There is immense reward in hauling your own body to the top of a wall using nothing but flexibility, cunning, and the strength of a couple fingers. We asked Sierra Blair-Coyle, a professional climber who buckled into her first harness at age eight, how to get there.
Choose Your Discipline
Before you climb, you’re going to spend a lot of time watching other people climb, so you’d better make sure you like your climbing buddies. In a rock-climbing gym, which is where you should start, you’ll encounter two beginner-level disciplines—bouldering and top roping. Most gyms offer both, but some places may have a more robust community around one or the other. The two specialties also tend to attract different kinds of people: Bouldering is great for extroverts and larger groups, and top roping is ideal for those who want to learn with a single friend. It may be worth visiting several gyms until you find a group and style you like.
Basic types of indoor climbing:
Bouldering, or creeping up, under, and across shorter structures (in a gym, these reach up to 20 feet) like a crab, tends to be more social, because lots of people can climb at once. Bouldering does not require a harness or ropes, but can demand acrobatic moves: It started out as a way for long-distance climbers to practice difficult tricks close to the ground.
Top roping, or creeping up taller walls (indoors, up to 45 feet), is better in pairs. This is the easiest form of long-distance climbing, in which climbers tackle vertical routes using a rope. In this case, a rope threaded through an anchor in the ceiling is tied to your harness. Your partner on the ground, known as a belayer, holds the other end to let you down.
Advanced types of indoor climbing:
Lead climbing is a more challenging form of long-distance climbing that can be practiced either in a gym or outdoors. To do it, you tie into a safety rope and then run that rope through anchors set into the wall as you move up it. Outdoors, the lead climber is the guy in the front of the train. Lead climbing also requires a belayer.
Free soloing is the same as bouldering, but is performed on walls high enough to cause injury or death if you slip. You—and all the courage you can muster—just climb up a big, scary wall. Solo climbers are the sort who might also enjoy wing-suit gliding or base jumping.
Get Your Gear
“The first time you go to a climbing gym, all you really need to bring with you is yourself,” Blair-Coyle says. You can rent everything you need there. Once you’re hooked, you’ll want these four items.
Top ropers take note. If you plan to boulder, you can skip this part.
Tie your harness to a rope hanging from the ceiling using a figure-eight knot . Your partner, the belayer , will clip in to the other end using a carabiner attached to a belay device , which looks a lot like the front of a pig’s nose. The belay device functions as a friction brake, lightening the load the belayer has to support if you fall. As you move up the wall, the belayer removes slack from the line.
If you lose your grip, or you’re ready to come down, the belayer locks the rope in the belay device by pulling the free end out to the side, leaving you comfortably dangling. Most climbing gyms offer intro courses or lessons in both knots and belaying.
Pick Your Problem
Upon approaching your gym’s top-roping wall or bouldering course, you’ll notice knobs and handles everywhere. How hard could it possibly be to climb a wall that’s got more nooks than an English muffin, you might think. Here’s what makes climbing hard: You don’t get to use all the holds. You have to follow a preselected route, which climbers call a problem. Some gyms will mark a problem with colored tape. In other gyms you’ll follow holds that are all the same color.
The problem’s difficulty is rated on one of two different scales, depending on whether you’re bouldering or top roping. “Harder routes have worse holds—sometimes they’re smaller, and sometimes they’re harder to grab onto,” Blair-Coyle says. “You might have fewer holds that are farther away, and you might be in awkward positions.”
Sport Climbing (Yosemite Decimal System): The Yosemite Decimal System classifies every kind of terrain a person can traverse from Class 1 to Class 5, be it a sidewalk (1) or a sheer cliff (5). Any wall worth climbing with hardware and a rope—in a gym or outdoors—falls into the top class, 5, and will be rated from 5.0 to 5.15 based on the route’s hardest move, called its crux. The routes in most climbing gyms start at around 5.5. Beginning climbers will begin to sweat at about 5.7.
Bouldering (The V-Scale): Named for its progenitor, John “Vermin” Sherman, the V-scale—V0 to V16—grades bouldering routes. Because bouldering takes place on real or artificial boulders, which have more angles and are closer to the ground than top-roping routes, it can require more powerful moves. In general, a V0 is comparable to a 5.9 on the Yosemite System. “Each gym is different, but I’d say V2 and under is easy, V3 to V5 is medium, and then V6 and above is hard,” Blair-Coyle says.
Begin at the hold marked start, put a hand on it, and crawl along the holds on your problem. Easier problems often have more holds than you need, so always choose those that will get you in position to best reach the next comfortable spot. There are tricks to moving your center of gravity around that you’ll learn as you get better, but usually you want to reach for a new hold, move your feet up to a set of new holds, and then stand. Keep most of the weight on your legs, because your arms will tire first.
Primer: The Hold Hierarchy
From easiest to hardest.
 Jugs: Practically handles. Put your hand in the opening and grab.
 Pinches: A little like doorknobs. Best gripped between your fingers and your thumb, like you’re holding a can.
 Crimps: These thin-edge nubs barely extend from the wall. Clench your fingers close to your palms to get your fingers on the top.
 Slopers: Big round bubbles with few irregularities to grip, slopers are best attempted with the help of friction. Feel for any defect that might help you, then get as much of your palm on the hold as possible. Hang directly away from the roundest part.
When faced with indecision, resist the impulse to contract your arms and hold close to the wall. Think like a monkey: A monkey doesn’t cling to a tree but keeps its body relaxed while it hangs. “Climbing is really about learning to use your body so you’re minimizing the strength you require,” Blair-Coyle says. “You want to try to keep your arms as straight as possible when you can.”
If you fall, don’t panic. Just alert your belayer by saying “falling.” If you’re not falling, but you’ve had enough, say “take.” Either way, your belayer will lock the rope in the belay device, which he can do quickly. Then just sit back like you’re sitting in a chair. Trust the rope. It will hold you. Kick gently off the wall as your belayer lets you down.