The Different Methods of Climbing
As any non-climber who has started a conversation with a climber will quickly learn, climbing is not a simple sport. It is full of strange jargon and complex grading systems which measure difficulty differently all over the world. This is all further complicated by the fact that there are many different styles of climbing which depend upon the type of gear utilized and the type of terrain ascended.
Understanding what each method of climbing entails is, therefore, an important first step towards understanding the sport as a whole. For this reason, we have compiled this list that breaks down and explains each approach to climbing. Of course, these definitions of climbing methods are generalized in terms of gear and terrain, and within each method, there exist many different styles and subcategories.
Table of Contents
This is the method of climbing most people think of when the picture rock climbing. Free climbing involves ascending vertical rock using one’s hands and feet to move upwards. For protection when free climbing a rope and belay system is used. This system works with gear that is situated periodically along the climb which the rope is attached to as the climber moves upwards. In the case of a fall the rope, the periodic gear, and the belayer work together to safely stop the climber.
There are two systems used to place the gear in free climbing. The system that is used further divides this method into:
Trad Climbing: Trad stands for “traditional” because this is the method of protecting free climbs that came first. When trad climbing the climber places gear, also called protection, in cracks, which is then removed once everyone is done climbing. The most used modern types of protection are cams and nuts.
Sport Climbing: This style of free climbing uses quickdraws clipped into bolts previously drilled into the rock to protect climbs. Quickdraws are pieces of swan webbing with a carabiner on each end. Sport climbs are typical routes that could not have been used with trad gear since bolting protectable cracks has been known to cause controversy in the climbing community.
Free soloing is a type of free climbing, however, it is distinct in that the climber doesn’t use a harness, rope, or belay system. If they were to fall there is nothing to catch them and they would plummet to the ground. For this reason, few climbers push their limits while free soloing. One notable exception is the climber Alex Honnold, who has recently become nationally famous for his free solo of the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
Some free climbs cannot be done with one rope length, which is also known as “pitch” in climbing. For a climb to be single pitch the rope must be double the length of the climb. This is because a climber needs the rope not only to get to the top of a climb but also to get back to the ground. For this reason, some climbs are done in multiple pitches, which is what multi-pitch climbing is.
When climbing a multi-pitch one person leads the rout, then sets up a belay for above. The second person then follows the first on a top rope. This process is then repeated as many times as is needed to get to the top. On particularly long or difficult routes it’s possible for climbers to spend multiple days on a multi-pitch climb.
Top roping is climbing with a rope running above the climber to anchors and then back done to the belayer. This is opposed to sport or trad climbing, where the rope is clipped into the necessary protection as one climbs. Since top ropers never climb above their protection the falls they take are much smaller. Top roping is typically safer as well.
Unlike free climbing, aid climbing involves pulling on gear to move upwards. The gear is placed in cracks above the climber and then moves upwards as the climber moves upwards. Aid climbing is typically used as a means to ascend big walls. For example, most of the famous big wall free climbs in Yosemite where first ascended as aid climbs, and even today this is how the majority of people get up these routes.
Bouldering is a form of climbing that takes place closer to the ground. Unsurprising these routes ascend boulders, which range in height from less than ten feet to about thirty. The climbs in bouldering, also called “problems”, are protected with crash pads, which are portable mats meant to soften the landing. For dangerous or tall boulders it is also important to have spotters who will move the pads and push a climber into a pad in the case of a fall.
The ascend of frozen water is known as ice climbing. This ice can be permanent, such as a glacier, or seasonal, such as a waterfall. To ascend ice the climber uses an ice tool in each hand crampons on their feet. Ice skews which are attached to quickdraws are placed for protection, although falls while ice climbing is quite dangerous and considered a worst-case scenario.
Mixed climbing involves moving over both ice and rock in the same push. Ice tools crampons are used on the rock as well as the ice in this method of climbing. The protection for these climbs is varied, with ice skews used in some areas, and cams and nuts elsewhere. Some mixed climbs even use bolts in the same style as sport climbs.
Alpine climbing can utilize any of the methods outlined above, however, the climbing takes place in an alpine environment. The extremity of this environment means that the climber must have mountaineering skills as well as technical climbing skills. Alpine climbing also often also involves multiple days in the backcountry.
With the proliferation of climbing gyms, there are many new climbers on the scene who only ascend plastic. For this reason, gym climbing has been included on this list. Gym climbs are styled as either top rope and sport free climbs, or bouldering problems. The holds are made of plastic and placed on the way in a way that is aimed to mimic rock features. Gym climbing has an unquestionably distinct style though. It is also easier and safe.