A few months ago, I decided to invest in a membership at my local climbing gym. I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t really done any climbing before apart from a few half-assed classes in eighth grade that I did mostly just to mess around with my friends. Needless to say, I didn’t progress very far. This time was different. This time I was paying for it. I had to get serious. So begins my climbing journey. I walked into the climbing gym and was immediately awed(not to mention intimidated) by climbers doing these crazy hard routes, putting their bodies into very abnormal, gravity-defying positions in order to complete the routes. ‘How long would it take me to reach their level?’ I thought to myself. ‘How long would it take me to put my own body into those gravity-defying moves and how much core strength would I need for stuff like that?’ ‘Probably way too much time and way too much core strength.’ I realized with a sigh. With that said, I put on my weird rubbery climbing shoes, dosed my hands in chalk, and started climbing the easiest routes I could find.
Starting a new skill is always the hardest at the beginning and this was no exception. The so-called ‘easy’ routes were, surprise surprise, actually not that easy. The first few sessions were extremely hard on both my body and my fingers(seriously those blisters were no joke) and I only managed to get one or two of the most basic routes down. Not bad, but not great either.
I stuck with it though and remained consistent, putting in the hours, three times a week. In just a few short weeks of bouldering, I was already starting to notice significant progress. I could now ‘send’ (climber lingo for complete a route) climbing routes that just a few weeks ago were a serious struggle for me. The best part was that these sends were actually getting easier and easier each session. Soon I was scurrying up the wall in seconds. It felt amazing! My fingers adapted as well, going from soft, blistered hands to strong, hardened climbing machines. I was hooked. Ever since then I have been living and breathing climbing. From watching an excessive amount of climbing videos online, to following the top dogs in the climbing world on socials, to dreaming about which route I was gonna send in my next session. I fell in love with the sport, through and through.
This post will dive into the fascinating world of climbing and will cover various aspects of the sport such as the history of the sport, the different styles and disciplines in climbing, the gear you will need in these different disciplines of climbing, and some useful resources that you can use to get you started on your own climbing journey.
A Brief History of Climbing
Rock Climbing naturally was orginated in the pastime of mountaineering. The first recorded mountaineer was a man, Antoine de Ville, who was ordered by King France’s Charles VIII of France to summit Mount Aiguille in the French Prealps in 1492. The climb was a technically complex climb, involving ropes and ladders, and is generally considered the starting point of what would become known as mountaineering. Another event of note was the first ascent of Mont Blanc by two Frenchmen, Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat in 1786. These men summited the mountain without ropes or axes, a true accomplishment to this day. This was regarded as the beginning of modern mountaineering era.
From there, mountaineering spread across Europe, leading to a race for the summit of the most prominent mountains in Europe. It wasn’t until the 18800s that people began to view rock climbing as a thing by itself. The sport independently arose in Great Britain, Germany, and Italy. It quickly spread elsewhere in Europe and America. The early 1900s saw an abundance of new climbing technologies and techniques that focused on safety for the climber. These technologies and techniques reached the United States in the ’20s. At this time a form of climbing called Aid Climbing was prominent. As the name suggests, this means climbing by artificial means. The climber hammers a metal peg into a crack in the rock and attaches nylon rungs which he or she can then ascend like a ladder, before repeating the process.
Climbing began to gain popularity in the United States in the 1950s when a small group of climbers began competing to be the first to climb the big walls of Yosemite Valley. Two names were of significant importance during this time, Royal Robbins, who lead a party to become the first people to climb the face of Half Dome, and Warren Harding, who became the first person to ascend ‘The Nose’ of El Capitan, one of the most iconic routes in the entire world. These two men disagreed on climbing ethics. Harding believed in doing whatever was necessary to ascend the rock—Robbins, on the other hand, advocated “clean climbing”, a style of climbing that leaves as little gear in the rock as possible. Robbins’ clean climbing ideals eventually won and are still accepted as the proper way to climb today.
The 70s saw a new era of climbing when a group of climbers known as the ‘Stonemastors’ began to attempt first ascents of all the major routes on Half Dome and El Capitan using a new technique called ‘free climbing’ inspired by the ideals of Royal Robbins. This involves climbing using your own strength only, through the expert placing of hands and feet. Equipment is still used, but only as a safety measure, with a rope and harness preventing climbers from falling to their deaths. This evolved into Trad Climbing and Sport Climbing(see below for details). It took until 1993 for Lynn Hill to become the first person, male or female, to free climb ‘The Nose’. This is considered one of the most impressive feats in climbing history, one that has only been repeated a handful of times.
From this point onwards climbing has kept evolving at a steady pace and recently has exploded in popularity due to an increased number of climbing gyms being made all around the world. Competition climbing has grown greatly in popularity. Now for the first time, in 2021, climbing reached the biggest stage for sport in the world, The Olympic Games, and this has brought and will continue to bring climbing to a wider global audience. This I believe will spark an entirely new generation of climbing. It’s only upwards from here.
Bouldering is what I was referring to in the first paragraph. It has been my latest obsession of note. Climbing has seen a huge increase in popularity in recent years, mostly due to more and more bouldering gyms popping up all over the place. Bouldering is a discipline of climbing with very low risk involved. It is low to the ground and has thick mats on the floor to catch you when you fall so you don’t get injured. This allows you to do very technical moves in a safe environment. Once you have mastered these moves in the bouldering gym, you can then take them outdoors with confidence in your abilities. Bouldering can be done both outdoors and indoors but the nice thing about indoor bouldering is that it is not weather dependent. You can go climbing during rain, wind or even snow. This means that you can be consistently climbing and seeing improvement all year round. It’s also pretty simple to get started in bouldering and you don’t need much gear apart from some climbing shoes(most bouldering gyms offer rental shoes for an affordable price) and a chalk bag. Another great thing about joining a climbing gym is that you get to climb with a community of like-minded individuals. These guys and gals will be your help when you can’t do a problem you are working on, your motivation when you are in the process of sending a route, and your opponents when you need some friendly competition to help improve your climbing. Bouldering is a very fun and social way to get started in the climbing world with low costs and minimal gear.
2. Top-Rope Climbing
So you have become pretty adept at those boulder problems in the gym. Top-Roping is next up on your climbing progression journey. Top-Roping requires two people, a climber, and a belayer. The belayer is the person on the ground that keeps you safe when climbing. They control your slack, or tension, on the rope so that you can climb at your level of comfort. More slack = a harder climb, less slack = an easier climb. With top-rope climbing, the climber guides the rope upward to a pulley under the ceiling(aka lead climbing). From there, the rope is then dragged all the way down to the belayer on the ground who will push the rope through a belay device. This whole process is only to be attempted by an experienced lead climber, so you won’t have to worry about this if you are starting out. The climber attempting the route will then attach the rope to their harness and climb their way up towards the ceiling and complete the route. From here the climber will abseil down to the ground, the speed controlled by the belayer on the ground. A loose rope is always kept under tension to ensure that the belayer can react quickly in the event of a fall. Thanks to the type of securing, this type of climbing is very safe. With the rope and climbing harness absorbing the impulse, the fall distance is minimal. When a rope is heavily pulled in a climbing hall, the pulleys have built-in stoppers that, like the safety belts in cars, automatically stop the rope. Top-Roping is a great way to test out your bouldering skills in a much longer format than a traditional bouldering route.
3. Lead Climbing
Lead Climbing actually incorporates two different styles of climbing, Sport Climbing, and Trad/Traditional Climbing. In both Sport and Trad climbing, you clip into quickdraws as you go up the route. The difference is that sport climbing uses permanent bolts and trad uses removable cams and nuts. When placed properly, they can be just as strong as bolts.
Sport Climbing involves climbing without a rope from above like in Top-Roping. Fortunately, you take the rope and hook it into the wall using anchors positioned regularly along the way. Typically there is a carabiner (or quickdraw) on the anchor to which the rope can be clipped. Usually, these anchors have already been firmly placed in the rock and drilled into it. The routes are categorized based on difficulty levels, so you will know what to expect. The climber is then secured by the belayer—as in a climbing hall. A rope runs from the person securing the rope(the belayer) to the climber through the anchor points. The focus of sport climbing is more on the sporting aspects such as endurance, strength, and technique since you don’t have to worry about anchor placements, and the route is determined by the anchor placement. It’s also a great way to relax as well as enjoy the surroundings!
Trad Climbing is the same as Sport Climbing except that instead of drilling permanent bolts into the wall, you use your own anchors made of cams and nuts and then you remove them when you finish your climbing session. The aim of Trad climbers is to preserve the natural rock and ‘Leave No Trace” at the spots they climb at. As you can imagine, setting your own anchors is riskier than fixing a solid bolt in the stone. Therefore, traditional climbing is more exciting, but it is also more dangerous since you are totally dependent on your equipment and anchors, which you must make yourself. For this reason, Sport Climbing is a lot more popular than Trad. Another downside to Trad climbing is that you have to carry up all your cams and nuts when you climb up which adds a lot of weight. Not the best thing when you are putting your all into sending a route and need to be as lightweight as possible. I don’t know if Trad is for me, but hey, some climbers swear by it.
4. Multi-Pitch Climbing
Multi-pitch climbing allows you to climb higher than one rope length in a single climb. Such routes require a specific strategy for climbing further at the end of the rope. Changing the role between the climber and belayer is the most common method. After almost reaching the end of the rope’s range, the climber climbs back a few steps, so the last anchor is higher up. The lower climbing partner then climbs up, past the new belayer, and continues as far as the rope will allow. That’s how it goes until you reach the top. There is always a break in between. You can climb multi-pitch routes either traditionally or by using fixed anchors.
Ice-Climbing is exactly as the name suggests, climbing on walls of ice instead of rock. Ice Climbers generally climb frozen waterfalls or glaciers and use equipment very similar to rock climbing(helmets, harnesses, rope, etc.) with the addition of crampons(spikes on shoes) and ice axes for support and ascending. It goes without saying that ice-climbing is an extremely dangerous discipline. The ice has to be checked thoroughly before doing an ascent and this sport should never be attempted alone. For securing, ice screws are used. These are long screws with anchors at the end. Due to their size and need for sufficient support, they are hollow from the inside and made of light materials. Recently Ice-climbing has entered the competition world. Climbers have to ascend pre-set routes that combine traditional rock climbing elements and giant blocks of ice. These ice blocks require very specific techniques to overcome, using ice axes to pivot and pull the climber up the route. It honestly is a pretty interesting sport to watch I must say.
6. Mountaineering / Alpine Climbing
Mountaineering is an umbrella term that uses ice-climbing, hiking, scrambling, and rock-climbing techniques to summit mountains. These summits are extremely strenous and potentially dangerous so they require detailed planning beforehand. There are many different types of climbing, depending on the mountain. With lead climbing, securing is generally the same as it is with multi-pitch climbing. The routes of such multi-rope climbing can also be climbed by a team of three. There are normally two half ropes, so the leader is connected to both ropes, and the two climbers following are connected to one rope each. The descent can be accomplished via hiking routes or via abseiling/rappelling. If you want to test out various different climbing skills in one go, mountaineering is the discipline for you.
Free-Soloing is the most extreme form of climbing there is. This discipline is only ever attempted by an elite group of crazies who are willing to put their lives on the line for the thrill of climbing a route completely untethered. No Ropes, No Safety Equipment, just you, your mental fortitude, and the wall. Free-Soloists are often viewed in one of two ways in the climbing world. 1. They are seen as extreme thrillseekers with an unquenchable need for a new level of adrenaline high that they can’t get from normal climbing. 2. They are seen as purists, taking climbing back to its routes, forming the ultimate bond between man and nature, and walking the extremely fine line between life and death.
If you want to dive deeper into the world of free-soloing, I highly recommend you watch the documentary Free Solo. It’s probably the most popular climbing film to ever be made but that’s for good reason. It really tells an incredible story of Alex Honnold’s journey to pursue the ultimate adventure, the adventure of a lifetime. Both the storytelling and filmmaking are brilliantly done. There’s a reason why this film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Do you want to experience want it feels like to climb without ropes and want something a bit more intense than bouldering but aren’t prepared to risk life and limb to do a free-solo? Enter, Deep-Water Soloing. Deep-Water Soloing is a newer discipline of climbing that gives you the thrills of free-soloing but removes the risk. All you need to do is find an amazing route overhanging a very deep body of water. This is normally done over seaside cliffs or rivers but recently climbing competitions have started setting up routes over deep pools like the ones used in Olympic diving.
There you have it. Your ultimate beginner guide to the world of climbing. Climbing has a long, rich history and has developed into many different disciplines and styles from Ice-climbing to bouldering to free-soloing. You’ve heard all the info, now all you have left to do is to sign up for a gym membership at a climbing gym near you and start your climbing journey for yourself.
– Chase The Adventure –
Useful Climbing Resources
For Useful Climbing Training Plans, Follow Lattice Training on Youtube
For Tons of Fun Climbing related content, Follow Magnus Midtbo on Youtube
Dive into the world of one of the best climbers in the world, Follow Adam Ondra on Youtube
For Daily Updates on Everything Climbing, Follow EpicTV Climbing Daily
Sources I used for this Post