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1. Pick your poison.
There are several types of climbing. Try them all to see what floats your boat, says Luke Livesey, head of instruction at Brooklyn Boulders. Top-roping (or rope climbing) with a belay partner allows new climbers to cover a lot of distance on the walls. No partner? No problem—use an auto-belay.
If you’re afraid of heights, bouldering—rock climbing without ropes—is a great option since the walls are shorter, Johnson says. (If rope climbing is long-distance running, bouldering is like sprinting, she explains.)
Finally, in the great outdoors, you’ll do either sport climbing, where the climber follows routes that have pre-placed anchors, or traditional (trad) climbing, where the climber places his own protection along the route. (As you likely guessed, trad climbing isn’t for beginners.)
2. Get geared up
Proper footwear is key. “I recommend choosing softer climbing shoes, so you’ll be able to get a better feel and grip on the wall,” Johnson says. Skip socks if they’re your own shoes, and wear thin ones if you’re renting. For bouldering, the only other piece of equipment you need is a chalk bag, and you’re good to go. For top-roping, climbers also need a harness, lead rope, chalk bag, carabiner, and belay device—all of which should be available to rent at your climbing gym.
3. Learn the ropes
So you’ve got the gear; now you have to learn how to properly belay. In fact, climbers have to be belay-certified before hitting the wall on their own, so taking a class is essential. “Belaying is really about getting into the groove and learning the muscle memory,” says Sarah Laine, an instruction assistant at Brooklyn Boulders. Translation: Reading up on belaying isn’t going to be a huge help. But here are the basics you’ll learn in an intro class:
Tie a figure-eight and fisherman’s knot to secure the lead rope to the belayer’s harness.
Keep your right hand (or left hand, if you’re a lefty) in break position (sometimes called home base) below the belay device—and don’t let go!
As the climber ascends the wall, they create slack, so the belayer has to pull it through to catch them. Pull slack from the climber’s side by pulling down with your left hand at the same time you pull slack up with your right hand, then come back to break position. (Think: Up, down, pinch, slide.)
Never let go of the rope with your right hand. Your left hand is just an assist—you really want to pull more with the right.
4. Choose your route
Top-roping routes will always start with a five, followed by a decimal point, and then another number that corresponds to the difficulty level of the climb, Laine says. Routes labeled 5.5 or 5.6 are beginner routes, and the higher the number after the decimal point (like 5.12), the harder the climb. Bouldering routes are rated by the V-scale, starting with V0.
Once you’ve selected a path, begin with both hands on the start holds (usually labeled with two pieces of tape), keeping your feet off the ground. Then follow the same color route up the wall. (Going off the color is actually cheating.) Some routes won’t have two footholds at the start, so you can just keep the other foot against the wall when you begin