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So you think rock climbing looks cool. Here's how to start

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A climber ascends a route in Tettegouche State Park.
A climber ascends a route in Tettegouche State Park.
Deborah Rose via Minnesota DNR

One of the fastest growing sports in Minnesota is one you might not expect for a relatively flat landscape, but rock climbing options abound here in the Upper Midwest.

There are indoor climbing gyms across the state and outdoor destinations in many areas, too — from the North Shore to Blue Mounds State Park in the southwest.

While seeing climbers hanging from a rope 50 feet in the air may appear daunting, there are many ways to learn the sport. Here's a primer for those interested in climbing to get up on the wall.

3 types of climbing

Aside from winter ice climbing, there are three main categories of climbing in Minnesota — all with different skill and gear requirements. 

• Bouldering: This type of climbing involves climbing large boulders or shorter rock walls, all without ropes or harnesses. The gear requirements are minimal: climbing shoes, chalk for your hands and a crash pad to cushion a fall.

• Top rope: The simplest form of rope climbing is in a top-rope setup. The climber is protected by an anchor at the top of a route. Depending on where you are, the anchor is built with materials like slingswebbingcord and locking carabiners. Some routes have bolted anchors, making it easier to attach a rope. Climbers run a long, dynamic climbing rope — one that can stretch in case of a fall — through the anchor and tie themselves into a harness. Then, another person belays them — catching any falls from the other end of the rope and lowering the climber down from the wall. 

• Lead: There are two primary types of lead climbing: sport and traditional. Both are for advanced climbers. Sport climbing takes place on routes that have been bolted — permanent protection affixed to the rock. Climbers pull up a rope with them from the ground and clip into the bolts using quickdraws, which is their protection from falls. In traditional climbing, there are no bolts and a climber sets their own protection going up a wall using devices like camsnuts, stoppers and chocks. A belayer at the bottom uses lead belaying techniques for both sport and traditional climbing. 

How to start

Hit the gym first. Indoor climbing allows beginners to go at their own pace in a safe, controlled environment.

"You have a little more freedom to explore and learn yourself," said Gabe Olson of Vertical Endeavors, a chain of climbing and training gyms with locations in the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Routes in gyms are clearly labeled, often by color of the holds, whereas outdoor routes aren't always easy to read. 

After a few visits to the gym, Olson recommends new climbers take a class on climbing movements. Most climbing gyms host classes. 

Transitioning from the gym to the outdoors

A climber rests in Interstate State Park.
A climber rests in Interstate State Park near Taylor's Falls, Minn., while a belayer holds them up.
Christopher Williams via Flickr Creative Commons

Going from the gym to real rock is a big jump for newer climbers. It's also one they shouldn't take alone, Olson said. 

Outdoor climbing doesn't have the assurances that come with gym climbing. Routes and how to climb them can be unclear. Bad weather can pop up. Setting up life-saving protection from falls is the climber's responsibility. 

Olson said new climbers should either go with an experienced climber who can show them the ropes, or with a guide. Some climbing gyms, including Vertical Endeavors, offer guided trips and outdoor lessons. There are some private companies in Minnesota that do the same without a gym affiliation. 

Finding a climbing mentor can be difficult, but it's possible by meeting people at climbing gyms or going on a networking site like the "minnesota climbers" public Facebook group. 

Olson also said new climbers, and all climbers need to remember that it's crucial they respect climbing areas. 

"A lot of people put a lot of time into getting access to these areas,' he said. "The climbers need to be as respectful as they can in those places because they can disappear as fast as we got them." 

The Access Fund, which works to develop U.S. climbing areas, has a blog dedicated to ways climbers can take care of the land. 

On purchasing climbing gear

Unfortunately for the frugal among us, there's a lot of climbing equipment that can't be rented or safely purchased used. 

Olson recommends steering clear of any used protective gear that uses textiles — including harnesses, ropes, slings and webbing.

However, he said metal protective gear like carabiners or cams are generally OK used. So are shoes and crash pads.

There are ways to start climbing without tossing hundreds of dollars into equipment. The most-advanced forms of climbing generally require the most gear, and many gyms will even rent out shoes and harnesses for new climbers to try the sport without investing much money. 

It's best to start in a gym with a pair of shoes and add more equipment as you need it.