This January’s historic summit of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson inspired many to try their hand at climbing. That said, most people headed to their local climbing gym and not to Yosemite National Park.
And why not? Indoor climbing offers a lot of advantages, not the least of which is you can step in the door and be on belay in five minutes, unlike having to hike with a heavy pack to the crag. For those of us with day jobs, it’s an awesome way to indulge our wild side while also maximizing our free time.
On top of that, indoor climbing is super safe, allowing you to explore all types of movement you might be scared to do outside for fear of getting hurt. You can try really interesting routes on holds that are shaped in ways you would never find outside, and you’re in a regulated setting — cool in summer, warm in winter and nary a raindrop or unexpected downpour.
So, why should you leave your climate-controlled comfort zone?
To me, climbing outside is romance, and climbing inside is just a fun activity. They’re two totally different worlds,” said Greg Echelmeier, owner of Old Mountains Gear Exchange in Webster Groves and a veteran climber.
“When you go to the gym, there are taped routes. You’re plugged into a system that’s designed for you to have fun. It’s a workout, it’s a game,” he added. “Outside, whatever [holds] you have, you use. To me, that’s freedom.”
The Mountain Sense
Jon Richard, owner of St. Louis-based rock and tree-climbing company Vertical Voyages, has witnessed firsthand the explosion of climbers in the U.S. When he started 20 years ago, there were about 30,000 climbers; today, there are around 6 million, he estimates.
“There’s been a shift in climbing. [Back in the day] you got started outdoors with a mentor. When you learn outside, you don’t get strong [as fast] but you have the ‘mountain sense,’” said Richard. “What’s happening now is these climbers are getting really strong in the gym and getting hurt when they go outside.”
An American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) certified rock guide, Richard teaches the skills and environmental considerations needed to “sport climb” outside in a three-hour class at Climb So iLL near Lafayette Square. Likewise, Upper Limits offers outdoor climbing instruction at its gyms in West County, downtown and in Bloomington, Ill.
“Climbing in gyms, you can lose the respect for what a rock climb can truly be. You’re climbing on something that has been around for millions of years before you and will be around millions of years after,” said Andy Larimer, who teaches the outdoor skills and gym-to-crag classes at Upper Limits. “You don’t want to be the person to contribute to the damage.”
Remaining in the good graces of private landowners and government officials who allow climbers to use the land is also a big incentive to abide by “leave no trace” principles — as well as common courtesies, such as controlled noise level, gear tidiness and more. (Read The Access Fund’s The Pact at accessfund.org.)
“Climbing is a great way to explore the world,” said Richard. Remembering a recent guiding trip to Yosemite, he continued, “There were seven people on the wall that day, but where we were, it was our own little section of paradise. We were seeing a perspective of the valley that few people can see without being a climber.”
Indeed, to many, rock climbing outdoors is less an adrenaline sport and more a peaceful and artistic pursuit.
“If you’ve ever watched a skilled climber, they don’t look like they’re trying very hard. They look like they float up the rock,” Richard said. “It feels like you’re defying gravity, developing the technique of movement and incorporating fluidity. Learning how to move on rock is art. The focus it demands is where the relaxation comes in. You’re not thinking about your job. You’re thinking about climbing,”
It’s yoga and martial arts on the wall,” echoed Echelmeier. “Climbing is a very body-mind connection with the elements. I love the movement, the individuality of it.”
Choose Your Own Adventure
The first step to getting outside is to know the different types of climbing: bouldering, rappelling, top-roping and sport are the most common disciplines for beginners. (Not to mention more advanced types like alpine, big wall, free-soloing, ice, mixed, multi-pitch and trad climbing.)
Bouldering requires the least amount of equipment and risk: You’ll climb large rocks, usually less than 20 feet high, to the top and then find a way to walk down. All you really need to get started are a crashpad, chalk, climbing shoes and a trusted buddy as a “spotter.”
Although, warned Echelmeier, “a lot of people can underestimate the safety and risks of bouldering outside.” He said he has helped a number of people limp out on sprained ankles at Elephant Rocks State Park in Belleview, Mo., the go-to bouldering spot in St. Louis.
Top-roping means the rope is already anchored at the top of the route. In order to sport climb, or climb from the ground up without a rope already set, you need to know how to “lead,” or bring and set the rope as you climb. Outdoor sport climbers use permanent anchors and bolts that have been placed in the rock by climbing coalitions and other volunteers. A class that teaches you how to “clean” (retrieve your gear) is critical.
“We want to make sure that climbers understand this is a very serious thing. You screw up out there, you can die,” Richard said. Falling early in the route and when “cleaning” a route are where most serious accidents happen. It’s also important to pay attention to environmental factors, such as rock fall.
“There’s risk, yes, but there’s risk to driving. We need to understand how to make appropriate risk decisions,” he said, before adding. “Climbers are missing out if they’re not climbing outside. It’s really rewarding.”
Where to Climb
In Missouri, rock climbing and rappelling are permitted in Elephant Rocks (bouldering), Lake of the Ozarks and St. Francois state parks year-round; and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park after Labor Day and before Memorial Day (top-roping, trad). Meramec State Park has a bluff where rappelling is allowed, but not rock climbing.
In southern Illinois, Holy Boulders and Jackson Falls are within a reasonable driving distance and offer a variety of opportunities. Popular destinations for longer trips are Horseshoe Canyon in Arkansas, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky and The Obed in Tennessee.
Take a class! Learn bouldering, top-roping, rappelling, sport cleaning or even trad skills before you go. Check the following websites for upcoming courses.
Climb So iLL
Once you’re ready to head outside, buy a guidebook (available at local climbing gyms and shops) or look for routes and information on websites like drtopo.com and mountainproject.com.
Author: Kimberley Donoghue is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine