Climbing in Scotland: A Guide
An introduction to Scotland's climbing spots, tips to get you going, and a guide to the crucial difference between 'indoor' and 'outdoor'
When you start climbing, you will find yourself moving your body in unusual ways to get up the wall, utilising muscles you didn't know you had, getting into and holding positions you didn't know you could. It is no wonder then that this sport is so good for improving balance, flexibility and physical strength (and typically requires a good pair of stretchy pants). Climbing is a great way to get your blood pumping, to challenge yourself and to step a little (or a lot) beyond your comfort zone. Indeed, it is not just a physical challenge but a mental game too. Whether or not you're comfortable with heights and vertical exposure, you will eventually find yourself doing climbs where you need total focus and confidence in yourself to make the next move, and it is truly satisfying when you are finally able to make that final push and finish a route that you've been working on for weeks.
Climbing, in its many forms, has boomed in popularity over recent years and is even due to make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020. With the daylight hours beginning to dwindle as we head into winter, there is no better time to head to your local climbing wall and try it yourself for the first time. It is entirely normal to be nervous before you begin, but it's worthwhile remembering that everyone starts off at the same level and has had to learn the basic movement skills and techniques at some point. Like most activities, it's something that you will get better at as you practice, learning to climb more efficiently, with new techniques and new-found strength. With patience and regular sessions you will soon find that you will be able to tackle more challenging routes, and that feeling of progression is one of the most enjoyable things about climbing. You will also find that the climbing community is a supportive one, and people are always willing to help or give advice if you are struggling with a particular problem.
In Scotland, we have a wealth of indoor and outdoor climbing venues, including dedicated indoor bouldering walls like the Climbing Academy in Glasgow and Alien Bloc in Edinburgh, and even Europe’s largest indoor climbing arena at Ratho. There is also a good number and variety of courses at these venues to help get you started, and meet-up groups and clubs where you can find other people to climb with.
An indoor bouldering or top roping wall is great for your first time and you should be able to just turn up (in appropriate clothing) and hire any additional equipment you might need. It is normal to wear climbing shoes, which are designed to maximise friction between you and the wall, and to have a bag of chalk, which helps to keep your hands dry and improves your grip. If you do decide to start climbing regularly, it will be cheaper in the long run to invest in your own bits of gear, and as your feet can get pretty grotty while climbing, it’s certainly nice to have your own pair of shoes. Indoor walls will also typically have an information board to tell you which coloured holds correspond to which level of difficulty, or you can just ask about good routes to get started with.
Indoor bouldering is a form of non-roped climbing that takes place on walls at a variety of angles with a thick crash mat below. To get started, all you need is some climbing shoes and chalk. It's this simplicity that makes it so appealing, particularly for beginner climbers. It's a great way to learn basic climbing techniques and how to move efficiently before transitioning to roped climbing, although many climbers find that bouldering is more than enough to be getting on with. The lack of ropes may put some people off, but taking care to fall in a controlled manner where possible reduces the chances of any injury. As you don't need a climbing partner, bouldering is also a good one to do on your own, but it's always fun to tackle problems with pals.
If you're nervous about falling when bouldering and feel that you'd rather climb with a rope for that extra security, or if you're simply keen to learn some rope skills and climb with a partner, then top roping at an indoor wall is also a good place to start. Top roping involves a rope that runs through an anchor at the top of the wall; one end of the rope is tied into your harness and the other is held by your belayer. The job of the belayer is to keep the rope reasonably taut as you climb, to catch you if you do fall, and to lower you down when you're finished. You'll need a few extra bits of kit: a harness, karabiner and a belay plate as well as your shoes and chalk, but you'll be able to hire these at a climbing centre. For your first climb, you'll need to have someone experienced to show you how to tie in to your harness and belay your partner safely, and most indoor climbing centres will offer an induction to get you started.
With top roping, the rope attached to your harness can be kept taut from above, and this means that there isn't much risk of falling very far. With lead climbing, the rope is again tied into your harness and held by your belayer, but this time you carry the rope up as you climb, and clip it into a series of quickdraws (these basically keep you attached to the wall). This adds an additional challenge in that if you do fall before you get to the next quickdraw, you could potentially fall a considerable distance to the previous quickdraw. For this reason, lead climbing has a bit more risk involved and is, understandably, more anxiety-inducing. The added risk of falling means that it is all the more vital to have confidence in each move that you make up the wall but it also gives a greater sense of freedom as you climb, and there's that extra satisfaction if you manage to keep the fear at bay and push on to the top.
While most people start climbing at an indoor climbing wall, it certainly doesn't have to stop there – the potential for outdoor adventure is huge. Many keen climbers progress on to climbing outdoors on boulders, crags, sea cliffs, in caves, and of course to the summits of high mountain peaks.
The experience of climbing outdoors is rather different from a trip to the climbing wall. For starters, there are no coloured blobs to aim for, nor an expansive cushy crash mat to break your fall. Route finding is more difficult as you search around for foot placements and hand holds. You are exposed to the elements, and a heavy downpour may ruin your plans. On the other hand, when the weather is kind, it's great to be out in the open, in the fresh air and with beautiful, natural surroundings rather than those blobs and crash mats.
There is a great deal more to learn when climbing outdoors and you will also need more equipment (and the ability to use it safely) to mitigate against the added risk. Types of outdoor climbing include bouldering (on real boulders), sport climbing – this is similar to lead climbing on an indoor wall – and traditional climbing. Traditional climbing involves utilising small cracks in the rock to place your own safety equipment to protect against falls, and is the method used for mountaineering.
Your first time climbing outdoors should be with someone with plenty of experience and who you trust to keep you safe. Hiring a climbing instructor or enrolling on a course is a brilliant way to try different types of outdoor climbing and to sample some of Scotland's amazing outdoor climbing venues.
As a beginner climber, it is beneficial to think about the journey up the wall rather than just getting to the top. Here are a few tips for starting out:
Use your legs: Keep an eye on your foot placements to make sure they’re solid, and try to push your way up the wall with your legs more than pulling with your arms as the latter will tire you out more quickly.
Climb quietly: Placing your hands and feet on to the wall with care and control rather than bashing against it will encourage more precision in your movement.
Don’t be shy: Watching the way more experienced climbers move up the wall and asking for advice is one of the best ways to learn and progress.
Breathe: If you’re feeling tense on the wall, it’s easy to forget to breathe. But don't – focusing on your breathing helps keep you calm and keeps oxygen flowing through the muscles. It is, in fact, rather underrated.