The athlete’s guide to rock climbing

“Once you climb indoors, you can’t help but want to know what it would be like to send a route on real rock,” says Eric Mischke, a Tier 3+ trainer at Printing House in New York City. An indoor climbing hobbyist, he first tested outdoor climbing in his backyard of Central Park. That’s also where bouldering prodigy Ashima Shiraishi, who has her eyes set on the 2020 Olympics, first climbed a crag.

New York City is not an anomaly. San Francisco has the natural boulders of Glen Canyon Park. Atlanta has Boat Rock’s granite boulders, which were home to one of the first bouldering competitions in the US. Outside of Toronto is Niagara Glen. Climbing around Hammond Pond in Newton, Massachusetts, is less than an hour train ride away from downtown Boston.

In Chicago, Maggie Daley Park features bouldering, top-rope climbing, and lead-harnessed climbing. The walls are manmade—as are the ore walls of a former South Side steel manufacturing plant that adopted bouldering holds and auto-belays last year. While sending the brightly colored routes isn’t the same as doing so on million-year-old rock, it’s still far from the coziness of a climate-controlled indoor facility, offering a nice middle ground for urban climbers transitioning from indoor to outdoor climbing.


“With outdoor climbing, you have way more going on,” says Emilie Drinkwater, an American Mountain Guides Association-accredited guide and one of 10 female International Federation Mountain Guides Association guides in the United States. Unlike with indoor routes, rock textures range from slick to crumbly, potentially extreme temperatures and weather pose their own obstacles, and the holds were never actually formed to be holds. 

“It is hard—so much harder than indoor climbing,” says Mischke who took his first outdoor top-rope climb with Drinkwater this summer two hours north of NYC in The Gunks.

Outdoor climbing—both top-rope and bouldering—tends to be more heavily reliant on footwork, grip strength, and ability to carry, support, or otherwise balance all of one’s weight in a single set of toes or fingers, he notes. Also, because outdoor routes aren’t spelled out with colored holds or tape like they are in the gym, the paths aren’t always obvious, meaning climbers may spend more time paused in one position before making their next move, Drinkwater says. Combined with often taller, longer routes, this translates to far more time on the wall and energy used during a single climb.

“It’s not just gymnast-style, pull-up climbing,” she says, explaining that for any climber looking to venture to the great outdoors, finding ways to practice more outside-specific skills on the climbing wall can be incredibly beneficial. Take a break from overhangs and find your way to areas of the wall that are more vertical or sloped away from you. This will enable you to practice standing on one foot or the toes of one foot. “If the gym has cracks built into some routes, get in those,”  she says.

Below, find a workout and other resources you need to take your climbing outdoors.

The rock climber’s workout

While there’s nothing quite like digging your fingers into real rock, you can develop many of the strengths needed to climb outdoors without ever setting foot on a wall. Mischke created a workout that builds total-body power, the ability to transfer that power through the core, and finger and grip strength to help you transition from indoor to outdoor climbing.

Try the rock climber’s workout >>>

Interested in hiking and other outdoor activities this summer? Join Equinox Explore for upcoming Day Trips in Upstate New York. 

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Find climbing near you

“You can find some good climbing in every state,” Drinkwater says. Mountain Project features a route-finder that can help you locate both bouldering and top-rope routes by location, difficulty, and other factors.

However, to get outside, the easiest way can be to go through your local climbing gym and community, checking the bulletin board for upcoming outings. For example, Brooklyn Boulders’ BKB Wild program offers one-day and multi-day climbing trips with instruction throughout the country. REI also hosts introduction to outdoor rock-climbing courses and day-long sessions in local parks. Many cities have climbing clubs as well as Facebook and Meetup groups. 

Stay safe 

A degree of risk is inherent to all climbing, but outdoors, added challenges such as finding routes, setting anchors, and potential rock falling from above, raise that risk.

For that reason, for your first outing, you should go with a trusted guide, accredited through an organization such as the American Mountain Guides Association or International Federation Mountain Guides Association. While optional in bouldering surfaces lower than 10 feet, it’s vital with top-roping. “I generally recommend people go out once or twice with a guide before letting more experienced friends lead, and to climb 50 to 100 pitches before leading,” Drinkwater says, explaining that you can ask your guide to teach you how to set anchors and more.

Safe outdoor climbing also involves the use of helmets, crash-pads, and protective clothing. “It’s much easier to get scratched up outside than it is in the gym,” she says. “Do not wear shorts, make sure knees are covered, and stick with durable fabrics.” Always bring first-aid supplies with you, sunscreen, bug repellant, food, and water.

“Climbing should be fun and enjoyable,” Drinkwater says. “Take the ego out of it, and focus on the experience, not the numbers.”

Photography by Luke Schneider

Images: Top: Eric Mischke, Middle left: Emilie Drinkwater and Mischke, Middle right: Drinkwater, Bottom: Mischke

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