Beginners Guide to Rock Climbing: The Gym

By Khai Johannes Jun 24, 2022
John Muir once said, "...going out, I found, was really going in." We're going to reverse that idea and go in to get you out.
Beginners Guide to Rock Climbing: The Gym

There was a time when climbing gyms were looked down on by a lot of the climbing community (we climbers can be pretentious). Climbers failed to see how gyms could benefit the sport or its participants. Unapologetically entered the next generation of climbers willing to disprove those notions. Living legends like Chris Sharma, Alex Honnold (of Free Solo), Tommy Coldwell (of Dawn Wall) and Beth Rodden engaged with plastic only to elevate what could be done on stone. 

Indoor climbing has a lot of benefits. Climbing gyms are much more accessible, as buildings can be erected anywhere and thus introduces individuals to climbing that otherwise wouldn’t due to lack of mountains or boulders (think of Kansas or Florida). Trading a mile long uphill approach to the crag for a stroll across a parking lot allows for a more efficient climbing session. It’s not uncommon for climbing areas to only have a handful of grades within a select range of difficulty (we’ll get into climbing grades later) and thus limits the routes a climber might be able to climb. Climbing gyms tend to be compact with a diverse range of grades. The more efficient a climbing session can be, the more routes a climber climbs. The more a climber climbs, the more progressions can be made. 

Like a library, gyms are also a hub for knowledge on the subject matter. In a much more controlled environment, we can learn the skill of belaying, clipping into draws, how to properly fall, ways to move your body and most important of all, slag. Phrases like “the crux was switching from that crimp over to a mono pocket without barn dooring. I need beta on locking that heel hook” will roll off the tongue. Before you roll into your local gym, let’s get you prepared so you don’t look like a gumby on your first day. We climbers can be pretentious (a gumby is climbing’s equivalent to a Jerry or Gaper in the snow world; someone new and inexperienced).



What a time to be a climber! The gear we use now far exceeds the imagination of what the pioneers of the sport were using. Ropes lacking in dynamics were once tied around the hips of a mountaineer wearing wooden-soled shoes. Gear is evolved and specialized now and most climbing gyms will offer the option of renting any and all items you’ll need to climb. For bouldering, athletes need only a pair of shoes and an optional chalk bag. Chalk is used to keep your hands dry and increase your gripping ability. For going higher up the wall, add a harness and belay device. Ropes will be fixed to anchors set up for top rope, but once you learn to lead climb you may need to bring your own rope. 

(Tip: if you stopped in your local gear shop and they talked you into buying a daisy chain or draws along with the above-mentioned gear, feel free to leave that off your harness when you’re inside. None of it will serve a purpose other than making it easy to be spotted as a gumby.) 



Take a deep breath. Handle that elementary school trauma the word ‘grades’ invokes. Ready? Onward. 

Luckily, unlike school, these grades won’t require any late-night cramming. There are a few grade systems in climbing. Some for rating the quality of the climb or its risk level. The grade systems we’re worried about for your gym debut are the two used to convey a route’s level of difficulty. For climbing on ropes in the states, we use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). 

A grade on that system will look like this: 5.12c. The first number (5) indicates that it is a rock climb. When the scale was first set up, 1 was to indicate a hike and as steepness grows, so does the number until you reach 5 for climbing (if you’d really like to geek out, there’s a wikipedia page dedicated to the YDS). The second number indicates how difficult the climb is. Finally, the letter at the end tells the difficulty of the route within that tier. For example, a 5.10a is considered easier than a 5.10d. Climbs earn their grade based on the hardest part of the route. A 5.9 may be predominately 5.6 climbing with one section of 5.9 climbing. 

(Tip: grades are read ‘five nine’ not ‘five-point nine’ nor ‘five dot nine’)

There was a time when the ceiling was set at 5.9. Adam Ondra, a lanky, ultra-talented climber from Czechia most recently established the world’s hardest climb; a 5.15d he named Silence. That guy Adam spends a lot of time in the gym. 



I learned to climb, belay, tie a figure 8 knot, the principles of cleaning and seconding, ideas on where to climb, techniques and best snacks to pack all inside the walls of a climbing gym. This is truly where gyms have shown their importance. Before you begin crossing off iconic climbs out there in Utah’s Indian Creek or Joe’s Valley, I highly suggest signing up for a class to learn the basics. Your local gyms will most likely offer belay classes for rope climbing as well as instruct you to sit through an informational video for bouldering that will demonstrate (some) climbing etiquette and safe falling. My climbing gym goes a step farther by hosting professional climbers who will lecture on topics ranging from training habits to expeditions accomplished. 


That’s a rap (rap slang for ‘rappel’)

Climbing gyms are an integral part of the sport of rock climbing. Much like the ski resorts in Utah, our gyms offers users each a unique experience. The competition continues to push each to grow in size and keep quality high. While this may seem like hyperbole, the gyms here have as much of a role in my moving to Utah as the mountains did. On a layover, I stepped into one of Utah’s world-class facilities and knew I’d found my home gym. 

The gyms have succeeded the need to make members stronger and have begun making the climbing community stronger. One way they do this is by making the gym a one-stop-shop for members. I can take a jujitsu class, yoga class, boulder on one of three floors, climb walls three stories high and buy produce from local farms all without leaving my gym. The other way is their outspoken desire to support climbers of diverse backgrounds in the gyms they’ve made a safe place. Go inside your local gym, it truly will be the best way to get outside.

Ready to get started? Locally, Momentum Climbing and Fitness and The Front are two great climbing gyms to check out.


For a blog on the basics of climbing, click here.