Climbing 101: Getting into Rock Climbing
Your friend just dragged you to the climbing gym where you schlepped your way up some chunks of plastic.
Now you’re hooked, and already looking forward to taking your new love outside. When you got home, you and your raw, painful hands typed “rock climbing” into the Google machine and you immediately got overwhelmed. Don’t worry; we’ve all been there. There are so many styles of climbing out there, not to mention so much lingo that it’s easy to get lost. Below you’ll find a breakdown to get you started.
Climbing without a Rope
Backcountry Employees Diana Jenson and Adam Wagner. Photo: Re Wikstrom
Bouldering started out as a down-day form of training for the cruxes, or most difficult moves, on larger roped ascents, but has since become a sport in itself. It’s the least gear-intensive style of climbing and is characterized by short but difficult routes called “problems,” where you’re low enough to the ground that a rope doesn’t need to be used to arrest a fall. Bouldering places a strong emphasis on strength and technique.
Highballs take bouldering to the next level. Instead of problems topping out at a height low enough to the ground that you can fall on a couple of friends and crash pads and be relatively OK, highball problems can be somewhere between 15 and 30 feet high. A fall can mean serious injury or worse, so it’s not something you should attempt unless you’re a strong and experienced climber willing to take on the risk.
It’s what that Alex Honnold guy does. Free soloing involves climbing rope-less up routes that are high enough to require the use of ropes. Any fall can be a fatal one. As you can imagine, free soloing is for a certain kind of person. Mind and body strength, as well as overall climbing technique, need to be at all-time highs because, well, your life depends on it.
Climbing with a Rope
There are several styles of climbing that use ropes and various types of protection—fixed or removable devices—that keep you and your climbing partner from hitting the ground. These styles of climbing are Top Rope, Sport, Trad, Aid/Bigwall, Alpine, Ice, and Mixed.
When getting into roped climbing, it’s highly recommended that you take a class (many gyms have these), hire a guide, or seek instruction from an expert climber in order to properly learn belay, knot tying, and, in more advanced climbing, lead and anchor building techniques.
Top Rope (TR)
Backcountry Employee Adam Wagner. Photo: Re Wikstrom
If you feel like getting some air under your feet, top roping is where you should start. Top rope climbing involves fixing a rope to the top of a climbing route, either by having someone lead climb to the top or hike around to the top of the rock face. The rope is threaded through an anchor and both ends of the rope run down to the ground. Just like in the gym, you’re attached to one end, and your belay partner has the other routed through a belay device. It’s the simplest and one of the safest forms of roped climbing.
The great thing about top roping is you can get exposed to climbing at heights without immediately having to deal with the long fall risks, large gear expenditures, and additional skills that are present in the more advanced climbing styles.
Lead Climbing and Pitches
Pace Measom. Photo: Re Wikstrom
The next progression from top roping, if you’re still cool with heights and willing to take on the risk of longer falls, is lead climbing. While top roping requires the rope to be set at the top of the route before anyone climbs, lead climbing is the process of climbing a route in order to set the rope at the top. Leading allows you to climb more difficult, overhanging routes, routes whose top anchor cannot be accessed from above, and routes that are longer than the length of the rope available, by breaking them up into pitches.
Pitches vary in length, but are typically between 25 and 35 meters long, which allows you to rappel the route with a 60-meter or 70-meter rope.
Leading a single-pitch route is relatively straightforward, but it still requires a lot of practice and knowledge of clipping protection, clipping and/or building an anchor, route cleaning, and rappelling. As you move up to multi-pitch routes, things get more complicated, requiring additional skills like knowing how to top-belay, swing leads, link pitches, route-find, and even self-rescue.
Backcountry Employee Diana Jenson. Photo: Re Wikstrom
Sport is the most basic form of lead climbing. It takes the type of moves, strength and technique you develop while bouldering, adds an endurance requirement to the mix, and brings you into the vertical world.
You can recognize a sport route by spotting small metal hangers on a rock wall that make up a rough line to an anchor. These are called bolts. On lead, you will take a quickdraw (2 carabiners connected by a sling called a dogbone), clip one end to the bolt, and clip the rope through the other end. Once clipped, assuming a proper belay and clipping technique, you’ll be caught by the bolt you’re climbing above if you fall.
Besides knowing how to belay, sport climbing also requires experience correctly clipping bolts, and cleaning routes. Cleaning is the process of removing all of the gear the climber placed while leading the route, so no gear gets left behind.
Backcountry Employees Alex Quitiquit and Adam Wagner. Photo: Re Wikstrom
Instead of clipping bolts that are already drilled into the rock, trad requires you to place your own protection, like nuts and cams, as you climb.
Unlike sport, top rope, and bouldering, which generally feature positive holds on the main face of the rock, trad routes typically follow cracks in the rock.
Crack climbing involves a technique called “jamming” where, depending on the width of the crack, you jam your fingers, hands, fists and arms into the crack to hold yourself up. Jamming may seem very foreign and counterintuitive when you first start out, but let me tell you, when you come across your first perfect hand crack, you’ll begin to question why you didn’t start climbing trad sooner.
Since the sizes of cracks can vary widely, from fingers to fists to offwidths and chimneys that you can fit whole body parts in, nuts and cams come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. A trad leader needs to carry a selection of gear on a climb, and select which piece of gear will fit best on each placement. A climber’s collection of nuts and cams is called a “rack.” Depending on where you climb a rack could be just a few cams and set of nuts, to dozens of cams with multiples of each size.
Climbing trad builds on all of the skills like belaying and clipping bolts that you’ve picked up climbing sport and top rope routes. In addition, you’ll want to be very competent placing and cleaning trad gear, building gear anchors, and route-finding before your first lead.
Aid & Big Wall Climbing
Photo: Backcountry Community Member Reed
Aid climbing is one of the most technically complicated and gear-intensive things you can do on a rock wall. Unlike sport, trad, and top roping, aid is not considered free climbing. Instead of going free by relying on your hands and feet to make your way to the top, aid climbing involves the use of webbing ladders that are hung from protection, and then climbed, to make vertical progress. It generally involves a lot of problem solving, the use of multiple ropes, hauling systems, and other advanced rigging techniques.
Although free climbing has overshadowed aid, it’s still the ideal way to ascend steep pitches of rock that are too difficult to send freely, especially on long big wall routes where energy needs to be conserved.
Big walls add some serious adventure to the sport. Instead of climbing a single pitch, or even a five-pitch route that can take several hours to finish, big wall routes are like those found on El Cap in Yosemite: 20-30 pitches long, which could take the average climber several days to complete. You eat, sleep, and take care of other daily functions with hundreds of feet of air below your feet.
Big walls are generally completed using a combination of trad and aid climbing, although many classic big wall aid routes like the The Nose can be completely free-climbed at high grades.
Photo: Backcountry Community Member Brian Quninif
Mixed climbing is an advanced style that combines rock and ice climbing. Ice tools and crampons are used to ascend both rock and ice, and a variety of nuts, cams, ice screws and bolts are used as protection, depending on the terrain. It’s a very niche style of climbing, but if you have dreams of bagging alpine peaks in the middle of winter, or want to ice climb in the early season before routes completely fill in, it’s a good idea to be a confident mixed climber.
Photo: Tommy Chandler
Alpine climbing takes everything you learned so far climbing sport, trad, aid, and even ice and mixed routes, and puts them all together. Alpine routes are more expedition-style endeavors in that they don’t generally see much traffic. There can be fragile rock, a lack of route beta, missing or no set belays, among other obstacles. Even though many alpine routes have relatively easy grades, it’s very important to not only be a competent climber, but also an experienced mountain-traveler before heading into the alpine, as these routes are exposed to and greatly affected by weather.
Although this just barely scratches the surface of the vast sport of climbing, hopefully you’ve got a better idea of how the different disciplines vary from one another, and where you should start. If you still have questions about climbing, feel free to connect with one of our Gearheads.