Featuring alpine granite, towering basalt columns and gargantuan boulders, Washington offers no shortage of varied rock-climbing terrain.

And if you add glacier or ice climbing into your repertoire, our state offers the most climbing variety in the Lower 48.

Success is relative: Towering routes, such as “Flyboys” near Mazama, Okanogan County, will require scaling 1,800 vertical feet. A visit to most local bouldering areas won’t bring you 18 feet off the deck. 

Many aspects of the sport are dangerous. It can take years to develop the skills and knowledge needed to manage rock climbing’s risk. But the sport is also more approachable than ever. 

Olympic athletes will soon ascend the pixels of our TV screens and climbing gyms have been sprouting up in the Seattle area faster than Himalayan blackberry bushes. 

Here’s how total beginners can get their feet wet in a safer environment and scale up their skill sets to scale the routes of their dreams.

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Types of climbing 

Bouldering involves climbing short sections without ropes on walls or boulders less than 20 feet tall. Bouldering problems, or routes, are often relatively physically demanding or involve challenging movement. Most rock gyms in the Seattle area feature bouldering areas with thick mats to prevent dangerous falls. Boulderers bring their own foam mats — called crash pads — when outdoors. 

Top-rope climbing refers to climbs in which an anchor has already been established on a route, allowing climbers to tie into a rope at the base of a climb and then ascend. This is the most common form of roped climbing at local gyms and can also be done outside.

In sport climbing, a leader climbs up a route with a line of preexisting steel bolts with hangers. The leader uses quickdraws — two carabiners connected with strong fabric — to clip the bolts and their rope, which should prevent them from striking the ground in a fall. Some gyms allow people to practice leading. 

In traditional — or trad — climbing, climbers ascend and place their own protective gear into secure cracks or crevices in the rock wall, clipping their rope through the carabiners attached to the gear in case of a fall. Leading a trad climb is an advanced skill that can take you into the alpine or on longer climbs with multiple pitches, or route sections. 

Bouldering problems and roped climbing routes use separate rating systems for difficulty. Problems range from V0-V17. Sport and trad routes go at 5.0-5.15. New climbers often find that indoor grades are rated many rungs harder than their numerical equivalents outdoors. 

What you need for the climbing gym

At the climbing gym, boulderers simply need a pair of climbing shoes, which typically fit tightly on a climber’s foot and feature grippy rubber soles. 

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In addition to shoes, climbers on top ropes need a harness and a partner with a belay device, which is typically provided by the gym. 

Climbers chalk can be helpful for grip, but is not strictly necessary. Most gyms provide shoes and harnesses for rent, and it’s a good idea to try before you buy in case climbing isn’t for you.

More gear is needed to lead sport and trad routes outside and to establish your own anchors, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

Start at the gym 

Summer is here. No one wants to hole away in a stuffy gym, but it is one of the best places to build confidence, learn the core safety skills and begin to understand climbing movement. 

If you’re brand new to climbing, you might give indoor bouldering a try first. Consider taking a class, joining a friend or just lace your shoes and make your way up the routes, usually identified by tape or the color of hold. 

Work on trusting your feet as you advance up the route. They often need just a millimeter of contact to hold. Keep your hips close to the wall and your body in balance. New climbers often spend 90% of their time worried about their hands. Focus instead on your feet. Between moves, keep your arms straightened, as if you are hanging on your skeletal structure, to save energy. 

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Climbing on top rope at the gym involves similar movement, but a bit more technical knowledge. You must be able to properly tie into the rope and your partner must be competent using a belay device to take in rope as you climb and then hold your weight. 

Belaying is a core climbing skill and one most climbers will expect to have reciprocated. Local gyms offer training on how to belay, typically in an introductory class. Take one. Then find a partner and get accustomed to being up high. (Local climbing clubs and guide services also offer similar introductory courses, which are worth consideration, too.)

Beyond the basics (and getting outside)  

Lead climbing and belaying a leader are more advanced skills. It could take several months to build the fitness, comfort and movement before it’s appropriate to lead. The consequences of a fall — or a mistake clipping, for example — are significant. When it’s time, take a course on leading at the gym or seek other instruction. 

Many climbing gyms offer instruction for other skills like leading, rappelling (descending on rope), building and cleaning anchors, and yes — even falling. 

Guide services, which offer group and private, tailored instruction, can help advance these skills more rapidly, at a price, and get you climbing outside.

Volunteer-organized climbing clubs such as The Mountaineers, Washington Alpine Club and BOEALPS (the Boeing Employees Alpine Society, which is not exclusive to Boeing employees) also offer classes teaching basic and advanced skills, such as leading, using traditional gear and rescue. Some offerings are geared toward more experienced hikers and climbers looking to take their skills into alpine environments.

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These groups might persuade you to give glacier or ice climbing a shot, too. 

Mentors 

Climbing in the Northwest has flourished through mentoring. Experienced climbers are often eager to pass on their skills and love of the sport. There are few better ways to learn, once you’ve mastered the basic skills and can evaluate safety considerations, than by following a route led by an experienced climber. 

You bring stoke (enthusiasm) and listen patiently to their reminiscence. They bring grizzled savvy. 

Spending a day at the crag, an outdoor climbing area, with experienced, trusted climbing friends is another great way to build skills.

Classes, guided group climbs and clubs can you help you connect with the climbing community and find your crew. Facebook groups like “Seattle Rock Climbers” are another way to meet climbing partners. 

Evaluate any climbing partner carefully. Your life will depend on them. 

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Have fun and take your climbing progression at your own pace! 

Here are some resources

Gyms

Vertical World has locations in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, Lynnwood and Redmond offering top-rope climbing, sport leading and bouldering. The gyms offer a wide variety of classes for most skill levels.

Stone Gardens offers locations in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, Tacoma and Bellevue that feature top-rope climbing, sport leading and bouldering. The gyms offer outdoor guides and a wide variety of classes for most skill levels.

Seattle Bouldering Project offers bouldering at locations in Seattle’s Fremont and near Seattle’s Central District.

Half Moon Bouldering (Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood) and Momentum Indoor Climbing (Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood) offer bouldering.

Guided trips and instruction

Pro Guiding Service in North Bend offers courses and private guiding.

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Kaf Adventures in Seattle holds a variety of rock-climbing courses.

Alpine Ascents International offers weekend clinics and multiday rock courses.

Mountain Madness offers rock-climbing courses at local crags.

Northwest Mountain School offers introductory and advanced classes.

She Moves Mountains offers guiding, retreats and courses for all skill levels. The organization aims to increase opportunities for women in climbing.

Climbing clubs

The Mountaineers offer a wide variety of courses for every skill level.

BOEALPS holds rock-climbing and mountaineering courses.

The Washington Alpine Club hosts classes for those interested in alpine climbing.