How I got started with outdoor rock-climbing despite my fear of heights

As those of you who stop by here every now and then know, I used to have a debilitating fear of heights. It kicked in in my mid-twenties. The condition only started to gradually improve about two years ago, when I pushed myself to do lots of activities that involved heights.

MEETING THE RIGHT GUY ON A HIKING TRIP

I did a tandem skydive, some canyoning, caving, abseiling, ziplining, a flying lesson on an ancient single-propeller airplane, plenty of hiking with serious exposure, a flight in a hot air balloon and so on. Rock-climbing, however, continued to seem too ambitious until about two months ago, when I got talking with a fellow hiker on one of the GO London hikes. Ellie & I do plenty of hiking with them, such as the Goring circular walk.

 

All pics (c) BerkeleySqB, those pics showing me (unless selfie like this one above) taken by Karl Smith or bystanders. Pics in no particular order and not necessarily corresponding w/surrounding text.

BECOMING AN ELIGIBLE CLIMBING BUDDY

This hiker, let’s call him John, very kindly told me he would be my climbing buddy, as long as I do the one-day climbing introduction course at The Castle, London’s premium indoor climbing centre in Stoke Newington.

ONE-DAY CLIMBING COURSE AT ‘THE CASTLE’ IN LONDON

The ‘one-day’ course turned out to be from 3pm to 8pm, so was relatively easy to squeeze into my schedule. There were four other students, the instructor, and me, just one person under the maximum capacity of 6. You simply rock up 20 minutes before the official start time, check in, take receipt of the hired gear (incl. in the cost of £80), and get ready. No prior reading or anything is necessary. Complete newbies are the main target group of this course.

The course teaches you everything you need to know to be able to use the indoor climbing centre without supervision. You end up in the climbing wall pretty early on during the course. At first I didn’t make it to the top and had to ask to be lowered down again.

LEARNING THE ROPES

Gradually my confidence grew and about two hours into the course my bouts of panic had subsided entirely. It’s so much fun finding your way up the wall step by step. The walls are often more than 10m wide and they are split into sections, about 2m wide. On each of those 2m-wide sections there are between three and five routes. The holds on the wall are in a different colour for each climb. Little plaques on the bottom of the wall indicate what level of difficulty the route is. The plaque could look like this:

 

Indian Summer Wall, Section 59

Pink – Grade 4

Green – Grade 5

Purple/Yellow – Grade 5

Yellow – Grade 3

Yellow/Red – Grade 6

FRENCH SPORTS CLIMBING GRADES

The grades are the ‘industry-standard’ French Sports Climbing Grades. 3 is the lowest grade you’ll find on these walls. Even someone who’s never climbed before will usually easily be able to make their way to the top. Grade 4 varies greatly. Some might be extremely easy if you’re very tall or very flexible or if you’ve got strong hands, depending on the route. Others might already be quite a challenge if you’re a newbie. Grade 5 is always a huge challenge for beginners and usually impossible, unless you’ve got some serious talent. Grade 6 and above is mainly for experienced and expert climbers.

If you’re a beginner, you start with the route that is based on yellow holds and carries a Grade 3 specification. Should the Grade 3 have worked fine, then you might want to go for the route that’s based on pink holds and rated 4.

TOP-ROPING, BELAYING

The walls we trained on are all so-called top-roping walls. It’s called top-roping, because a rope is permanently going through a loop at the top of the wall at each section. One end gets tied to the harness of the climber, the other end goes through the belaying device of the climbing partner who secures the climber.

The Castle also offers so-called lead-climbing walls that have fixed bolts along the route but no top-rope. The so-called lead-climber, while being belayed by his climbing partner, has to clip the rope into the carabiners along the way on his ascent.

 

There are several bouldering areas (climbing close to the ground with no harness or rope) and a number of so-called auto-belay walls. Auto-belays are machines that secure you from the top of the wall, enabling you to climb safely without a climbing partner.

PURCHASING MY CLIMBING GEAR

As soon as I had completed my course, I purchased climbing gear, so that I would not have to hire gear from the Castle. The centre’s hire gear is great quality and at £6 for a pair of climbing shoes and a harness pretty good value for money. However, in the long run it saves money to have your own gear.

Following John’s advice, I purchased climbing shoes (£60), a harness (£60), a carabiner (£16), and a belaying device (£25). The only climbing gear purchase I made since then was a week ago: £30 for a climbing helmet.

LEARNING CURVE

For the following two months I went climbing one evening per week every week with John. Bit by bit I improved my technique and skills. About four weeks in I climbed my first Grade 6, some Grade 5’s with overhang felt like a piece of cake (some others didn’t). This is the usual level of progress to be expected.

PLANNING A THREE-DAY ROCK-CLIMBING TRIP TO WALES

After six weeks John bounced the idea of going on a three-day climbing trip to Wales off me, and I was immediately bought in. We booked a B&B and a hire car and were ready to go and have a fun adventure.

KNEE INJURY

Then John sustained a knee injury on a climb the day before we were going to go to Wales. He was not going to be able to do any climbing for at least two weeks.

I gave my best wishes for a quick recovery to my buddy and paid him back his share of the cost. But I wasn’t going to miss out on this trip. For about two hours I dialled the member list of Mountain Training Cymru up and down. Nearly every climbing instructor I called was busy on all three days in question. Everyone was very friendly and helpful, though. Many instructors gave me names of colleagues that might be available.

HELPFUL CLIMBING COMMUNITY

One of them recommended a colleague who then recommended a colleague who then recommended Karl Smith, who runs the Newport Rock climbing centre in Shropshire, England. I couldn’t believe my luck. Karl was busy on the Friday, but available on Saturday and Sunday, and happy to travel to Wales. We agreed a price for the two days (£340 in total) and the next day, Thursday, I was on my way to Wales. I spent Friday hiking in the area around Mount Snowdon.

MEETING MY INSTRUCTOR

On Saturday morning Karl and I met up at the agreed location, next to Little Tryfan. I immediately had a good feeling. Karl is 61 years of age, but physically fitter than most twenty-year-olds. He won’t sugar-coat anything and you’ll always get straight-forward feedback and instructions from him. Most importantly, he’s got some good banter and a dry sense of humour.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: TRAD CLIMBING VS SPORTS CLIMBING VS INDOOR CLIMBING

Sports climbing is any type of outdoor rock-climbing that involves pre-set bolts (and sometimes even further gear). Indoor climbing is self-explanatory for the most part, even though it can involve different types of climbing, as discussed.

 

So-called trad or traditional climbing involves going up a wall with no pre-existing bolts or other gear. The so-called lead-climber sets the protection and fixes the rope while he’s climbing and his partner secures him while he’s doing so. He goes up up to nearly one rope-length (the first pitch). About every 1.5 to 4m he attaches the rope to the wall.

The rope will go through a carabiner, so can move, but it cannot get out of the carabiner that’s attached to the wall via so-called quickdraws (two carabiners attached to opposite ends of a strap) and all types of different equipment like so-called ‘nuts’, ‘hexes’ (short for hexagons), ‘cams’ (short for spring-loaded camming devices), slings, or whatever is deemed useful.

Karl and I would do both trad and sports climbing routes that weekend.

HOW FAR WOULD YOU FALL

So if the lead-climber should fall, hopefully the protection will hold the carabiner with the rope that goes through it, the belayer will hold the other end of the rope. In essence, the fall should be no more than twice the distance from the last protection point to the harness plus the length of the protection (e.g. nut and quick-draw or sling and quick-draw), plus the ‘slack’ and allowance for elasticity of the rope. Slack refers to the looseness of the rope.

TIGHT ROPE VS SLACK

A tight rope that goes from the belayer in a straight line to the first protection point and then all the way from protection point to protection point to the top protection point, and then from the top protection point to the harness of the lead-climber, has no slack.

Most of the time, the belayer avoids a tight rope, because the lead-climber needs some freedom to move and being pulled backwards, away from the wall, by a rope that’s too tight, is dangerous and can lead to a fall. On the other hand, too much slack is dangerous too, as any fall would be bigger.

SETTING AN ANCHOR

When the lead-climber gets close to the end of the pitch, he sets a so-called anchor, basically a protection point that involves two or more separate and independent protections such as nuts or hexes. He attaches himself to the anchor and inserts the rope into the anchor’s carabiner.

CLIMB WHEN READY

The lead-climber pulls up the rope until it is tight, sets up his belaying device, and he’s ready to secure the second climber while the second climber makes his way up the wall from below. Once everything is set up, he shouts ‘climb when ready’. As you will have guessed, the process involves many more steps, but this is the short of it.

 

REMOVING ALL GEAR ON THE WAY UP

On the way up, the lower climber takes out all the protections that the lead-climber has initially put into the wall. Once the second climber has reached the lead-climber, he also attaches himself to the anchor, so that he no longer relies on the lead-climber to secure him with the belay. The lead-climber then takes the rope off the belay while the other climber takes the rope on the belay. Then the whole process starts all over again for the next pitch.

A SLOW PROCESS

For a newbie like me, all climbing is very, very slow, and even some more experienced climbers take their time. To do a 5 or 6-pitch (‘multi-pitch’) route from tying yourself in to getting back to the starting point of the climb (either by abseiling or by hiking back via a flatter route on another side of the mountain) can easily take 3 hours or more. Getting from the car park to the starting point of the climb and back usually takes about 30 minutes to 1.5h in total.

BRITISH TRAD CLIMBING GRADES

UK Indoor climbing centres solidly rely on the French Sports Climbing Grades, which go from Grade 1 to 9. There are further variations: a 9b+ is more difficult than a 9b, a 6a is easier than a 6c, etc.

For UK outdoor trad climbing, the grades are as follows (French Sports Climbing Grades in brackets):

MOD (‘moderate’, 1 to 2)

DIFF (‘difficult’, 1 to 3)

VDIFF (‘very difficult’, 2 to 3)

HVD (‘hard very difficult’, 3)

SEV (‘severe’, 3 to 4)

HS (‘hard severe’, 3 to 4)

VS (‘very severe’, 4 to 5)

HVS (‘hard very severe’, 4 to 5)

E1 (‘extreme 1’, 5 to 6)

All the way to E11 (‘extreme 11’, 8 to 9)

You really only call it ‘rock-climbing’ if it’s at least equivalent to a 3 in the French Sports Climbing Grading System, so only from the more demanding DIFFs and VDIFFS upwards. 1s and 2s are at best ‘scrambling’.

MULTI-PITCH VS SINGLE AND DOUBLE-PITCH CLIMBS

I told Karl, that John and I had planned on doing a number of 5- to 6-pitch (5 to 6 rope-lengths) trad climbs on the DIFF (“Difficult”, Grade 3) and VDIFF (“very difficult”, Grade 3) routes.

As my fear of heights is still an issue, I was pleased when Karl suggested we save the longer multi-pitch trad climbs for another time and focus on one and two-pitch climbs this weekend, some sports climbing, some trad. This had two big advantages. We would have time to check out many different climbing locations. As a result and on the same token, we could gradually work our way up from easy grades to more difficult grades.

More importantly, exposure tends to (but doesn’t necessarily have to) increase with the number of pitches. So limiting ourselves to single- and double-pitches meant that in theory, with us using a 50m-long rope, the exposure should never be more than just under 100m above ground. Quite often there are ledges or the wall is at an angle, which reduces the sense of exposure.

For top-roping, where the rope goes through a loop at the top and back down, it would be half that height. Of course, the ground next to the base of the wall is often pretty steep too. So it can still feel like you’re higher up. Most of the climbs we did were single-pitch, no more than 20m off the ground.

We started with a DIFF trad climb (just about a Grade 3, if you pushed it) on a rock that had perhaps a 55-degree angle, a very flat incline for a climbing wall. If it would’ve been just a tiny tad flatter, then we could have scrambled it. We saw plenty of kids in their late teens and early twenties more or less doing just that. No gear, no ropes, casually dressed but with climbing shoes. It was a great way to start the first day. A quick win. We did the two pitches in under 45 minutes, despite Karl spending a fair bit of time explaining the process to me.

WHAT..!?!!

In my mind the next thing was going to be a solid Grade 3 sports climb and would be similarly easy. However, Karl had had something else in mind. If I would’ve known what it was, I would’ve said ‘no way’. Luckily I didn’t know. To me, all walls look pretty much the same except for the incline. Unbeknownst to me Karl had chosen a Grade 5 sport climb.

As mentioned, from my two months of indoor climbing I was used to vertical and even some overhanging walls, as most walls at the Castle are close to vertical and a few have overhangs. I had climbed plenty of Grade 5’s indoor and a couple of 6’s.

OUTDOOR VS INDOOR CLIMBING – TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS

For nearly every newbie, and certainly for me, doing your first few outdoor climbs is a big challenge. That goes both for sports and trad climbing. I’ve been told that it is not uncommon for some newbies to struggle with DIFF (3) and VDIFF (3) trad climbs and with Grade 4 sports climbs, even if they’ve had no issues doing 5s and a few 6s indoor.

It’s a completely different kind of exercise. No colour coding. The holds are typically much narrower than indoors. On these lower levels, often even above that, the walls are typically not vertical but have at the bare minimum a slight angle, so you do most of your work with the legs and feet. Despite the slight angle, the sense of exposure is often much more severe. There is a lot more thin air between you and the ground or the next ledge down from you. Furthermore, the ground or ledge might largely consist of spikey rocks, not an even surface which you could use to roll off on to reduce the impact.

Quite often you use your hands mainly to stabilise your body and to keep it from leaning too far backwards, away from the wall. Equally you try to avoid leaning forward, because that means your feet have much less grip and you might slip. Perhaps most of all, you’re not doing one- to five-minute, seven to twelve-metre long routes for an hour or two. You’re often climbing all day, sometimes several hours on one single route.

 

A LITTLE BIT OF SPORTS-CLIMBING

Karl lead-climbed his way up while I was belaying him, just under half a rope-length. Much of the climbing we did that day was trad climbing. However, this was sports-climbing with pre-set bolts in the wall. When my instructor reached the top, he pulled the rope through the carabiner there and I lowered him down again. Next I did the climb while he belayed me. It went pretty smoothly. As soon as I had been lowered back to the ground again, Karl asked if I wanted to try to lead-climb the route. I agreed and off I went.

LEAD-CLIMBING VS BEING THE SECOND CLIMBER

Lead-climbing is very different from being the second climber. You can fall so much further. Every time you have to click your rope into the carabiners (talking sports-climbing, if you do trad-climbing you also have to set the protection, etc.) you’ll only have one hand to grab a hold. In short, the second climb felt a lot more challenging and nerve-racking, but I did manage to make it to the top.

LEAD-CLIMBING A GRADE 5 ON MY FIRST DAY OUT

Only when I was back down on the ground again, Karl told me that I had just lead-climbed a Grade 5. I won’t lie. I was very pleased. We did a few more climbs on the first day, including another Grade 5 with a little overhang, before we parted to get back to our places for the night.

I’M A SENSITIVE GUY LOL

That night I should’ve slept like a log, but I was still hyped up and couldn’t fall asleep until 3am or so. The second day was a lot more difficult for me. There was a bit of a rocky start. A SEV (“severe”, 4) gave me a SEV fright when I struggled to climb horizontally around a buttress and then to climb onto a ledge. I hate falling, even when I’m perfectly safe on belay, and at some stage I felt almost certain I was going to fall.

TO FALL OR NOT TO FALL

Because the last protection point my rope was going through was on the other side of the protruding buttress, I would’ve initially been accelerated away from the wall, then towards and beyond the last protection point and back onto the wall during my fall. I was not eager to find out how precisely my body would be accelerated around mid-air and against the rock face. Luckily, I did finally manage to climb up onto the ledge.

MORE HICK-UPS, SLOW RECOVERY, IN THE END A FUN SECOND DAY OF CLIMBING

Throughout the day I struggled to concentrate properly, which is not ideal when engaging in dangerous activities. Karl spotted several mistakes I had made and corrected them immediately. We did a few more climbs and I gradually started to get back to being my old self and avoiding mistakes.

As on the previous day, time passed extremely quickly, and soon it was time to walk back to the cars and say goodbye to each other. I thanked Karl for two fun days of climbing.

NEXT STEPS

Next spring, I hope to be doing one or two more days of climbing with Karl in order to learn how to properly set protection. Once that’s done, I’m hoping to go rock-climbing independently, with just my climbing buddy (pretty much like we had planned to do this time around already). I think there’s a good chance that I’ve finally conquered my fear of heights. There’s still going to be a fair share of fear involved, but it won’t be irrational fear or panic. It will be rational fear, the thing that keeps you from becoming overconfident or reckless.

Looking for more adventure? Feel welcome to check out our posts about downhill skiing in Mayrhofen, white-water kayaking in the Peak District, stand-up paddleboarding the Thames from source to London, deep sea fishing off the shore in Brighton, or a visit to a Russian coal mine near the North Pole (Spitsbergen). We’ve also blogged about the highest mountains of the UK, how poor man’s food became posh, a one-month stay in Papua New Guinea, and a dinner at two-starred Helene Darroze in London.

You may also like

30 Comments

  1. I don’t have a fear of heights. But I can imagine how debilitating this can be. But so great that you still tackled so many activities that took you high. I have no fear of heights. I always wanted to do rock climbing but have not yet managed to try it. So fun that you have taken this challenge up. And are dealing with the rational fear.

    1. Cheers, Linda. Yes, I was pleased that I didn’t bail out or anything, and that my fear of heights finally seems on its way out. Initially I had hoped I’d become completely fear-free, but apparently a lot of climbers who suffer from no fear of heights at all still feel quite a lot of rational fear at times haha…

    2. As always your sense of adventure is great to see, the fear of heights and wanting to conquer it is admirable well done. Even the late change in instructor didn’t throw you off.
      A great place also to do this with some beautiful views i can imagine

      1. Thanks, Richard. You two are far more adventurous than Ellie & me, despite having little kids. You’ve travelled so much and lived in so many different places far away from home. That said, your kind words are appreciated. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  2. Wow, what a way to conquer your fear of heights! Excellent article for those of us who don’t have an understanding of rock climbing. I’ve been waiting to read about this experience since I first heard about your planned trip. Love your photos too!

  3. Absolutely loved this post. What an amazing way to overcome a fear of heights. We’ve had a bash at indoor climbing, and really enjoyed it, but would love to try outdoors sometime. The landscapes you climbed in offered the perfect setting too.

    1. Cheers, Mitch. Yes, the beautiful setting in Snowdonia made all the difference. How cool you’ve done some indoor climbing and are looking into giving outdoor climbing a shot. I hope you’ll get to do it. I’ll definitely continue with it next spring and summer. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. It’s amazing you took on rock climbing even though you’re afraid of heights! Sounds like it’s a great test of mental strength as well as physical strength. I’d love to try it one day but even though I’m not typically afraid of heights, the thought of falling does make me nervous.

  5. Great informative post as usual, I’ve not climbed in Snowdonia for decades. Last time we stayed in a very Bunkhouse in Nant Perris.

  6. This is amazing! Outdoor climbing is on top of my bucketlist. I’ve done plenty of indoor climbing but never found the opportunity to try it on real rock. Where do I find myself a climbing buddy who doesn’t mind that I’m a complete newbie?

    1. Great to hear you’re into climbing as well, Carina. I guess the best way to find a climbing buddy is to do a proper lead climbing course at your indoor climbing centre and make friends with the other attendees, or simply check the pinboards (online or hard-copy) at the indoor climbing centre and at climbing clubs and associations. 🙂

  7. I booked myself a canyoneering tour in southern Utah next week and I absolutely thought of you Stefan as I did it. I’ll be repelling down into slot canyons, but your quest to overcome your fear of heights by climbing up steep, high rock walls is most admirable

    1. Your upcombing canyoneering tour in southern Utah sounds very cool, Steven. I had to look twice, as I’ve only been familiar with the term canyoning (usually, I believe, involving narrow gorges and a ton of water and lots of climbing and traversing and scrambling). Canyoneering will be a lot of fun, I’m sure. 🙂

  8. Wow what an accomplishment! I think I was holding my breath nervous for you while reading! Thats great that you found Karl and still got to go. I can’t believe he took you on a level 5! I’m sure it was way better to find out after! It’s interesting to learn all the differences in climbing and techniques behind it.

    1. Thank you, Vanessa. Never in the world would I have knowingly attempted a 5 on the morning of my first day outdoor climbing haha… Karl really did a pretty good job there… 🙂

  9. This is awesome! I, too, fear heights, and I always try to do things like you did to help me face it. I haven’t tried climbing (indoor or outdoor), so this was very interesting to read. There is an indoor climbing place near me, and I think I will try it out!

  10. I read this in complete awe of you as I’m also scared of heights and would no way be sky diving or extreme rock climbing like this. I was on the edge of my seat reading this at one point lol

    1. Thank you for reading and for the lovely compliment, Wendy. You and your family live in a country where every other animal wants to kill you and still you do all those adventurous outdoor activities. If anything, then kudos to you. 🙂 🙂

  11. Wow, that’s amazing that you were able to do this with such a fear of heights. I have been looking into climbing, starting with indoor climbing, but it’s really interesting to read all about the technical aspects and what the different grades etc are. Well done, looks like an epic trip with some fantastic views

    1. Oh.. how cool you’re looking into doing some climbing yourself, Emma. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this in due course. 🙂

  12. I really do admire you doing this. I never graduated from the climbing wall. Mind you I was a poor student with no money for gear. Also not a great climber. I didn’t know much about the different types of climbs. To go up there as lead climber took a lot of balls. Respect.

    1. Cheers, John. It’s never too late to start climbing. My climbing buddy, also called John, is 5 years older than me and he started only recently. You’re a fair bit younger than me, basically a spring chicken tehe.. You sound like you do have some interest in this type of activity and have done it before. Considering your ventures into skydiving and ziplining you’d feel right at home again. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  13. Wow, Stefan! I am in awe. What a fabulous achievement to overcome your fear of heights in this way. I think everyone should have a healthy respect for heights but to accomplish what you have given your fear is amazing. Karl sounds like a great teacher and having invested in all the gear, you are now committed! I shall look forward to hearing more about your climbing adventures. Again, well done.

  14. I haven’t graduated from wall and guava tree climbing yet but this is totally a different level. Seems Stefan is channeling his inner Spiderman – with great landscape comes great adventure. Glad to know that you’ve finally conquered your fear of heights 😉

    1. Thank you, Jan. I’m so pleased I finally seem to have gotten rid of that terrible debilitating fear of heights that has kept me from doing a lot of fun activities in the past… 🙂 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.