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I have been climbing for more than 15 years now. Climbing actually encompasses a fairly broad range of activities, so I thought I’d start by explaining where I fit in. I am not one of these mad fools who think that tramping all day up a mountain in miserable cold wet conditions is fun. I enjoy technical rock climbing, on sea cliffs or inland crags, preferably on a hot sunny day and preferably with a very short walk from the car park :-)
You can also climb on indoor, man-made walls, and this is where most people now start. New indoor climbing centres seem to be springing up all over the UK, and you can find the wall nearest you via the British Mountaining Council website, http://www.thebmc.co.uk/indoor/walls/wall.asp. Most offer introductory courses for a small fee. For example, the wall nearest to me (which I am not advertising!) offers 6 hours of tuition in equipment, ropework and basic principles for £85. Even if you decide that you prefer the thrill of the “real thing”, you will probably want to use indoor walls on rainy days and to keep your hand in during the winter (unless you are a mad mountaineer – see my comments above) because basically the only way to train for climbing is to climb.
If you start off climbing at an indoor wall, you will probably be able to hire all the equipment you need. You will need a sit harness, a belay device and a carabiner. A sit harness comprises a waistband and leg loops that you step into and pull up like a pair of shorts, before doing up the waistband like a belt. A carabiner is a loop of metal which is lockable, and a belay device is what you use to manage the rope so that your climbing partner doesn’t hit the ground if they fall off. Most indoor climbing walls have “top ropes” set up – these are ropes where the rope is fed through an anchor at the top of the wall and both ends of the rope dangle down. The climber ties herself, at the front of her harness, to one end of the rope, and her partner takes in the rope as she climbs, through the belay device. If the climber falls, the rope running through the belay device creates enough friction that the rope “locks” and prevents the person climbing from falling. OK, that’s a slight over-simplification but the point I’m trying to get across is that top-roping is very, very safe and anyone can have a go. I first took my step-daughter on her 6th birthday and you can imagine what the politics of that would have been, should the slightest hair on her head have been disturbed!
Extra info on equipment for women
It may not have escaped your notice, but us women are a different shape to men. We have hips, arses and thighs! We also tend to have a longer distance from waist to leg loops. When I started climbing, there were only a limited number of harnesses specifically designed for women but nowadays there is a wide selection. Alternatively, look for harnesses where you can buy the waist and leg loops separately so you can mix-n-match sizes to get a good fit. My personal preference is also leg loops that you can undo, so that you can have a pee without taking your harness off!
You can expect to pay from £35 for a basic sit harness, up to about £100. A carabiner and belay device together will set you back less than £20. Once you get into your stride, you will probably decide that you also can’t live without a pair of rock boots, from about £60 new but if you can beg, borrow or steal a second hand pair it’s well worth it, because I could write a REALLY long article on these alone. Suffice to say it all comes down to the shape of your feet, what sort of climbing you intend doing and personal preference. Once you have tried a few you will know. Second hand ones can often be cheaply re-soled or patched, good enough for a novice. Once you get outdoors, you’ll also need a helmet, from about £50. (NB eventually you will want to buy your own rope too, but hopefully by then you will know enough not to buy a second hand one anyway).
The next step is to join a local club – these may be advertised at a local wall or check the bmc website. Of course, you could go straight to this step, but be careful who you decide to take your advice from; not every member of a club is necessarily a brilliant instructor or free from their own bad habits. Remember that famous cliche “there are old climbers, and bold climbers but there are no old, bold climbers” :-) A club is a great way to get an introduction to various crags around the country, to find people who will share their gear and the driving with you (lol) and usually will have a library of guide books, maybe some club equipment.
For me, half the fun of climbing is going away with a group of like-minded people for a weekend of hard-ish climbing followed by meeting up at the pub in the evening to exaggerate tales of the day’s “epics” (practice the following phrase: VS my arse!). The other half of course, is the challenge of the climbing itself. It is totally absorbing. I am actually afraid of heights, in fact you may be surprised to hear that a lot of climbers are, or at least have a very healthy respect for heights and prefer to be roped up near cliff edges. Once you start a climb, that is all you think about, where can I find the next hold, where can I put protection, should I belay from here. Often, particularly on sea cliffs, you can’t see or hear your partner and have to rely on routine and rope-tugs to know what the other is doing. It’s a wonderful feeling when you stop to belay half way up a cliff (to bring your partner up to join you), looking out to sea with the sun on your face, seagulls hovering around below you. On a good day, you feel exhilarated about the moves you’ve just done, maybe a bit apprehensive about the next pitch, and you can feel quite alone even on a fairly busy crag, because of the wind and sea noise drowning out the sound of other human contact. It’s pretty surreal and I love it. I also scuba dive, and that’s the only thing that I have found which is in some ways comparable. It’s just so peaceful, and you can really leave all your worries behind at the foot of the cliff. You feel about 8 feet tall when you finish a great climb that has challenged and entertained you. I can’t recommend it enough – now get out there and try it!