Learning to climb – 8 tips for beginners

“If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~Shunryu Suzuki

This is pretty much how every climb feels when you start out, but eventually those big and scary problems shrink a little. This shot of my bouldering buddy Matt was taken on a bouldering day in Squamish this summer.

This is pretty much how every climb feels when you start out, but eventually those big and scary problems shrink a little. This shot of my bouldering buddy Matt was taken on a bouldering day in Squamish this summer.

As children we are used to constantly falling. Constantly failing. Constantly not being able to reach something, do something, be good at something. We roll with it and embrace it and laugh at it. Something happens in us as adults that slowly changes that fearlessness into a deep fear of failing at …well, almost anything. As a bit of a perfectionist myself, being a beginner is not something I normally enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I love to learn, but not being good at something is incredibly frustrating for me. That’s one of the many reasons I knew I really must love climbing….because as a beginner you fail and fall and can’t do stuff every single time you get on the wall/rock. Other than living abroad, it’s been one of the most humbling experiences of my life and continues to humble me each day. So, I thought I’d help any other beginners out there a bit and give you a few (and by no means exhaustive) tips on being a beginner.

1. Remember how badass you are for doing this every single day. This one is key. Because climbing will kick your butt on a regular basis. Just today I got back from the climbing gym and was totally stumped by a problem (a particular climb) that I had happily conquered on my previous visit. It’s amazing how one day you can rock anything and the next you can’t do a thing. But, the fact that you’re even doing it, is completely awesome…and…totally badass.


These guys rockin’ a bridge. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2. Remember the beginner’s curve. Know that your rate of improvement will be about 100 times that of an experienced climber and you will see incredible results simply by climbing regularly. You may be terrible on your first day of climbing, but even one month in you will be totally amazed at your progress. A lot of experienced climbers have told me to really enjoy this time of rapid gains because eventually the gains become smaller and are much harder to see.

The bunny hill

In my first month of climbing even the bunny hill or “kiddie pool” as Leslie calls it seemed hard.

Outdoor bouldering

Just a few months later I was trying outdoor bouldering for the first time!

3. Climb regularly. Here’s what I’ve had recommended to me and so far, so good: Twice a week to maintain, three times a week to improve and four times a week or more to seriously take it to the next level. Sure, you can cross-train and do other activities to strengthen or help your climbing (yoga is an amazing counter balance for climbing) but in general the best thing to improve your climbing is climbing itself.

4. Give yourself rest days. You’ll thank me for this one! If you are like me and you fell madly in love with climbing you will want to climb every single day and then some, but…you simply can’t, or you’ll get injured. At the beginning you will need a couple of days of rest after each session in order to let your body properly recover. I know it’s annoying, but it’s essential. Even now, seven months in, I can’t really climb two days in a row (or I can, but I can barely do much on the second day.)

sand angels

When in doubt, collapse in the sand and make sand angels on your days off, just like my niece is doing here.

5. Remember that tendon strength develops a lot more slowly than muscle strength. The first year of climbing is prime time for finger injuries in new climbers, and I am no exception. Four months into climbing I injured one of my fingers (more on that in another post) and I’m still recovering from it, nearly three months later. Even if it seems your muscles can do a certain problem, remember the incredible force you are putting on your fingers and don’t push it. Believe me, you’ll be happy you followed this advice. Injury sucks and in bouldering it is especially common.


It’s worth learning something about tendons and finger strength. I learned after injuring myself, of course.


6. Take care of your body! Put the following people into your phone contacts – massage therapist, chiropractor and physiotherapist. Think I’m kidding? Particularly if you are an adult beginning climbing later in life you will need regular body maintenance. My various therapists now just ask me when I go in, “okay, so what is it this week?” If you want to do a sport that demands the most from your body and is a constant fight against gravity you will need to take care of it properly.

7. Take a class or some lessons. If you have the time and can afford it this is the best way to improve your skills quickly. If you can take a class, then chances are you’ll meet some fun people too. I took the Intro to Bouldering class at my gym, (the Hive Bouldering Gym), which is one evening learning the ropes (or lack thereof, pun intended) and two free weeks of climbing afterwards. For all you wanna-be kick ass lady climbers out there try the Women in Bouldering class (and hopefully other climbing gyms have something similar) which is a ton of fun (though I had to drop out early due to my finger injury!) I also take lessons from a fabulous instructor, Celeste Wall at the Hive as well. And, if you don’t have time for any of those things – YouTube has a ton of great climbing videos to learn from like this one called “Improve your climbing.”

8. Have fun! Let the fun take over and try not to take yourself or climbing too seriously. The thing I love about climbing is just how fun it is. It’s hard, it’s intense, it will test your mind and your body….but most of all, it’s so much fun. That is going to be a theme throughout my posts and I will keep drilling it in your minds, as well as mine. That is what makes me keep going back for more. Enjoy this process and I promise you will always leave each climb with a giant grin on your face.

Monkey girls

My bouldering buddy, Laura and I just monkeying around on a day out in Squamish on the boulders.


Bouldering – how I fell for it…hard.

Hello, my name is Kristi and I’m addicted to bouldering. I don’t really know how it happened, but I do blame/thank my friend Leslie who, one day, in such an innocent manner, posted a happy little Facebook status inviting anyone who was interested out to try an “Intro to Bouldering” class at the Hive Bouldering Gym. What the hell is bouldering? I asked myself. If it’s a bunch of people throwing rocks into the ocean that kind of sounds random and fun, I thought. You see, I had just recently returned from an amazing time living in Germany and having a not-so-easy time adjusting to life back in Canada. I was on a, “I want to try new things and meet new people and be healthy and find a community” kick and it turns out, bouldering is pretty much the most challenging and awesome hobby I could have stumbled my 30-something and partially in shape body upon. They say that bouldering is the purest form of rock climbing out there – no ropes, just you and the rock and climbs go to about 18 feet (though I have heard crazy tales of 30-40 foot boulders). Leslie had decided to try it out because she realized it would mean she could do this as a solo activity as well as with other people. So, three of us kind of nerdy academic type (with a desire to be fit) gals decided to venture over to the rather sketchy and deserted Industrial Avenue in East Vancouver to give this a go. We had no idea what to expect.

A look at one of the indoor bouldering walls of the Hive. And I can tell you...it's much scarier than it looks at first. And it looks pretty scary at first.

A look at one of the indoor bouldering walls of the Hive. And I can tell you…it’s much scarier than it looks at first. And it looks pretty scary at first.

The first thing we learned – climbing is freakin’ hard. Have you ever seen pictures of climbers? If you haven’t you might want to check them out. Even if you aren’t a climber or never will be, you might want to peruse pictures of climbers. They are ripped, they are toned, but not in an overly bulgy-gross way, but in a “holy crap that person is in shape and can hang off a cliff with one finger” kind of way. So, as you can imagine, starting to climb as a woman in your 30s in a mostly male-dominated (though this is changing very quickly) sport with super fit and lean people is….completely daunting. That’s how I knew and know that I really had fallen in love with it.

Leslie chalking up to take on a new problem.

Leslie chalking up to take on a new problem.

Despite the fact that I felt so out of shape compared to everyone there (you should know that I did actually run three half marathons last year so I wasn’t completely out of shape when I started), and the fact that every single muscle in my body ached the day after our class, I still kept coming back for more, and still do. I had no idea my body could hurt so much. I’ve tried a lot of different sports in my time and tested my body to the limits many times. The day after my first half marathon I was so sore I walked like a 90 year old woman around my apartment and couldn’t even walk down stairs. After my first time bouldering I could barely wash my dishes. I got home, stuffed my face because I was so ridiculously hungry (I didn’t realize that my muscles were screaming for protein at this point), and attempted to hold something. Maybe it was my dish wand. Maybe it was a pen. Maybe it was really just a piece of paper. I don’t even remember. All I remember is looking at my hand and thinking, “move. MOVE. Just….move! Yes, that’s how sore I was. And here’s the best part. I couldn’t wait to go back. Like… couldn’t freakin’ wait. There was a lot of the word “freakin’” used in my first weeks of climbing. “This is so freakin’ awesome!” “My muscles are so freakin’ sore!” “This problem is so freakin’ hard!” But I digress. The day after our class, Leslie and I texted each other saying something along the lines of, “Are you in pain? HELL YES! Want to go again as soon as possible? HELL YES!” Did we? HELL YES!

Before I knew it...I'd found my new happy place.

Before I knew it…I’d found my new happy place.

So, at this point you might be asking yourself….so….if it’s SO hard on the body and the ego….why the heck DID you go back? Only those who have fallen in love with climbing can truly understand what happens here. I think it’s something along the lines of discovering an activity that somehow fulfills almost all your needs – intellectual, physical, social and most of all – the FUN. Because…it is so ridiculously fun. Epically fun. You get to climb stuff. And fall off stuff. You get to swing from stuff. You get to pretend you are a kid again. But this time you are doing some really really hard stuff. You are building muscles you didn’t even know existed. You are testing your body and mind to the limits every single time you climb. It’s AMAZING. Do I think everyone should climb? YES. Do I think everyone would want to climb? NO. Do I think you should try it at least once? YES. Sensing a theme here? I’m a bit of a bouldering missionary. And so, only a short four and half months ago my addiction to bouldering began and a whole new world opened up to me, along with a quirky and wonderful new community of people. I hope you enjoy my journey and the tales of the highs and lows of my climbing adventures, how it helps me face the challenges of life and perhaps if I have a couple moments of wisdom you’ll learn some stuff about how to rock your life, even if all you ever do is use the powerful metaphor which is rock climbing.

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