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July 30, 2021 7 min read
Scotland is renowned for its distinctive and diverse range of landscapes; from dramatic mountains and glens, to deep lochs and rugged coastlines. Some would say there is no better way to appreciate Scotland than from the top of its highest peaks and for those among us who long for that extra challenge, climbing may be the activity for you. Although very technical initially, once you get the hang of it, it will provide the perfect tools to unlock ALL that Scotland has on offer.
Films like Free Solo, The Dawn Wall and Meru can make the idea of rock climbing equally inspiring and daunting...but how hard is it actually for beginners to get started? We’ve researched the topic and come up with some essential advice for anyone looking to take their sense of adventure to new heights.
One of the best ways of getting started, is to begin indoors, this means heading down to your nearest climbing centre/wall. Entering a climbing centre for your initial session can be a confusing process, but like anything, you’ll soon be accustomed to it. Climbing indoors means you can hone that technique and get comfortable on the wall (with heights), before heading outdoors. Not only does this environment provide more support, with most centres offering introductory courses and tuition, but you’ll benefit from using more clearly defined routes. These are marked out in front of you (typically from coloured holds which reflect routes and grades).
Once you've developed your technique and maybe even met some friends to go climbing with, it's time to get outside.
There are many options for progression in the outdoors, from boulders and crags to mountains and sea cliffs. Although indoor and outdoor climbing require many of the same skills and equipment, climbing on a proper rock face can be quite different. For one, there is air conditioning to make sure you are climbing in an ideal climate. Perhaps, the largest difference for beginners will be the distinct lack of coloured holds marking the route out in front of you. Instead, route finding can become a lot more challenging as you search for suitable placements for your hands and feet.
Outdoor rock climbing is a truly unique experience and can make for some epic adventures, but it also requires much more equipment and planning. Climbing in Scotland the weather can be very unpredictable, you could find yourself in glorious sun one minute and the next a heavy downpour has moved in with gale force winds. Therefore, you’ve always got to be prepared. On your initial ascents in the great outdoors, you should be sure to climb with someone more experienced. Look at hiring an instructor for this purpose or join a club – most climbing centres will have their own clubs associated with them so be sure to keep a lookout when you visit. For instructors, Scotland has many companies to choose from such as Alpine Guides.
Bouldering is a great place for a true beginner to start, it involves very little technical equipment – just a chalk bag and shoes - or technical knowledge, so has the fewest barriers to entry. Bouldering is the perfect environment to learn climbing techniques that will allow you to traverse the wall effectively, whilst removing any added complexities and safety concerns that come with other climbing forms like top roping or lead climbing. Bouldering can also be a great place for new climbers trying to conquer a fear of heights.
Bouldering involves climbing pre-set routes known as ‘problems’, which ascend a short wall and classically consists of a handful of strenuous moves making it a great playground to build that upper/ lower body strength that you’ll require for more technical climbs as you progress. There are no ropes involved given the short distance routes ascend, however, the padded floors below are designed to absorb any impact from falls. Bouldering is also viewed as the most social form of climbing as groups can gather around a particular problem, making it perfect for meeting groups to climb with.
Before we detail the gear you’ll need, it’s important to note that all the gear listed can be hired from a climbing centre. It’s only cost effective to purchase if you find yourself climbing frequently (climbing gear is expensive!!).
Bouldering has the lowest barriers to entry. All you’ll need is climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Of course, this misses out the vital crash pads however given the price you're better off using the ones provided in climbing centres or climbing with geared up friends (when outdoors) until you are really serious about the sport. You can pick up this equipment from numerous online retailers such as Go Outdoors or Run + Rock. It’s also essential to wear non restrictive clothing that's unlikely to catch on holds.
Indoors, there are a number of specialised bouldering gyms like Alien Bloc in Edinburgh and the Climbing Academy in Glasgow and if you want to venture outdoors then bouldering is great as you don’t need to journey further than the very heart of the capital, with the historic Holyrood Park home Salisbury Crags which has a whole host of easy to middle grade problems on offer. In the west, head to Glen Nevis, where there are hundreds of recorded routes for you to tackle that range from very easy to very hard.
If you're ready to advance to higher climbs or you’d simply rather just get hands on and learn rope skills, then top-roping is where you should look. Top roping is also perfect for building the endurance required for the longer, more technical climbs you’ll encounter as you progress.
In top roping, the rope is secured to an anchor above with one end being attached to your harness and the other end being held by your trusty friend who will act as your belayer. As the climber moves up the wall, the belayer takes up slack through a belay device, they’ll catch you if you fall and also lower you once you reach the top – great for developing the trust you’ll require in your climbing partner once you move onto more challenging climbs. Some top tier climbing centres such as Ratho have auto belays, this neat little device will act as your belay partner to keep you safe. However, for those first climbs, you’ll need someone experienced to teach you the fundamentals, such as rope work and how to use the belay. You can learn these skills through introductory courses (link)
For top rope climbing it gets a little more technical as you’ll be looking to acquire additional equipment such as a harness, rope, belay device, and carabiners. To avoid any complications it might suit newcomers to head down to a climbing store where you’ll be able to seek advice on your purchases based on your individual needs. Tiso Outdoor Experience is located in both Edinburgh and Glasgow is a good place to begin your search.
Europe’s largest indoor climbing is in Ratho where you can get hands on with a number of different climbing styles and there are many other climbing centres around Scotland like The Glasgow Climbing Centre and Avertical World in Dundee. These venues have a number of courses for you to try your hand at, as well as clubs you can join so you can meet other climbers. Venturing outdoors, the options in Scotland can seem limitless, but there are a few destinations that you should head to first, Benny Beg, located just outside Crieff is a great initial spot; a 10m high escarpment of Dolerite. The rock provides good holds and is south facing, making it a sun trap - ideal for scottish climbing. For more information on Scotland’s outdoor climbing spots click here.
Once you’ve gotten to grips with the fundamentals of climbing, you might be wondering what’s next? Lead climbing is a great next step. In lead climbing, you ascend with the rope, securing it to the wall as you climb using a series of pre-fixed bolts. The terminology used for these bolts are ‘quickdraws’, and they are designed to keep you secured to the wall for the duration of your climb. The distance between quickdraws can be fairly considerable. For this reason, lead climbing is higher risk, but the use of an experienced belayer will mitigate more serious impacts.
Lead climbing allows you to climb much greater heights, where it’s not possible to secure a rope at the top, this is displayed in Jimmy Chin’s film Meru. On these longer routes your belay partner will climb the route with you, belaying you from below whilst you belay them from above. This makes the climb much more complex and is why this style is reserved for more experienced climbers. However, lead climbing is said to be the most reflective of the challenges faced in an outdoor setting, so it’s well worth trying before you head outdoors.
The gear required for lead climbing (and all styles of climbing that involve a rope) is the same as top roping. Again, it’s best practice to seek advice on the more technical equipment. Tiso Outdoor Experience, located in both Edinburgh and Glasgow are great for this.
The opportunities here are endless. You can hone yourskills on some of the same routes that you would top rope, but lead climbing opens up the possibility of much longer climbs and the ability to climb where there is no existing infrastructure. You’re an expert now - go explore.
Although initially confusing for beginners, the longer you spend in the climbing world the more the lingo will feel second nature. Instead, spend those initial weeks understanding the grading system. In Scotland we use the UK grading system and these reflect the three main styles of outdoor climbing – Trad, Sport and Bouldering. The table below reflects the grading systems used in the UK - Sport, British Trad Grade and Bouldering Grade Table. Each reflects a scale which is used to describe a route found within the disciplines. For more information on the grading system be sure to visit Mountaineering Scotland here.
Hope you found this guide useful, be sure to let us know how you get on and if you have any additional advice, let us know in the comments!
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