Types of Rock Climbing Explained

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If there’s one thing climbers could learn from the media coverage of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s climb of the Dawn Wall, it’s that climbing is really hard to explain to non-climbers. Even if you’re a climber, it’s hard to get across the different methods, equipment and lingo involved. So we’ve put together a quick, as-simple-as-possible guide to the basic types of climbing.

Free Soloing

Free soloing is the easiest type of rock climbing to understand: No ropes are involved, and if you fall while climbing, you will fall all the way to the ground. If you climbed trees as a child (or still do), you were technically free soloing.

Example: Alex Honnold is the world’s most famous free soloist. Although he climbs using a rope more often than he free solos, the films you’ve most likely seen about him—such as on “60 Minutes”—are about his free solo climbs.

Free Climbing

Free climbing is the type most climbers do: climbing using your hands and feet to find handholds and footholds in order to move yourself upward on rock. It’s different from free soloing in that you have a rope tied to a harness around your waist, and a belay partner holding the other end of that rope. In case you fall, the rope (in control of the belayer) will catch you.

Free climbing is broken down into two types: sport climbing and traditional, or “trad,” climbing. Trad climbers place cams, chocks and other removable hardware into cracks in the rock to protect themselves from falls. That hardware is known as protection, or simply “pro.” Sport climbers primarily use quick-draws (two carabiners connected by a loop of sewn webbing) to climb routes that have pre-placed bolts for protection (usually on rock faces that are impossible to protect with removable hardware).

Since climbing ropes are usually only 150 to 230 feet long, a long climb has to be broken up into sections, or “pitches.” On belay, the lead climber climbs the pitch first, clipping into pieces of protection along the way. When he or she is safely clipped in at the anchor at the top of the pitch, the second climber follows, belayed with the rope now held by the lead climber.

An example of a multi-pitch route is the Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan. It’s comprised of 30 pitches, each pitch beginning and ending at a set of bolted anchors in the granite. Following the TV or online coverage of the 2015 Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson free climb on the Dawn Wall could be confusing because each climber was trying to lead all the hard pitches of the climb; it wasn’t a straightforward ascent in which one climber leads and the other climber follows..

Example: At a climbing gym, if you’re using a rope whether you’re lead climbing or top roping, you’re free climbing (in the sport climbing category). Almost all single-pitch climbing (like the routes at Kentucky’s Red River Gorge or in Rifle, Colorado) is free climbing.

Aid Climbing

The 2015 free climb wasn’t the first time the Dawn Wall was climbed—Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy Caldwell) put up the first ascent in 1970 as an aid route. Most of El Cap’s major routes have been aid climbs: On difficult sections, aid climbers place chocks, cams or pitons in cracks above them, attach an aider, such as a webbing ladder called an etrier, and then pull themselves upward using the aider instead of pulling on the rock itself.

Example: El Capitan’s most famous climb, The Nose, was established by Warren Harding (with others) in 1958 as an aid climb and is still today most commonly aid climbed. In 1993 Lynn Hill became the first climber to free climb the Nose, and only a handful of very strong climbers have free climbed it since.

Bouldering

Bouldering is simplest form of climbing only climbing shoes, chalk and a “crash pad” to soften and protect landings. Since there are no ropes in bouldering, every fall off the rock is a ground fall. Bouldering routes, or “problems,” are typically very short, requiring a handful of very powerful moves to complete.

Example: Most contemporary climbing gyms have a bouldering section where you can climb even if you don’t have experience with ropes, or if you just want to climb alone.

Deep Water Soloing

Deep water soloing is another form of ropeless climbing, like bouldering, but is performed over a body of water deep enough to safely break a fall. It requires minimal equipment compared to other types of climbing—until you consider you need a boat to access most climbing routes. Most well-known deep water soloing in recent years has been in overseas locations like Spain and Vietnam, but climbers have begun to discover areas in the United States, like Clear Creek near Winslow, Arizona.

Example: In 2013, the first-ever deep-water solo competition, the Psicocomp Masters Series, was held on an artificial wall built over a swimming pool in Park City, Utah.

No matter the type you prefer, climb on.

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