Here’s a handy guide to the different types of climbing walls you’ll find in indoor rock climbing gyms so you can confidently start by knowing what you’re talking about, or at the very least, you can translate your local gym’s website descriptions.
Types of Walls:
Bouldering – Bouldering walls are generally low to the ground and have thick mats on the floor below them. This is because you climb them without a harness – you just grab some holds and go. This is a great way to get started in climbing, or to let kids try it out, before getting into the slightly more intimidating harnesses and ropes that other types of walls require. Bouldering is also a great way to prepare your muscles during your pre-climbing warm up.
Top-Rope – This type of climbing is a lot like it sounds: to climb it, you must wear a harness that is tied to a rope that hangs from the top or the ceiling. You will have the harness on already, the rope will be waiting for you at the wall, and you’ll attach the two when it’s your turn to climb (a climbing safety class before you start is required at all gyms, they will teach you about the harness and ropes.)
You’ll need a partner or a gym staff member for top rope climbs, this person will belay you (that means they’ll hold the other end of the rope and pick up the slack as you climb to keep you from falling if you slip, and they will control your descent back down the wall by slowly letting the rope out.) After a climbing safety course, an easy top rope wall is a good place for a beginner to start.
Lead – a lead climbing wall is a lot like top-rope in that you wear a harness and are belayed by a partner, but the rope isn’t held above you. This is more advanced and more like outdoor rock climbing because you bring the rope with you as you climb, clipping it into metal gates as you go up the wall. You shouldn’t try this until you’ve been climbing top rope walls for at least a few months.
You’ll notice that walls, be they bouldering, top rope, or lead climbing, has a number between 5.0 and 5.15. This is their grade, and the lower the number, the easier it is. Anything from 5.0 to 5.7 is perfect for beginners, so start there and work your way up (literally.)
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you’re not going into this alone: each gym will require that you take a safety course before you’re let loose on the walls. The instructor will make sure that you know what you’re doing and that you’re secure in your harness before you start climbing. And if you have any questions, ask! Climbing is a pretty friendly sport (you need to partner up with a belayer, after all) so don’t be afraid to ask if there’s something you’re not sure about.