Sport climbing this growing sport.

Ultimate Guide to Sport Climbing

Sport climbing has surged in popularity due to the Olympics. From the history to sport climbing benefits/ techniques and gear, read more about this growing sport.

Sport climbing is a sport that involves scaling and ascending natural rock or artificial rock walls. While the goal of climbers is to get higher and to the top of the route, there is the use ropes to catch themselves on the fall..

In the broad spectrum of climbing, there are many different types of rocks structures that climbers can scale; ranging from slabs (flat surfaces), cracks, boulders, overhanging routes and more. If you want to go into rock surfaces, then the list starts from limestone, granite, sand stone and more.

Air conditioned kids friendly gym | UpWall Rock Climbing Gym and Downtown East

Before you go on with the article, please note that this is an article written with the hope to share more about the basics of climbing, so pardon all the grammatical errors and oversights made if any.
I welcome all private comments and feedback to make it better for readers really hoping to learn more about the sport.

History of Sport Climbing

Climbing has a very rich history dating back thousands of years ago where people would climb cliffs for protection against wild animals and weather conditions as well as to hunt for food.

The beginnings of sport climbing started in the late 1950s in England, but quickly spread throughout Europe and North America. In the 1970s sport climbing made its way to France, where it lead to the start of sport climbing competitions alongside bouldering competitions.

Sport Climbing in the Olympics

Sport climbing was annouced as an official Olympic sport at the 2016 Olympics games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. However, it wasn’t until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where it truly materialised.

The Olympic format as usual – consists of three rounds, qualification, semi-finals and finals. In these rounds, contestants compete in 3 different categories in sport climbing:

  • Lead
  • Bouldering
  • Speed

Despite getting more publicity during the Olympics, sport climbing is still widely unrecognized. However, we can expect that it will continue to grow in curiosity among the masses and more countries will be starting to train up athletes to compete in the games that test the art of mental and physical strength.

Climbing holds - Ultimate Guide to Sport Climbing

Many have criticized the Olympic format of sport climbing and grading and till date, the Olympics community is still in talks with the professional climbing federation to resolve it. One element that sport climbing in the Olympics lack is the natural outdoor environment, which is a big component of the sport.

The Surge in Sport Climbing

Interest in sport climbing has been on the rise for a number of years.
This surge is attributed to the sport evolving to meet the needs of the ever-changing young adult. Sport climbing gyms have now converted their gyms into hybrid spaces where climbers can mix workouts with socializing and dining. We see gyms offering yoga classes, workout stations, cafes, shopping experiences and even play areas for kids, all capitalizing on providing luxurious, convenient and social environments for the young and affluent climber. Gone are the days where climbing gyms are just for the rugged outdoor climber just looking to maintain their climbing techniques, gym climbing is becoming a hobby and sport for the everyday urban person.

joshua tree - Ultimate Guide to Sport Climbing

This has enabled those who want to learn sport climb but don’t live near a natural environment that can accommodate it, like mountains or crags, so they can experience and do it comfortably in a safe and man-made space.
Climbing enthusiasts have often pride themselves in saying that sport climbing is really useful because you get all aspects of the sport: mental workout, endurance training and strength building.

Famous Outdoor Sport Climbing Locations

Some of the most famous outdoor rock-climbing locales are sport and bouldering areas around the world. Some examples include Yosemite Valley in California, Red Rocks Park near Las Vegas NV, SportCrag in Switzerland and outcrops like The Gunks just outside New York City.  

Even if the weather or season does not permit, climbers young and old can get their fix at indoor gyms that offer continuous artificial walls with routes appropriate for every skill level – from beginner-friendly friendly at level 4 to as higher as level 8.
If you are ever so keen to simulate multi-pitch big wall climbing, some gyms ‘might’ even be up for you setting up a ‘portaledge’ bed at the top of their artificial wall ( we are still waiting for a gym to convert it into an Airbnb)

Yosemite Valley - Ultimate Guide to Sport Climbing
Yosemite Valley

Difference between Sport Climbing and Traditional Climbing

Climbers can practise sport climbing inside a rock climbing gym or outdoors on the rock cliffs. This sport is very different from traditional rock climbing, which requires you to learn how to build anchor points with cams before you can start climbing. Traditional rock climbers usually have to know how to set up anchors with rope ahead of time and be familiar with basic knots such as the bowline knot.

la sportiva and trad gear

On the other hand, sport climbing already comes with pre-set bolted routes, but climbers will still have to bring their own equipment like harnesses, ropes, shoes and other safety equipment like an ATC belay device.

Sport Climbing Gyms and Buddies

Sport climbing usually requires a buddy who you call a belayer who is able to keep you safe while you ascend a route tied to a rope. However, newer more modern gyms now are equipped with what we call auto-belays where a solo climber not requiring a belayer can now be lowered down to the ground safely (mind you, you still need to have that leap of faith to let go at the top). So it enables climbers to now go climbing even if they don’t have a climbing buddy or belayer to climb with.

If you don’t know how to use the auto-belays, some gyms offer guided sessions or intros for beginners where they show how it is done first before letting you go ahead and try sport climbing alone on their own auto-belays.  However, safety gear such as helmets and harnesses should always be worn.

Unlike outdoor natural rock climbing, most sport climbing gyms have padded foam mats on the ground so even if you fall or drop your grip from the route, you will not land hard on any surfaces thus preventing severe life-threatening injuries. Having said that, it’s still very important to know the proper safety measures to belay and spot a climber to prevent them even landing hard or poorly on the ground and breaking their leg or back.

Sport Climbing Routes and Sport Climbing Gyms

Sport Climbing Routes

The sport climbing routes in sport climbing gyms usually come with color-coded routes and holds. This is typically done so that climbers will be able to easily navigate themselves from one route to another.

Also, sport climbing routes are designed such that they can be used by varying skill levels of climbers.  For example, sport climbing gyms have beginner sport climbing routes for newcomers up to intermediate sport climbing routes for moderately skilled climbers.  Advanced sport rock climbing however requires much more skill as the sport rock climber would need to master several complex moves on the route.   

Sport Climbing Grading

The difficulty level of sport climbs can range from 5.0-5.15b, depending on location and other factors such as steepness or length of the route. Most sport climbs fall within an average grade between 5.10a-5.12d although some areas have shorter or steeper grades than others Two important factors which affect the difficulty rating of sport climbs are where in the world they are located.

Sport Climbing Statistics

In 2014, there were 637 indoor sport rock climb facilities worldwide including bouldering walls alone.

In current days, 24% of all new participants of indoor sports are sport climbers. This is quite an impressive number considering that only 5 years ago less than 10% of people who participated in indoor sports do sport climbing.  However, it does not mean the number will remain this way since more countries are opening sport climbing gyms in the next 5 years.

Now almost 10 years later since 2014, sport climbing gyms have more than quadrupled around the world even for indoor sport climbers, and we will continue to expect it to grow as it has now become an Olympic sport.

Sport Climbing Skills and Technique

Sport climbing has become more and more popular in the world. More than a sport, sport climbing is an activity that requires skill sets such as technique, power, endurance and flexibility.

There are different techniques that sport climbers use to scale rocks, such as usingtheir feet in an effective way to toe-hold on the rock surface.

Toe hook involves using your toes like a hook or a keyhole to pull one’s line upwards while handholds on vertical facings of rock. Using one’s legs helps lift your body weight up vertically while your hands move into the next position. As the sport involved high wall and its different from bouldering, sport climbers need to learn the right techniques of letting go and falling such that they do not tangle themselves with the rope and injure themselves in the process.

While sport climbing is all about technique, sport climbers also need power and endurance to climb walls that are vertical or close to it such as 40 degrees above the horizontal plane. Therefore sport climbers need short, quick and very powerful movements with each muscle in their body used for maximum efficiency otherwise they will simply run out of energy before reaching the top of the wall.

Sport Climbing Equipment

Sport climbing is just one form of rock climbing, as with any other sport there is the necessary equipment to start it. Sport climbing gear includes a variety of different items such as harnesses, rock shoes, ropes and belay devices and so on. Sport climbers may wear a helmet whenever they go out climbing because regardless of how experienced any climber is, accidents may happen due to the nature of the sport.

Sport climbers will also wear a climbing helmet whenever scrambling or crossing scree slopes because rocks and stones are often loose in these conditions, which could cause serious injury to the human body. Sport climbing gear must be lightweight and functional so that it will not slow down your movements while on the climbing wall.

There are different types of harnesses used for sport climbing such as ‘seat’, ‘chest’ or a combination of both. Rock climbing shoes are made with smooth rubber soles and leather/ synthetic leather upper designed specifically for rock climbing due to its ability to stick well to vertical climbs but this doesn’t mean that any particular pair can keep you secured on the rock surface; they must fit your feet perfectly so there is no extra space inside them for your toes to move around.

Sport climbers use chalk to keep their hands from sweating while climbing so that it is easier for them to hold onto rocks and not lose the grip. This is highly critical especially at the crux of the route where every ince of friction matters. While resting, you would sport the climber ‘chalking up’ by slipping their hand to the back where their chalk bag or cloth is located. In the great outdoors when you happen to no longer have any more chalk left, the desperate attempts we see climbers do is to just grab their sweaty palms against their shirt or rock surface.

Climbing ropes and cord are made from very thin fibers so they are lightweight and comfortable to carry in your backpack. Sport climbers also use belay devices which are used to control rope movement during climbing as well as lowering down the climber when he or she has reached the top of the wall.

Sport Climbing Basics for Beginners

For beginners who have just started learning how to climb, or who are thinking about taking up this exciting sport for the first time, there is one important thing for them to know, which is whether they will be able to learn sport climbing quickly and easily without any problems.
A beginner has a lot of questions like:

  • Will they be good at it?
  • Can they master sport climbing in a certain time frame?
  • How much training is required?

Sport climbing trains one’s endurance as compared to bouldering, as the routes are longer and you need to also master the techniques of clipping in ( setting the rope while getting higher up the wall, which is not required in bouldering. These sport routes have pre-placed bolts and carabiners where you clip your rope through and serve as your safety as you ascend higher.

This sport may seem very difficult for beginners since they lack both skill and experience and there’s no way one can get in shape for sport climbing quickly – hence why many people quit after giving it a try once or twice!

If we talk about technique, then sport climbers must know at least five different techniques:

  1. Open hand – which is just like the way you would grab a door handle or doorknob.
  2. Half crimp – getting your thumb inside of your fingers and curling them up as much as possible.
  3. Full crimp – where you curl all 4 fingers down as far as they will go to lock onto the rock
  4. Open slope – which refers to grabbing a hold that slants outwards away from your center-line at an angle.
  5. Bridging – basically pushing off with one foot and using your other leg to support yourself against the wall, while both hands are used to press against opposing holds

Sport Climbing Jargons and Lingos

From the very first moment when sport climbing emerged, it has been surrounded by a lot of jargon and lingos. From “no gear” to “flash”, from “committing” to “power-endurance”, there are many more jargons and lingos in sport climbing that are worth sharing!

How about we explain some of them?

1. No Gear / No Bolts (V-Grade):

This grade means you will use no protection at all on your climb. Nothing. Not even the rope/harness for an anchor, which we also call power point(s). The bonus part is if you can repeat this feat without falling off, then it’s called redpoint. No-Gear routes are catagorized as V-Grade in the climbing gym, and you can look up their grades from the route setting guide.

2. Flash:

To climb a route without falling off (one try) for your first time on that route. Climbers generally use “flash” to refer only to sport climbs, where no gear is used anywhere along the route. Flash is also known as “Flash with zero falls”.

3. Redpoint / Redpointing:

It Refers to completing ( or sometimes known as sending) a route after you have attempted it on lead climbing previously, using protection bolts/anchors, by doing it cleanly without taking any falls on toprope or during lead attempts. A climber may redpoint direct aid pitches while on a big wall. Redpoint has become the norm for sport climbing, and is also used to describe bouldering problems (a “redpoint crux”), where a climber will perform every move without falling until they reach the top of the boulder problem.

4. On-sight:

It Refers to finishing a route in 1 setting (flash a route) having never seen it before during any previous attempts or from receiving information or tips ( also known as beta) from others on that route or climbing gym. It can also be referred to as flashing/on-sighting a climb. The term on-sight is sometimes confused with redpoint because both terms mean you did not fall while trying to send a route for your first time ever; however, there’s one very important difference.

On-sighting is not as impressive as redpointing because on-sighting is the result of good luck and “preparation by osmosis” (e.g. seeing the climb during multiple previous visits to a climbing gym). Redpoint attempts are more planned out, with lots of effort put into figuring out beta from whatever source possible before you actually get on the route; in comparison, it’s more like a gamble when attempting an onsight.

Lydia Yang

Lydia Yang

Lydia Yang is a Singaporean city girl who decided to ditch her high heels for hiking boots and become a full-time traveller and digital nomad. She has been to almost 60 countries to date! She has a knack for adventure travel, especially rock climbing, and always hunts down the best climbing spots around the world. Check out her expert advice on the best outdoor crags to climb at or what workouts to improve your climbing performance.

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