The world of rock climbing can be confusing, there are a lot of different types of climbing and they each have their own set of techniques. In order to make sense of it all, this article will briefly cover the different types of climbing and how they differ from each other.
The main types of climbing are free climbing with and without ropes, aid climbing, and big wall climbing. Under these umbrellas most forms of climbing fall, and we’ll dive into more advanced and specific techniques such as bouldering, sport and traditional climbing and even ice climbing.
By the end of this article there will be no questions left on the myriad of different types of climbing!
Free Climbing with Ropes
Free climbing is probably the most popular form of climbing, and classifies any rock climbing with the use of protective gear, but not assistance in progressing up the wall. In free climbing a climber moves upwards using his or her own strength only. This basically means that there are no bolts or other ways to secure the passage of a climber up the wall.
Sport climbing encompasses anything where a safety rope is used in combination with fixed anchors. The safety rope is clipped into the anchors and only used for protection in case of a fall. This type of climbing may be done with or without a partner since the climbs are protected by pre-placed anchors and bolts on the rock face or wall.
We have a detailed article for our favorite harness for sport climbing.
Sport climbing encompasses a lot of specific forms of climbing, but we’ll touch on three main ones, Top-roping, Redpointing, and lead climbing.
Top roping uses preset routes that have a rope tied off at the top of a route and run down anchors. Top roping is a very safe way to climb a route. The climber ascends using the anchors that have been set to ensure his or her safety and must pass any of these points before proceeding further.
Most climbing gyms are set up for top climbing because this is the most common type of climbing done in them. Along with the climber, you will want a 2nd person, called a belayer, who takes up the slack on the rope so that a climber will quickly be ‘caught’ by the rope should they fall off the wall.
The type of climbing I named the site for! Redpointing is a form of sport climbing that is done after having practiced a route, or sections of the route beforehand.
Many climbers like to on-sight a route, meaning they walk up and climb a route without any practice. I like to redpoint climb because it forces me to practice a route that I failed to on-sight. This allows me to go back, analyze the mistake I made, and practice the move until I have it and can use it on other routes!
Lead climbing also uses preset routes, but the rope runs from the ground up through anchors.
Unlike Top-roping, the rope is carried up by a climber rather than being set at the top of the route. In order to start, a climber must clip the rope into the directional, or dynamic, piece. This is clipped directly into the pieces in order to prevent the rope from moving over time.
The climb will continue up the wall without any supports until they reach an anchor that the leader can clip into. Since there is no other person above you holding onto you, a lead climber is normally more skilled since he or she will often be above their anchor point, meaning falls are longer and carry more risk.
Traditional or Trad Climbing
Trad climbing refers to climbs done without any preset anchors. Climbers place cams, nuts and hexes into the rock as they climb. Trad climbing is normally done in pairs, the lead climber places the protective gear, while the follower picks it up as he or she passes, leaving the rock with only minimal damage.
Free Climbing Without Ropes
Climbing without the safety net of a rope carries with it a lot more risk than roped climbing, which might explain it’s appeal, but generally I wouldn’t recommend these styles, other than bouldering, to new climbers!
If you haven’t seen the movie “free solo”, go watch it. Free soloing is the riskiest, and arguably the most pure, form of climbing. Free soloing is exactly what it sounds like. A climber scales a route without any ropes to catch him if he falls. Death can occur very quickly in this form of climbing, as one slip is all it takes to lose your life in most cases.
Bouldering is a form of climbing that does not require any protection other than a crash pad and spotter to catch climbers, both in the beginning and at the top of the climb. These routes, often called ‘problems’ normally are done on large rocks that are less than 15 feet high.
It is also common for bouldering problems to involve traversing parallel to the ground or even moves where you work around a cliff. Since the fall is significantly smaller, the risk for injury is while the difficulty can really be amplified.
Highballing is essentially bouldering with more risk. The rock structures climbed in highballing can be up to 50ft tall. Unlike bouldering, any fall taken while highballing can lead to serious injury due to the height from which you’ll be falling.
Just like free soloing, this form of climbing is not for beginners or the faint of heart!
Deep Water Soloing
Similar to the other three forms of ropeless climbing already mentioned, deep water soloing is different in that it’s done on rocks overlooking water. The water creates a much safer landing area in case of a fall, so this type of climbing is safer than either free soloing or bouldering.
For extremely difficult climbs, aid climbing is a normal method of completing a route. Aid climbing incorporates removable or set pieces of protection such as nuts, bolts and pitons, pieces of gear such as a set of hexes or quickdraws, and even ladders made of webbing.
Depending on the gear used, trad climbing can look a lot like aid climbing and is often classified as such.
Most aid climbers today use “clean aid”, where they can remove whatever gear they place as they climb or right afterwards, leaving as little lasting effects on the rock as possible.
Many of the most difficult routes that have been mapped out were first done with Via Ferrata, or the “iron way”. In this form of climbing, metal rungs are drilled into the rock, creating a permanent and fairly safe ladder for climbers to use.
You do need to look for specific locations for this as many National parks and historic areas have outlawed this form of climbing now due to the lasting damage and effect on the rock, but it is a great way to introduce beginners to longer and higher climbs where available and already set up.
Big Wall Climbing
Big Wall Climbing is the most fantastic and breathtaking type of climbing there is. This type of climbing can be done with aid, traditionally, as a sport climb, and for a very brave and skilled few, free soloed.
Big Wall climbs are made up of multi-pitch routes and can be hundreds of feet tall. The routes are graded on different scales depending on the rock quality and style of the route, most notably the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS.
The routes are rated from 5.0-5.15d and 5.16-5.19b (bold being harder)
Ice Climbing or Mountaineering
Last but not least, Ice climbing and Mountaineering. Ice climbers use pitons, axes, and crampons to climb ice. As you would expect, this sort of climbing requires more clothing and gear than other forms and is done in colder climates, or even on frozen glaziers and waterfalls.
Mountaineering can combine climbing and hiking, where a climber will use an assortment of skills and tools to scale various sorts of terrain on his or her way to the peak.
Different Types of Climbing – The Final Pitch
There you have it, these are the different types of rock climbing that there are! I hope that this gave you a basic understanding of the different types of climbing and how to deal with them.
The learning curve when it comes to the sport of rock climbing is steep, there is a lot of information and terminology here. The best thing to do is check out the more of our content and find climbing friends who can help you learn!