Rock climbing in Central Oregon — how to get started


Last updated 4/12/2022 at Noon

Jarod Gatley

Starting in a rock gym is a good way to get a feel for climbing. However, climbing in the outdoors is a different experience.

It’s no secret that Central Oregon is one of the premier locations for rock climbing. With Smith Rock and a multitude of bouldering areas close by, Central Oregon has some of the most unique routes and popular areas in the Pacific Northwest. The Nugget spoke with a few climbing experts and guides about the growing popularity of the sport, as well as how to get started.

Josh Spoelstra, a Central Oregon local, spent most of his young life serving as a youth group leader, as a climbing guide, and made it part of his career. Originally from the Seattle area, he began climbing in high school with his church youth group leader.

“The climbing community is friendly and inclusive and always willing to bring someone in, no matter the skill level. So, the first thing I would say is find a friend and then learn some information about climbing and go out together,” said Spoelstra.

It is important, when entering rock climbing, to know your own skill level and to understand that indoor climbing in a rock gym is an entirely different experience than climbing outside.

“Gyms give you a good idea of what climbing a route is like, but the elements aren’t there. So get a feel for it and move into outdoor climbing with a partner after that,” he said.

One of the best places to get started in the Central Oregon area is the Bend Rock Gym (BRG). Jeremy Wassenaar, director of operations, spoke to the importance of starting out in a rock gym.

“Come into your local gym and just start asking questions. We have highly trained people working here, willing to help you get started,” said Wassenaar. “I am really proud of how welcoming of a team we have here.” Bend Rock Gym has harnesses, shoes, and belay equipment all available to rent if you come in without your own gear. The gym also caters to climbers of all skill levels with differently ranked routes based on difficulty throughout the gym.

Bend Rock Gym offers two main types of climbing for beginners. There is auto-belay climbing (which is a main feature at BRG), where the rope is worked into a machine system at the top of the route; when you hook into it, you can complete the route on your own, because the rope contracts as you get higher up. Auto-belay is a good beginner type of climbing because it allows you to feel what it is like to climb on a route. Top-rope climbing is one of the most common types of climbing at the rock gym, where you have a belay partner at the bottom.

“Top-rope is where you learn the knots and ties for belaying,” said Wassenaar.

You and your climbing partner are roped together using different knots, and the bottom partner uses a belay device to keep the rope moving through as you climb up the route.

Bend Rock Gym offers programs and classes for climbers at any skill level.

“The best class is a basics climbing class where you learn the knots, safety checks as a climber, and some techniques for climbing indoors,” said Wassenaar.

The gym also partners with guides and programs at Smith Rock for outdoor climbing classes.

Smith Rock is one of the most well-known climbing destinations in the Central Oregon area.

“There are routes for every type of climber, even beginners, at Smith Rock,” said Spoelstra.

Smith Rock and BRG combine to bring climbers together and partnered up to learn the routes and understand outdoor climbing.

“If you want to start outdoor climbing, for sure go out with someone that knows the area and terrain, so you can remain safe, because outdoor climbing is totally different than in a gym,” said Spoelstra.

Wassenaar and Spoelstra, both having worked in the climbing world for many years, spoke to the things to remember when starting out in climbing.

“Understanding your limits is a big one — what are you most comfortable with? Because climbing is a very mentally challenging sport. Also making sure you have a partner you can trust is important because climbing is a very trusting sport,” said Wassenaar.

“Find a friend, go into the gym, and build that endurance and understand the mechanics, and then go outside, and there is really where you feel the mental, physical, and spiritual engulfing experience climbing can be,” said Spoelstra. “Finding someone that knows more than you will really benefit your climbing experience, and [then] just go out there and start climbing. It’s a fun sport.”

The climbing community in Central Oregon is growing as the area and the popularity of the sport grows.

It is important to understand your limits, plan for how you want to pursue it, find a friend that is willing to do it with you, and get some training.

With more popularity comes more responsibility.

For more information on climbing stewardship, see

To learn more about Bend Rock Gym’s classes and programs for all ages, visit


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