitless people behind you, limitless rock to go climb, and limitless styles,” said Ben Roa, an avid climber and the captain of the University of Utah Collegiate Rock Climbing Team. “Within a 4-hour radius, you can cover pretty much all types of rock and all types of climbing.”

Despite the endless opportunity for climbing in the state, many Utahns find the thought of getting started with climbing to be a daunting task. Roa, who has incorporated rock climbing into just about every aspect of his life, offered some of his suggestions for beginners.

Types of rock climbing

The main types of rock climbing include bouldering, top rope, sport, traditional, and free solo. Learn more about each type here.

Step 1: Try it first

Rock climbing is incredibly fun and exhilarating for those invested in the sport, but it has a steep learning curve and is not everyone’s bliss. Local rock climbing gyms provide day passes and shoe rentals on site. Beginners can pay for a day pass, rent a pair of shoes, and assess whether they like the sport.

“In Salt Lake City, we are absolutely gifted with a mecca for rock climbing training,” Roa said. “Just grab a buddy who is either already in the sport or is looking to rock climb as well and head to one of those gyms. You can’t go wrong.”

Step 2: Get climbing shoes

Though rental climbing shoes do the job, it’s much better (and more convenient) to get your own. Beginner shoes can be purchased for under $150 at most outdoor goods stores, including IME and REI.

“A lot of people don’t want to make an investment on a new pair of shoes,” Roa explained. “A mistake many make is underselling themselves. They’ll buy the $89 or $99 pair of shoes and within a month or two, they’ll find they can’t use them because they’ve outclimbed the ability of the shoes.”

Roa recommends spending a bit extra to get a pair of shoes which are both comfortable and sturdy. “The biggest thing is to go and try them on. Don’t look online and think your size is the same in all shoes,” he said.

When purchasing climbing shoes, a key thing to remember is they are supposed to be tight. If your toes aren’t scrunched at the front of the shoe such that the big toe is angled downwards, consider going a size down. Though it may seem uncomfortable, the positioning helps climbers balance and gain traction on foot-holds.

“The 5.10 moccasins are the absolutely perfect starter climbing shoe. It’s really comfortable and it has good rubber,” Roa added.

Popular climbing shoe brands include 5.10, Scarpa, So Ill, La Sportiva, and more. Learn more about picking the right climbing shoes for your needs on REI’s guide.

Step 3: Sign up for a gym membership

Utah has three well-known rock climbing gyms: Momentum, The Front Climbing Club and the Quarry. The Front and Momentum have locations scattered throughout northern Utah, with their primary locations being located in Salt Lake City. The Quarry is the dominant climbing gym for residents in Provo. Smaller gyms can be found around the state, including The Mine in Park City, Fit Stop Rock in Heber, and Elevation Rock Gym in Logan.

Most people choose gyms close to where they live, but in places like Salt Lake City where two world-class climbing gyms are within 10-minute drives of one another, the choice becomes a bit tougher. Read more about picking a climbing gym here.

Step 4: Learn the rating system

  • Bouldering ratings: bouldering routes are ranked according to difficulty levels ranging from V1 - V15+.

  • Rope climbing ratings: rope climbing routes also vary according to difficulty, but they are signified differently. Routes are classified between 5.50 and 5.15+, with 5.16+ being the most difficult.

Step 5: Acquiring skills and improving

Improving and acquiring new skills when rock climbing often requires learning from those around you. For some, however, climbing partners are few and far between.

“Personally, I didn’t know anybody when I started climbing,” Roa said. “ I just talked to people and asked questions. The climbing community is a very nice one and I had a lot of people give me really great advice. Just not being afraid to approach people if you have questions helps a lot.”

Learning from others combined with frequently practicing and seeking to develop solutions to unsolved problems will lead to fast improvement. Doing workouts to increase strength in the muscles used while rock climbing will also help new climbers get better.

Find more tips for improvement here.

Step 6: Try climbing outside

Climbing in the gym is a lot of fun, but few indoor routes even begin to compare to outdoor climbing. Whether your bliss is bouldering, top rope, sport, or trad, Utah has a host of beautiful and exhilarating options.

Roa encourages trying outdoor climbing, but exercising a lot of caution when doing so.

“Everybody has that friend who wants to take you outside climbing,” he said. "The first thing to do is to really analyze who those friends are. When you’re in a gym, the environment is really controlled and you have to pass a test to get on a rope. A lot of people get cavalier and dangerous outside.”

Utah’s climbing gyms offer classes to teach basic outdoor techniques to promote knowledge and safety. “The Front has some classes that have to do with learning basic outdoor techniques, like ‘Learning to Lead,’” Roa said. “Then you can go out with a friend and have that base knowledge.”

A great resource for outdoor climbing is Mountain Project, which contains a comprehensive list of routes throughout Utah as well as their difficulty, location, and general information about them.

“Approach it with caution and learn from people who you either really trust or who are certified professionals in the industry,” Roa said.

Get started

“If you approach (climbing) with psych and motivation, but also with general self-preservation and caution, there’s nothing you can’t do in Utah,” Roa concluded. “Find the right people and get out there.”

Cara MacDonald

KSL Weather Forecast