Climbing, especially bouldering, is one of the fastest growing sports at the moment, partly thanks to the great accessibility of the hundreds of indoor walls around the country. I am focussing more on the bouldering side of things to illustrate the main differences regarding technique and experience. Outdoor sport and trad climbing require a lot more chat about safety and other skills, which can be withheld for another time.
The intrigue and challenge of indoor bouldering has got thousands of people hooked. If you are one of these people you have probably been enticed by fellow climbers to take your new found passion outdoors. Great! So what are the main differences you should be looking out for? How do you adapt to those differences? And what should you expect from the outdoor experience?
The first, and best thing, to do if you want to head outdoors is find yourself some more experienced people to go with. In some ways this applies more to roped climbing than bouldering, from a safety point of view. However bouldering alone, although completely doable, is not that much fun for a beginner. The shared knowledge of beta, locations of good projects and group encouragement makes bouldering with an experienced group one of the best things you can do! It will do wonders for your climbing ability and confidence and create lifelong friendships.
Fun with friends in Albarracin:
- The first thing you may notice is the lack of big holds, especially for your feet. Climbing outdoors revolves around the use of more technical and, more often than not, textured holds. The holds are small but mostly numerous. It tends to be the case that you will do far more short and precise moves, than few big moves.
So many options
- There are no big coloured blobs outdoors! Once your eye tunes into what unlikely looking things you can actually use as holds, you will suddenly realise that there are literally hundreds of ways to do the same problem. The trick is filtering all the information through your climbing control centre, based deep in the centre of your brain, to decipher an efficient and graceful sequence that suits you.
Environmentally determined style
- Each climbing area will be based on its own individual rock type(s). This dictates the shapes and textures available to you, and therefore the climbing style which is needed. For example, sandstone normally calls for lots of openhanded compression and smearing; slate for technical positive crimping; and limestone for polished pinches and laybacks to name but a few. It may take some time (at least a day normally) to get used to the specific movements and placements needed to make best use of the rock you’re on.
- You are outside. It will rain at some point, especially in the UK. You have to deal with it and move on. Plan your climbing around the weather and take wet rest days to recover skin.
- Before you throw your mat down and just start climbing, think where are you going to fall. There is no infinite matting out here! To make things worse, adjacent walls or rocky landings can make for a nasty fall if not considered beforehand. If you’re in a group, multiple mats are a life saver to cover small pointy boulders, stack mats on a landing zone, or even use as in-hand shields to divert a climber away from a side wall.
It’s a day trip
- Climbing outdoors is all about the experience of an all-day adventure. You may have a long walk in and multiple places to go to in the one day. Come prepared with plenty of water, food, guide books, back up plans and warm things/waterproofs. Bouldering outdoors has a whole different energy dynamic to indoors. A route will be scoped out. Tea will be brewed and attempts made at a leisurely pace with long rests. Shorts bursts of energy and commitment will get you up that problem (with plenty of chat, camera fiddling and hold re-chalking/brushing in between).
Moves to work on
Moves you will probably find yourself doing a lot more often outdoors than in:
- Seeing as you top out (get on top of the boulder) far more often outdoors, most people get caught out initially by pushing over a lip or rounded finish. People forget that pushing is as important as pulling outdoors. The commonly required technique of throwing a heel by one’s head and pushing down on holds can be very alien at first. It’s best to do lots of low grade problems to get used to mantling, and watch a few videos beforehand.
Heel toes cams
- This is when you can push/jam your toes against the rock in opposition to the well-placed heel of the same foot. This is a great way to take a lot of weight in big cracks, holes and overhangs. If you can find some holds to practice indoors, make the most of it.
- Although still not common, these can be found more readily outside. These provide great rest points to take all the weight of your hands.
- This depends on the style of rock you’re on, but a lot of classic areas and problems require good old fashioned squeezing of hand and feet to get up them. Get on some gym rings and do some press ups for an extra chest, shoulder and upper back work out. Practice heavily weighting heel hooks to get the hamstrings prepared.
Adjustments in technique
- The ability to decipher routes quickly, anticipate which holds to use and the best movements to perform is a far more skilful and subtle art outdoors. The best clue you might get are tick marks and chalk dust, but even these can be misleading. Holds are no longer luminous green and you have to think for yourself! Mastering real route reading comes with lots of practice, trial and error and experience and will save you a tonne of energy once it all starts coming together. Don’t fall into the habit of just looking up the climb on the internet after the first time you fall off. Think for yourself and be an individual, this will serve you better in the long run.
- Given the array of often awkwardly-positioned holds, you will probably make far more body movements to get anywhere. Lots of little moves can be far more productive than trying to do big moves. In the same vein, don’t be surprised if you find yourself doing 3/4 foot movements just to get yourself in a position to move to the next hand hold. This is normal, and why it is a good idea to drill moves so you can do them quickly when it comes time to send.
Projecting and performing
The whole point of climbing indoors, for me, is to be able to perform outdoors. Completing a problem indoors is meaningless compared to one outdoors. Outdoors you can build up a log of what you have done, a record to keep forever of climbs with interesting names. To challenge yourself you will inevitably have to project hard routes and push your boat out once in a while. Get used to a low volume of high intensity!
I know people who have said they won’t try anything more than 5/6 times before they give up. This, for me, is ridiculous. I understand that climbing satisfaction means different things to different people. But I also know people who have had the same project for literally YEARS and the rewarding satisfaction upon completion is one of the best feelings in the world. Projecting is how you really improve. I had to project Super Nova for four days before everything came together!
A different experience
It is very easy to turn up to the climbing wall, have a coffee and crack on with all the conveniently laid out climbs, with ample warm up routes right next to a sweet shop of projects. Going outside takes a little bit more planning, effort and self-motivation in order to earn the full experience. It might take a long time to warm up fingers in the cold, and often you will have trekked with heavy kit to get to an unassuming spot with a few rocks. It takes a bit more drive, optimism and sense of adventure to make the most of the day.
So my top tips would be:
- Go with people who can’t wait to get up in the morning to go climbing all the time
- Get generally fit beforehand so you can arrive at your climb feeling fresh and ready to go
- Develop a good relationship with failure and let it drive you. You will generally need more tenacity to revisit projects.
- Have a good sense for adventure. Don’t be afraid to get lost and/or get home exhausted
Fear of falling can be a huge limiting factor when you do finally get outside. Having a partner or lots of people ‘spot’ you when bouldering can be a huge confidence boost. Spotters are mainly there to make sure your feet hit the mat first and not your upper body. They are not there to fully catch you as this will cause injury. I have posted on spotting before so take a look if you’re unsure. Also ask a staff member at your local wall. Practice it indoors so you feel comfortable with it and trust your partner when you get outdoors.
- Use a mat. Not just for safety, but to avoid erosion of the ground under the climb.
- DO NOT deliberately chip or forcefully manipulate holds. You will be ruining it for everyone else.
- Do not leave rubbish, take it all home. Even the little bits.
- Brush off all chalk marks. Try to leave minimal traces of your presence.
- Try not to use expletives, there might be kids around.
- Ask to try a problem with somebody if they are already set up next to it/projecting.
- Dogs are great, I love dogs. But if you are around other people don’t let them sleep on their mat/get in the way under any climbing.
- If someone has just brushed a route in preparation to try it, don’t jump on it just after they have finished brushing (at least ask).
- Be cool. Be chilled. Share knowledge/coffee etc.
Other tips and hints
Clean your shoes
- Your shoes are far more likely to get dirty outside. Clean them with a good spit and polish before you set off. Not only will this improve your grip, it will also lessen the amount of rock erosion. Plus, no one likes dirty holds.
- We have all been trying something forever and someone has come along and flashed it in front of us. This can be frustrating, but don’t be annoyed… be grateful! Use them as a model of how the climb could be done and ask them questions. Remember you are climbing against yourself, not other people.
Scope out the area
- Look at the range of difficulty for where in the world you want to go. Pick somewhere where you will have plenty to do and work on so you don’t feel left out or waste a trip.
Build a base indoors
- If you are a beginner, before going outdoors I would recommend consolidating your climbing ability to make the trip more fun and worthwhile. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert. But doing lots of mileage on routes where the holds are not just jugs will make climbing outdoors far more accessible. For boulderers I would say a grade of at least Font 5 or V1 on most terrains would be great starting point. But this is in no way essential!