Types of Rock Climbing

Types of Rock Climbing

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Sport Climbing

Alpin-Museum Kempten modern sport climbing
Today's sport climbers wear less spandex thankfully!

Sport climbing is probably the most common form of climbing done today.  It is the quickest way to climb and simplest (except top rope of course). Sport climbing consists of climbing on bolted routes, sometimes with the quickdraws already hung. 

The focus here is more on gymnastic abilities and strength rather than gear and outdoor expertise. Compared to traditional climbing, a sport climber spends little energy protecting the climb and more energy on difficult moves.

 

Tl;dr: What is Sport Climbing?

  • Bolted, defined routes
  • Uses quickdraws, no trad gear
  • Focus on athleticism + pushing limits
  • Falling common, no big deal

Unlike trad climbing which is practiced purely outdoors and involves placing your own protection in the rock (to prevent catch you in case of falling), sport climbing is done on routes that are already defined by a line of bolts. This may be in the gym or outdoors. The person who creates the route is known as the route-setter in a gym. Outdoors, it is typically whoever has the FA, or first ascent. That involves using a power drill to place bolts in the rock. Some may be glued in via ultra strong epoxy resins, while others may stay in via mechanical force (expansion). Each bolt has a hanger loop attached, through which the climber clips a quickdraw. The bolts are fixed and remain in place for future climbers. 

The safety system in sport climbing consists of quick draws (two carabiners connected by webbing), dynamic rope, a belay device and climbing harnesses. When the climber starts off the ground, they are completely unprotected and until clipping into the first bolt. In gyms, the first bolt is typically low, approximately 10 feet or ~3 meters off the ground. Outdoors, they can be higher. This may be due to lack of good locations or to prevent people from trying climbs which are too hard for them.

 

quickdraws for sport climbing
Quickdraws for climbing

Once you clip the first quickdraw into the bolt, the climber then clips their rope into the lower end of the draw, with the rope coming outwards towards the climber. They are now protected against a fall. As the climber continues up the route, they’ll continue clipping along the way. In the event of a fall, the belayer will “lock off” the rope and rope will eventually go taut around the last bolt clipped, preventing a ground fall (or decking as its called). 

The development and use of bolts also opened up many rock faces that were previously considered unclimbable such as flat faces with no cracks. Sport climbing is how most climbers begin the sport today as it requires much less knowledge of gear, rock and other technical points than trad. 

Below is an example of sport climbing featuring famous climber Sasha DiGuilian:

Traditional Climbing (Trad)

Metolious mastercams
Cams for trad climbing

The traditional (trad) form of climbing requires the leader to place their own protection in the rock as they climb. 

Trad routes usually follow cracks which allow the placement of trad gear such as nuts, cams, hexes and tricams. In the picture to the right, metolious mastercams, can be seen as an example.

Tl;dr: What is trad?

  • Routes not bolted
  • Climber places own protection (cams/nuts/etc.)
  • Route finding skills required
  • More conservative style, less falls

Trad is the original form of climbing before modern bolts and gear were invented. Climbers were totally on their own to protect themselves.  Instead of clipping into an existing bolt in the rock, climbers must use gear like nuts, cams, tricams and hexes and place them into the rock to serve the same purpose. Then, they clip a quickdraw into the gear piece and finally clip the rope into the quickdraw.

More detail about the different types  of gear can be found in the trad section of the website. To learn more about placing gear, check that out, and check out John Long’s book, Climbing Anchors.

Traditional climbing is considered the purest form of climbing. The climber approaches a rock, decides to climb it and protects his falls using the gear he carries. The belayer then follows second and removes all the gear as they go, leaving the rock unaltered. This is in contrast with past practices which included hammering pitons into the rock, which damaged it.

Aid Climbing

ad climbing example picture
The climbers are using gear to pull themselves up.
Alpin-Museum Kempten historical climbing gear
Old climbing gear

Aid Climbing is a form of climbing in which the leader uses gear to help them actually ascend, NOT simply to catch them in case of a fall.  

This type of climbing is utilized when free climbing is impossible or above the climber’s ability. Aid is frequently used on long, big wall routes where high levels of mental and physical stamina are required.

Aid climbing allows climbers bypass sections of a climb that are out of their ability or impossible to free climb. However, as time goes on, many areas seen as impossible to free climb have been tackled. A famous example is the “Changing Corners” pitch on the Nose which Lynn Hill and Tommy Caldwell managed to climb free.

To learn more, check out How to Big Wall Climb by Chris McNamara.

Tl;dr: What is Aid Climbing?

  • Unbolted, often undefined routes
  • Uses aid and trad gear
  • Routes often unclimbed or not free climbable
  • Falling strongly avoided

Bouldering

A boulder in Immenstadt, Germany

Bouldering is a very simple type of climbing where climbers forgo ropes and climb short routes, usually of substantial difficulty.

The only safety equipment is the bouldering or crash pad, a thick foam pad that absorbs some of the force of a fall from a short height. Bouldering routes vary in height from 5 to about 25 feet, and can involve only one or two moves or can be a long and complicated series of moves. Bouldering distills climbing into an art of movement and physical prowess. No expertise is needed, only strength, creativity, and stamina. Because the routes are so short, bouldering usually requires substantial physical exertion without rest, and the grading scale is much steeper than in standard climbing. 

Tl;dr: What is Bouldering?

  • Climbing on boulders
  • No ropes, no gear
  • Focus on harder moves, not endurance
  • Fall onto crashpad(s)

Originally, climbers used nearby boulders as a warm-up before climbs or even a way to practice during downtime.  Performance and aesthetics of movement were originally considered unimportant. Then came John Gill, the “father of bouldering,” who changed this in the 1960s. Originally a gymnist, he  began establishing difficult and acrobatic “problems” on boulders and outcrops as well as introducing the use of gym chalk.

Gill was one of the first people to consider bouldering a sport in its own right.  The grading system came later, invented by a man known as John “Verm” Sherman, He invented the V-scale which is used to indicate bouldering route difficulty in the United States. In Europe, the so-called “font system” is usually used, short for Fontainebleau in France, an area famous for the sport.

For a good book to learn more, pick up Better Bouldering by John Sherman

Free Soloing

free solo climbing with alex honnold

Free soloing is climbing without ropes. If you fall, serious injury or death are guaranteed. 

Alex Honnold, Steph Davis and Dean Potter are the most famous contemporary free soloers. John Bachar, another famous American climber in the 1970s and 80s was well known for his expert climbing abilities and fearless free soloing. Bachar climbed many difficult routes in Joshua Tree and Yosemite, including routes up to 5.11c. 

Below is a video of Alex Honnold, the most well known free solo climber of today although ironically, free soloing makes up only a very small percentage of his actual climbing: