Monday, October 23, 2017

The Unsung Benefits of Outdoor Climbing

After years of climbing and never feeling fit enough when I hit the crag, I finally caved and started visiting the climbing gym. The gym, to me, felt like a totally different climbing culture than I was accustomed to. I'm into outdoor sports for the escape and the search for solitude, avoiding crowds is a major goal for me in my recreation activities. The climbing gym seemed like the antithesis of this philosophy. The gym seemed like a purely social endeavor. I adjusted alright, and now I must say, I don't mind brushing elbows with some folks, building community and getting regular exercise.

Two winters in a row now I've braved the crowds and hit the plastic during the wet pacific northwest winters. There is good value in maintaining your fitness and building strength during the off season, or even mid-season. Thanks to the gym I've been able to advance my lead climbing grades without having to drive 30 plus minutes to the crag 2 or 3 times a week. These days I might turn to the gym if I feel like my time frame isn't long enough. At one point my answer would inevitably have been, "Let's Rally!. Now, I might even tell myself "you'll get a better pump at the gym anyway."

Guide Doug Foust follows "On Eagles Wings," at Mt. Erie.

Yes, it's true, you can get a better pump in a short amount of time, however, in many ways the gym just can't compare to climbing outdoors. I've noticed in climbing gyms that "climbing outdoors" has become part of the climbing lexicon. It never occurred to me that one might make that distinction. In my mind a person either climbs or they don't. I can certainly understand the distinction now though; transitioning from indoor to outdoor climbing is challenging. You have to learn how to climb with you eyes. When you are climbing in the gym your path is pretty clearly laid out for you. When you first walk up to a rock wall it is not always easy to recognize what the route is going to be. So, I think one of the first skills you refine when you learn to climb outdoors is climbing with your eyes.

Of course this skill can't be learned any other way then getting on the stone and having a go at it. I also think there are a number of other benefits that outdoor cragging has to offer us.  Decision making is one, you have to pick your cragging area appropriately so the group can all finish the day satisfied. You also have to make decisions about where to build anchors, how to build anchors, where to stand while belaying and even what to wear or eat for the day.

Guide Doug Foust using a top-managed belay.
There is also a deeply physical nature to cragging that I find invigorating. The approach to the base of climbs is often a hefty workout; because climbers generally pick the steepest most direct path to their climbs. Coiling a rope exercises your biceps and forearms and, I think, is a good way to warm down after climbing hard. Other rope-work can be exercise too, a top-managed belay can call on a variety of muscle groups depending on where the belayer's stance is in relation to where the rope is running.

A climber enjoys some full body climbing.
Certain types of climbs like chimneys and off-widths seem to call on your full body in a way that the gym can't easily replicate. Slab climbing is sure to get your calf's screaming for days afterward. Even Carrying a rack can build shoulder strength and can also make moderate climbing into a little greater challenge. Managing a rack is definitely a skill in itself also.

My wife appreciating some cragging. 
Anyway, the point of all this is: don't forget to appreciate the value of the cragging experience. If you've been climbing outdoors for decades then be sure to appreciate how much you get out of every trip to the crag. If you are new to climbing and haven't left the gym yet then put a little more thought into what it's going to take to get outside and do some cragging. There's no time like the present to cash in on the full mind, body experience

--Tim Page

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