Rock On! First-Time Climber Comes out on Top

In the weeks leading up to my first indoor rock climbing experience, I was plagued with an endless loop of worries: I’m out of shape, I’ll look stupid, I’m too old to be doing this for the first time, I won’t be able to climb to the top. I couldn’t quiet the nagging fear that maybe this sport—this sport which looked so fun—really wasn’t for me, and I was about to publicly humiliate myself.

When I walked in the door of the Vertical Endeavors indoor rock climbing facility in St. Paul and saw all ages, all body types, and all levels of ability, my fears subsided. People in all corners of the building were talking, laughing, and encouraging one another. There was positive energy, an “everyone belongs here” vibe, no pretentious airs. (Even with all those terms—quickdraw, belaying, top-roping—I didn’t yet understand.)

“First time climbing?” asked the friendly woman behind the desk.

I nodded. Did I look that lost and confused?

She smiled again, “You’re gonna love it.”

Or hate it, but at least I was giving it a shot.

Indoor climbing facilities—ranging from walls in retail shops to massive 40,000-square-foot gyms—are becoming increasingly popular. According to estimates by the Climbing Wall Association, there are 600 climbing-specific gyms in the country, and thousands of climbing walls within larger facilities and camps. Climbing gyms are drawing everyone from kids to retirees, with more and more people my age—in their 30s, 40s, 50s, even 60s—giving it a try for the first time.

Amanda Dekan, a senior instructor with REI, says many first-time climbers tell her rock climbing was on their “bucket list,” and that many are inspired to try the sport after seeing the Climbing Pinnacle at the REI Bloomington Store, a massive 55-foot-tall freestanding climbing wall located at the entrance of the store (and visible from the adjacent freeway).

“It’s something people want to experience at least once in their lifetime,” Dekan says.

In the Twin Cities, the best places to learn to climb are REI, Vertical Endeavors, and Midwest Mountaineering, some of which offer specialized classes, from female-focused classes like “Bouldering Divas” to advanced technique clinics.

“We have a strong community here in Minnesota of women climbers of all ages and abilities,” says Carolyn Hansen, a climbing instructor at Midwest Mountaineering where the Bouldering Divas class attracts climbers of all ages, including some mother-daughter duos.

According to local instructors, rock climbing is not only a challenge and a thrill, but can lead to improved flexibility, sharpened problem-solving skills, and can be an effective way to get (and stay) in shape.

It might seem, at first glance, like rock climbing is all about upper body strength, but that’s not necessarily where your climbing power comes from.

“I put a lot of emphasis on how good climbing is for your core strength,” Hansen explains. “A strong core leads to a strong back and strong bones.”

It’s a different kind of workout than many athletes are used to experiencing.

“A beginner climber will probably be more anaerobic,” Dekan explains. “It’s not like running a 5k. However, most first time climbers will discover muscles they never knew they had. A lot of REI staff climb to keep in shape and use it as a supplement to their weekly workouts.”

After filling out a waiver and renting climbing shoes, a harness, and a chalk pack filled with chalk for sweaty hands (the loose chalk brought back memories of my gymnastics days in high school)— my friend and I joined a few other newbies for a mandatory introductory safety session. We learned proper belay safety techniques (belaying is the technique of controlling the rope used to stop another climber’s fall), how to differentiate the harder routes from the easier ones, and basic tips like previewing the route before you climb, relaxing your grip, and keeping your arms straight.

I took some time watching those around me before attempting to clip-in and climb up. I struggled to find handholds on the faux rock surface. I felt awkward and uncomfortable. I was relying on my arms to do too much of the work. My hands got sweaty; my fingers ached. I didn’t even know if I could make it a quarter of the way up the wall.

You’re too old. You’re out of shape. You look stupid. You can’t do this. The old doubts resurfaced. Instead of admitting defeat, I unclipped and moved to another wall (an easier one) and received a major confidence boost the first time I made it to the top. Eventually I started using my legs to push more than my arms to pull (light bulb moment!), and kept my body close to the wall. Just like that, I started enjoying the process. Instead of my mind racing with negative thoughts, I focused entirely on the task at hand, figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. It didn’t feel like a workout, but I could tell my muscles were working hard. One thought kept cycling through my head: I did it! I did it! I did it!

When I left an hour later and passed the front desk clerk again, I felt like I could accomplish anything. “You were right,” I said. “I loved it.”