As the Castrol ads from the 70s say, oils ain’t oils. And so it is with climbing; there are so many different types of rock climbing that it’s easy to get confused. Luckily, James Stuart has prepared some Cliff Notes (boom tisch) for those new to the weird, wonderful and palm-sweating goodness of the climbing world.
These days rock climbing is a hugely popular and accessible sport. But there’s a lot more to it than just pulling up on plastic in a gym.
As a climbing tragic, I’ve pulled together a short catalogue of the main rock climbing styles (with the exclusion of alpine, aid, mixed and ice climbing):
I’ve ranked them from least to most expert, and least to most risky. No climbing is completely danger-free so ratings always assume that you are attentive, aware and experienced.
Be safe people, not stupid, and make sure you get expert guidance if you need it.
Indoors Or Outdoors?
If you’re only climbing indoors, that’s awesome but you’ll only ever get to experience the first 3 on this list: top-roping, bouldering and sport climbing. Head outdoors and you can sample everything climbing has to offer (not to mention some amazing wild places).
What Are Those Numbers Next To A Climb’s Description?
All climbs are graded in terms of difficulty. In Australia we use the Ewbank system, which is open ended and currently goes from 1 to 39. Bouldering in the USA uses a V-Scale that goes up to V17. Confused yet? Read this article.
But now it’s time to show you the ropes…
Odds are, this is the style of climbing that gets (or got) you started in the sport. I’d also wager that you tried it in a climbing gym, like me. Top-roping is the marijuana of the climbing world!
What Is It?
As the name suggests, a rope is threaded through an anchor or pulley at the top of a route. The climber clips or ties into one end of the rope and then proceeds to make their way up the wall like a mountain goat on a tight leash. A belayer threads the other end of the rope through a belay device (that slows the rope) and takes in the slack as the climber ascends. At the top, the belayer lowers the climber.
Risk Factor: LOW
If you stumble across someone in the bush screaming in pain, glued to a rock while clamping down on a heinously small hold 3 metres above the ground, you’ve found your first boulderer.
What Is It?
So-called because you’re often climbing a boulder rather than a cliff face, this sport is all about doing short routes (usually 3-5m) that pack a punch. The goal here is to solve “problems” that require a specific sequence of moves.
The other distinguishing feature is the lack of ropes. Instead, boulderers use specialised crash pads (aka bouldering mats). Usually a spotter (or team of spotters) will be there to help guide you safely onto a pad if you fall (e.g. not head first). It’s also great training for roped climbing.
Risk Factor: MODERATE
Even though you’re only a few metres off the ground, you can hurt yourself if you miss the pad or your spotter hasn’t done their job. The risks go up massively if you’re one of the crushers who’s blurring the line between bouldering and free-soloing with highball problems.
Sport Or Lead Climbing
I still remember the first time I saw someone sport climbing at Barrenjoey Headland: he looked as though he had levitation super powers. Now it’s my climbing poison of choice!
What Is It?
The difference between top-roping and sport climbing is that you need to clip your rope into anchor points called bolts as you climb. As you ascend, your belayer pays out more rope. This means that if you fall, you will fall as far as the last bolt (the bolts are drilled and then glued or dynabolted into the rock by a route developer).
However, you don’t thread the rope directly through the bolt. Instead you place a quickdraw and then clip your rope into the lower carabiner. In some cases, the ‘draws are already placed (in a climbing gym, for example).
The knowledge that you might fall a few metres onto that gnarly looking rock-horn adds spice to the whole experience – there is no better expression of this than “Elvis Leg,” when your limbs start to shake uncontrollably like the King’s as you pull your rope out to clip. The hardest routes in the world are all sport climbs.
Risk Factor: MEDIUM
Because you’re falling to the last anchor, the risk of a ground fall or spraining your ankles on a rock ledge are much higher. Generally, the problem is user error (e.g. your belayer losing control of the rope).
Does your friend have a crack habit? Do they stare longingly at fault lines running up a piece of virgin rock? Welcome to the world of trad climbing.
What Is It?
Whereas someone’s already fixed bolts on a sport climb, a trad climb requires natural protection; it’s up to you to create anchor points as you climb, using only natural features in the rock. To do this you wedge a device into a crack or fault in the rock, or loop a sling around a feature. At the other end is a carabiner that you clip your rope into.
These devices fall into two categories: active camming devices or cams, which expand to fill the space in which they are placed, and passive devices such as nuts and hexes that are a fixed sized. They both operate on the same principle: when placed correctly they create enough friction to hold the force of you falling.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that they will hold – poorly placed gear or gear placed into questionable features can rip out (the force of the fall exceeding the force of the friction or the integrity of the rock itself). When multiple pieces go, it’s called zippering. I’ve never trad-climbed but I have seen a few zippers. It’s terrifying.
Having to place your own gear saps precious energy, so the hardest trad climbs aren’t at the same technical difficulty level as the hardest sport climbs. On some trad climbs there are sections that can only be protected by drilling a bolt (fancy a 20m fall otherwise?). These are called mixed climbs.
Risk Factor: HIGH
There’s a lot more user error and external factors at play in Trad. If you believe YouTube, gear rips out all the time, resulting in serious injury. Given the risks, why would you? To some, it is the risk and associated mental control that’s attractive. But to many it’s the purity of the sport. Trad climbing also allows you to go up to any cliff you fancy and climb it, no matter how remote. This is why it’s sometimes known as adventure climbing.
Exposure. That’s what the best multi-pitch climbs will give you. But I’m not talking about the front cover of Rock and Ice magazine. It’s the exposure to the elemental forces of life (and gravity) as you hover over the void, 250m from the ground.
What Is It?
Multi-pitch climbing is the only way to get up those massive 50m+ cliffs that tower over you in places like the Blue Mountains or Arapiles. Why? A single pitch climb is limited by the height of the crag or the length of your rope.
Multi-pitch climbs can be either sport (bolted), trad or mixed, and range in height from about 50m – 300m in Australia, and up to 500-600m elsewhere. Either way, one climber will go up first (called “leading the pitch”) and place protection as they ascend. Once at the top, they’ll set up anchors (aka a belay station) and then get ready to belay their partner.
The second climber will then climb the same pitch (aka “seconding”). Usually, the seconder will lead the following pitch so everyone shares responsibilities. Multi-pitches will generally have anywhere between two and 12 pitches.
Risk Factor: HIGH
Once you’re 100m off the ground, you’re essentially on your own. You’ll need to know how to self-rescue and be confident with abseiling so that you can retreat from a climb if the weather goes south.
Some walls are too big or too hard to be climbed in a day. Some rock ledges are too awesome not to spend a night on. Some people have always wanted to use a poo-tube. And thus we have Big Wall climbing.
What Is It?
Big walls are basically multi-pitch climbs that tend to be 500m+. Your average climber (read: experienced and strong) will require at least a couple of days to get up to the top (and sometimes multiple weeks!). This means sleeping on the rock face, either in or on a natural formation, such as a rock ledge, or suspended in a portaledge. The most iconic big wall of them all is El Capitan, in Yosemite NP, whose 1000m face is a mecca for climbers the world over.
Big walls can be either bolted, trad or mixed climbing. Many require some mechanical help in the form of aid climbing for tricky sections (aid climbing is outside the scope of this article but have a read of this if you want to know more). Being on the wall for multiple days also requires a LOT more gear, food and water (think of it as a multi-day hike up a vertical rock face). You haul this up using a pulley system of some description. As for poo-tubes, I’ll let you work out why those are needed.
Risk Factor: EXTREME
Living in a vertical environment for days on end requires oodles of experience, and a ton of physical and mental fortitude. Your rope and anchor-setting skills will need to be A-Class. And you’ll need to excel at not dropping stuff (like your sleeping bag, which by all reports makes a heartbreaking sound as it bounces down the cliff and out of sight). You’ll also need the courage to admit defeat and get the hell out of dodge.
Who needs a rope? Well, pretty much all of us. And with good reason: hitting the ground from height is bad. But there are an elite few who have achieved the physical and mental control required to climb routes ropeless.
What Is It?
The number one rule of free-soloing is simple: never fall. That’s because you’ll be on a route anywhere between 10m and 1,000m in height. If you slip, well… If a hold breaks and you fall, hmm… Free-soloing can take you up a single pitch or up a mind-boggling big wall (in about 4 or 5 hours, mind you).
Free-soloists pretty much always climb well below their abilities and will have rehearsed a climb on rope many times. That doesn’t mean shit can’t go wrong – one of the sport’s first superstars, John Bachar, died free-soloing a route he’d done many times as a warm-up.
Risk Factor: DEADLY
Falling is bad, mkay? The biggest liability is unlikely to be your physical abilities, however. If you don’t have the mental control to manage your emotions, doubt and panic set in. If you can’t maintain your concentration for the whole climb, mistakes get made. As vertical adventurer Steph Davis puts it: “If you can control yourself, you’re going to be safe. And that’s the challenge.”
Hit The Walls