Is Climbing Outside


I recently went climbing outside for the first time this year. I broke my ankle in February (if you want, you can read about this here, here, and here) and have been roping up in the gym since the end of March. Going outside and climbing on top rope reminded me how different indoor and outdoor climbing is.

First, here is a very short history of my climbing life: 

In 1994, I learned how to top rope at The Climbing Wall. My then boyfriend who worked there, Brian, was my teacher. I learned how to climb inside, initially, but with the intention to take what I learned there out-of-doors as soon as possible. That summer, we went climbing together at Shelf Road in southern Colorado, my first time outside. Climbing was so new to me then that there was not a big difference in how climbing indoors felt compared to out-of-doors. They were both difficult and kind of scary, but something about climbing outside made me feel happier, stronger, more fulfilled. At the end of that summer, when I returned home, we began going to the New River Gorge every weekend. Climbing outside is what clicked with me, what I became addicted to. I loved living outside for two days every week, the whole kit-and-kaboodle.

Brian and I were weekend-warriors for a while until we had babies. Because of the climbing gym, however, even if we couldn’t go outside, we still were able to stay strong and in shape for it when we could. I wrote about this here a long time ago. This is how we lived as parents of babies, then toddlers, then little kids and young kids for a while— we juggled indoor and outdoor climbing more equally. Homeschooling our boys allowed us to travel when and wherever we wanted to. We went bouldering a lot more together because it was easier with little kids. When the kids were in middle school and gearing-up for high school, we climbed outside less and less. Nowadays, I'd say I'm more of an indoor climber than an outdoor climber, but things are shifting again as we are on the verge of empty nesting.

And so, going outside a couple of weekends ago to Fern Buttress at Lower Endless at the NRG, a place I’ve visited a million times but not for a million years, was a shock to my system— especially because I’m also coming back from an injury, and just the hiking felt hard. Although I get lots of practice in the gym, climbing outside felt so much more mentally and physically harder. Even on top rope. Problem solving on real rock is a subtler creature than on brightly colored plastic holds that stick out of the wall.

There is much conversation in the greater community about the difference between indoor and outdoor climbing recently, both in Climbing Magazine and a conversation from Modus Athletica. In this Climbing article on the history of climbing gyms, Alison Osius writes, “Where indoor climbing was once simply a way to train during the off season, it is now a sport unto itself—many gym climbers have no interest in ever climbing outdoors. How did we get here?” The Modus Cafe conversation acknowledges this, too. I have noticed this in the Pittsburgh area also, especially since ASCEND opened their doors.

Setting on artificial walls— not just at ASCEND but many newer gyms all over the world, led in part by the annual World Cup Competition series— has also morphed into its own thing. The monochromatic style of setting, of using one color for each problem or route as opposed to taping routes made up of multi-colored holds, has been a relatively new development in the climbing gym scene. Does this style of setting make problems easier to read and follow? Does it make us lazy? Some would argue that the old practice of taping is important for climbers to maintain the skill of route-finding. In an older Patagonia story titled, “Long Live the Absolutely Disgusting, Glorious Indoor Climbing Gym, John Bergman wrote, “Climbing gyms [of old] have long embraced their grit and grime because being so rough around the edges translated well to actually being outdoors, hiking through the canyons, sleeping in the woods. Roughing it.” I love the look of monochromatic setting at the ASCEND gyms. The walls are cleaner looking, brighter, more minimalist. It’s prettier than a cluttered, dingy wall. But I wonder if this makes it harder for indoor climbers to transition to outdoor climbing.

But really, the question of whether outdoor or indoor climbing is harder comes down to where the climber is most comfortable, says Modus Athletica founder, Mercedes Pollmeier. For people who climb outside a lot, real rock will be easier for them to navigate than plastic. When I used to climb outside more than I do now, this was true for me. Now, it’s the other way around. Climbing outside makes me feel weak when I want to feel strong. It isn’t because the gym has made me lazy because climbing there is easier. Or maybe it is. But even still, that’s the challenge: if I want to feel strong outside, I need to go outside. Once I make it a habit, climbing out there will feel more and more natural, the way it’s supposed to feel.

Is it really that important to climb outside? Since 2012 and North Face’s “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” slogan, there has been a push in the outdoor sports industry to make getting outside equitably accessible to all. There is something important about humans being out in nature, connecting with outdoor spaces. There is something transcendent, and if you aren’t looking for that, there is at least something that feels good about it, compared with things that keep a person indoors. I’m willing to bet money that most people would feel way more satisfied with a 5.10 or a V2 send outside compared to the same in the gym.

As humans progress technologically, we are increasingly isolated from nature, from air, water, and dirt. There is also the argument that if we are separated from the earth, we may care less about what is happening to it. Going outside makes it more likely that we will be better stewards of the earth. And vice versa, if we are separated from the earth, we may not be as healthy in our own minds and bodies as we could be. I think one of the points of Walls Were Meant for Climbing is that there is justice in making the out-of-doors accessible to every single person. Maybe a connection to the outside makes us more complete, happier human beings.

If you want to get outside and don’t know how to go about it on your own, it’s really easy these days. ASCEND has run a few outdoor climbing trips that have attracted roughly a couple hundred people. More often though, you make friends at the gym with people who go climbing outside, and you join them. So, try it, you might like it. I’d like to say, “Oh hell yeah, you’ll love it!” But I have learned over the years that I tend to be a little over-enthusiastic when it comes to climbing. Check out the Modus Cafe conversation for things to consider when you do decide to climb outside if you never have.

Putting pressure on all people who climb in the gym to go outside to climb isn’t my intention. Just getting outside is what matters, and climbing isn’t the only way to connect with nature. There are less stressful ways that don’t include camping if that isn’t your schtick. ASCEND also has a running and a biking club. A local outdoor shop, Three Rivers Outdoors (3ROC) has tons of group activities in the local out-of-doors, including hiking, biking, and paddling.

I have a feeling though, that I’m preaching to the choir here. I wonder if I put out a survey that I would find that a lot more people who climb in the gym have been outside to climb occasionally, but that they also have another outdoor activity that they do regularly.

So why don’t I just do that.

Here is a short survey for you to take, if you are so inclined, just for curiosity sake. Would you mind? It’s super short and will remain completely anonymous. It’s different from the survey SWPACC put out recently, and I’d love to hear from you.

Written By

Jen Hemphill

Jen is a longtime rock climber, mom, and writer.