What is rock climbing?

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Photo: Mikey Bean

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 pre-defined route without falling. 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 sport 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.

What is indoor climbing?

Indoor climbing refers to any type of rock climbing that occurs within the confines of a building or other structure, usually on specially constructed fake rock walls. This allows climbers to climb no matter the time of day or condition of weather. Indoor climbing is often used for improving climbing skills and techniques, as well as for general exercise.

Types of Rock Climbing

Top-Roping

Top-roping is a great entry point into roped rock climbing. Falls are seldom serious because the rope always does its job of catching you (when your partner is handling it properly), minimizing risk of injury. Traditional top-roping requires that another person assists you as you climb, the art of belaying. This extra man is responsible for feeding you rope and lowering you as you descend your route, using a friction device such as an ATC or Gri-Gri to do so. You’ll also observe in a number of recreational facilities (such as River Rock) something called an auto-belay a device that acts as an anchor at the top of the route and serves to catch you if you fall. In the end, top-roping is a great way for beginners to get used to rock-climbing, but it can also be a preferred way for veterans to learn and practice a new route.

Lead/Sport Climbing

This style of climbing is extremely versatile, offering a range of difficulties as well as a range of route-lengths. Overall, though, lead and sport climbers predominantly focus on the moves and techniques they use to get to their destination rather than the destination itself. In lead and sport climbing, falling is expected and planned for accordingly. A climber working on a difficult route may fall dozens of times before he finally accomplishes it. The use of rope in lead and sport climbing differs slightly from top-roping, though, in that there are a number of pre-fixed anchors bolted into a wall or crag. These anchors follow the path of the pre-planned route from the beginning all the way to the end. It is the responsibility of the climber to loop her rope through carabiner systems called quickdraws attached to each of the bolted anchors as she sends the rock. Don’t forget – if you go lead or sport climbing, you’ll need a partner belaying you; meaning feed you rope, catch your fall, and lower you down.

Traditional Climbing

Where sport climbing focuses on the physical intensity of the journey itself, traditional climbing is all about the holistic experience and the mental game that accompanies these climbs. Routes sent traditionally do not have fixed anchors permanently bolted into the wall/crag. Instead, the climber is responsible for inserting protection into cracks in the rock. Attached to each protection piece is a sling and carabiner used to keep a climber secured to the wall. As you can probably imagine, traditional climbing also involves the added challenge of carrying all of this essential gear along with you as you climb. Just as with top-roping and sport climbing, though, traditional climbers need a belay partner to feed them rope and lower them back down.

Big Wall Climbing

While not the most common form of climbing, big wall climbing is arguably the most notorious. Think… traditional climbing multiplied exponentially. Requiring ascents
of at least 1500 feet, these routes often take several days to send, forcing daring climbers to spend nights on portaledges hanging hundreds, if not thousands, of feet above the ground. California’s Yosemite Valley is an international mecca for this style of climbing, heralding intrepid climbers from all around the globe. Big wall climbs are not for the faint of heart – any kind of climbing, because of gravity, is dangerous in its very nature, but big wall climbs are certainly the most perilous. Of course, proper precautions can always be made to keep climbers safe – to a certain extent. In order to make all the proper precautions, however, climbers will be required to invest in proper gear (and a lot of it), making big wall climbing far more expensive than its less-intensive counterparts.

Bouldering

There are two forms of climbing that involve no rope at all, and bouldering is by far the safer and, consequently, more popular of the two (the other is free-soloing). With routes rarely more than fifteen feet high, bouldering is essentially a scaled-down version of sport climbing. That is, repeated falling is expected, and the climb is all about the moves and technique. Bouldering, aside from being relatively safe, is popular for another reason it’s far less expensive than other forms of climbing because it involves minimal gear. If you’re bouldering indoors, then all you need is proper athletic clothes, climbing shoes, and a chalk bag. Outdoors, you’ll also need some crash pads as well. In the end, though, it’s ultimately just you and the rock – no rope to help (or hinder). Also like sport climbing, bouldering can be very competitive. Boulder problems are graded according to difficulty. Around here, you’ll most commonly see bouldering routes graded according to the V system. The grading system is subjective and usually differs from person to person, but (generally) beginners’ routes range from VB to V2, intermediate problems most often fall in the V3-V4 range, and advanced problems are V5 and above. But to give you some further perspective, the world’s best boulderers climb in the V14 and above range, problems that are each exponentially more difficult than a V5. Ultimately, each progressive grade is significantly more difficult than its predecessor, and the more difficult the grade, the longer it takes before a climber can progress to the next one. Additionally, climbing on rugged rock outside can make a difficult route even more difficult because of the physical wear and tear it induces on your fingers.

Recommended Gear

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Belay Device

(ATC/Gri-Gri)

ATCs are your standard belay devices, using simple friction to do the task at hand. A Gri-Gri has a spring-loaded self-locking feature, and thus requires a bit more expertise to handle. They are also much more expensive than ATCs, but they are definitely useful for working with a climber struggling to get past a route’s crux. Average price for an ATC ranges from $15-35. Average price for a Gri-Gri is $80-90.

Carabiners

These are those versatile metal binding links that are most commonly used in the belaying process and carrying gear up a wall on a longer ascent. Not just any carabiner will work for climbing, however. What you need for top-roping or sport climbing is a locking D-ring carabiner. Average price for one ranges from $8-$20.

Quickdraw

Cousins of the carabiner, quickdraws are used in sport climbing. They are essentially two carabiners coupled together by sewn webbing. For most climbs, you’ll need a few more than a dozen. For taller crags, you may need two dozen. Average price for one ranges from $10-$25.

Climbing Shoes

Don’t expect to get far climbing barefoot, in sandals, or in your sneakers. You need
some real climbing shoes if you’re serious about climbing. Each is made for a different purpose and style, but all do the job of helping your feet find those tiny outcrops on the crag. Average prices usually range anywhere between $60-$120.

Chalk

Not everyone uses chalk, but many do – especially sport climbers and boulderers. It definitely comes
in handy, even if it can get kind of messy. The price of chalk depends on the amount you get, but it’s very rarely more than $15.

Chalk Bag

It’s hard to use chalk if you don’t have something to store it in while you’re climbing. These little bags dangle from your waist and allow easy hand entry while you’re on the wall. Prices commonly range from $15-$30.

Harness

This will secure you to your rope as well as provide you carrying loops from which you can attach various gear for those longer ascents. Average price ranges from $40-$75.

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Rope

Make sure it’s UIAA-rated and certified specifically for rock climbing. Try to get either a 10.5mm or 11mm cord, as they last longer than their thinner counterparts. Don’t hesitate to splurge on this particular piece of equipment; rope is quite literally your lifeline in the dangerous sport of rock climbing. Sometimes the prices seem steep, but the investment is well worth it. Prices for climbing rope vary with length and thickness. Almost all rope is upwards of $120.

Helmet

There are only a few things worse than cracking your head open while you’re trying to enjoy one of life’s greatest, simplest pleasures. Proceed without a helmet at your own discretion. Prices range from $50-$100.

Rope Bag

A carrying case for your rope protects that investment you so conscientiously made. Most range in price from $20-$40, but you probably have bags laying around already that are just waiting to be put to use.

Climbing Terms

Aid Climbing

climbing while adding devices to a rock face in order to assist a climber in her ascent

Anchor

a natural or artificial structure that holds the rope used for belaying in position

Belay

a rope setup worked by a climber’s partner to catch the climber when he falls or lower him down after he finishes his ascent

Beta

advice (not always freely given or accepted) on how to complete a route or section of a route

Bolt

a permanent form of protection that is drilled into a rock, to which carabiners can attach

Bump

the act of quickly moving a hand or foot from one temporarily useful hold to another

Cam

a temporary, spring-loaded form of protection that contracts to fit into a crevice and then expands once inside to stay securely in position

Carabiner

(Biner) a metal coupling link with a safety closure that can open and close, used to hold gear or as anchors for belaying

Campus

climbing without using your legs or feet

Chock

a mechanical device to be wedged into crevices as an anchor

Crimp

a technique in which a climber presses her fingertips flat on the small surface of a hold and raises her knuckles, often also placing her thumb over the top of her index finger and partially over her middle finger

Dyno

the act of jumping from one hold to the next, losing all contact with the rock while in mid-jump

Figure 8

a knot used to secure a climber’s harness to the belay rope

Flag

the act of holding the leg out to the side in order to maintain balance in a certain position on the wall

Flash

to successfully send a route on the first attempt after having received some kind of beta

Hook

the act of hooking the heel or toes around another hold in order to provide greater balance or support

Jug

a large, easy-to-grab hold

Match

the act of using both hands or feet on a single hold

On-Sight

to successfully send a route on the first attempt without having received any prior advice (beta)

Pitch

the portion of a climb between two belay points

Red-Point

to complete while placing protection a route after many unsuccessful attempts

Send

to cleanly complete a route

Sit-Start

to begin a climb while sitting on the ground

Spot

the act of waiting in preparedness beneath a boulderer to ease his fall

Top-Out

the act of completing a route by ascending over the top of the structure being climbed

Traverse

to climb in a horizontal direction