Do the hours spent at the climbing wall translate to an improvement out on the crag?
As the nights shorten and it's no longer possible to drive to the crag after work, many of us turn our attention indoors to the local climbing wall. The question is: do indoor walls, pull-up bars, fingerboards, and all the other training devices that fill a wet day, actually help us climb better on real rock?
Staying in shape
Climbing uses a different muscle set from any other sport. It's heavy on the muscles in your back and those in your forearm and, let's face it, how often do you use those in a gym, or anywhere else for that matter? Not very often. So, the best training for climbing is – well – climbing.
If you want to climb crimpy routes on real rock, you're going to need good forearms and the easiest way of maintaining those – unless you live right by a crag – is to spend some time at an indoor wall. On that count, yes, indoor climbing is a good way to stay in shape ready for a summer on the grit.
Climbing isn't just a matter of arm strength though. Humans are naturally afraid of heights – the instinct that tells you it's dangerous to stand on a cliff edge acts as an inbuilt safety function. Climbers can condition themselves not to feel afraid the moment they have a drop underneath their feet, but that conditioning seems to wear off a bit with time.
Knowing that you're safe on a vertical rock face, and being sure that the rope will hold you, only comes with practice – another reason to venture down to the indoor wall.
Also, being confident in your abilities – and your limits – is partly a function of trying them out every so often. So, if you won't be able to make it to a crag for a while, the wall's a good bet.
Pushing your limits
Trad climbing, out on the real rock, involves lots of unknowns. Where will I find the next piece of gear? Will my number four nut fit in that crack? Is that boulder firm enough to sling?
Indoors there are no such complexities. The bolts are in-situ and all you have to do is clip them. Worries about whether without you should have used a cam or a hex, or about whether the gear will hold, go out of the window.
In general, that makes the indoor wall a safer place to climb near your limits, if that's what you want to do. Trad climbers rarely touch the limits of their strength or skill out on the crag – you need an extra reserve at hand for safety. But the climbing wall is a good place to try out just how hard you can go, with the benefit that you're getting stronger at the same time.
Reading the route
So far so good for the world of indoor climbing. It's good for fitness, confidence, and the chance to 'give it a go' – but (and it's a big but) outdoor climbing isn't just about fitness. There's a skill involved that indoor climbing doesn't entirely help you with – namely, reading the rock.
Out on the crag, you can't simply reach up for the next hold with blue and white swirls on it, or decide you're going to follow the holds that are pink with black dots. If it's a popular climb, there may be a slight trail of chalk or polish to follow, but on the whole, you're on your own when it comes to deciding where to put your hand or foot.
Indoor climbing may help at times, but it's no substitute for spending plenty of time reading the rock at your nearest crag.
The outdoor experience
Climbing can be different things to different people. Instead of pushing their limits, most people want to enjoy the scenery from lofty perches (alas, all too often frequented by angry seagulls:-) while doing something active. If that's your goal, there are enough climbs in Britain to last a lifetime that you can lead without having to set foot in an indoor climbing wall.
Equally, some people enjoy climbing at indoor walls for its own sake (fortunately, given how far from real rock some of us live!) so indoor climbing doesn't have to be about training for the 'real thing'. It can be a 'real thing' in its own right.
So, enjoy each type of climbing for its own sake, but don't assume that skills acquired inside immediately translate to skills you can use outside. They're different, but complementary, sports.
What do you think?
Does climbing at the wall improve your cragging? Are you down at the wall every rainy night, or are you a trad purist? Let us know in the walking and climbing forum.