Rock climbing is an enjoyable and rewarding activity that can be undertaken by people of all ages. In order to enjoy rock climbing to the fullest, it is essential to know about the different types of climbing, the necessary clothing and equipment, and the training and methods involved.
What is rock climbing?
Rock climbing is an activity that involves climbing up or traversing rock formations for sport or leisure. These rock formations may be natural or artificial, indoors or outdoors. For most practitioners, the goal of rock climbing is to reach the highest point of the formation or to complete a pre-defined route.
In professional rock climbing events, climbers usually compete with each other to complete the route in the shortest possible time or reach the farthest point of a difficult route. Depending on the event, competitors may also have to avoid falling off the rock formation so as not to be penalized.
As climbers gain more experience, they may shift their focus from simply reaching the summit or completing routes to mastering climbing techniques and strategies. For some, climbing becomes more about how they reach the top than achieving specific goals.
Types of rock climbing
The wide variety of rock formations has given rise to different climbing styles and activities, many of which are based on specific techniques. Some examples of climbing activities are:
- Indoor climbing
- Top-rope climbing
- Outdoor sport climbing
- Traditional climbing
Indoor climbing usually takes place in a climbing gym. Some colleges, public recreation centers, and outdoor equipment shops may have climbing facilities as well, which may be an artificial wall or a freestanding pinnacle. These structures typically have hand- and footholds that provide varying degrees of difficulty. The holds can be repositioned to create new routes.
Among the different types of rock climbing, bouldering requires the least time and equipment. Although advanced climbers can get pretty high up, most only climb up to a height from which they are comfortable jumping off. Bouldering typically involves traversing horizontally across a rock face, with climbers remaining parallel to the ground. Therefore, the focus is more on building strength and developing technique rather than trying to climb as high as possible.
Bouldering is a great introductory activity because you only need the most basic climbing equipment. In most cases, it requires only climbing shoes, chalk, and a crash pad to jump onto. Bouldering doesn’t even require a rope or a harness, and there is virtually no risk of injury from a long fall.
Top-rope climbing involves attaching a rope to the top of a route and climbing up to the fixed point while another person pulls the rope taut. The fixed anchor points and the tautness of the rope help ensure safety by reducing the distance that the climber falls. These reasons are why top-rope climbing is generally the first type of climbing that beginners undertake.
The person who holds the rope taut is called the “belayer”. Belaying is an important task that requires a trained guide or instructor or a very experienced climber. If you plan to pursue top-rope climbing for the long-term, you will have to learn belaying at some point.
More advanced climbers can progress to sport climbing and traditional climbing as they gain more experience. Especially skilled climbers may even assume lead climbing roles on sport-climbing routes.
Sport climbing involves attaching quickdraws to the rope as you climb. The routes typically have bolts that serve as anchors drilled into the rock. Traditional climbing utilizes quickdraws as well, although there aren’t usually any permanent anchors drilled into the rock. The lead climber will, therefore, have to install anchors as he or she progresses up the route.
Techniques used in rock climbing
Rock climbers typically employ different techniques depending on the rock face or geographical feature. These techniques are usually grouped into the following categories:
Crack climbing involves a set of techniques intended specifically for working up cracks in a rock face. Because cracks can vary considerably in size, these techniques cover a wide range of maneuvers as well. Some of the most common crack climbing techniques are jamming, laybacking, and stemming.
Face climbing involves using features in the rock face to climb upwards. These features may include finger pockets, edges, and other irregularities.
Slab climbing techniques are used for climbing rock faces that are angled just slightly less than vertical. They include a variety of balancing and friction-dependent techniques, usually with very small handholds.
Simul techniques involve two climbers working in lead and follower roles. The leader is tasked with placing the climbing gear into the rock while the follower collects them. When the leader runs out of gear, they meet at a belay station so that the follower can exchange gear with the leader.
With simul climbing, the stronger climber often takes on the role of follower. This is a crucial position since a fall by the follower would result in the leader being pulled towards the last gear, which could be disastrous for both climbers.
Differences between indoor and outdoor climbing
Indoor climbing and outdoor climbing share many techniques and logistical requirements, but there are a number of important differences between the two.
Indoor climbing almost always takes place on artificial rock structures, typically in climbing gyms or sports centers. Because of the controlled environment, indoor climbing can be done at any time of day or night and in any weather.
Almost anyone can do indoor climbing for training, exercise, or fun. It is a great way to develop skills and techniques that can be used in other forms of climbing, whether indoors or outdoors.
Indoor climbing facilities usually provide climbing equipment and rope setups, as well as trained personnel who instruct climbers on safe practices and effective techniques.
Outdoor climbing is more dependent on environmental and weather conditions, with the primary focus being ensuring the safety of all the climbers and support personnel. Most outdoor climbs take place during favorable weather when the hand and footholds are dry and provide sufficient grip.
More experienced climbers may go on night climbs or engage in the activity during inclement weather. However, climbing under these conditions entails increased risks. Consequently, they should be undertaken only by the most experienced climbers under closely monitored conditions.
How dangerous is rock climbing?
One of the most important things to realize about rock climbing is that it is an inherently risky pursuit. Any time you climb up a rock face, you put yourself at risk for serious injury–and even death–from a fall.
That being said, there are many ways by which you can reduce the risks associated with climbing and enjoy a safer and more rewarding experience. Proper training, following safe climbing practices, and using the proper safety equipment will help prevent accidents and injury.
Knowledge of the proper climbing techniques and how to use specialized climbing equipment is one of the most important factors in ensuring safety while rock climbing. It is also important to be aware of the situations and circumstances when falls and injuries are most likely to occur.
Interestingly enough, injuries resulting from falls are relatively uncommon, especially when climbs involve experienced climbers and the use of proper safety equipment. More often than not, injuries occur due to strain or overworked muscles and body parts. Many of the injuries that occur involve the fingers, elbows, and shoulders, all of which bear most of the climber’s weight.
Although seemingly insignificant, these injuries should be taken seriously. If these injuries are ignored or untreated, they may result in permanent, long-term damage that could make climbing difficult or impossible.
What to wear when rock climbing
Climbing clothes and accessories are essential for enabling you to get the most out of the rock climbing experience. They will keep you comfortable, help you climb more efficiently, and possibly even ensure your safety.
You don’t necessarily have to outfit yourself with a full wardrobe of climbing clothes if you are just starting out. For most basic climbs, you only need a few essential items of clothing. The most important items to have are:
- Climbing clothes
- Rock climbing shoes
- Climbing helmet
Climbing clothing can be as simple as a T-shirt and comfortable shorts. The most important qualities for climbing clothing are that they don’t restrict your movements or get in your way while climbing. They should also not get in the way of the rope or cause it to bind or get caught in any way.
Clothing material should be absorbent and breathable. It should draw sweat away from your body and dry quickly so that you don’t heat up or get too cold while climbing. For outdoor climbs, it may be necessary to bring extra clothing along in case the temperatures dip unexpectedly.
Rock climbing shoes should provide adequate protection for your feet and toes while providing sufficient friction that will enable you to grip footholds securely. Most athletic shoes will not work very well for climbing. Always use shoes that are designed specifically for climbing, preferably for the type of activity that you intend to do.
Most climbing shoes are actually quite versatile, but you will have to choose the right shoe depending on your skill level and the type of terrain you will be climbing. Remember to choose shoes that are snug but not too tight. In general, more difficult climbs will require closer-fitting shoes.
Avoid walking long distances in your rock climbing shoes as much as possible. Most models aren’t designed for trekking or hiking and will wear out or break apart easily when used for these activities. It is generally a good idea to wear another pair of shoes before you get to the climbing area and to change into your climbing shoes only when you are ready to climb.
Finally, you will need a climbing helmet. These are especially important during outdoor climbs, where there is an increased risk of injury from rocks and debris falling from above you. Keep in mind that most climbing helmets are designed only to protect you from objects falling from overhead. If you want your helmet to provide some degree of protection from a fall, you will have to look for a model designed specifically for that purpose.
Like climbing clothes and shoes, climbing helmets should fit snugly without being too tight. They should be comfortable and not restrict your movements or hamper your vision in any way. It is also a good idea to look for a helmet that sits flat on your head and that has a hard protective shell and a built-in strapping system.
Essential rock climbing equipment
Apart from rock climbing clothes, you will also need climbing equipment. The equipment you need will vary depending on the type and complexity of the climbing that you will be doing. The most commonly used types of climbing equipment are:
- Climbing ropes
- Climbing harness
- Belay device
- Climbing protection
Climbing ropes are arguably the most important pieces of climbing equipment to have. Used in almost all types of climbing, ropes are essential for helping you progress up the rock face and preventing falls. They can also be used to pull up other equipment and supplies if necessary.
In most indoor facilities and for beginner-level climbs, ropes are typically provided by the guides, trainers, or organizers. As you gain more experience and embark on more technically-demanding climbs, you will probably want to purchase your own climbing rope.
Climbing ropes basically fall into two distinct categories: dynamic and static. Dynamic ropes are most often used for rock climbing. These ropes are elastic, which helps reduce the impact of a fall. Static ropes are relatively stiff in comparison, with little to no elasticity. These types of ropes are more frequently used for rappelling and rescue.
In order to qualify as climbing equipment, ropes will have to pass UIAA tests that determine the number of falls that the rope can be subjected to, the force of impact it can absorb, and its dynamic elongation.
Climbers will often use chalk to absorb moisture from the hands and improve the grip. This is the same type of chalk used by gymnasts and weight lifters, and it is typically carried in an open chalk bag designed for easy access. To reduce environmental impact, more conscientious climbers will often use chalk that matches the color of the terrain they will be climbing.
A climbing harness is another useful piece of equipment that is used in almost every type of climbing apart from bouldering. They allow you to attach yourself to the rope securely via tie-in points intended specifically for the climbing rope.
Harnesses usually consist of two components: waistbelts and leg loops. Waistbelts are the part of the harness that goes over the hips. These should fit snugly without restricting movement. The leg loops are the parts that go around each leg. Most harnesses allow you to adjust the leg loops as needed or even remove them if necessary.
Carabiners are light metal rings that have spring-loaded gates. These are used to connect the climbing rope to other climbing equipment such as bolts, nuts, and camming devices. Carabiners may also be used by lead climbers to make quickdraws and to attach equipment to gear loops on the harness. Most beginners start out with a locking carabiner that is designed specifically for use with a belay device.
A belay device is a specialized piece of climbing equipment that enables the belayer to control the rope. When used properly, a belay device increases the friction that is necessary for enabling belayers to stop a falling climber. They can also be used to lower an injured climber, pay out the rope as needed by an advancing climber, and to reel in the slack in the rope.
Belay devices come in two basic types: tubular and assisted-braking. Although beginners will rarely have a need for their own belaying device, most opt to purchase one or more of these as they gain more experience.
Climbing protection or a “pro” is used to secure climbing ropes to the rock. They are usually placed in cracks or holes to prevent climbers from falling from a considerable height.
Pros come in many varieties, including cams, chocks, and nuts. In the earliest days of climbing as a sport, climbers typically used pitons as pros. These days, pros usually come in two basic designs: active and passive.
Active pros are characterized by movable parts, such as the springs loaded in camming devices. These types of pros are designed to fit into cracks of different sizes. In contrast, passive pros are made from a single piece and don’t have movable parts. One common example of this type of pro is the Hexcentric nut.
Most beginning climbers will rarely have the need to set anchors or place pros into the rock. However, knowing how to use these pieces of equipment is essential to becoming an accomplished climber.
One other piece of equipment that may be useful if you take up bouldering is a crash pad. These are simply densely packed foam pads that you place at the foot of a rock face to cushion your fall when you jump off. Crash pads aren’t generally used for other types of climbing.
How to get started with rock climbing
Rock climbing is easy enough that almost anyone can get started by simply climbing up the closest available rock face. But climbing safely and efficiently requires more planning and consideration. It is also important to keep a few practices in mind in order to maximize the enjoyment that you derive from the experience and to prevent serious injury.
The basic steps to getting started with rock climbing are:
- Finding a qualified guide
- Deciding on the type of climbing activity you want to do
- Getting the proper equipment
- Deciding on a route
Finding a qualified guide is the first and most important step to getting started as a climber. Although you can attempt some very basic climbs without a guide, it is not advisable to go on higher or more challenging climbs without one. A good guide will instruct you on proper techniques and maneuvers, and correct potential mistakes. They will also help you avoid injury from falls and poor climbing practices.
If you have friends that are experienced climbers, they may be able to serve as your guides for initial climbs. As you get more serious about rock climbing however, it is advisable to hire a certified professional to serve as your guide.
The next step is to decide on the type of climbing you want to do. Your guide should be able to provide suggestions based on your experience level and your goals. We’ve already covered most of the climbing activities in a previous section, so you can simply choose what appeals to you.
Next, put together the necessary climbing equipment, clothes, and accessories. Again, your guide should be able to help you with suggestions on essential equipment to purchase based on the type of climbing you will be doing. If you have decided on indoor climbing in a climbing gym or sports facility, you may even be able to rent some of the equipment that you need.
Finally, decide on the route that you will be taking. If you have opted for indoor climbing, you will obviously be restricted to the pre-arranged route that has been set up in the gym.
If you go for any of the several outdoor climbing options available, there are a lot more routes for you to choose from. Established routes are usually ranked according to difficulty.
In the U.S., routes are ranked by the Yosemite Decimal Rating System, which assigns increasingly levels of difficulty from 5.0 to 5.15. The climbing routes rated from 5.1 to 5.5 are generally considered the easiest and is where most beginners start.
Routes rated from 5.6 to 5.10 are considered intermediate to difficult and are for more experienced climbers. There are also routes rated from 5.11 to 5.15, which are even more difficult and even impossible for even experienced climbers. Routes ranked 5.10 and up may have additional letter designations (“a,” “b,” “c”, etc.) that indicate different degrees of difficulty.
Bouldering employs a different rating system, utilizing the “V” scale. With this system, routes ranked V0 are the easiest, while those ranked V16 are the most difficult.
How to get better at rock climbing
Just as with any other sport or physical activity, the best way to get better at rock climbing is to do it as frequently as possible. No matter how many books you read or how many YouTube tutorial videos you watch, they won’t take the place of practical experience.
Of course, it is important to work with a qualified guide or instructor to learn proper technique and to correct flaws in your climbing methods. Working with a good trainer can speed up your progress exponentially and prevent you from developing poor habits that could hinder your development.
How often should a beginner climb in order to get better at rock climbing? Experts advise beginners to climb up to three times a week at the most. Climbing days should be spread out evenly throughout the week so that there is ample time to recover and heal while becoming accustomed to new climbing methods and body movements. Climbing more days throughout the week or spacing climbing days too closely together will increase the risk of injury and prolong recovery periods.
One way to prevent injury is to alternate between more strenuous climbs and lighter days. After a particularly grueling climb, you may spend the next scheduled session on workouts or developing techniques. This will help you maintain progress while preventing injuries that could take you out of commission for a longer period of time.
How to train for rock climbing
Varying training regimens is a great way to prevent burnout and avoid repetitive stress injury. Rock climbing places significant demands on certain parts of the body, and it may be difficult to recover if they are constantly subjected to the same stresses and strains without ample time to recover.
Experienced climbers know the importance of alternating between activities and varying training regimens. One day could be devoted to speed climbing for example, or trying to surpass a previous height record. The next day could then be devoted to fitness training or cardiovascular routines.
It would also be beneficial to alternate between different climbing styles so you can avoid straining the same muscles and body parts. Changing up your routine also enables you to develop the different muscle groups equally.
Try to devote different days to different types of climbs such as slabs, vertical climbs, and overhangs. Each of these climbs will let you work in specific muscle groups and get you accustomed to developing your grip appropriately according to the demands of the climb.
You will find that some climbs are more difficult than others depending on the size of the holds available. You will also realize that overhangs will require more upper body strength than vertical climbs and slabs, which tend to be more demanding on your thighs and calves.
One other thing worth keeping in mind is that training for rock climbing isn’t always necessarily about pushing yourself to the limit of your strength and endurance with increasingly more difficult climbs. Even experienced climbers incorporate easier climbs into their training routines to encourage themselves to climb more often. This encouragement could be just as beneficial for improving performance as going on increasingly harder climbs.
Another training strategy employed by experienced climbers is focusing more on technique than relying on sheer strength. This can be especially effective when applied to climbs that you can already manage fairly easily. By going on relatively ‘easy’ climbs, you can put more emphasis on developing technique, which will pay off considerably in the long run. This strategy also has the advantage of allowing you to train more efficiently because you aren’t constantly recovering from sore muscles.
Finally, consider installing climbing accessories and equipment in your home or workplace. You don’t have to set up a full rock climbing wall to gain the benefits of extra training. Hangboards and finger and grip trainers are fun as well as useful, and they are the next best thing to having your own climbing gym in your home or office.
Rock climbing can be one of the most rewarding pursuits you can engage in. Go slowly and train with a qualified guide, and you can gain the most benefit from this endlessly fascinating activity.