Making the transition from sport climbing at the gym to the crag is unlike any other feeling; you’re no longer bound to color-coded plastic routes and greasy foot chips. The smell of fresh air, the mountains surrounding you, and the touch of real rock under your fingertips gives you an indescribable sense of excitement and freedom. Reflecting back on my early days at the crag, I cringe a bit at the memory of the silly mistakes I made in my sheer excitement that may have compromised the safety of myself, my fellow climbers, and the well-being of the crag. To save you the embarrassment of the mistakes I’ve made along the way, I’ve compiled a few tips:
1. Check out what’s up top.
Scout out that fixed gear that someone has so lovingly placed at the top of the route, then use your own draws at the anchor to minimize wear on the fixed gear. It’s hard work to put it up there, please don’t top-rope through fixed gear, since it will wear and need to be replaced sooner. Better yet, meet your local climbers’ coalition and learn how routes are bolted and maintained!
Identify what you’re going into. Are they quick clips, quick links, rappel rings, or some funky Franken-anchor setup? This will help your partner figure out what to bring up in order to clean the route safely and efficiently. Relatedly, is the gear up there something you’re comfortable putting your life onto when you lower off? Is the gear fresh and new or so grooved that it’s threatening to slice your rope?
2. Know how to get down.
Or, know the local ethics for descending. “Ethics” is such a ridiculously charged word when it comes to climbing, so for the purpose of this post, this means asking yourself, “Is it cool for me to lower off or do I need to rappel?” Depending on where you’re climbing, it can be either totally cool to lower off fixed gear, or it can be a total no-no. Know how to safely clean, so your claim to fame is not an accident report! In all seriousness, cleaning an anchor generally involves untying the holy, life-preserving figure 8 knot (and is well beyond the scope of this post), so this isn’t time to mess around.
Check your crag commands with your partner before you’re off the ground. I’ve heard multiple horror stories of people confusing “on belay” with “off belay.” Confirm that your partner wants to be off belay if that’s what you think you heard him/her yell. Keep the volume down so those around you can communicate effectively and stay safe.
4. Leave packs to the wolves.
Travel in small groups so the classic routes can be enjoyed by all. If you’ve got a lot of friends along for the day, consider letting other parties alternate in on your gear so there isn’t a backup. Plus, you even might meet some cool new friends!
5. GriGris are not magic.
Do keep a hand on the brake end of the rope. I once watched in stunned disbelief as someone took both hands off the Gri-Gri, pantomimed the beta to their partner, then proceed to re-tie both shoes before resuming belay duty. Hone your belay skills from the beginning; there is nothing more sexy than a soft catch.