DISCLAIMER – This blog is intended only to increase awareness of preparing to climb outdoors and in no way does the author take responsibility for the actions of other climbers or any events that may occur whilst sport or trad climbing, or bouldering. The author is not a qualified climbing instructor and all climbers should ensure they have the skills, training and equipment necessary for climbing before embarking on the activity. All climbers enter into the activity of climbing at their own risk and should always be aware of the possibility of serious injury or death as per the BMC participation statement that can be found on their website.
Climbing indoors is easy right? You don’t really need to think about much, just rock up to your wall of choice and off you go. Well, outdoors is a whole different ball game. It can be very easy to underestimate the preparation and thought required for the transition from indoor climbing to outdoors, so I’ve put together a few points to consider. It is important to be aware that I am just a climber and not a qualified instructor in any way, so it is crucial that you do your own research and are responsible for your own actions and safety. This article contains only pointers of things to consider for the transition from indoors to outdoors and the list is not exhaustive. I highly recommend paying an outdoor instructor to take you the first time you go outside for your ultimate safety.
Are you and your climbing partner(s) competent?
Before embarking on the outdoors, have you first mastered the techniques you need to climb safely indoors? It’s worth thinking of indoor and outdoor climbing as totally different but there are obvious basics that you need in order to be confident and safe outside. If you’re planning to go bouldering outdoors, do you realise the importance of spotting the person climbing and how to do that properly? There may be a need for a larger number of pads to protect falls, especially in awkward areas where there are lots of rocks or boulders that could cause injury if fallen on wrong. If climbing with ropes, do you know all your required basic knots, can you belay safely and can the climber lead competently? It’s entirely worthwhile undertaking training with a qualified climbing instructor to ensure safety. There are plenty that cover indoor climbing and also the transition to outdoor, especially for sport climbing. Climbing on rock is very different to climbing on plastic. Of course, outdoors there are, more often than not, no fixed carabiners at the top of routes so it’s extremely important to consider skills such as tying off at the lower-off bolts or chain, including the correct ethics involved with these types of lower offs, i.e. never top rope through the bolts, always use quickdraws until it’s time to strip the route.
Outdoor climbing requires you to be super organised with your equipment and to ensure it is all in working, safe condition. You won’t want to be running that fluffy rope over sharp limestone aretes (corners) or ledges… If sport climbing, you’ll need to consider adequate harnesses, ropes, carabiners, enough quickdraws for the length of the routes at the crag, belay device, slings for tying off, and additional extras that make your life easier, such as a Pongoose clipstick, rope bag, square of carpet to wipe feet on etc. Last but not least on this, a helmet for both the climber and belayer. Never assume that an outdoor route is solid as a rock… most crags are sea-facing cliffs or quarried faces so the risk of holds breaking off or rockfall is very high. Sea facing crags are often hammered by high winds and harsh weather conditions, and quarried faces are normally fractured rock from the destructive forces of quarrying. If your partner is climbing and dislodges a chunk of rock that knocks you out, will they know how to get down from the route? All of this is worth considering, these things do happen.
Crag access & restrictions
Some crags are easy to access and, once you’ve found the car park and way in, it’s an easy walk to the rock. Others, not so much. Guidebooks will give you a good idea of where to park, ideally including any places to avoid so not to upset locals etc, and also QR codes and GPS co-ordinates so you can find them with your phone. All good so far, but what about getting down to the crags? If you’re considering climbing on sea cliffs, for example Portland’s west coast, it’s worth being aware that the paths can be tricky to negotiate and dangerous at some points. Some paths have also been wiped out by landslides and the resulting changes are not always in the guide books (eg landslide of 2014 occurred after last Dorset guidebook of 2012). Checking with instructors, local climbers, climbing pages on social media and BMC/UKC websites for recent updates on access is always a good idea, rather than just rocking up and getting into trouble on a dodgy access. On this note, always consider the correct footwear as the mud paths can be slippery so good grips on shoes are essential.
Something you might not be aware of is restrictions to crags. Some crags are on private land so you might be trespassing. Some have access restrictions or a complete ban during certain times of the year for nesting birds. It is very important to adhere to these, not just for the wildlife, but to ensure that the crags remain open. If the guidebook says to abseil in rather than walking along the base of the cliffs, you will need to weigh up skills and ability to ensure that you can safely access where you want to go, and to get out again of course! Again, the guidebooks and BMC/UKC websites can give you information on these restrictions.
Landslides and rockfall
Have you ever thought about what you would do if the ground you were belaying on suddenly dropped from beneath you? Or if you were climbing a route and Smart-car-sized blocks of rock started to fall from above you with no warning? Do you even consider that this could happen? In a world where most of us climb at indoor gyms where everything is solid and safe, it’s easy to transfer that complete trust to the rock when we go outside. The majority of crags are solid under-foot but, again, using Portland as an example, there are many sea cliffs that are unstable underfoot as well as above. Having your wits about you is so important. Considering the safest place to stand or sit between climbs, where to belay or even where to eat your lunch, is so important. Landslides and rockfalls can occur without warning at any time. My blog ‘Outdoor Climbing – Risky Business?’ has more detail about this.
Crag and rock ethics
Picture the scene; you’re walking into the crag, excited and looking up at the amazing cliffs that equal the most wondrous routes you’ve ever seen… and you step in poo. Dog poo, human poo, either way it’s gross. Crag ethics are so important to ensuring a pleasant day out for all and also to ensure that they don’t get shut down by whoever owns the land if the areas get trashed. Always visit the loos before you head to a crag for the day. If you do have to go when you’re out, try and go into a bag that you can tie up and take home with you. Worst case scenario and you have no bag, dig a hole and bury the waste away from the crag or public walkways. Think carefully about leaving no trace. This applies to food and drink rubbish, and in particular, baby wipes.
Leaving no trace also applies to excessive use of chalk and leaving routes covered in tick marks. Make sure you’ve got your Pongoose brush so you can clean the rock after you’ve finished the route or boulder problem. It’s worth being mindful here too of rock erosion that can occur with over brushing or brushing too enthusiastically. Barely any force is required to effectively clean off chalk.
A final point on this topic is being aware of others on the crag and noise levels, especially if you are taking children or dogs who can tend to become very excited. If the chap climbing on the cliff is trying a precarious onsight or his last desperate attempt at a redpoint, he won’t appreciate lots of shouting, noise or even music. If there is excessive noise, how can they hear their belayer, or their belayer hear them if they’re shouting down to watch out for some rock they’ve dislodged? If the belayer mishears ‘slack’ for ‘take’ they may pull the climber off the wall. Let’s face it, climbing is meant to be a fun activity but it can be very disturbing if you’re terrified trying to lead a route and there are distractions all around. Music is generally frowned upon at outdoor crags because it can be extremely distracting and detract from the immersive outdoor experience. The same goes for smoking. If you have to smoke make sure you are down wind of people and always take your cigarette butts away with you.
The final topic I will talk about is outdoor bolts. Many people assume there is a Bolt Fairy, but they simply don’t exist! The bolts don’t magically get put into the rock, or maintained by a fairy, they are put there by other climbers like us out of their love for climbing. Many areas have dedicated bolt funds that bolt new routes and maintain existing routes by replacing unsafe or old bolts, but these are run by volunteers and the money for equipment is often gained by fundraising. You may see a collection tin at your local wall or climbing shop near the reception desk. Did you know an average sport route costs £100 for the bolts and lower-off chains? I didn’t when I first started climbing. Bolt Funds often have a dedicated PayPal account or way to donate online or via your phone. If you pay £10 per indoor climbing session, you could consider donating the same to a bolt fund to contribute towards bolt maintenance if you climb outside. There are only a couple of crags owned by the BMC in the UK (Peak District area) who bolt and maintain them, but this is rare, generally it’s down to all of us as climbers to keep them up to a good, safe standard.
When people first go outside, they often don’t understand the importance of keeping the bolts as good as they can be for as long as they can. For example, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not the done-thing to put up a rope, tie it through the lower-off bolts, and then allow people to top rope directly through the bolts, although you may see this with groups quite a lot. The reason for this is that the rope and small particles of dirt on the rope erode the bolts over time and then they need replacing more often, or they may fail completely if worn through. Bolt failures do occur so it is worth being vigilant at all times and consider lowering off from the two bolts or chain at the top of a route rather than relying on one bolt part way up. Be aware of the state of the bolts on the route you’re about the climb and if in you are in any doubt about them, simply walk away from the route and climb a different one, preventing others climbing it if it is clearly dangerous. You should then report it to the local Bolt Fund so they can remedy the problem as soon as possible to avoid danger for others. There is more information on this topic in my ‘Does the Bolt Fairy Exist?’ blog.
Finally, this article is not designed to put the fear of God into you about climbing outdoors, but the more prepared you can be, the better. Climbing is a dangerous sport but you can make it safer by being prepared, educated and on the ball. The rewards of climbing outside in the fresh air are so satisfying and it really is amazing, but never take safety for granted. So, take care and happy climbing!
The BMC Regional Access Database www.thebmc.co.uk/modules/RAD
UKClimbing crag guides and logbook www.ukclimbing.com/logbook/map/
By Katie Rendall.
Main Photo, brush, lower off and bolt fund drillers images credit: Sam Parsons from After the Send.
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