Open main menu

60 and want to be a beginner

This coming summer I am thinking of going up north to New Hampshire and taking a class in rock climbing at EMS or IME. I am 60, not particularly strong in the upper body (have way above average endurance for my age, according to my latest stress test), and am a bit nervous about heights. What advice do our members have for me?

Congrats Sabino,

At your class they will teach you a very important lesson. Smart climbers use their larger muscle groups. Yours my friend, are your legs. Upper body strength is important, but the reason women make good climbers is because the know their legs are stronger than their arms and they use them!

As far as heights go, learn to trust your gear and your climbing partner, and your fears will diminish with time.

Have fun, good luck, climb safe.

Here's an interesting "intro to climbing" video if you haven't seen it already. It also emphasizes using your legs for most lifting.

I would choose IME first, based on having gone to their Ice Festival and spent some time talking to their staff.

EMS has a good selection of gear and fairly knowledgable staff at the N Conway shop.

As f_klock and Tom M said, yuor legs are the main means of climbing (you wouldn't hike in a hand stand, would you?). Very little climbing involves gymnastics, though it looks exciting in the movies. As for fear of heights, for all the macho bravado in Cliffhanger, a friend who was one of the stunt doubles in the movie tells me that Stallone was terrified of heights. So don't worry about it. As f_klock says, you will learn to trust your gear and your belayer. During the beginner courses, they will have you putting your weight on the rope, which will give you confidence in the gear. You will eventually get on some routes that will challenge your state of development, so you will probably fall and be caught by the gear and your belayer, which will demonstrate that it will protect you.

As my very astute friends point out, you climb mostly with your legs, BUT you must have strong fingers to hold you upright as your legs push you up. AND most climbing trainers are extremely sloppy about their footwork and do not teach precision footwork. Refer to John Longs books and get all of the varied input you can, as in take every thing your first instructor tells you with a grain of salt.

Precision footwork means - pick the spot where you will want to put your foot when it gets to where your nose is, then look at your foot and watch it settle onto that spot correctly before you make your next move.

Women climb differently because their center of gravity is in a different spot and generally do not have the reach that men have, and finger strength may be a limiting factor requiring women to be more precise and less dynamic in their climbing.

I was so phobic that I would nearly get sick standing by a second story mezzanine railing and couldn't look down. For the first three years that I climbed I could not look down when I rapped and my body screamed at me "what am I doing here?" Now I can look 500 feet straight down, even climbing solo - no ropes - and my body does not react on a visceral level, it trusts my brain to do what is required. I have replaced fear with caution, phobia with skill.

Oh and forget the old three point contact idea, its too slow and awkward, generally you will move an arm and a leg at the same time unless you are in a tight spot. Being overly cautious when it isn't justified just wastes precious energy.

You do need good knees and quads however.

Have fun

Jim S

thanks for the replies. stand straight, use your legs, don't look a question: when I see pictures of male and female climbers in the old days, they have a rope around their stomachs. If they fell, wouldn't the rope tear up/swish the climbers intestines? wouldn't the physics of the fall and rope location, cause a severe snap of their vertebrae?


I've read about some awful climbing accidents caused by the ropes being around the waist - worse - I think if you fall and hang from it and the fall doesn't kill you outright that the rope slips up around your chest and you suffocate. However the shock was never that bad because the belayer was also pulled off his stance by the falling leader so the leader did not come to a sudden halt until he hit the ground. Thats why in the old days they carried a "belay knife" to cut a falling climber loose so he didn't kill the other members of the group, nowdays I think harnesses and protection gear achieves the same safety. Modern climbing ropes also stretch.



Jim (alias Greenhorn, who is far far from a greenhorn) has most of the answer for you. Back in the old days, when Jim and I started climbing, you typically did just tie the rope around your waist with a bowline. You can still find the bowline listed as a required knot in Boy Scouts as a "rescue knot". Before about 1950, a lot of climbing was done on manila ropes, which were essentially static. As you speculated, the shock of a sudden halt could and did cause serious injuries, or death if the rope broke (manila 7/16 inch, the standard, had about a 2000 pound breaking strength when brand new, losing strength rapidly in use). During WWII, nylon rope was introduced with much higher strength, but much more elastic, which helped lower the "shock loading" (that term is a bit of a misnomer, but you find it in the literature).

The way around the "shock loading" which also could pull out pitons and pull a belayer off his stance (it was mostly men in those days) was the introduction of the "dynamic belay" in the 1920s and 1930s. As Jim notes, this was letting the rope slide to a gradual stop - and you really could not help letting it slide. Usually, it wasn't as spectacular as Spencer Tracy in the movie The Mountain (I still wince at the scene where the rope is running through his hands and turns blood red - plus I first saw it as a double feature with Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea - where he catches a shark and the fishing line runs through his hands and again turns blood red - a double whammy in one evening of movies).

Two major developments - The rope tied around the waist was replaced in the 1960s by first the "swami belt", a length of 1 inch or 2 inch tubular sling that was wrapped around the waist a number of times to spread the load, then by the modern climbing harness. Even with the swami, hanging from the rope for an extended time could cause suffocation, and people did die from that (didn't have to slip up around your chest as Jim suggests - just compress the diaphragm so you couldn't really breathe). You can hang in a modern climbing harness for literally hours, something commonly done on big wall climbs.

The second development was the understanding of the real function of the rope in absorbing the energy of the fall. Modern climbing ropes are of two general types - dynamic and static. Static lines are mostly used for rappel lines and haul lines, while those for climbing are dynamic. The international standards bodies (UIAA for climbing and CE for standards generally) have set a standard for the maximum force a dynamic climbing rope can exert in a fall, one that will not break the human body even in a 200 foot whipper. That does mean a LOT of stretch, so you can hit the ground if you haven't placed protection properly.

Along with this are a number of modern belay devices, both passive (the various tube devices) and active (the Grigri and other similar brakes). They allow modulating the friction and force multiplication for the belayer.

These days, the "belay knife" is mostly reserved for movies like "Cliffhanger" and "Vertical Limit". Yeah, Simon Yates did cut Joe Simpson, his partner, loose on Siula Grande (as told in the book "Touching the Void" and the movie of the same name). But that's extremely rare.

thanks, Greenhorn and Bill S. I wonder why nobody though of making up a rope harness, back in the old days. Maybe they thought a rope harness would bite into the body thus having a limited advantage?


I think it was more that people never really thought about it, it was just one more thing to carry, and besides "the leader must never fall". If you fell any distance, you were dead.

Placing protection for the leader is really something that became common in the 1920s. And the idea of the leader taking multiple falls (something very common on really hard climbs) was unthinkable until the 1960s. It also has to do with the general outlook of the various nationalities of climbers. Some nationalities tend to be very fatalistic - "You will die when your time comes", hence you can be reckless in pushing your limits until you get too scared or until you suffer massive injuries or death. You still see this today in certain individuals. Safety gear like helmets, harnesses and other restraints, crush spaces, and such were almost unknown in car racing until the 1980s. In bicycle racing, during the first 10 years or so Barb and I were doing it, at best riders wore these little leather "hair nets". Many climbers believe they can control their falls so that they do not need helmets, and that they can dodge rockfall.

There were methods of tying a "diaper" with tubular sling. I have a copy of the Handbook of American Mountaineering that I bought around 1951 or 52 that shows such a "diaper". That was even an acceptable alternative for the Boy Scout Climbing Merit Badge for the first 5 or so years.

Hmmm, I hope this does not trigger a thread on "are climbers getting soft, using all that safety gear?" After all, why use a rope unless you are planning to fall? You only use (name a piece of safety gear) if you are planning to have a (name an accident with injury or death).

June 16, 2021
Quick Reply

Please sign in to reply