What is climbing? How do you get into it?
You may have seen competition climbing make its exciting debut in the Olympics, or maybe you’ve seen a cool poster, an inspiring social media post or an epic outdoor film. But between speed, lead and bouldering; trad, sport and multi-pitch, the world of climbing might seem a little overwhelming. So here’s a quick breakdown on climbing and most importantly how to get into it.
Climbing could mean a small roadside boulder or a huge Himalayan peak, or simply a visit to an indoor climbing centre. The breadth of disciplines is really one of the wonderful things about the climbing world and it means there are plenty of ways to enjoy climbing and learn from it.
First of all, let’s break down those Olympic disciplines. All of these are of course competitive and on artificial or ‘indoor’ walls (even when they’re not actually indoors).
Leading is where the climber brings the rope up from the ground and clips it into points on the rock or wall, so that if they fall they will be caught by the rope as it runs through the last point they clipped. In indoor climbing, including the lead competitions of the Olympics, these points (or bolts) are already established on the wall with carabiners in place to clip. This process of leading the rope up the wall allows climbers to climb much higher than without a rope (as in bouldering) and demands extra skill and endurance from the climber.
Bouldering is where the climber climbs close to the ground without a rope, usually above padded mats, executing a shorter number of moves. This allows climbers to climb harder, more technical sequences without concern for a rope and without the longer, endurance aspect of lead climbing. Bouldering is typically powerful and intense, like climbing distilled down to its hardest individual bits.
Speed climbers climb a standardised route they have rehearsed, using a rope system that is automated for them to focus on pure speed. Speed climbing in this style doesn’t have a tradition outside of competition climbing and most committed climbers don’t practise this discipline – for most of climbing the aim is to progress to the end of a route and speed isn’t a factor. However, speed challenges have been set by climbers and in the mountains speed is a significant factor to completing a route successfully.
It’s worth noting here that competition is generally completely safe (as is most of climbing) and taking risks isn’t a deciding factor in the competition.
As mentioned earlier, all of these competition climbing disciplines take place indoors or on artificial walls, where the routes are designed and established by route setters. Of course indoor climbing doesn’t have to be competitive and lead and bouldering can be experienced in climbing centres around the world in a completely non-competitive environment. This is a very accessible form of climbing where complete novices and highly experienced climbers can enjoy clmibing together and challenge themselves completely independently.
Now let’s have a look at those disciplines outside. Getting outside can require a little bit more knowledge than indoor climbing, as you need to know where to go and when, as well as having some of the equipment an indoor centre might have provided and also climbing partners. This varies between disciplines, but guidebooks have a lot of the information needed for any given area. As for partners and equipment, I’ll come to that later on.
Bouldering outdoors takes place on… yes, boulders! This is of course where the discipline developed, originally as training for mountaineers and rock climbers, but now it is very much a discipline/sport in its own right. The matting used outdoors comes in the form of bouldering pads, which usually fold into a sort of square rucksack. This is a particularly accessible form of outdoor climbing as you don’t need ropes or indeed rope skills, just pads, climbing shoes and chalk. Unlike indoor bouldering there has been no route-setting, so climbers follow routes up the natural features of the rock and interpret a climb from what nature has left. This problem-solving is one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of climbing. Routes that have been established are called ‘problems’ in bouldering and usually get a name and a grade so that climbers can identify the problem and difficulty they want to climb.
This is effectively the lead climbing you’ll find indoors or in competitions but on rock. It may be confusing that the Olympics used ‘Sport Climbing’ instead of ‘Competition Climbing’ to describe the Olympic events, presumably because it was less confusing to spectators. Within the climbing world, sport climbing is lead climbing on rock with established protection points (bolts) – this means that those points that lead climbers clip to on indoor (artificial) walls are pre-established by drilled, UIAA-certified bolts in outdoor sport climbing. This means that Sport Climbing is also safe, but unlike indoor climbing there has been no route-setting, so climbers follow routes up the natural features of the rock. When routes are established they are bolted, named and graded so that climbers can identify routes and understand the difficulty of the route they are undertaking.
Traditional (Trad) Climbing
Trad climbing is another type of lead climbing, but crucially there are no pre-established points to clip the rope and protect a fall. Instead, they are placed by the climber and usually removed afterwards by their climbing partner. This adds a very significant element of skill but also danger to the climb, as the climber must find placements to protect their fall and manage risk when those placements aren’t found. This requires a lot more equipment and skill, but the resulting experience can be incredibly rewarding for the adventurous nature of the climbing and the significant psychological element of the discipline. This style of climbing is particularly common in Britain, as well as the USA and various areas in Europe, especially mountainous environments.
Multi-pitch climbing can take many forms, and may be in sport or traditional style. When doing a longer route, the rope may no be long enough or it may be impractical to climb in one rope length or pitch. This means that the lead climber will stop, secure themselves to the rock, bring their climbing partner up by securing them with the rope, and then set off on the second pitch when both climbers have climbed the first. Variations of this style will be used in mountaineering and alpinism where climbers will use the rope flexibly and require different levels of protection depending on the difficulty and severity of the terrain. The extended challenge and full immersion of these adventures is particularly rewarding and thoroughly recommended!
The kit list for climbing can be a bit overwhelming, but really you don’t need much to get going – borrowing/renting a pair of climbing shoes is enough to have fun on an indoor bouldering wall. Here’s a quick breakdown of the most important bits of climbing equipment just to give you an idea.
Climbing shoes are stiff rubber-soled shoes that are usually tight fitting (a bit like ballet shoes) and have a huge effect on how well you can make use of holds and features just whilst climbing. All indoor climbing and rock climbing is much easier with a good pair of rock shoes!
Chalk is used to soak up moisture on holds or on your hands, in a similar way to how gymnasts use chalk, and it’s often carried in a small chalk bag on the climber’s waist.
For roped climbing you will of course need a rope, but also a harness. Climbers use three-point ‘sit’ harnesses designed for climbing which are lightweight and allow easy movement.
Carabiners are used for clipping rope to protection points (or pairs of carabiners called quickdraws) and for trad climbing an extensive variety of equipment is used for different protection placements.
Helmets are also advisable, particularly for outdoor climbing as they greatly reduce the risk of injury, particularly from falling rock.
All safety critical equipment in climbing should have a CE or UIAA certification (in Europe, one implies the other). This is made a lot easier by purchasing from recognised climbing brands (and not an obscure character from the internet). Although equipment may be expensive when you buy it, it is certainly worth having quality kit (!) and it proves to be very durable. In the long-run, climbing isn’t a very expensive sport.
For beginner climbers, climbing walls can provide all the necessary equipment for indoor climbing, usually with reasonable rental prices. When going outdoors, much of the equipment can be shared with a partner (such as rope). The most important piece of personal equipment is perhaps shoes, as these need to fit you well, whereas a harness or helmet will fit many people. If you’re going out with an instructor (like me) all equipment can be taken care of (although it’s nice to have your own shoes!).
Where To Start
The easiest and simplest way to experience climbing is at an indoor climbing centre. There are far more of these now than ever before. In the 15 years I’ve been climbing, the number of climbing centres around the world has increased at least ten-fold. Most cities and big towns in the developed world now have climbing centres. They may be dedicated bouldering or lead centres, or often a mix of both, but they have the facilities and equipment for people to enjoy climbing whether they’re novices or highly experienced climbers. For most climbing centres, you can simply turn up with no experience or equipment, just wearing something you’re happy to exercise in.
A lot of people get into climbing for the adventure, the escape and to experience nature, which is of course best done outdoors! To get outdoors you might begin indoors and meet friends and partners to go outside. You can also join a climbing or mountaineering club. Or to get the experience you’re looking for and have teaching and advice tailored to you, hire an instructor.
There are a great number climbing-specific skills, such as route-reading and belaying (securing someone with the rope), and plenty of climbing skills that are really transferable, such as problem-solving and risk management. The great news is that you can start climbing without any specific skills and have a really good time. If you want to get into the areas of climbing that require more skills, such as outdoor climbing, make sure you seek the advice of an experienced person, or best of all an instructor. Get in touch if you’re not sure where to look!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief guide. I’ve tried to keep it simple and jargon-free, let me know if you’ve still got some questions or you think I missed anything important out!