Rock climbing used to be considered the preserve of adrenaline junkies, but in recent years it has broken into the mainstream.
A growing number of people in search of new experiences and outdoor adventure have been getting a taste for the crag in climbing centres around the country.
The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) estimates there are about 5 million visits to climbing walls each year in the UK.
Find out about rock climbing’s unique physical and mental challenge, how to get started and the life skills it provides.
What is rock climbing?
Rock climbing was originally used by experienced climbers to practise skills needed for scaling difficult sections of a mountain. By the 1980s it had evolved into a globally popular leisure pursuit in its own right, practised indoors and out with many variations such as:
- bouldering: ropeless climbing at low heights, often above safety mats
- sport climbing: climbing up rock faces dotted with bolts for climbers to clip into
- soloing: climbing on your own and usually without a rope
- traditional or "trad" climbing: climbing up unmarked routes using your own safety gear
- ice climbing: climbing ice-covered rock faces and frozen waterfalls
Who can do rock climbing?
Almost anyone can rock climb. At beginner level, it caters for people of all ages, fitness levels and abilities, including mental and physical impairments. There are courses for children as young as five and it's not unusual to see people climbing well into their 80s.
Despite its image as an athletic sport, you don’t need to be super-fit to rock climb. Good technique is more important than physical strength, although the more you climb the stronger and ﬁtter you will become. Good footwork, body positioning and problem solving will get you up many more climbs than just brute strength. Many climbing centres have specialist instructors who have experience with rehabilitation and working with all kinds of physical and mental disabilities.
What muscles are worked?
Climbing uses lots of muscle groups, both in the upper and lower body. Your back, abdominal and leg muscles all get exercised as well as your ﬁngers, shoulders and arms. Regular climbing can improve stamina as well as muscle strength. In addition, all the reaching and stretching for holds improves ﬂexibility and agility.
What skills are developed?
Each climbing route is like a puzzle, which requires patience, planning and analysis to complete. Beginners will typically work out their ascent as they go up, but with experience they learn to visualise their climb and spot tricky sections before reaching for their first hold.
Over time, regular rock climbing can help develop concentration, determination and problem-solving skills. As you improve, you will naturally want to push yourself further and try harder climbs or climb outdoors.
The amount of goals you can set yourself is limitless. Setting yourself goals and meeting them gives you a great sense of achievement, which in turn can help build everyday self-confidence.
While on one level rock climbing is an individual pursuit, it also has a very social component because you’re never alone (or shouldn’t be). You’ll either be climbing with a group of friends, schoolmates, colleagues or family. You tend to develop strong friendships with your climbing partners due to the level of trust involved and through sharing challenges and experiences.
Rock climbing and dyspraxia
Anecdotal evidence suggests climbing works well for people with dyspraxia (a developmental co-ordination disorder) because the environment is stable (especially if using a designated climbing wall) and the individual only has to think about how to move themselves in relation to the environment.
The Dyspraxia Foundation says people with dyspraxia often have difficulty planning their movements, which makes it hard when they have to accommodate a changing environment as well as organising themselves, for example in team sports such as football.
Climbing is great for building upper limb strength and stability, something that some people with dyspraxia often lack and which affects functional fine motor skills such as using cutlery, handwriting and so on. Rock climbing can be done when it suits the individual, rather than having to fit in with other team members. This can be useful as some people with dyspraxia get very tired towards the end of the day or week because of the physical effort they put into getting through their day.
Climbing is also a social activity as it has to be done in pairs. This can be great for people with dyspraxia who may struggle to communicate and be sociable in a larger group because of their physical difficulties and, for some people, slow processing speed and communication difficulties.
Rock climbing and mental health
Evidence shows that physical activity of any kind can help people with depression. Some scientists think that being active can help improve wellbeing because it brings about a sense of greater self-esteem, self-control and the ability to rise to a challenge.
That is certainly the experience of Jake McManus, 41, who has suffered from depression all his life. He says rock climbing has helped him to better manage his condition and to live a near-normal life.
“When you’re on a climb, you’re in the moment, you’re entirely focused on the task at hand, and your mind is clear of all other thoughts,” says Jake. “It’s a wonderful escape.” Apart from the sense of achievement he gets from climbing, the sport has also taught him not to fear failure. “In climbing, failure is the path to improvement,” he says. “With my depression, there were days I feared to leave the house.”
Climbing has created a new dynamic for Jake, involving strong friendships, adventure and travel, healthy living and positive thinking. In a way, climbing has become Jake’s rock, a solid foundation on which he has rebuilt his life. He has set up Climb Out to share his journey and help others get outdoors and "climb out" of their problems.
What if I’m scared of heights?
“It’s natural to be scared of heights,” says Tina Gardner of the BMC. “Instinct tells us that falling from a high place will hurt. Respecting that fear keeps you alive.” She says reviewing all the precautions prior to climbing is a good way to reassure a nervous climber, for example, checking their knot is tied correctly. Gardner says the more you climb, the more confident in your own ability you will become. “You don’t want to lose that fear completely,” she says. “Over time, climbers simply learn to manage it.”
Is rock climbing safe?
Climbing can be as safe or risky as you like. There are different styles and levels – it’s all about choice and experience. You are very unlikely to get injured climbing on an indoor wall with someone holding the climbing rope below you.
German researchers found that climbing had a lower injury incidence than many mainstream sports such as basketball, sailing or football. Indoor climbing had the fewest injuries per 1,000 hours of participation compared with all the sports studied in the 2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine.
How do I get started in rock climbing?
Typically, people get their first taste of rock climbing at an indoor climbing wall by tagging along with a mate who’s already into climbing. Many centres run introductory climbing sessions for different age groups, with all equipment provided, including climbing shoes and a harness. You can a find a wall near you on the BMC website.
Joining a climbing club is another common way in and has the advantage of providing you with a pool of potential climbing partners. You can also use climbbuddy to find a climbing partner or meet other climbers near you.
At some point, you may want to experience climbing outdoors and get your hands on real rock or the crag. The BMC’s Climbing Outside booklet (PDF, 2.1Mb) is written for climbers "stepping out" for the first time. If you want to start outdoors, you can hire an outdoor climbing instructor.
For a beginner's guide to rock climbing, download Young people: climbing, hill walking and mountaineering from the BMC website.
What equipment do I need?
To climb at an indoor wall, all you need are climbing shoes (although some centres allow trainers) and comfy, unrestrictive clothes. Technical equipment, including climbing shoes, can usually be hired on site. As you progress you’ll probably want your own climbing shoes, harness, chalk bag, belay device and karabiner. Get advice from an expert before going on a shopping spree.