Updated: Feb 16
With the introduction of sport climbing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the multiple disciplines of rock climbing gripped the world (pun intended). Whether it was speed climbing, bouldering, lead climbing, or all three, rock climbing fascinated and intimidated global audiences. The desire to try but fear of starting likely brought you here, so welcome. To become a climber, first you must know the types of climbing, the equipment you need, and how to join the community.
Rock climbing categories
Rock climbing is divided into two categories: aid climbing which uses protection like a ladder to assist difficult areas of a climb, and free climbing that relies on the climbers’ hands and feet to maneuver them on a route. Adventure Protocol has a handy diagram that subdivides free climbing further into roped and unroped, which is where we’ll pick up.
Roped: Top rope & lead climbing
Roped climbing uses a long, single rope to connect the climber to pieces of protection and a belayer. When falls inevitably happen, the rope and belayer can prevent serious injuries. At a glance it’s easy to differentiate top roping from lead climbing. As the name suggests, top roping always has the rope above the climber and belayer threaded through a permanent anchor point at the route’s summit. When lead climbing, a climber pulls the rope upward, clipping into pieces of protection as they ascend. Lead climbing is further divided into sport and traditional (trad) climbing.
Top roping is most common at indoor facilities; it’s easier and safer for the climber. The rope is connected to a top anchor, allowing the climber to focus solely on the route and the belayer to quickly catch and control any falls. However, indoor climbing is still difficult as small holds and designated routes challenge even the best climbers.
Lead climbing, done indoors and outdoors, requires the climber to connect the rope below them into pieces of protection typically spaced a few feet apart. Sport climbing routes have permanent pieces of protection anchored to the rockface for quickdraws to clip into. Trad climbing requires climbers to place their own temporary pieces of protection into cracks or holes along the route, clip in with quickdraws, and later remove the gear leaving nothing behind.
Unroped: Bouldering & free soloing
Unroped climbing is exactly how it sounds: climbing without a rope, and therefore any protection against a dangerous, even fatal, fall. There are two subcategories: bouldering and free soloing. Bouldering remains closer to the ground climbing about 10-15 feet high, focusing on technical skills rather than height conquered.
Free soloing pushes the limit with no room for error to complete a climb in one attempt; no rope for protection means falls are longer and life-threatening. The documentary “Free Solo” reveals that danger following well-known free soloist Alex Honnold’s daring and successful attempt of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing and is not recommended for even experienced climbers.
For any type of climbing special climbing shoes are a must. They’re your connection to the rock, so having the right size, shape, and fit are crucial. Check out REI’s guide to climbing shoes. All roped climbing has standard gear: shoes, a rope typically 150-230 feet long, a harness for each climber and belayer, a belay device, carabiners, and a helmet for outdoor climbing. Each discipline has additional equipment for its specific needs.
Roped: Top rope and lead climbing
In top rope and lead climbing, both the climber and belayer wear harnesses that connect around the waist and legs with a heavily sewn loop to connect the rope. Ideally, the rope ties directly to the climber’s harness, although carabiners can be the connection point. The rope loops through the anchor point at the route’s summit and down to the belay device, the two most common types being Petzl’s assisted breaking Grigri and Black Diamond’s tubular style ATC. Occasionally, routes may have an automatic belay system at the peak rather than an anchor for manual belaying.
Instead of a top anchor, sport climbers use quickdraws and permanent bolts to ascend a route. Quickdraws are two carabiners with sewn webbing between them. The bolt end carabiner connects to the bolt, as the name implies; the rope end carabiner is for the climber to clip in the rope using the snap or pinch method, depending on the direction of the route. Climbers attach the quickdraws to their harness before beginning the climb. It’s recommended to have quickdraws in two lengths to avoid pulling the rope over sharp edges or overhangs that could cause tears and rips.
In addition to all the sport climbing gear, trad climbing requires temporary pieces of protection like cams, hexes, and nuts to be inserted, and later removed, into the rockface for quickdraws to be clipped. This was the traditional way of climbing prior to sport climbing beginning in the 1980s, hence the nickname of “trad.”
Unroped: Bouldering and free soloing
Unroped climbing is higher in danger but lower in equipment needs. To boulder, a climber needs their preferred climbing shoes, a crash pad/bouldering mat, a very attentive spotter to guide any falls onto the mat, and chalk, if desired for grip.
Free soloing, which again is not recommended, requires even less equipment, since the point is to not fall. Climbers need climbing shoes and chalk, if preferred. Since free solo climbs are more than the 10-15 feet above ground level, a crash pad or spotter might only help minimally, if at all.
It can be intimidating to start rock climbing, face giant walls, watch climbers turn upside down, and take big, unexpected falls. A surefire way to begin is mustering up all the courage you have, walking into a climbing gym, and saying “hi.” That’s it!
The climbing community is a diverse, energetic, and welcoming group, excited to embrace everyone who wants to try. Its mentality is built into the sport: we can only reach higher with the help of others, and then we reach down to bring them up to us.
Climbers consistently learn from and challenge one another to achieve their best, so if you’re looking for a community to rally around you as you try something new and have fun doing it, look no further.
The late famous adventurer Alex Lowe perfectly said, “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.” As long as you have fun, you’ll succeed at rock climbing.