Preparing for Outdoor Rock Climbing

Over labor day weekend 2017, we secured last minute plans to go outdoor rock climbing.  The trip had been up in the air, depending on weather conditions, but a few days out the weather cleared and was expected to be nice and sunny.

Let me back up a little bit and explain how Casey and I got into rock climbing.  Casey’s dad had taken us to a rock climbing gym he liked in St. Louis, MO that previous Christmas in 2016.  We enjoyed the experience, so we looked for a rock climbing gym in our area.  We joined a rock climbing gym in Shreveport, LA in February of 2017.  We were still pretty new, but being athletic we picked up the sport fairly quickly.  Rock climbing not only challenges the body, but the mind as well.  It is quite like a puzzle, trying to find the right movement to scale to the top.

We had been making new friends at the climbing gym in Shreveport, which was good because Casey and I had only been living in Louisiana for less than a year and still did not know many people.  One day a fellow rock climber asked if we were interested in learning to lead climb.  Of course we were!  Lead climbing is essential for outdoor rock climbing.  We eventually wanted to try our skills outdoors on real cliffs.

Paul, who was teaching us, had plenty of climbing experience, and had taught before.  After our lesson we were invited to a potential outdoor climbing trip a group of climbers were planning. It was a couple months out, but we definitely wanted to go!  We managed to practice lead climbing with Paul one more time before the trip.

The trip was planned over labor day, so we essentially had a three day weekend; two days to climb and one to recover. Everyone in our group wanted to climb first thing Saturday morning.  The plan was to leave Friday after work and drive to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR) in Arkansas.  The drive would take about 6 hours.  We arrived at the ranch after midnight and had to setup our tents in the dark.

We had little idea of what to expect.  We had heard that the ranch let the horses and goats free roam, and so we were told not to leave any food items in the tent.  We did not expect the road to be partially blocked 15 minutes until midnight by a hoard of goats!

Goats on the dirt road to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch.

We managed to get by the goats and on our way to the campsites.  Camping in HCR is on a first come basis.  It was crowded that weekend, and we had to hunt for an open space in the dark.  Luckily we brought some headlamps to help us navigate through the unknown terrain.  Casey and I were familiar with our tent, so it did not cause us much trouble to setup in the dark.

We were up the next morning with the sun.  Casey and I were excited to finally try our skills rock climbing.  We wondered how similar outdoor climbing would be to indoor climbing.  After breakfast the group decided to start on the east side of the Canyon, but first we had to check-in at the lodge to pay for camping and our climbing permits.

Horseshoe Canyon Ranch HCR Lodge
Waiting on the deck of the lodge.

Paying for our camping and climbing pass was quick and easy.  The lodge sells extra gear items, clothing, and some food and coffee, but we didn’t stay to check the goods out.  It’s best to climb when it’s cool, so we were off to get climbing.  Starting on the east side of the canyon provided us with a good amount of shade for the morning.

Lucky for us, the group we went with had all the climbing equipment we needed (rope, quickdraws, etc.).  We did have our own climbing harness, shoes, and ATC (belay device).

We started on routes that were 5.7 to 5.9.  The more experienced climbers ascended the routes first, setting up the top rope.  I was a little nervous on my first route, but once at the top I was calmed and relieved.  The view of the canyon and ranch below was beautiful to me.  I think eventually I will invest in a go-pro camera to capture my climb and view.

It wasn’t until his third route that my husband realized there was a view.  Casey was concentrating on ascending the route and didn’t think to look around once he reached the top.  It wasn’t until the group starting talking about the view that he realized he should take a break at the top to look around!


We worked on the routes for several hours, taking turns ascending and belaying. Eventually Casey led some routes on the east side, setting up the top rope.



After a few hours of climbing we moved to a different section on the east side, where we could try some harder and taller routes.  Some of the more experience climbers wanted to try a route called Orange Crush.

Paul climbing Orange Crush.


This route was ranked pretty high, was 70 meters tall, and the beginning was over a fence.  Most of us were tired and didn’t feel up to climbing it, so we had a picnic style lunch at the base of the cliff.


After the people who wanted to climb the route had finished we decided to venture over to the northern cliffs.  The sun had moved and there would be better shade over there.  We had to hike back to our campsite and then cross a suspension bridge, and then hike uphill to the northern cliffs.  You get some good exercise hiking around this place!

Bridge close to campsite
Suspension Bridge between camp and northern cliffs.

There are some boulders as you approach the cliffs.  Some you can lead climb, some have bouldering problems, and one is setup at an angle to practice setting up and cleaning routes.

We started on routes that were 5.7 or 5.8, as we were getting fatigued and our hands were about worn down.  The routes we did had chicken neck holds, which are like jugs.  They stick out and are easy to grab and hold on to (you can see this in the picture below). Even with the easier holds, our hands were tired and raw.  Building up callouses is essential for climbing endurance.

chicken climbing
One guy from our group brought chicken pajamas and climbed some routes while wearing it.

We climbed until dusk.  That evening, around the campsite we all pitched in to cook, and shared a great meal!  We didn’t know most of the people from our group, but after that night we had a few more friends.

Our plan was to head back Sunday afternoon, but we still wanted to get some climbing in that morning.  We were up early to explore more of the north side cliffs.

Climbing North Side

The second day we were sore, and our hands were still a little raw.  We setup in an area working on some 5.8 to 5.9 routes.  The group was working it’s way around the cliffs to some higher ranked routes.

There was a route on a 90 degree corner that was higher than any of the routes I had climbed yet.  It was titled “The Controversy” and ranked at a 5.9+.  I watched a few others climb the route, but wasn’t convinced I could do it.  The highest ranked route I climbed in the gym was a 5.8.  I decided to at least try and see what I could learn from it.



There weren’t many chicken neck holds, more crimps and I had to really stretch in places to make my way up.  There was one point I thought I was too tired to finish.


My belay partner held me until I caught my breath and I continued the route.  It was the last route I did on this trip, as it took everything I had to make it to the top.


Pure bliss and dead forearms.

I had an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment once I reached the top.  I was proud of myself, and I knew that if I could make it up a 5.9+ route, when I hadn’t even completed one in the gym at that point, meant I was capable of accomplishing a lot more!

We had a blast climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch!  Casey and I knew we wanted to schedule another trip there as soon as possible, but we had some areas we wanted to improve for climbing and gear we wanted to purchase of our own.

From my experience, here is what I gained as a rock climber from that trip:

Indoor challenges me in a different way than outdoor. The indoor rock climbing gym routes are set to a particular style and have fewer ways to solve them.  I found that my mind had more creative freedom when the route was not simply laid out in front of me.  I think that made me enjoy the outdoor climbing experience more.

Also, the view makes the climb outdoors much more exhilarating! Climbing in a gym is rewarding if you finish a route that is hard for you, but add on a stunning view and it feels so much better!

Have you done any outdoor or indoor rock climbing?  Share your favorite places in the comments below so we can check them out!

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Thanks for Reading!


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