A climber on the move. Photo by Bob Berger

The Beginner’s Guide To Rock Climbing in Boulder


By Hudson Lindenberger

So, you are looking at the towering Flatirons looming over Boulder or one of the numerous other cliffs and crags sprinkled throughout the surrounding hills, and you are thinking that maybe you want to try to climb them. Understandable, especially if you’ve tried your hand at a few routes at a local climbing gym.

But a word of caution before you decide to head out: Climbing outdoors is nothing like climbing indoors. It can be dangerous and deadly if you are not prepared. We suggest you take the following steps to ensure you have a safe and special outing as you scale some stone for the first time. 

Sign Up For A Climbing Class

Climbing on rock can be confusing and a tad terrifying the first few times. Unlike climbing routes inside a gym, there is no color-coded bread crumb trail of holds to follow upward. Instead, you have to learn how to translate whatever climbing skills you have into the real world. Being a couple hundred feet off the ground on a cliff can cause your guts to shrivel and your mind to swirl, especially when there is no padded floor underneath you.

Hire a Guide

That’s where a class taught by a professional guide is crucial. They can teach you the basics about rope management, gear placement, anchoring, safety and how to actually get up a route. As the home of the American Mountain Guide Association, the main certifying organization for guides in the country, Boulder is blessed with a large pool of top-notch guiding companies. The Colorado Mountain School offers a three-day “Gym to Crag” course that equips you with the skills and gear you need and culminates with climbing one of the Flatirons.  

A climber on the move. Photo by Bob Berger

Even if you have done some outdoor climbing, you still should seriously think about hiring a guide, especially for your first few forays into the crags of the Front Range. With the myriad of routes available in Boulder Canyon, Eldorado Canyon and elsewhere, just finding ones that correspond to your skill set can be daunting. Add in tricky approaches that cross creeks or ascend steep cliffs and other natural hazards and it’s easy to just give up your first few times out. Or worse, bust your butt only to end up at the wrong cliff to climb.

When you hire a certified guide, you are getting someone who can tailor a day of climbing to your tastes and offer you the best beta once you arrive. Once at your climb, your guide can ensure that your anchor system is safe, make sure you have the right gear and offer a safe belay. Maybe the best part of having a guide with you is that they have encountered just about any roadblock that might arise on a route. Got a tough crack to climb? They can suggest the best hand jams to use. If that big overhang is blocking you, they can tell you what techniques to employ to get up and over. By the end of the day, you will have hopefully learned a few new things and had a great time.

Besides the Colorado Mountain School, both Boulder Climbing Guides and Vetta Mountain Guides are excellent groups to book with.

Do Your Homework

If you have climbed outside before and feel competent enough to head out on your own, great. There are tons of resources to help you out. Both REI and Neptune Mountaineering offer a wide array of gear and guidebooks. The staff is loaded with climbers who will ensure you have the correct gear depending on where you are headed and can offer you insider knowledge about where to go. If you are looking for a partner to climb with, Mountain Project’s Partner Finder is a good spot to find someone to head out with. Just make sure you vet them thoroughly before trusting them with your rope.

If you are looking for a long, multi-pitch route that’s not too difficult, head over to the First Flatiron. There are 17 different routes to the top, ranging in difficulty from 5.2 to 5.8. You can easily knock one out in an afternoon. Just be forewarned: In the summer, it gets quite hot.

If you are looking for something a bit tougher, head to Eldorado Canyon and climb The Bastille Crack. It’s 350 feet long with five total pitches, the hardest being 5.7. Don’t be fooled; it’s a complicated climb that requires some interesting moves.

For a fun afternoon of sport climbing, head to Castle Rock in Boulder Canyon. This towering monolith sits right next to Boulder Creek and offers a variety of climbs suitable for anyone. In fact, it’s a favorite training spot for local guides.

Other Climbing Spots Around Boulder

Just a little south of Boulder is the town of Golden, which has several great spots to climb.

The Little Eiger area in Clear Creek Canyon is a hidden gem that has more than 40 routes spread across a variety of grades. Two great sport routes are First Impressions and Herbal Essence, both 5.9.

Another scenic spot is the Golden Cliffs perched above the Coors Brewery. There are a ton of routes there, but two good ones to search out are Tenacious, which is 5.9+, and the Brown Cloud Arete, which is 5.10 and can be climbed either sport or trad.

Closer to town, Eldorado Canyon has a few fantastic trad routes that can be both challenging and exciting. The Wind Tower area is a perfect spot to spend the day honing your skills on some climbs that are harder than their grades suggest. Tigger is a three-pitch climb rated at 5.6 and Tagger is a two-pitch beast that weighs in at 5.10b.

For a fun day in Boulder Canyon, head to the Bowling Alley area of Main Crag. It has a great selection of both sport and trad climbs. Two favorites are Mosquito Burrito (5.90 and Bad Girls Get Spanked (5.11).

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