As I was biking to work this morning, I began thinking of doing something
like this, so I quickly banged this in on the keyboard. My immediate
goal was to have something to give to a fellow I have begun taking on
climbs, but I thought I would pass it along to you net-folks in case it
might have similar utility to others, this is just a prototype, and I
am not sure it really merits being called an FAQ, but anyway, here it is.
Editors note: and now here it is, years later, after rattling around
on the net since that one day when I posted it to rec.climbing.
I am glad people have enjoyed it and found it useful, here it as again
with some updates, and on the www this time! Any comments, please,
let me know!
This little publication has been prepared as a condensed info
sheet that I can give to beginning climbers that are interested
in doing some climbing, following a few pitches, and learning
more. I am not trying to cover all aspects of mountaineering,
nor am I a sport climber by any stretch of the imagination.
Obviously, a short thing of this sort cannot cover all aspects
of technical rock climbing. You owe it to yourself and those
you climb with to get some of the reference books mentioned
(see next section) and learn all you can about this sport.
Even with the best instruction, and the best climbing partners
things can still go wrong. You can get hurt or killed and if
you aren't comfortable with that, you shouldn't be climbing (or
driving a car, or any number of other things). Most of the time
risk can be kept to a reasonable level, but there are no guarantees.
Also, I should point out that this essay documents my way of doing
things. Other folks have their own opinions about how things
should be done, and that is fine, but this info should still
serve you well, unless you know better, stick strictly with
this advice and don't be inventing better ways of doing things.
For further reading, I heartily recommend the book
Freedom of the Hills
by the Seattle Mountaineers (or some such). Especially
read the chapters on knots, ropes, belaying, and rock-climbing.
The whole book is superb with a safe and conservative philosophy
and many years of experience behind it.
Several other books are worth mentioning, these are by John Long.
The first is called, How to Rock Climb
and may be the best small compact guide to the sport there is.
He has a number of other excellent books, among them:
Advanced Rock Climbing,
and More Climbing Anchors.
But don't bother with these till you have been thru the relevant
chapters of Freedom of the Hills a few times.
The basics are shoes and a harness. If you can borrow or rent
these at first all the better. Initially you are best off
climbing with someone else more experienced who has rope and
all the other paraphenalia.
For shoes, you might get by with a pair of too-tight tennis
shoes, but this is pretty desperate on anything harder than 5.6.
For a harness, you can do very well with 25 feet of 1-inch
tubular webbing tied as a swami belt (I won't try to discuss
how to tie this here, see Freedom of the Hills). I have climbed
with these for years and taken a few lead-falls on one with no
problems. Better to have a rig like this than a poorly fitting
harness, but enough said.
Also, think about bringing a bit of food and water, perhaps a
windbreaker or sweater, some shoes suitable for the approach
to the climb, and maybe a small pack. Don't wear shorts, if
you are climbing with me you will probably be bushwacking thru
thickets of manzanita, getting sunburned, and grinding your knees in
some chimney. If you insist on shorts, don't say I didn't warn
you. Also think about a hat (with a brim for sun protection), and
if you wear glasses, something to catch them if they get knocked
off is strongly advised.
There are really just a very few that you need to know:
A rethreaded figure-eight knot to tie the end of the rope to
your harness, and a figure-eight loop to attach to the anchor
and you are in business for now. Get a short bit of rope and
practice these and other knots at home. Be able to tie a knot
right in an instant and be able to tell by just glancing at
a knot whether it is tied right (It is a good idea to ask if
a knot is tied right the first few times, but in this and all
other things you want to strive for self-reliance). While I
am at it, I might mention knowing how to tie a water knot, and
know how to put on and secure your harness. People have been
killed due to improperly buckled harnesses and because they
didn't tie into the end of the rope correctly.
Hot tip: When you begin fastening your harness or tying into
the rope, don't get distracted, finish the job. Several accidents
have happened when someone began to buckle their harness and
then someone asked them to pass the water bottle, and they forgot
and never finished. Or they passed the end of the rope thru their
harness, but never tied the knot, then forgot and began climbing.
Don't let it happen to you.
This is really pretty simple once someone shows you how to
use a belay device. Just remember that someone elses life is
literally in your hands. The cardinal rule is to *never* take
your braking hand off the rope, even for an instant. Practice
will make belaying automatic, but it is easy to get sloppy, don't!
Hot tips: If the leader is taking a long time, don't let your
attention flag, keep alert -- and if someone else is around,
keep the chat to a minimum, someday you will be on the sharp end
of the rope. Strike a balance between giving the leader a big
loop of slack and keeping the belay so snug that the leader gets
yanked by the rope every move he makes.
There is an almost universaly accepted set of signals that you
should know and follow religiously. Sure, this begins to sound
dorky after a while, but stick with the program anyway.
The exchange when you are starting to climb goes like this:
Some final general advice. Sometimes the wind picks up and
makes it very hard to hear anything. First off, minimize all
chatter and stick only to essential signals, wait for those
moments when the wind abates for just a moment. Be aware that
you may be belaying in a sheltered spot, while the leader is in
the midst of a hurricane. In some cases, you just have to go
by the seat of your pants -- the leader will yell "off belay"
several times, and after getting no response will just haul up
the slack and put you on belay - When I am forced to do this, I
usually haul vigorously on the rope, figuring that my partner
will see the rope get pulled up rapidly and then feel my pulling
and know he is on belay. At this point climb with care, and
observe to see if the rope is being pulled up in a reasonable
- Leader: "are you ready"
- (this is unofficial and optional)
- Belayer: "belay on"
- (this means you have everything rigged and
from this point on you are taking responsibility to catch
the leader should he fall. You are only relieved of this
responsibility when the leader tells you "belay off").
- Leader: "climbing"
- (basically this acknowledges that he heard
you and is launching into action.)
- Leader: "slack"
- (the leader wants you to pay out rope so he can
clip into something, or perhaps so he can make a move without
fighting the rope.)
- Leader: "up rope" -or- "rope"
- (the leader wants you to take in
rope, probably because he has downclimbed a bit, or for who
knows what reason)
- Leader: "off belay"
- (the leader has reached the end of climb, is
in a safe spot and will soon be belaying you up. This
indicates that you can stop belaying him and should remove
the rope from the belaying device.)
- Leader: "watch me"
- (this is unofficial) This often comes after
a bit of a pause. It means that the leader is trying something
where there is a very real possibility (in his mind at least)
that he will be falling off in the process. He wants your
full and undivided attention.
- Leader: "falling" (official)
- This may be accompanied by screams
and scraping sliding noises, as well as a amazingly hard jerk
on the rope. Take appropriate action.
- Leader: "rock" (official)
- This means that the law
of gravity has taken control of some object and that it is
more or less heading your way. Take evasive action (looking
up to see what it is, may or may not be a good idea).
You can in general judge the size of the object by the
amount of emotion in the warning (but this depends on the
leader). A casual "rock" probably indicates a pebble and is
just being said to ward off complaints by those below.
Repeated hysterical cries of "rock", "rock" ..... mean that
something really big is coming your way.
Also, if you drop a piece of gear, it is best to immediately
yell rock as well.
Hot tip: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
A lot of rockfall can be prevented by a bit of care, courtesy,
forethought, and common sense. Watch for loose things and
be careful not to boot them off if there are folks below.
- Belayer: "belay off"
- (this should be done only after you have
removed the rope from the belay device. This tells the leader
that you heard him yell "off belay", and also indicates that
he is free to haul up any slack rope.) Do stay tied into
the end of the rope.
- Belayer: "that's me!"
- (yell this when the rope comes tight --
in general the leader can feel this, but sometimes the
rope is just snagged, so if he feels the rope tighten up
but doesn't hear you yell, he will know this.) Note that
you are not necessarily on belay at this point. In general
the leader will haul up all the slack, then put you on belay.
- Leader: "on belay"
- (Now the roles have reversed and you can go
up to the beginning of this section and use all the signals
designated for the Leader. Start by yelling "climbing",
in general the leader will respond with "climb" to let you
know he has you in his capable hands.)
Hot tip: be careful not to confuse the signals "slack" and
"rope". "Slack" means give me some slack, such as when you
step down to a rest spot. "Rope" means that you want the
belayer to pull up the rope so you won't fall so far if you slip.
As the second, your job is to remove all the gear that the
leader placed to protect himself, and to be sure not to drop it!
Begin with the gentle approach, look at the nut and decide which
way to push it (usually up) to get it into a wider part of the
crack. Don't just jerk on it -- in general this accomplishes
nothing apart from getting a nut that would have been easy to
remove really stuck. Think!! Often a quick poke with a nut-tool
will loosen a nut, then you can maneuver it out of it's spot.
Finesse, patience, and determination will save the day. Yanking
usually produces stuck nuts, shredded knuckles, and chipped glasses.
Sometimes the nut-tool itself can be used to maneuver a nut that
insists on rotating and getting stuck. Nasty cases may require
that the leader hold you on tension while you use both hands
to work on the piece. In some cases, you can use a giant hex
or anything else that offers itself as a hammer to beat on the
end of the nut-tool. With friends, avoid pushing them into a
tighter part of the crack where they will be harder or perhaps
impossible to remove. A nut-tool can be used to pry on the cams
of a friend one by one while you pull on the stem.
When you are working on a tough case, keep the nut-tool, the stuck nut,
and anything you are using as a hammer clipped in to avoid dropping
them. And watch those wired nuts, especially more than one on a
carabiner, to make sure the wire doesn't hold the gate open.
Don't loose my gear! It is expensive. Also, do a bit of cleanup
so you don't have nuts on long slings dragging near your ankles.
Often you can pop out a nut and let it dangle on the rope till
you get to a stance where you can more neatly rack it (and catch
Use your feet! If you get to the top of a 5.6 or 5.7 with
your arms blown you are doing something wrong. Pick your
rest spots, learn to eye the route and know when you are
going to begin a strenuous sequence that you cannot dilly-dally
on. Look and feel around. Consider using a tiny intermediate
hold rather than cranking your foot up next to your armpit.
Don't overlook vertical edges and cracks to jam in that won't
hold your weight, but are all you need for balance as you step
up. Read John Longs book "Face Climbing". Use your feet!
Don't forget to enjoy yourself, look around now and then and
enjoy the view!
Read the chapter in Freedom of the Hills. Speed is not the
object here. Make sure you know how to rig your rappel, many
climbing accidents have happened rappelling. Lock those carabiners
or use them doubled and opposed. Figure-eight devices are the
pits, invest in something else.
Watch the leader and learn things. Think about the nuts
you pull out and imagine yourself leading and what you would
have done in the same spot. Ask why he put a sling on this
nut or not on that one. Learn from the leaders mistakes.
Why did this nut fall out? Why was there such bad rope-drag
over this bulge? Why did the leader get off route and climb
this nasty unprotected section?
Back to main page
Beginning Climbers FAQ / email@example.com