Climbing the walls for fun and sport


Alyson Holt

CHS senior Avery Mahon prepares to climb during a January competition at NH Climbing and Fitness here in Concord.

Rock climbing may appear intimidating to some, but it is actually one of the easiest sports to begin and it challenges your mind and body in healthy ways.

The ideal place for your first experience with rock climbing is in a gym. Indoor rock climbing gyms are beginner friendly and often offer classes or instruction to get you started and feeling more comfortable.

In a gym, there are typically several different types of climbing. These include bouldering and what is sometimes referred to as “tall wall.”

Indoor bouldering walls are usually no taller than 15 feet. There are no ropes, and you climb with soft mats underneath you. Bouldering can often feel the most approachable. All you need to do is put on your shoes, chalk up, and start climbing. 

Tall wall climbing utilizes ropes because you are much higher up.

A great way to get started with climbing is through Concord High School’s own Rock Climbing Club. Meeting every Wednesday after school at NH Climbing and Fitness (only about 5 minutes away from CHS), it is an absolute blast.

Rock Climbing Club member Ava O’Brien scales a tall wall at NH Climbing and Fitness during a competition in January. (Alyson Holt)

With climbers of all ability levels, everyone fits in. Those who feel competitive can partake in competition, but the club offers a very low-pressure environment, so if competitions aren’t your thing, don’t sweat it!

There are several ways you can indoor climb with ropes. The most common and one of the easiest is called top rope. The rope is already set up for the climb. The person who is going to climb ties the rope to their harness, and the belayer puts the other end of the rope into a belay device. When the climber goes up, the belayer takes in slack. When the climber falls, they come off the wall but they don’t drop down at all.

It seems a bit scary at first, but you naturally swing back to the wall. This makes it really easy to get back on the wall and try again.

Another easy type of tall wall climbing is called an auto belay. For this, you don’t actually need a belayer. There is one rope you connect to your harness. At the top of the wall, there is a round enclosed spool (it sort of looks like a yoyo). When you fall off the wall, a mechanism engages and slowly lets you down to the ground.

One of the most difficult types of rope climbing is called lead climbing. With lead climbing, the rope is not attached to the top of the wall. All of the rope starts off on the ground. As you climb, you clip the rope into carabiner devices called quickdraws.

Indoors, quickdraws are usually already set up. If you are lead climbing outdoors, you need to clip a quickdraw into the bolt yourself.

Lead climbing is more difficult (and sometimes scary) because you need to be stable enough to take a hand off the wall, pull the rope up, and clip it in. You can take big lead falls, referred to as whippers. With these falls, you start falling above the clip and end up below it.

CHS junior Ava O’Brien, a member of the Rock Climbing Club, climbs a boulder at NH Climbing and Fitness on Langdon Street.

Indoors, lead falls can be up to 15 or 20 feet, depending on the weights of you and your belayer. Outdoors, they can be twice the size. 

Lead belaying takes a lot more skill than top rope belaying, because not only do you need to give out slack, but also take it in.

Catching lead falls takes understanding of whether to make the catch soft or hard, and how to brace yourself for impact of hitting the wall or even colliding with your climber. However, the heightened focus and skill it requires makes it an incredibly rewarding experience when done right.

You don’t need much climbing gear to get started. For bouldering, you simply need climbing shoes and chalk. If you plan on doing any climbing with ropes, you will need a harness and belay device.

You might be wondering what to climb first, or how to tell which climbs will be hard or easy. Don’t worry, you won’t have to guess. All climbs are given a rating.

Bouldering routes and tall wall climbs utilize different rating systems. Bouldering uses the V scale. The V scale ranges from V0 to (currently) V17. V17 is currently the highest rating possible, but as people discover boulders higher than a V17, the system will be updated.

Tall walls often use a system called YDS, short for Yosemite Decimal System. In gyms, you will mainly see ratings ranging from 5.6 to 5.13. Beginner climbs range from 5.6 to 5.9, intermediate ranges from 5.10 to 11, and advanced goes from 5.12 to 5.13.