Perched tiptoe on a too-narrow narrow ledge, body pressed against the sheer rock face of Barn Bluff, I felt stuck.
I ran my hands across smooth rock, featureless and unusable in my grip. My feet tested anything that could give a push upward. I was out of options. And then, relief: a pocket recessed in the rock that I had overlooked, space enough to curl in two fingers and pull hard while I reached my foot up to its next perch.
I was climbing again, and it felt like nothing I had climbed before.
This was my first time climbing outdoor rock, at least, anything taller than 14-foot boulders in the West. It took more than a year of regular visits to a local indoor rock climbing gym before I felt confident to take on an outdoor climb. When the opportunity arrived — the gym offered an afternoon of guided climbing at Barn Bluff in Red Wing — I eagerly signed up.
This choice, to make the transition from the plastic and plywood and relative safety of indoor gym climbing to the complexities of climbing outside, put me in a minority of climbers.
Indoor rock climbing gyms have seen an explosion of growth in the last decade, but not every climber in a gym is training for the outdoor pursuit. Indoor climbing has become a sport in its own right.
For me, the outdoor pursuit of vertical rock was my intention from the first time I set foot in a climbing gym.
Approaching my first climb — and my second, and third and so on — outdoor route, I was nervous. Had indoor climbing prepared me for this new challenge?
As I found during a series of climbs that day, the skills absolutely do translate — but it takes some getting used to. It took getting stuck on the wall a few times, ogling at the rock and overwhelmed with possibilities, before some deeper-seated muscle memory took over and helped me to take the climb one move at a time.
At dusk as we packed away the ropes and other equipment, I felt the familiar tightness of my shoulders, forearms, calves and legs. The physical challenge of climbing, the thing that kept me coming back to the gym day after day, was still there. But the cool breeze on a hot summer night, an overlook view of the Mississippi and the fulfillment of exploration were there, too.
It was exactly what my rock climbing experience had been missing so far, and it’s an added element to climbing as a sport — both indoor and out — that I’ll continue to look explore.
Here are a few takeaways from my first outdoor climbs:
Routes in the gym are clearly marked with a monochromatic series of pieces or with colored tape. Outdoor routes are infinitely more variable and each climber is likely to use a different series of movements, holds and techniques to reach the top. It can be both refreshing and frustrating.
Outdoor climbs, as my guide pointed out, also rely much more heavily on foot placement than the indoor pursuit. Finding good foot moves and focusing on balance were the keys to moving up the wall at Red Wing, where large handholds are fewer and further between. I’ll remember to practice these more often in the gym.
Routes indoors and outdoors are rated for difficulty with the Yosemite Decimal System. The number attached to each route seemed a lot more important to me when climbing in the gym. On real rock, the uniqueness of the route and the beauty of the view from the top took over as priorities, whether I was climbing a beginner route or something at the high end of my skill level.