Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Indoor Climbing vs. Outdoor Climbing

“I finally sent that green route in the lead cave!” I announce to the fam gleefully over dinner.  After a few rounds of high-fives and “cheers” (C’s favorite dinner pastime of late), I proceed to re-enact my crux beta over my plate of  chicken, while Steve nods in understanding and C spills his water accidentally on purpose.  This conversation is actually not unlike the ones we have after a day outside cranking on real rock, either on the hike out or with our climbing partners over an outrageous amount of food.  Both contain elements of  challenge, perseverance, and hopefully success every now and then.  But the funny thing is that the difficulty grades we are talking about are VASTLY different, depending on whether we are having an INDOOR conversation or an OUTDOOR one. 

I think most of the time people assume that gym climbing is a lot easier than climbing outdoors on real rock.  The routes are shorter, your path is obviously laid out with brightly colored tape, handholds aren’t as sharp, and footholds aren’t as small.  It’s also a lot less scary – plush padding below every boulder problem, bolts 4 feet apart, not to mention scores of pre-rigged topropes.  But oddly enough, I have always been able to climb significantly harder outdoors than in, and so has my hubby.  When I first started climbing, it used to frustrate me – it didn’t make any sense to me how one grade could be a warm-up in one circumstance and a project in another.  But after a few years of experience and (hopefully) maturity, I now find it rather hilarious.  I’m sure the Inner Peaks staff probably think we’re full of malarkey when they ask us what routes we’re working on at the local crag….and then proceed to watch us flail on their lines that are listed as NUMBER GRADES easier!  The reverse can also be quite entertaining – sending something outdoors without too much trouble while the young guns from the gym struggle…


This might be fun…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those elitists that snub their noses at all who enjoy pulling on plastic.  If I have to workout indoors, I can’t think of a better place I’d want to be!  Not to mention that logging a few focused hours in a climbing gym every week is a great way to get strong.  But long ago I made peace with the fact that my climbing heart belonged outside rather than in, and it showed…

Part of it comes down to logistics.  Indoors, cruxes are often planned in such a way as to force certain sequences, which may or may not be conducive to my body type.  As a small female, I rely heavily on intermediate hand holds, footholds, and smears, which often don’t exist on a colorfully taped gym route.  Outdoors, the movement is far more organic – very rarely is there only ONE way to do a particular series of moves. 

Some of it comes down to style.  When I’m in the gym, my focus is generally on strengthening my weaknesses, therefore I spend most of my time on stuff I usually suck at – namely steep routes with big moves.  Contrast that with real rock, where I’m generally climbing a wider range of terrain in a day – often packed into one climb.   

Recently however, I’ve realized that there’s another piece to the puzzle that I’ve discounted for a long time – desire.  I think sometimes I don’t succeed at the gym simply because I don’t want it bad enough.  When I’m making progress on a project outdoors, I catch myself daydreaming about it throughout the week, trying to commit every minute detail of the movement into my memory vault.  The personal connection with my climbing partners and my surroundings provides a holistic experience that the confines of a gym can’t ever hope to offer.  The nervous but confident excitement of a redpoint run, or the exhilarating plunge into the unknown on a hard onsight attempt – those feelings could never be duplicated over plastic.  When I’m on real rock, I’m willing to fight for it (and sometimes NEED to if I want my gear back!)  In the gym…not so much.  Not much lost by just lowering to the ground and leaving your rope at the front counter.   


…but THIS is way better!

But hey, nothing is better for ego management in the long-term than getting served a big fat slice of humble pie on a weekly basis!  Whether I’m sending or flailing, whether I’m indoors or outdoors, I’m still having fun, which is the most important thing, both for me personally as well as the example I’m hoping to set for my son.  And if I was afforded the chance to choose which one I was better at, I would undoubtedly leave things the way they are.  I like training in a gym, but I love climbing outside with my family.  For me the sole purpose of indoor climbing is to get better at outdoor climbing.  And so long as I’ve got plenty of routes/problems that I can use for that purpose, you won’t catch me complaining about sandbagged grades or any other petty things that so often fill up the feedback box at indoor gyms.  (But as much as I love the Inner Peaks staff…if you’re reading this – the white 5.10 with the full dyno is NOT 5.10…just sayin’ 😉  ) 

All jokes aside, where do YOU fall on the gym/real rock continuum?  On a Cragmama facebook poll a few weeks ago I asked a similar question, and was pleased to see that Steve and I weren’t the only weirdos that climbed better outdoors than in.  There were also several more factors brought up in discussion, most of which I didn’t have time to address in this post – such as leading vs toproping grades, sport vs trad grades, etc.  It may not be rocket science or bringing about world peace, but it is fun to discuss, so please feel free to  chime in below with your take!



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“Not all who wander are lost.” —JRR TOLKIEN