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How to Start Rock Climbing

A roving writer reflects on a trip to Greece that unlocked a life-changing passion.

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“CLIMBING WILL CHANGE your life if you let it.” Those were the words of my first teacher, Aris Theodoropoulos. I sat, doe-eyed, staring out at the sparkling Aegean Sea and a tiny island across the way called Telendos. I was the only American around a table with 13 other students who had also signed up for the 10-day beginner rock climbing course on the Greek island of Kalymnos, in the southeast Aegean. It was August of 2013.

Earlier that spring, I was sitting in my apartment in Berlin feeling restless — the type of restlessness that comes from dating disappointments, a long winter, and questioning life abroad in my early 30s. I wanted to plan one of my jaunts, take advantage of my proximity to all the new places around me. It was still novel, as an American living abroad, that traveling just a couple of hours in any direction could mean a different country and culture.

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But I’d done Paris and the like, wandered the romantic cobblestone streets of international cities and atmospheric old-town districts. Though urban centers were where I felt comfortable (I lived in New York for years before Berlin), I didn’t want to sip coffee in yet another cafe in yet another city. It dawned on me that other people travel with a specific purpose — they meet up to surf or ski or go hiking. While I’d never played sports or thought of myself as athletic, I wanted in. I was craving community and connection.

Climbing, I thought. It spoke to my adventurous sensibilities. I’d gotten a taste of it just twice — once many years before in Alaska, and once in a park in Berlin, when a friend gave me her harness for a moment, tied me in, and let me enjoy going up an artificial wall. I loved the movement, ascending bit by bit to thrilling heights. I loved the rush of letting go and looking out at the view as someone lowered me back down to earth. So I took to Google, ending up on a climbing forum categorized by country. Greece immediately jumped out at me and a couple clicks in, I landed on a site called Climb Kalymnos. What was this place? The climbing photos juxtaposed with the island images were simply gorgeous.

I fired off an email, setting in motion the first day of the rest of my life. When the reply came, I was in luck: a 10-day class for those with no previous climbing experience was held on the island every August. Unsure of what I was getting myself into, but buoyed by the supportive exchange with the instructors turned future good friends, I pulled the trigger.

When my plane touched down on Kos island, Greece, I still had very little idea what to expect. Following a short ferry ride, I arrived in Kalymnos after dark, the port still abuzz with life. A short taxi ride brought me to the other side of the island — the rocky, dramatic west coast, where the so-called “climbers’ villages” are. My simple studio boasted a balcony overlooking the shoreline. The view was an inky black expanse, but when I opened my eyes the next morning, I gasped: the impossibly blue waters of the Aegean stretched before me, with the pyramid-shaped Telendos island rising out of the sea only half a mile out.

My revelation in those first days was that anybody can climb — even me, who’d arrived on the island with only flip-flops and a beach bag instead of hiking shoes and a backpack. I like to remind anyone who tells me that they aren’t good enough or strong enough that no one would expect a new runner to start with a marathon. And just like someone new to running might start with a half-mile run, there are routes where your footholds are as straightforward as stairs, with big, deep pockets to place your hands. It’s not all about brute strength, or upper body muscles (though you’d be amazed at how quickly they develop if you stick with it). It’s the subtle workings of the body: technique, balance, coordination, and mental focus.

We went through all the gear and systems during that week, the essential knots to secure oneself, the 101 of partner checks before heading up a climb, the jargon for communicating between a climber and their partner on the ground (the belayer), and all the proper safety techniques. Understanding how your center of gravity works while you climb is a eureka moment between wonder and frustration. It is not always intuitive, and my body awareness is surely a work in progress. As is my focus, which I’ve become more observant of since the days of hearing “Rachel, you’re near the edge of a cliff, pay attention” — the Northeasterner in me chatting away.

When we were introduced to climbing on lead (putting up the rope as we climb instead of having it put up first by our partner or guide), I was congratulated on my fearlessness, taking the first little fall of the class. But it wasn’t fearlessness. I just didn’t know any better. As I learned more, then the fear came. But over and over, I’m reminded that the body is often capable of holding on longer than the mind; it’s the mind that gives up first and lets go.

Fear can be an innate, healthy thing. However, not letting it rule you and ultimately showing yourself what you’re capable of is one of the most satisfying, empowering parts of climbing for me. Now, when my mind starts to fall apart and my leg starts to shake, I tap into what works for me: “You got this. Just climb, Rachel. You know how to do this.” Arriving at the top of the route is that much sweeter after getting out of my own way, with a proud smile unfurling as I soak in those quiet moments to look out at where I’ve taken myself.


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Over and over, I’m reminded that the body is often capable of holding on longer than the mind; it’s the mind that gives up first and lets go.

How much you choose to push yourself in climbing is entirely up to you. Each person’s comfort level and set of goals is just that — personal. There are plenty of seasons where I have not pushed my boundaries. Fear, risk tolerance, trusting your partner, it’s a whole mix that is ever changing. Many of us are good at being hard on ourselves, but accepting where we are at from one day to the next, or across any season of life, is a far more interesting place to be. And if all you want to do is acclimate bit by bit before being lowered back down, or get used to the feeling of hanging back against the rope a few feet off the ground, that’s a start. One of the great alpinists, Alex Lowe, said it best: “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.”

Though I was unaware when I randomly chose Kalymnos, it’s actually a world-famous sport-climbing destination, a paradise of limestone cliffs. In my view, it’s also the perfect place to learn, as I’ve since had many comparisons. When the development on Kalymnos started a little over two decades ago, it was designed with intention: the climbing here would be inclusive, welcoming climbers of all backgrounds, shapes, sizes, and climbing abilities. Risk, while not possible to eliminate, would be minimized.

“When I started climbing and mountaineering in the early 1980s, risk and climbing were inseparable. I spent my first 30 years as a climber flirting with disaster,” I remember Aris saying one evening toward the end of our course. “Now, I’ve decided, enough with that. Besides, the magic of Kalymnos is so unique that I want everyone to be able to have this experience. You can put together impeccable rock, amazing scenery, great food, people, and culture — but if people don’t feel safe, they won’t come.”

And come they do. A recurring cast of international climbers returns year after year to the welcoming Kalymnian community, which doubles as family to first timers and familiar faces alike. Kids, adults, septuagenarians, beginners, and sponsored athletes — the beauty of the island is that everyone is at the same crag together, and for their own reasons. I cried in the taxi as I headed to the port after that first class. And so I returned, for one month in 2014 (I joined a gym in Berlin in the interim to keep my skills fresh), and then again and again, swapping my base while fulfilling my dream of living and working remotely by the sea. I’ve even spent a magical January on the island, though the village’s shops and restaurants are closed.

All roads lead back to Kalymnos, with people I met there having since guided me on my first U.S. climbs. Climbing has taken me through Spain’s Catalonia region on motorbike, to Slovenia’s Julian Alps, to parts of Switzerland, and to longer multi-pitch climbs in Smith Rock, Oregon. It has led me to hot springs in Mammoth, California, after ascending crystal at 10,000 feet, and to campsites in Joshua Tree. It’s had me rappelling off Royal Arches in Yosemite under a full moon, and topping out on Cathedral Peak above the alpine lakes of the Sierra Nevada. It has brought me to the Gunks, a renowned climbing area near New Paltz, New York. It most recently took me ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado (loved it).

Realizing I now move more naturally on terrain while hiking or skipping across boulder fields is still a boon to the woman who never wanted to leave New York City. Climbing has given me confidence and strength, and a community brighter than I could have imagined. There’s contagious energy and a likeminded spirit among most climbers I meet, and intimate friendships form quickly when you’re holding each other’s lives in your hands. Ascending to a summit on any given Tuesday, making coffee over a flame, and feeling connected to your body, those around you, and the planet that was here before us and will be long after us — this began to strike a more authentic chord in my soul, and has made me think about how I want to spend my time and what resources I need around me day to day.

Climbing will change your life if you let it. Aris’ words have stuck with me all these years, yet I hadn’t really imagined they would apply to me, or that I would actually let it. During the darkness of the pandemic, which was compounded by the loss of my mom, I scanned my mind for moments that I knew would return me to myself. Many of the days I’ve highlighted here were among them. Last fall, when I finally returned to Kalymnos, the smell of the herbs on the hillside was like coming home.


Header image: Lowering off a favorite climbing route on Kalymnos called Sandy Kilo, with a great view out to Telendos. Photo by Nicholas Le.

Climbing Resources

Places to go, nature to see, climbs to try.

My suggestion for a safe and fun introduction to climbing is to hire a guide for a day out, whether alone, as a couple, with friends, or with the whole family. Here are some of the places climbing has taken me, and some guide services I’ve used when passing through.

  • Kalymnos

    Greece is a wonderful year-round climbing destination, and one of the best places in the world for learning the basics of outdoor rock climbing. Many areas include the whole package: high-quality limestone cliffs, proximity to the sea, important archaeological sites, other outdoor activities like hiking or diving, and celebrated culinary traditions. While the course I took on Kalymnos is no longer offered, there are several guides who host classes, one-to-one instruction, or family lessons on the island (as well as on the mainland in popular destinations like Leonidio). Here's a start: Climb Mediterranean, Kalymnos Climbing Guide, and Leonidio Climbing Coach.

  • Smith Rock State Park

    She Moves Mountains is a women-specific climbing organization that hosts great retreats and courses in this incredible state park in Oregon, and beyond.

  • Yosemite National Park

    My tears of reverence start the moment I pass through Yosemite’s gates and toward these hallowed walls. The official guide service of the park, the mountaineering school provides tailored instruction if you’re really into starting big.

  • American Alpine Club

    In the U.S., the AAC is generally a wonderful resource. They host several events and clinics year-round for learning new skills. Their Craggin’ Classics events are a blast, and take place on both coasts.

  • Memphis Rox

    This is a really awesome nonprofit and climbing gym in Memphis, Tennessee, that’s making positive change toward empowering and creating future leaders in the community.

  • The Gunks

    New York’s famous cliffs are an hour and a half outside of New York City. These guides are a good starting point for a day-tripper in the spring or summer, or when the fall foliage is on view.

  • Garden of the Gods

    I met Stewart Green, a partner in this guide service, in this Colorado paradise of sandstone. Another pioneer in the climbing world, it turns out he’d met my teacher Aris decades ago in Athens — at some point the community becomes a small world.

  • Ouray Ice Park

    This past New Year’s, my dear friend Jacob, who’s a ranger in this park, finally introduced me to the frosty world of ice climbing. I met a lot of great people, including these guides, who can introduce you to the ice park or other adventures in the area.

  • The Cliffs

    One of my favorite New York climbing gyms is the Cliffs at Long Island City. I’m a champion for learning outdoors, but starting indoors is also a great way to go. This place has community and excellent intro classes.

  • Kalymnos

    Greece is a wonderful year-round climbing destination, and one of the best places in the world for learning the basics of outdoor rock climbing. Many areas include the whole package: high-quality limestone cliffs, proximity to the sea, important archaeological sites, other outdoor activities like hiking or diving, and celebrated culinary traditions. While the course I took on Kalymnos is no longer offered, there are several guides who host classes, one-to-one instruction, or family lessons on the island (as well as on the mainland in popular destinations like Leonidio). Here's a start: Climb Mediterranean, Kalymnos Climbing Guide, and Leonidio Climbing Coach.

  • The Gunks

    New York’s famous cliffs are an hour and a half outside of New York City. These guides are a good starting point for a day-tripper in the spring or summer, or when the fall foliage is on view.

  • Smith Rock State Park

    She Moves Mountains is a women-specific climbing organization that hosts great retreats and courses in this incredible state park in Oregon, and beyond.

  • Garden of the Gods

    I met Stewart Green, a partner in this guide service, in this Colorado paradise of sandstone. Another pioneer in the climbing world, it turns out he’d met my teacher Aris decades ago in Athens — at some point the community becomes a small world.

  • Yosemite National Park

    My tears of reverence start the moment I pass through Yosemite’s gates and toward these hallowed walls. The official guide service of the park, the mountaineering school provides tailored instruction if you’re really into starting big.

  • Ouray Ice Park

    This past New Year’s, my dear friend Jacob, who’s a ranger in this park, finally introduced me to the frosty world of ice climbing. I met a lot of great people, including these guides, who can introduce you to the ice park or other adventures in the area.

  • American Alpine Club

    In the U.S., the AAC is generally a wonderful resource. They host several events and clinics year-round for learning new skills. Their Craggin’ Classics events are a blast, and take place on both coasts.

  • The Cliffs

    One of my favorite New York climbing gyms is the Cliffs at Long Island City. I’m a champion for learning outdoors, but starting indoors is also a great way to go. This place has community and excellent intro classes.

  • Memphis Rox

    This is a really awesome nonprofit and climbing gym in Memphis, Tennessee, that’s making positive change toward empowering and creating future leaders in the community.

Our Contributors

Rachel Sampson Writer and Photographer

Rachel Sampson is a freelance writer and editor based between New York and Berlin. She has worked on books, magazines, and travel guides for clients such as Random House, Monocle, Gestalten, Verso Books, T Brand, and Apple. She is currently a contributor and copy editor at Departures.

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