Rock climbing is an activity in which participants climb up, down or across natural rock formations or artificial rock walls. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Due to the length and extended endurance required and because accidents are more likely to happen on the descent than the ascent, rock climbers do not usually climb back down the route. It is very rare for a climber to downclimb, especially on the larger multiple pitches (class III- IV and /or multi-day grades IV-VI climbs). Professional rock climbing competitions have the objectives of either completing the route in the quickest possible time or attaining the farthest point on an increasingly difficult route. Scrambling, another activity involving the scaling of hills and similar formations, is similar to rock climbing. However, rock climbing is generally differentiated by its sustained use of hands to support the climber’s weight as well as to provide balance.
Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber’s strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. It can be a dangerous activity and knowledge of proper climbing techniques and usage of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes. Because of the wide range and variety of rock formations around the world, rock climbing has been separated into several different styles and sub-disciplines.
Most of the climbing done in modern times is considered free climbing—climbing using one’s own physical strength, with equipment used solely as protection and not as support—as opposed to aid climbing, the gear-dependent form of climbing that was dominant in the sport’s earlier days. Free climbing is typically divided into several styles that differ from one another depending on the choice of equipment used and the configurations of their belay, rope and anchor systems.
As routes get higher off the ground, the increased risk of life-threatening injuries necessitates additional safety measures. A variety of specialized climbing techniques and climbing equipment exists to provide that safety. Climbers will usually work in pairs and utilize a system of ropes and anchors designed to catch falls. Ropes and anchors can be configured in different ways to suit many styles of climbing, and roped climbing are thus divided into further sub-types that vary based on how their belay systems are set up. Generally speaking, beginners will start with top roping and/or easy bouldering and work their way up to lead climbing and beyond.
Still the most popular method of climbing big walls, aid climbers make progress up a wall by repeatedly placing and weighting gear that is used directly to aid ascent and enhance safety.
The most commonly used method to ascend climbs refers to climbs where the climber’s own physical strength and skill are relied on to accomplish the climb. Free climbing may rely on top rope belay systems, or on lead climbing to establish protection and the belay stations. Anchors, ropes and protection are used to back up the climber and are passive as opposed to active ascending aids. Subtypes of free climbing are trad climbing and sport climbing. Free climbing is generally done as “clean lead” meaning no pitons or pins are used as protection.
Climbing on short, low routes without the use of the safety rope that is typical of most other styles. Protection, if used at all, typically consists of a cushioned bouldering padbelow the route and a spotter, a person who watches from below and directs the fall of the climber away from hazardous areas. Bouldering may be an arena for intense and relatively safe competition, resulting in exceptionally high difficulty standards.
Solo climbing or soloing is a style of climbing in which the climber climbs alone, without somebody belaying them.
There are several ways to climb solo:
- Roped solo climbing, is climbing by yourself with a rope backup in case of fall. Roped soloing is especially useful in rescue situations. There are two ways to rope solo:
- lead solo, in which the climber uses a self-locking device which is used to arrest a fall. One end of the rope may be anchored below the climber with the coils of rope in a bag on the climber’s back, or for single-pitch climbs the device may be secured at ground level, and the climber tied into the end of the rope.
- top rope solo, in which the climber uses a self-locking device and climbs as if top roping. If weight is put on the rope during the climb, it is a form of aid climbing.
- Free solo climbing (Known in the UK as soloing), is perhaps the best known solo technique. This is where the climber is climbing without any rope or other forms of protection where a fall would result in serious injury or death.
Deep-water soloing (or psicobloc) is similar to free soloing in that the climber is unprotected and without a rope, but should the climber fall, it is into deep water instead of on the ground.
Free soloing, referred to as “soloing” in the UK, is single-person climbing without the use of any rope or protection system whatsoever. If a fall occurs and the climber is not over water (as in the case of deep water soloing), the climber is likely to be killed or seriously injured. Though technically similar to bouldering, free solo climbing typically refers to routes that are far taller and/or far more lethal than bouldering. The term “highball” is used to refer to climbing on the boundary between free soloing and bouldering, where what is usually climbed as a boulder problem may be high enough for a fall to cause serious injury (20 ft. and higher) and hence could also be considered to be a free solo.
Roped solo climbing
Solo climbing with a rope secured at the beginning of the climb allowing a climber to self-belay as they advance. Once the pitch is completed the soloist must descend the rope to retrieve their gear, and then reclimb the pitch. This form of climbing can be conducted free or as a form of aid climbing.
Lead climbing is a climbing technique. The lead climber ascends with the rope passing through intermittent anchors that are below them, rather than through a top anchor, as in a top-roped climb. A partner belays from below the lead climber, by feeding out enough rope to allow upward progression without undue slack. As the leader progresses he or she clips the rope into, using a runner and carabiners, intermediate points of protection such as active cams, or passive protection such as nuts; this limits the length of a potential fall. The leader also may clip into pre-placed bolts. Indoor gyms might have short runners pre-attached to fixed anchor points in the wall.
Unlike top-rope climbing where the climber is always supported by an anchor located above the climber, lead climbing often has scenarios where the climber will be attached to a point under him or her. In these cases, if the climber were to fall, the distance fallen would be much greater than that of top-rope and this is one of the main reasons lead climbing can be dangerous. The fall factor is the ratio of the height a climber falls and the length of rope available to absorb the fall. The higher the fall factor, the more force placed on the climber as the ropes decelerates them. The maximum fall factor is 2. It is often advised that climbers who are interested in lead climbing should learn from experienced climbers and participate in training sessions before actually lead climbing on their own.
The climbing rope is of a fixed length; the climber can only climb the length of the rope. Routes longer than the rope length are broken up into several segments called pitches; this is known as multi-pitch climbing. At the top of a pitch, the leader, the first climber to ascend, sets up an anchor and then belays the second climber up to the anchor; as the second climber follows the route taken by the leader, the second climber removes (cleans) the carabiners and anchors placed along the way in order to use them again on the next pitch. Once both climbers are at the top anchor, the leader begins climbing the next pitch and so on until the top of the route is reached.
In either case, upon completion of a route, climbers can walk back down if an alternate descent path exists, or rappel (abseil) down with the rope.
Unlike traditional rock climbing, sport climbing involves the use of protection (bolts) placed with power drills or on rappel or permanent anchors which are attached to the rock walls. This is separate from bolted trad face climbing.
Traditional or trad climbing involves rock climbing routes in which protection against falls is placed by the climber while ascending, or bolts placed on lead. Gear is used to protect against falls but not to aid the ascent directly. Traditional bolted face climbs are different than sport climbs. Trad bolted climbs use either a hand drill and or are bolted on lead. This means there are far fewer bolts and they are spaced out farther than sport climbs.
Bottom rope climbing and top rope climbing
Bottom rope climbing
Commonly known as “Top Roping”: belaying a climber from the ground or the base of the route. A belay system resembling a pulley in which an anchor has been created at the top of a climb, through which the rope runs through from the belayer on the ground, to the climber on the ground (position before starting the climb). The rope is “taken-in”, to clear up the slack as the climber moves upwards, so in the event of a fall, the climber falls the shortest distance possible. The length of a fall is normally no more than a meter, but can vary depending on the length of the route (the longer the rope, the more stretch the rope will undergo when weighted) and the weight of the climber compared to that of the belayer, among other things.
Top rope climbing
Also known as “seconding,” or belaying a climber from the top of a route, bringing them up to walk off or continue on to next pitch. A similarly safe system of climbing a route, except the belayer has set the anchors at the top of the climb (normally after leading a route) to belay the climber either indirectly (belayer is part of the system and can be vulnerable when exposed to unexpected directions of pull and loading of the rope) or directly (belayer is not part of the system and belaying is done directly from the anchors using either an Italian / Munter Hitch or adapted use of a belay device), up the route from the top. If bolts have been clipped or traditional gear placements have been made, it is the job of the climber to collect and clean the route.
A method of fairly easily ascending a route, heavily dependent on permanent protection rather than using natural rock features to proceed.
MissionImpossible II – Rock Climbing Opening sequence