Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Workout Wednesday - Sportrock Climbing Center Basic Skills Class

In my ongoing effort to be able to do ONE pull-up before the Spartan Race in March, I tried indoor rock climbing for the first time over the weekend. 

As you can probably tell by my inability to do pull-ups or get more than 2 feet off the floor in beginner silks, I have almost no upper body strength. So rock climbing is kind of scary for me. It's not so much the heights that scare me, it's more the very real possibility of abject embarrassment. But, in the spirit of facing my fears, breaking boundaries, leaning in, etc. that this blog is all about, I signed up for Sportrock Climbing Center's Basic Skills Class with the bf and his friend.

(Image Source)
Sportrock Climbing Centers are rock climbing gyms that specialize in all types of rock climbing. The gym provides climbing instruction for all levels, including for complete beginners, and also offers yoga and other group fitness classes. The Basic Skills class covers the essential skills needed to climb at a Sportrock facility and successful completion of the class allows you to use Sportrock facilities without the aid of an instructor. 

The Class

We had a little trouble finding the gym (FYI, Google Maps is totally wrong about the location of Sportrock Alexandria) and arrived about 15 minutes late. Check in at the front desk was fast and easy. After completing a waiver form on an iPad (there were 3 of them so there was minimal waiting) we were issued climbing shoes, which are thin and flexible and reminded me of water shoes. Then we headed over to a small section of wall with our instructor and 6 other beginning climbers where the rest of the gear we needed, including harnesses, carabiners, and of course top anchored ropes, was waiting for us.

The class began with instructions on how to tie basic climbing knots, putting on your harness, and setting up both to climb and belay. We also learned the safety checks you should do along each step of the way, and practiced our set up and safety checks several times. Next, we practiced belaying with a partner on the ground, feeding our partners slack as if they were climbing, "catching" them while they tried to surprise us by putting all their weight on the rope, and slowly lowering our partner from a standing position to the floor in a kind of rope-assisted trust fall.  After the on-the-ground practice, we completed supervised climbs in groups of three with one climber, one belayer, and one back up belayer. 

After the instructor verified our ability to belay safely, we were able to keep climbing on our own as long as we wanted after the class finished, provided we climbed in groups of three. Climbing routes are labeled with the level of difficulty and have handholds and sometimes footholds helpfully marked with different-colored tape. Our group ended up staying for another hour and a half after the class ended, doing our best to complete different levels of routes.  


Instruction: Getting into a climbing harness and making sure your equipment is set up correctly is complicated and really important to get right, seeing as how it has to support you while you are hanging hundreds of feet in the air. Everything was explained clearly, the instructor was great at going around and checking technique, and we had lots of chances to practice set up and all the necessary safety checks. This repetition, as well as the belaying practice exercises, made me very comfortable and confident with actually being on the wall.

Difficulty: As I mentioned, I have a serious lack of upper body and grip strength, so climbing was definitely challenging for me. Climbing (especially if done correctly) is also a great total body workout as you have to use your legs, core, and flexibility to make it to the top. It was also a surprisingly challenging mental workout, as figuring out how to get to the top using only the indicated handholds required a degree of planning and strategy that was often beyond my ability. But despite the fact that I was pretty bad at climbing in general, Sportrock's wide variety of climbing route height and difficulty still let me experience some success. I even made it to the top of the wall a couple times!

Variety: There are over 18,000 square feet of climbing walls at the Alexandria Sportrock location and the gym's climbing routes are changed every 6 to 8 weeks. The sheer number of routes available, as well as the wide variety in difficulty level, height, type of handhold and foothold, etc. makes it hard to imagine ever getting bored of your Sportrock climbing workout.

Price: The Beginner Skills class was $30 and included gear rental. Since a day pass for non members is normally $18 and gear rental is $11, 2 hours of instruction followed by as much climbing as you want with all gear included is a pretty good deal.


Down Time: Changing roles from climber to belayer to back-up belayer takes a considerable amount of time. Having to work in teams of three, since Sportrock requires climbers to use a backup belayer until you pass the belaying test, meant there was a lot of down time. This may have been a good thing, however, since it gave my puny muscles much needed recovery time.

Membership Cost: A monthly membership at Sportrock costs $85 a month with a $49 initiation fee, which is pretty steep. You do get a lot with membership, and I understand that it must be a very expensive facility to run. Still, I don't think there's any way I'd be able to use the facility enough to justify the cost.

Bottom Line

The Sportrock Basic Skills class was a great and thorough introduction to indoor rock climbing in an amazing facility. I enjoyed climbing and it was definitely a challenging total mind/body workout. There's no way I'll go enough to justify the cost of a membership, but I definitely plan on going back (maybe once a month) and maybe trying another class or two.


  1. Let me know if you ever want someone new to climb with! I occasionally go to Earth Treks in Rockville.

    1. Yes definitely would love to! I also really want to try out a ropes course if you are interested :)

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing your experience! I'm also new to rock climbing and had recently signed up in our local indoor wall climbing gym. I think having the right gear and the correct basic guidelines before starting the climb is crucial. I would love to make this sport my primary activity so I take the extra effort to read about climbing, tying knots, the correct ropes to buy, and so on. Just recently, I stumbled on a site that featured rock climbing knots. You have to see this awesome site

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