Different Types of Rock Climbing Explained

Rock climbing is an outdoor activity that entails scaling up vertical rock faces using one's hands and feet. It is done using specialized climbing equipment and requires knowledge of basic climbing skills and techniques. People practice rock climbing for recreation and competition reasons whilst others embrace it as a lifestyle. 


It is likely to find people using the term rock climbing interchangeably with hiking and mountaineering as if they are synonyms.  Even though these outdoor activities all take place in the mountains and basically entail ascension, they have some fundamental differences in the skill set, types of gear, physical demands and terrain each activity requires. It is therefore important to understand the difference between rock climbing, hiking and mountaineering.


Rock climbing has a rich language of terms to describe one’s experience of climbing the rock and knowledge of the basic rock-climbing terminology is fundamental to ensuring one does not get lost in jargon.


There are different types of rock climbing; each with its own particular techniques and equipment. Some types of rock climbing activities are carried out with ropes to help manage the risks and others are done without ropes. Let’s explore!



Rock Climbing With Ropes

In these rock climbing activities, the climber is tied to a rope controlled by another person (the belayer). The belayer uses the rope to catch the climber on the other end in case of a fall or a slip.


Traditional (trad) Climbing 

Trad climbing is a form of rock climbing where the lead climber places removable protection such as cams and nuts in crack in the rock surface as they go up the climb. The placed protection is removed by the climber’s partner as they follow and remove the protection while they are 'seconding' the route. 


Traditional climbing


Sport Climbing 

A form of rock climbing where the climber clips quickdraws to pre-installed bolts for protection as they ascend. Permanent bolted anchors are also fixed to the rock for protection. This type of climbing emphasizes gymnastic movement, difficulty, and safety.


Ice Climbing

This type of climbing involves climbing on snow or ice. It is very gear intensive as the climber relies exclusively on specialized ice climbing equipment to ascend steep ice and frozen waterfalls.


Top-rope Climbing

A style of climbing in which the climber is securely attached to a rope which then passes up, through an anchor system at the top of the route, and down to a belayer positioned at the foot of the climb. A top-rope route is set up by a climber either leading a sport or trad route from the base or by scrambling around from the side to the top of a cliff to set up an anchor where the rope is then secured. 


Rope Soloing

A form of climbing where the climber ascends without a partner but with the use of ropes and equipment.


Aid Climbing

In this type of climbing, a climber ascends rock faces by standing on or pulling themselves upward using devices attached to fixed or temporary protection, rather than using their hands or feet on the features on the rock itself. Aid climbing is the opposite of free climbing.


Free Climbing

A style of climbing in which a climber uses only their body power to climb. It’s different from free solo climbing in that the climber is tied to a rope with a belay partner holding the other end of that rope. Rope is used only for safety and is not relied upon for upward progress. Any devices such as quickdraws are only used as a protection in case of a fall. Sport climbing and traditional, or “trad,” climbing and top rope climbing are forms of free climbing. 



Rock Climbing Without Ropes

These are rock climbing activities where the climber is not tied to a rope for safety.


Bouldering

A form of ropeless climbing on small rock formations and boulders that are close to the ground and low enough to fall from safely. Bouldering routes are called boulder problems. Boulderers usually place padded mats/ crash pads on the ground below the problems to reduce impact and provide a safer landing if the climber falls or jumps down from atop the problem. Bouldering problems are usually topped out.

Highball bouldering is climbing of high, dangerous bouldering problems that often involves a no-fall zone.


Bouldering in Hell's Gate National Park in Naivasha, Kenya

Free Solo Climbing

This refers to a type of climbing of routes that is done alone with only your hands and feet using minimal gear like rock shoes, chalk, and a chalk bag; and without rope or other climbing equipment. The climber solely relies on their climbing skills to ascend the rock face. This type of climbing is very high risk and a climber is most likely to die if they fall.


Deep Water Soloing

This is a form of ropeless climbing that is performed above a deep body of water with no partner or protection. In the event of a fall or upon finishing the route, the climber drops into the water. 



Indoor Climbing

Arguably, indoor climbing is not rock climbing per se given that you are climbing on plastic as opposed to rock. Unlike rock climbing which takes place outdoors on natural rock, indoor climbing takes place on artificial indoor climbing walls where handholds and footholds are preplaced. Indoor climbing walls are typically the rock climbers’ training grounds.

The following types of rock climbing are practiced on artificial walls:

  • Top-rope climbing

  • Lead climbing

  • Bouldering

  • Ice climbing

  • Deep water solo climbing (done on artificial walls built over a swimming pool)

Speed climbing 

A style of climbing a route where the only thing that matters is how fast you climb. It is more popular in climbing competitions where the ascent of a standard route is timed.


Competitive Climbing

This is a competitive form of climbing done on artificial structures and climbing walls. This type of climbing is in the Olympics as Sport Climbing and it is undertaken in three categories: speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing.

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