Climbing is the process of moving, generally upward, on rock, ice or mountains. Beyond this basic definition, it becomes more specific depending on the style, the objective, and the size of the piece of rock being climbed. Below is an outline of the more specific styles of climbing involved.
If all you knew about rock climbing and mountaineering was from looking at magazines or reading books like ‘Into Thin Air’ or ‘Freedom of the Hills’, you might conclude that all climbers are crazy. The reality is, that many sane relatively fit, yet otherwise unremarkable people go climbing and mountaineering every year. Their goals can vary greatly, but chances are they have one thing in common, the desire to enjoy themselves and get home safely at the end of the day.
What are the different types of Climbing?
Bouldering is done both outdoor and indoor on rock faces, boulders, buildings (buildering), and other surfaces close to the ground. It is extremely popular with all levels of climbers for a number of reasons. It allows you to focus all your strength and technique on climbing a particular boulder problem, usually without the fear of falling far or dealing with ropes or rock protection, which can sap your strength and concentration.
Without the need for much climbing gear to try it (climbing shoes, chalk bag, and a crash pad), you can push yourself or learn new climbing techniques in relative safety. Although you are usually close to the ground, the risk of injury is still present and it may be useful to have a couple of climbing friends who can act as spotters (to catch your fall) on the awkward problems or where the landing is hazardous.
Indoor Climbing (also known as gym climbing)
Much of the boom in climbing's popularity over the last few decades is due to the proliferation of artificial "climbing walls" and gyms built around a series of these walls. Indoor rock climbing is a great way to get started as a climber and a harness, chalk bag and a pair of climbing shoes are all the gear you need to participate. Reputable rock gyms go to great lengths to make things fun, safe, and easy for beginners. With climbing walls having "top-rope" set-ups to minimize risk, and a variety of climbing routes to choose from, it is easy for you to progress at your own speed.
Most climbing gyms have instructional courses and before they let you use the facilities first-timers must pass a simple "belay test". For some people, climbing indoors is as adventurous as they ever want to get, while experienced climbers can use them to hone their strength and skill despite bad weather or lack of daylight.
Sport climbing involves climbing routes that already have anchors affixed in the form of ring bolts or carrot bolts to the rock to which you can attach your rope. This allows the climber to concentrate more on the gymnastic movement required to complete a climb and less on placing protective pieces to prevent a fall. Sport climbing will require you to carry lightweight snap gate carabiners with nylon connectors called "quickdraws". Quickdraws are clipped through the ring bolts or bolt plates (which you will also need to take up with you in the case of carrot bolts) at one end and the rope is clipped through the other. This in conjunction with an effective belay protects you from falling too far.
Sport climbs can range from easy routes which give the indoor climbers a feel for the exposure of climbing on real rock, without the inherent difficulty of placing protection, to unbelievably difficult "problems" where incredible effort, strength, and technique is necessary to move from one improbable hold to the next.
Since this style predates both climbing gyms and sport climbs, this kind of climbing is euphemistically known as "trad" (for traditional) climbing. As well as carrying a rope and quick-draws, you also require special gear called "rock protection" or "pro". These usually metallic devices, expand, twist, or wedge into cracks or holes in the rock, and, provided they are securely placed in sound rock, are fed through carabiners or slings attached to the climbing rope. The combination of rope and protection will "catch" a lead climber in the event of a fall.
Traditional climbing is more adventurous than sport climbing, in that you don't simply follow a line of bolts to the top you must find and follow the route, finding places to put protection as you go. Although routes may vary in technical difficulty, (generally easier trad routes are more prolific than easier sport routes) a greater level of experience and knowledge of how to safely place effective, and efficient protection is required. As the climber places his or her own protection it is definitely more gear intensive, and therefore more costly.
Aid climbing is one of the earliest of all rock climbing techniques. Aid climbing is an integral part of big wall climbing, that is, climbing a wall that often requires more than a day to climb, and therefore requires sleeping on natural ledges or hauling a portable ledge up the wall with you. Big wall routes are usually long, grueling, and risky. Because they cannot be top-roped, climbers must bring large amounts of climbing gear with them to anchor themselves to the rock as they climb.
Originally, aid climbers would drive iron, and later, steel, pitons into weaknesses in the rock, clip a ladder-like device called an étrier to the piton, and stand up to do it again. This need to pound pins has evolved into "clean aid". This evolution has occurred because of the scarring, cost, and effort caused by the continual hammering in and removal of pitons. Aid climbing requires the standard equipment of the rock climber’s rack, as well as some specialised aid climbing gear.
Giant, multi-pitch wall climbs require strength, endurance, mental toughness, and expert rope skills, as well as a tremendous amount of equipment of a more specialized nature.
Ice Climbing & Mixed Climbing
Snow and ice are changing environments that make climbing challenging and exciting. It is an environment in which mountaineers and sport climbers enjoy everything from moderate-angle walks up glaciers to the vertical challenge of frozen waterfalls and fierce, wind-whipped, snow-covered faces. Ice climbing provides an outlet for those who like to suffer and know fear.
Ice is extremely slippery and cold to the touch and as a result, ice climbing requires much different gear and technique than rock climbing. Climbers use sharply pointed ice tools and crampons, which become extensions of the climber's hands and feet. Because of the temperatures and dangers associated with ice, warm clothing, and a helmet are essential. Footwear varies from alpine touring ski boots when starting out, to a pair of plastic or leather mountaineering boots, just as long as they are warm, stiff, and comfortable.
The rope systems can be the same as those used for rock climbing, as can the carabiners and slings, but the climb is protected by using ice screws (hollow metal tubes that are screwed into the ice). Recently, the pursuit of harder ice routes has led to climbs that are barely formed or do not make a continuous path to the top of the pitch. Rather than abandoning them and tackling more well-formed climbs, climbers ascend mixed climbs of startling difficulty, climbing long sections of rock using crampons and ice tools (dry tooling), then performing gymnastic and often dangerous lunges and moves to pull up sections of vertical or overhanging ice. These climbs are protected on the rock and ice by whatever means possible, screws, pitons, cams, and nuts can all be used.
The types of climbing that have been mentioned so far often exist in isolation from each other. However, mountaineering might require you to use all of these skills on a single expedition or climb. Often considered the pinnacle of the climbing pyramid, mountaineering is the story of challenging routes on distant peaks, often taking a month or two due to complete a climb because of the severity of weather and objective hazards encountered en route. Such expeditions not only involve climbing skills, but they also test your teamwork, camping skills, navigational ability, first aid experience, and even your survival instincts.
Mountaineering is generally classified in two seasons with winter mountaineering the more serious. Winter travel (skis or snowshoes) is often fraught with avalanche danger, inclement and fast-changing weather, short days, and frigid temperatures. At this time of year, a high degree of self-reliance, fitness, and competence is essential. When starting out it is wise to set modest objectives and choose experienced partners to climb with.
Summer mountaineering is fraught with avalanche danger and fast-changing weather. The days are slightly longer and the temperature can be kinder. Depending on the nature of the climb, any routes with snow and ice can often be harder in the summer. The variable nature of mountaineering requires climbers to carry a variety of equipment. From a walking axe to crevasse rescue equipment (the standard array which includes two prusik cords or jumars, a pulley or two, as well as anchors, such as a snow stake).
Footwear again depends on both the altitude and the season, with leather mountaineering boots or plastics essential, though the extreme temperatures encountered at high altitudes require a careful choice with respect to their insulation. Some people also prefer to use a lightweight boot, particularly if there is a substantial amount of hiking to get to the objective. One last important piece of gear is a helmet.
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