This article was written by Jefferson Beavers. Check him out @HappyCatClimbing
Transitioning from indoor to outdoor climbing, whether long term or for a weekend trip, can be an intimidating and frustrating process. Bad directions, sandbagged climbs, and a plethora of other complications can make a potentially great experience sucky, or worse, never happen. What I’ve tried to put together here is a list of simple advice to help both new climbers and experienced gym rats with the transition to real rock.
Part 1: The Approach
Never underestimate the long-lasting effects of the approach on your entire day. Always plan ahead and research the area before setting out. Not finding parking is the fastest way to end your day early, so scope out some options ahead of time to make sure you’ll find a spot and return to a car that hasn’t been ticketed or towed. When considering the approach, think about the distance to the boulders, as well as the distance between them, and the steepness and ruggedness of the trail. You may be disappointed in your climbing performance for the day if you wear yourself out before you even get to the boulders.
Part 2: Sending Temps
Cold weather means better climbing right? Sort of. Cooler temperatures mean less sweaty hands and arguably more friction between your skin and the rock, but they can also mean stiff muscles, numb fingers, and a frozen brain. Sending season has become an extremely overstated phenomenon in the climbing community. I’ve been guilty myself of running off into the desert in the middle of the winter with the hope of hard sends, but the reality often looks something more along the lines of shivering nights and frustrating days. If you aren’t working on a super friction dependent project, chances are you’ll be able to pull equally hard across a pretty wide range of temperatures. Find your own range of comfort and keep it in mind when you are deciding whether to dedicate the day to projecting or cruising some easier classics. Just don’t use the temperature (hot or cold) as an excuse to not climb!
Part 3: Route Finding
Unless you happen across the project of an unconscientious and vigorous ticker, your problem won’t have the holds marked for you. Take a moment to step back from the boulder, make sure you are actually at the correct rock, and look for obvious ways you would climb to the top if there wasn’t already an established problem there. Now try and match the lines you’ve come up with to the problems in the guide. This will help you identify the route you are looking for and build your on-sighting skills at the same time.
After you have the general line that the problem follows, try to identify the start holds and top out. Most first ascentionists are rather particular in these details, but don’t worry if the prescribed beta doesn’t quite work for you. Height can make a big difference when you’re talking sit starts, and if there is an easier hold for you to start on (especially if it is ‘lower’ than the hold described) give it a go and see what happens. In the end, what is important is that you enjoy your time climbing and feel good about what you’ve accomplished. A climb worth its merit shouldn’t drop significantly in grade because of a slightly different start, but at the same time turning a sit into a stand wouldn’t be the same climb anymore. Don’t cheat yourself by cheating the problem, and don’t cheat the climbing community by claiming to have sent something that you didn’t.
Along those lines, don’t get caught up in the ‘is that foot on?’ game. Unless the climber who put up the problem intended it as an eliminate (probably the only thing you will ever see described in more detail than the start holds), the answer is yes. As long as you start and end in the right place, the holds you use in-between don’t matter all that much. In fact, it’s pretty silly to intentionally use a more difficult beta because the big ol’ jug on the right just seems too easy for the grade. When you initially access the line, look for the holds (hands and feet) that will be easiest for you to use and then figure out how to transition between them. After all, a V0 climbed with V10 beta is still a V0 at the end of the day.
Part 4: Protection and Commitment
Crash pads can appear to shrink in size as you make your way up a boulder if all you are used to is the sea of pads available in most gyms. A natural reaction to this is for climbers to haul out as many crash pads as possible and throw them down over every inch of exposed ground they may fall on. This practice can be harmful to both your growth as a climber and the growth of plants and insects that you are smashing down under your high impact foam. Don’t get me wrong, proper protection is very important. However, a well placed pad is much more useful than a cushion pit that you soar past when your feet cut at the top. Imagine yourself on the climb and try to anticipate which moves are most likely to foil your attempts. Then check out your surroundings and put your pad(s) down where you are most likely to fall, prioritizing rocks, roots, and other things on the ground that could hurt you. Not only will this offer you better protection, but envisioning the climb ahead of time boosts your confidence for the send and clues your spotter in to cruxes and likely fall zones.
More important than getting your pads in the right place, however, is knowing when to bail and when to commit. Padding the landing is a relatively new development to bouldering, and while it allows us to attempt more daring problems over more dangerous landings, it also has resulted in many climbers feeling comfortable on climbs that are well above their ability level. Throwing yourself at a problem over and over may be a great strategy for success in the gym, but outdoors it is a recipe for injury and scary situations. This not to discourage ambitious projecting, but rather to acknowledge the higher level of commitment and danger outdoor bouldering often requires. When climbing at a new location, try several problems bellow your projecting ability to get a feel for the rock and the grading (you’ve got to warm up anyways right?). When getting used to the extra dangers of falling outdoors, low percentage and committing moves are not your friend. Build your strength and skill by taking on lower grade problems that you can climb with confidence, and know when and how to bail from a problem safely. Blowing off a hold indoors is not likely to end in disaster, but doing so outside very well could.
Part 5: I get all that, but still don’t know what I am supposed to hold on to
Even with years of crushing indoor comp climbs, finding and knowing how to use holds outdoors can be cryptic. Many holds are created by rock formations that extend beyond the small area you’ll be putting your finger tips on, so try to avoid looking for holds with tunnel vision. It may be possible to use that credit card crimp as a pinch or sloper, or vice verse, so play to your strengths and vary your grip to minimize pump, fatigue, and injury. Also, don’t underestimate your sense of touch. The best way to get to know a hold is to touch and pull on it, so feel it up and take note of any micro-features you find. From barely perceptible divots and impressions to nearly invisible flakes and crystals, even a completely blank looking rock face can give you something to work with. If you are struggling with a hold, take the time to consider each finger placement and how you are squeezing or pressing with you hand. Very minor, but intentional, changes can make an impossible move within reach. Long story short, most plastics holds are designed to be used a certain way, rock is not; get creative!