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Outdoor Recreation
The Answers to Your Climbing Questions Woman climbs training wall

I went to the climbing wall at Lied for the first time in January of my freshman year. I was clumsy, weak, and had no idea what to do with my limbs. I flailed around a lot, covered all of my clothes with chalk, and chatted with a handful of friendly regulars who, at the time, were Olympic athletes in my eyes. I loved every minute of it. After my first night at the wall, I came back nearly every night after class. I grew to love bouldering, and once I noticed myself getting better (in other words, flailing less) I decided I would try out the top rope wall at State Gym.

        When I first got to the top rope wall, I had a number of questions running through my mind. I was nervous and confused, but I didn’t want to ask for help for fear of looking like a *gasp* newbie. At the time, I wished I’d had a resource that would answer all of the questions that I was too afraid to ask. The following article is to give you the answers to those questions and concerns, so you can hit the top rope wall like the fearless climber I know you are!

What’s the difference between bouldering and top rope climbing?

                Both Lied Rec Center and State Gym have bouldering walls, but only State Gym has a top rope wall. The most noticeable difference between the two types of climbing is the height of the wall, as well as the presence of a rope. Bouldering is done on short walls. Once the climber finishes a route, they will either climb to the top of the boulder (this does not apply at Iowa State’s bouldering walls. The walls at our gyms were not meant for climbing on top of, so please don’t do that!) or hop down onto a padded surface below them. In top rope climbing, a rope will be run through an anchor point at the top of the wall. This means that if the climber falls, the rope will catch them and they will not hit the ground. Bouldering can be done alone at Iowa State’s climbing walls, but in order to climb at the top rope wall, there must be both a climber and a belayer.

What all do I really need at the climbing wall? Where do I get it?

        In order to climb on the top rope wall, two things are necessary: closed-toed shoes and a harness. That’s it. A harness will be given to you by a staff member in a red Recreation Services t-shirt once you first arrive at the wall. Your sneakers will work perfectly to climb in, and you are NOT required to rent out climbing shoes. If you do want to rent out climbing shoes, you can do so at the Equipment Rental desk which is situated between the men’s and women’s locker rooms on the lower level of State Gym. At Lied Rec Center, you are only required to have closed-toed shoes. You can rent out climbing shoes for the bouldering wall at the front desk that you see as soon as you enter the building.

What clothes should I wear?

        Honestly, whatever you’d like. People climb in all sorts of outfits (leggings, jeans, hiking pants, shorts, tank tops, winter coats, etc.). As long as your outfit works with the Recreation Service’s dress code, you’re good to go!

How should I know which routes to climb? What are the rules for climbing a route?

        This is the complicated part, but I will explain it as best as I can. Let’s start with bouldering:

        If you look at the climbing wall in Lied for example, you will see that the plastic holds are all different color. A group of holds of the same color will make up a route. Let’s say that I walk up to the wall and see a group of red holds, and I decide to climb that route. To begin the climb, I need to find the plastic holds marked with tape, along with a grading tag. The taped holds are the holds that your hands start on. If there is only one climbing hold with tape on it, that means you will place both of your hands on that hold. If there are two of them, then that means there is one hold for each hand. Sometimes gyms will mark four starting holds so they can tell you where to put  your feet, but that’s typically a method used in competitive climbing and we don’t do that at Iowa State. This means you are free to put your feet on any hold that is a part of your route.

        Once you begin climbing, you can use any hold on your route in any way you’d like. Sometimes climbing can get weird, and that’s okay! The goal of a route is to follow one color all the way to the top to the hold(s) that are boxed in with tape. The boxed in area is the “finish” of the route, and in order to finish a route properly you must have both hands within the box and demonstrate stability with the rest of your body. Typically, this just means holding your hands in the box for a few seconds to show that you have control.

        When it comes to grades, bouldering and top rope are very different. The easiest climbing grade for bouldering is a VB. After VB comes V0, then V1, V2, V3, V4, and so on. We don’t often set anything higher than a V7 or V8 at our climbing facilities.

        Top rope climbing is graded using the Yosemite Decimal System. At our wall, the easiest route is a 5.5. From there, grades progress as follows:











… and so on. Routes do not have “A” “B” “C” or “D” behind them until they reach 5.10. The letters behind the 5.__ indicate a further increase in difficulty.

        The method for climbing top rope is almost the exact same as bouldering. The only difference is that the routes are longer, and you are tied in to the anchored rope. In order to finish a top rope route, you must demonstrate control on the highest hold on the route.

What happens the first time I come to the top rope wall? How do I get started?

        When you first get to the top rope wall, all you need to do is find an ORP staff member in a red Recreation Services t-shirt. Once you do that, you’ll hand them your student I.D. so they can set you up in their registration system. This is FREE, so don’t worry about bringing any extra cash with you! Your membership to the climbing wall is included in the fee you pay to enter the gym facilities. The only reason they need your student I.D. is so that you can scan in every time you enter the top rope wall for attendance purposes. Once you’re registered, a staff member will grab you a harness and go over all of the rules of the wall with you. Many of them are included in this article, so hopefully now that you’ve read this it’ll make your first day at the wall a bit easier!

Got any more questions? Let’s hear ‘em! Get ahold of the Outdoor Recreation Program at 515-294-8200 and they’ll be happy to help answer any questions or concerns you may have. We hope to see you on one of our climbing walls soon!