Bringing the Inside Out

I have an ugly secret: over the past few years, I have grown to enjoy climbing in the rock gym. For a long time, I prided myself on being a member of the last generation of climbers who learned to climb outside. More so, I took great pride in climbing outside, thumbing my nose at people who climbed in the gym, and thinking I was above them. Although many of the climbers I disregarded could climb much harder than me, I dismissed them as faux climbers.

As time has passed, rock gyms have gotten bigger, better, and more common while climbing in the gym has gone from the exception to the norm. I still enjoy climbing outside and, in most cases, prefer it. However, the rock gym offers convenience, camaraderie, and ever-changing routes making it easier to fit climbing into my busy schedule while also allowing me to socialize with fellow climbers and keep the stoke high. Having become somewhat of a weekend warrior these days, I find myself climbing in the gym during the week, as preparation for climbing outdoors on the weekend. Until last weekend, I had never questioned the gym’s ability to prepare me for climbing outside.

Starting up one of the routes on Webster Slabs this past Saturday, I found myself thinking that all the training I had been doing in the rock gym wasn’t worth a damn outside. Pulling down in the gym has certainly bolstered my bouldering and strengthened my sport climbing, but it’s done little to prepare me for climbing a wet slab with a pack while hauling a trad rack. In all honesty, despite wearing the same climbing shoes and chalk bag as I do to the gym, I may as well have been participating in an altogether different sport.

Moving up the route’s easy initial ramp, the bottom of my shoes got wet as I traversed over a soaking section of slab. Thanks to easy climbing I made quick upward progress, but with no protection over the first half-rope length and a lack of trust in my wet shoes, I found myself missing the gym’s clips seemingly after every move (and robust floor padding just in case something goes wrong). Making it to the anchor, I clipped in and took a deep sigh of relief.

Climbing like this persisted. I would set off from the anchors feeling good, with regained confidence, and hoping the next pitch would be where the climbing got easier or felt more natural…only to discover a new challenge. While the rock gym can train you to climb overhangs and make gymnastic moves, very few gyms have successfully created routes that simulate the conditions encountered outdoors. Lichen-covered slabs, water running over cruxes, and runout pitches were a few of the challenges that we faced that day.

While the route had me questioning the effectiveness of using the gym to train for climbs like the ones found on Webster Slabs, it also reminded me of why I love climbing outside. While the routes in the gym are constantly shifting, climbs outside also offer the opportunity for different experiences. Wet, dry, sunny, cold, big group, little group, new climbers, old climbers—there are so many variables that affect the way we interact with individual climbs. Furthermore, I got to climb a long route with my wife and share the route and rappels with old friends and new friends, bringing the social aspect of climbing inside outside. If only this type of climbing could be a little more convenient, the rock gyms would be in trouble.