“To touch the sky, you just have to get that little bit closer.”
― Anthony T. Hincks
After 6 years of climbing, rock climbing is still something that fascinates me.
This sport, that has just recently qualified as an Olympic sport, has a way of bringing out a different version of a person once you get started. It transforms you mentally and physically. And lets not get started on the community. Climbing is all about community.
I have done an immense amount of research on climbing over the years, and hunt many different sites for information on everything a beginner needs to know, but realise there isn’t one article that can give a comprehensive enough overview of what climbing is all about. So here’s one that took me weeks of hard work and research that I am happy to share with you.
To encourage you out there to climb, or climb more.
You wouldn’t regret it.
How it Works
Having climbed for 6 years till date, I still get friends and strangers asking me how does rock climbing work? Do you need to go for training before you can try it, or what exactly is it about, climbing without a rope; like how they see it on TV? Well, we will go into the details of what it is, but for starters, let’s dive a bit into how far back rock climbing started.
History of Rock Climbing
The discovery of rock climbing first started out in the 1800s in Europe. It was said that it started with a few people attempting it in the alps. Back then, equipment safety standards were still in its preliminary stages, with climbing ropes made of twisted natural fibres.
By the 1970s, rock climbing had already started becoming more popular beyond Europe. It was also when bouldering started to become popular and seen as a sport. After it officially becomes more widespread in the US with Yosemite becoming one of the havens of climbing, the definition of sport climbing began.
10 Types of Rock Climbing
(2 categories, 10 types)
Rock climbing comes under many different names. For people completely new to it, they associate rock climbing with superhumans like Alex Honnold scaling a big rock wall in Yosemite. For city dwellers, they imagine it to be bouldering where a person jumps from handhold to handhold. But in fact, there are so many types and forms and definitions of climbing, and here I am going to give a breakdown of the 2 categories they fall under, and 10 different subcategories under them.
As the name says it, it does not involve the natural element but involves climbing within constructed or man-made structures like climbing gyms. It protects from the elements so that you can climb in all times of the day, seasons and weather. It also tends to be more beginner-friendly due to lower risk.
The aim of a climbing gym is to replicate the natural outdoor rock with the creation and set up of artificial rock walls, handholds, and footholds. All around the world, the types of climbing and bouldering gyms can vary from high outdoor high walls to enclosed air-conditioned carpeted bouldering gyms. In such settings, there are 3 types of climbing you can attempt.
1. Top Rope
Top roping is basically the climbing rope that has already been fastened to the anchor at the top (either by an earlier lead climber or pre-set permanently in a climbing gym). The climber then climbs towards the anchor with your belayer holding the other end of the rope and taking it in using a belay device.
The ones we see most common are called the ‘Sling Shot Belay’, where both belayer and climbers start from the bottom. However, in multi-pitch climbing which you will learn later, you can actually belay someone up while being at the top with the anchor.
Top rope is great for beginners to get accustomed to high wall and improve your climbing technique, without too much risk of big falls like in sport or trad climbing.
In recent years, there are also auto-belay systems in place in gyms to allow for climbers to climb without a belayer but a system that catches and lowers them when they fall.
Mental Level: Low
Belayer Required: Yes/ No
Bouldering is climbing without the need for climbing rope, harness or a belayer. It is usually at the maximum height of 15 feet above the ground and with the ground covered with crash pads to break the fall. Crash pads are basically thick padded mats to cushion and absorb impact.
Bouldering focuses a lot more on movement and technique, and not as much endurance which is required for top rope high wall climbing. In terms of equipment, it does not require too high an investment as you only require climbing shoes and chalk (optional). Bouldering gyms are overtaking climbing gyms in numbers due to their smaller space requirements that are not as complicated and intricate as a gym with high walls.
Mental Level: Low
Belayer Required: No
3. Sport/ Lead
Lead climbing is the process of climbing a pre-planned route with fixed bolts and anchors. However, unlike top rope, you are bringing the rope up with you as you climb, and requires you to clip on quickdraws on the bolted anchors and fasten his/ her rope to secure and protect him/ her.
As you can see, given you are responsible for clipping in as you climb, falling on a lead climbing route could potentially be much bigger and more dangerous ( its called a ‘whipper’ fall) compared to a top rope climb. So, you need to ensure you have a good belayer who knows how to give and take climbing rope as well as catch a fall.
Mental Level: Low- Medium
Belayer Required: Yes
The source of life inspirations and motivational quotes all originate from…the great outdoors. Climbing outdoors has so much to offer, from the preparation of the climbing trip to the approach to the route setting and the full outdoor elements while climbing.
Let’s take a look at what are these different forms.
4. Free climbing/ free solo
Free climbing or free solo is the concept of ‘freedom’ from the obstruction and assistance of devices while climbing. Most types of climbing are actually counted as free climbing. However, free solo is a bit different (actually extremely different if you look at it from a safety perspective). As showcase in the recent movie, free solo featuring Alex Honnold, it’s climbing completely without any protective equipment like rope or harness. The climb is purely dependent on the climber’s own ability to ascent. Hence, it can get extremely dangerous as climbers go at heights that can warrant severe injury or death.
Mental Level: High
Belayer Required: No
5. Aid Climbing
Contrary to free climbing, aid climbing involves adding additional devices to the rock face or pieces of protection to serve as footholds or handholds to assist the climber to ascent further.
Mental Level: Low – Medium
Belayer Required: Yes
Traditional climbing or a more commonly used term Trad Climbing is climbing in the ‘purest’ form where you are given the full liberty to explore and search out the best approach for you to climb using cracks in the rock. Unlike sport climbing where the rock face is already pre-set with bolts and nuts drilled in the rock wall by an earlier climber who has pre-determined and ‘set’ the route, traditional climbing involves bringing a unique set of protective equipment called wedges, nuts, cams and more to secure your rope as you ascend the big wall.
Attach to each protection is a sling and carabiner for you to secure the rope. You will need to master the art of anchor placement to secure your rope. These equipment are removable and hence adhere to the belief by many climbers to ‘leave no trace’ behind, keeping the nature as raw and unchanged as it was for the next climber. Most of the National Geographic or North Face documentaries you watch on TV are usually climbers doing traditional climbing.
Mental Level: High
Belayer Required: Yes
7. Big Wall Climbing
If you grasp the concept of traditional climbing, then big wall climbing is that on a bigger scale. An example of such a place famous for it is Yosemite National Park in USA. It usually involves multi-days expeditions where the average climber gets to at least a height of 1,500 feet.
One of the most exciting or insane aspects of big wall climbing is that you will need to spend the night on the rock wall, sleeping on portaledge. For such expeditions, you need to be highly skilled, experience and come prepared with a lot of equipment. Yes, a lot of equipment will mean a lot more expenses.
Mental Level: High
Belayer Required: Yes
8. Ice Climbing
It is the practice of ascending an ice formation, like a frozen waterfall or glacier (rather than a rock formation). Instead of wearing rock climbing shoes, you wear crampons. Instead of using your hands to climb, you use tools and devices like ice axes and picks. Specialised equipment like an ice screw (a threaded tubular screw for ice climbing, ‘equivalent’ to cams, nuts and wedges used in traditional climbing) is required to screw into the ice to use as a running belay or safety anchor for climbers while the ascent.
Mental Level: High
Belayer Required: Yes
9. Sport/ Lead
Sport climbing has the same essence as traditional climbing, but the main difference is that the route is already pre-set by an earlier climber with bolts drilled into the rock/ crag. This enables climbers to not have to bring ‘protection’ equipment while attempting the rote, and hence make it safer, cheaper and faster than traditional climbing. Most sport climb in the outdoors is also lead climbs, hence it is essential to know the fundamentals of lead climbing.
Examples are steps like setting the route with quickdraws placed into the bolts, securing your rope correctly into the quickdraw as you progress. That’s not it, you need to know how to top up, secure the anchor and top out safely at the top of the route before coming down with all your gear. Belaying a lead climber safely is also essential to ensure you know how to feed rope, catch a fall and lower your climber buddy safely.
Mental Level: Medium – High
Belayer Required: Yes
As the name describes, it is about multiple climbs, not just one. Multi-pitch climbing can be seen as Sport Climbing 2.0, where a climber who has just lead climb and completed the route, now has to secure himself/ herself to the anchor, followed by belaying his/ her previous belayer up; so that they can repeat the process and climb up to the next pitch/ anchor. Basically, climb and repeat. Both climbers have to work closely in pairs to take turns to belay and climb, whether from the bottom or the top. Safety is critical for multi-pitch to ensure there is clear communication and good safety procedures so as to avoid making critical mistakes.
Mental Level: Medium – High
Belayer Required: Yes
11. Reppelling or Abseiling
The means of a controlled descent down a vertical rock face done by the climber himself/ herself. It requires some setup and equipment and uses a simple concept of friction and gravity. It is done after completing a climbing route or from the top of an edge when the climber wants to come down and would like the best way to do so without causing wear and tear to a rope.
It firstly consists of a simple anchor set up (like a tree or bolted chain), and then the climber needs to know how to clean the route at the anchor before lowering himself/ herself safely to the ground with a belay device. It is an air traffic controller (ATC) fastened to a carabiner, or an assisted belay device (ABD) like a grigri can work as well.
Mental Level: Low/ Medium
Belayer Required: No
Rock Climbing Skills and Technique
After a taste of climbing as a beginner, you would start to notice the range of difficulties of the climb and realise there is a grading system in place. To advance and progress further in your climbing after a few sessions, you would need to know how to pick a route an how to advance to better grades.
Lead Climbing and Belaying
One of the most critical things about climbing is safety. This is where setting up a route and ensuring your belayer is alert is critical. Here are some simple concepts to understand:
- Belay/ Belaying: The use of a rope as a tension stopper for a rock climber to ascent and not fall to the ground. A belayer hence needs to know how to operate the belay device and keep their climber safe while he/ she is climbing.
- A figure of 8 knot: The figure of 8 is basically the safest and most proper way to secure the climber to one end of the rope before they start climbing. Another type of knot that is commonly known in the olden days is the sailor’s knot – the Bowline.
- Hitches: There are 3 basic types of hitches – clove, girth and munter hitch.
- Bends: A bend is a ‘knot’ that joins and connects 2 ropes together, creating a nice loop out of webbing or cord. Some of such bends are Flemish Bend, Ring bend or overhand bend. If you want to check out some awesome videos of how to make these bends, hitches and knots, here’s a great compilation by REI.
- Safety Checks: Ensure that you and your belayer communicate well. Before he/ she starts climbing, ensure that you check each other’s gear. Ensure the harness is properly secured, the climber rope is tied in securely (with the figure of 8) as well as the belayer’s set up (ATC and Carabiner) all ready to belay you. Then climb on!
- Communicate: Always listen to each other and address each other by name when you need to give instruction or update. Places that you climb at might sometimes be noisy or very far apart from your climbing buddy, so it is vital to know who is addressing you and needs your attention. The commonly used phrase will be things like ‘Belay On’, ‘Climbing’, “Off Belay’, ‘Rope’, ‘Tight’ and more…
NOTE: Replying ‘Okay’ as a response to your buddy is NOT OKAY, as it can be dangerous. Its important to say and repeat the action you are taking, for example saying ‘On Belay’, ‘Off Belay’.
Choosing a route
There are different types of routes to pick from in a gym or outdoor rock wall. If you are a beginner, you would ideally go for something that is easier and more straightforward with a lot of big handholds and footholds (the type of holds are usually called jugs). These climbs are usually in the range of 4A – 5B if you use the French grading, which is different if you use the American grading, which we will talk more about below.
In rock climbing gyms, the way to identify the route is usually through colour coding ( colour of holds or a coloured sticker pasted next to the hold to identify it). Noob Tip: Each route’s name and difficulty is usually clearly labelled at the base of the route at the 1st handhold.
In outdoor natural rocks, you need to be more careful before attempting a route. The length of a route will probably tell you if its a single pitch climb or longer (multi-pitch). It’s always important to know if your rope is long enough before you attempt the route.
The safety guideline is that your rope should be more than half the route length, with a few more metres to spare. This is to ensure your climber can climb to the top and be lowered to the ground completely without running out of rope, which can cause severe injury. Best practices to prevent any big risks is to tie a stop knot.
Rating System and Grading
There are 5 standard ways of grading in the climbing world, but the most common ones are the American way and the french way. For Americans, the Yosemite Decimal Rating System is predominantly used, with each decimal point going up the harder the route. The range is between 5.0-5.15
The French grading, on the other hand, uses alphabets and the + symbol with the numbering. Below image will be a good gauge for you how to convert (the source)
Bouldering is rated using the V Scale, with VB as the start followed by V1 as the easiest and V16 as the hardest. The difficulty of the route can boil down to things like the hold size, spacing between holds and the shape of the hold. For competitive international boulders, they usually compete at the level of V14.
Climbing has some basic rules and tips to know, here’s a couple of them
- Use your feet more. Always search for footholds first, lean-in or bring your leg higher and stand up, instead of using your hands to pull yourself up. Hands are to be used for balance.
- Use your eyes and look
- Always attempt the hold, even if you think it might be difficult
- Always wear your helmet, no matter how uncomfortable
- Keep your hands straight
- Learn to breathe and not panic
- If you are outdoor climbing, keep it clean
Rock Climbing Equipment
Climbing is a sport that requires some specialised gear and equipment for you to perform well. It is not as expensive as mountaineering or diving, but you do need to be mindful of the costs of new equipment as you advance more and more.
- Climbing shoes: Special rubber edged shoes that protect your feet while allowing you to climb up rock surfaces.
- Harness: A device with a waist belt that goes around your hips and leg loops for your thighs, to secure a climber to the rope safely. There are a variety of different types of harnesses that suits different climbing conditions and needs.
- Carabiners: These are small, lightweight yet very strong metal rings with auto-locking or screw gates. For attaching the harness to the rope
- Gloves: Gloves are not as widely used given it limits the freedom of a climber to grab the rock. However, it comes in very useful for repelling or belaying, especially in cold conditions. I would recommend if you would like to invest in gloves, get one that has the fingers exposed.
- Hand chalk: Chalk is used to improve a climber’s grip and absorb perspiration. It is mostly made of Magnesium Carbonate. It can be used loose, in a chalk ball or the option of liquid chalk.
- Quickdraws: These protection devices are used along a climbing route to secure your rope and serve as an anchor when you fall. You would usually invest in a set of 8 – 12 quickdraws to prepare for outdoor climbing. It is a combination of 2 carabiners, one end to secure to the bolt, and the other to hook in the rope.
- Belay device and a rappelling device: Such a gadget is secured to a rope and serves the purpose of catching a fall, lowering a climber or feeding rope to a climber safely. You can either use a tubular or an assisted breaking. It is usually a combination of an air traffic controller (ATC) fastened to a carabiner, or an assisted belay device (ABD) instead of an ATC is fine too.
- Rope: Rope is a basic investment if you are looking to move to outdoor climbing. There are 2 main types of rope – static and dynamic rope. Dynamic rope is good for climbing as it has elasticity which allows for it to stretch better and take in the energy of a fall. A static rope is stiffer and used more for abseiling and rescues.
- Helmet: Serves the purpose of protecting the belayer from potential falling rock or debris that could injure the climber. While many do not like to wear it due it being clunky and obstructing in some sense, its best practice to have a helmet.
- Clothes: Never underestimate the importance of having suitable clothing for climbing. Climbing clothes, consisting mainly of tops and pants focus a lot on stretchability, breathability and little features and pockets that are useful for storing things and more.
- Crash Pads: Crash pads are shock-absorbing thick foam mats that are used for bouldering. Do not go for cheap unreputable ones as this is something you want to protect you when you take a hard landing from a route.
- Pro: A group of trad climbing devices that are used to secure your safety rope to the rock wall while climbing. It consists of things like cams, tapers, chocks, and nuts, or often referred to by names such as Stoppers, Hexcentrics or Friends)
Active VS Passive Pros: Active units will have parts that are movable, while passive units are just a single piece of metal. Eg. hexcentric nut. The more commonly used ones for outdoor trad climbing is the active units, one of which is the spring-loaded camming device (SLCD) which can fit into a variety of cracks.
Hence, you can see that these are the main things that you would need to invest in for rock climbing. If you want a more comprehensive breakdown of the average costs for each climbing gear or equipment, you can check out
Rock Climbing Costs
Climbing isn’t overly expensive if you take away the cost of the equipment. You can buy monthly passes as low as US$40 for unlimited climbs in many gyms if you are a member. For outdoors, it is occasionally free or at most you would just need to pay a token amount to the rock climbing organization managing the routes in that area.
Is rock climbing difficult or beginner friendly
To excel in rock climbing, there are some things you should know about it. Some common myths about climbing are that you need to be tall and have a lot of muscle and arm strength, hence also a disadvantage to shorter people or women.
Find a guide
If you would like to learn rock climbing the proper way, it is always important to learn it from a certified instructor. In some countries, there are certifications one can take for rock climbing courses to get Level 1, level 2 to level 3 certifications. However, being certified doesn’t mean you are ready to go climbing on your own unsupervised. Climbing requires a lot of practice and correcting my fellow more experienced climbers around you. So before you decide to self learn climbing from youtube or a friend of yours, consider if you want to learn it properly at a climbing gym or with a certified private instructor.
Is Rock Climbing a Good Exercise
Rock climbing is classified as a high-intensity sport and workout, yet it can also be very beginner-friendly. If you are looking for an exercise that is as fat burning as cross-fit, then rock climbing is for you. It requires not just entire body effort, but also full focus while climbing each route.
Why is Rock Climbing Good for me
Rock climbing has 5 main areas that is good for you:
- Strength: Rock climbing strengthens your fingers/ arms and entire body, as you need to learn to carry your own body weight as you progress higher. It also strengthens your bone density. The compression you are exerting on your bones while you are holding up your weight while rock climbing over time, helps increase your bone density.
- Low Impact Workout – Climbing is considered a low impact sport, as you are concentrated mostly on calculated moves and defined footwork. There will still be the falls you have to take and learn how to fall safely without injuring yourself. But unlike running or contact sports, climbing is generally gentler on the joints and tendons, though you do have to be careful to take good care of your fingers.
- Aerobic – Yes, climbing is considered an aerobic sport. You might not be jumping around like in a kickboxing class, but climbing helps push your heart rate and hence burn calories fast.
- Flexibility: You would learn to be able to stretch your body and maneuver it in ways to help you balance while climbing. That’s one reason why yoga and rock climbing come hand in hand.
Areas Rock Climbing Target
Rock climbing is one of the best all-round sport available not just for people who want to slim down, but skinny people who want to gain muscle too. It not only burns fat, but it is also known to tone and strengthen an individual’s body immensely and build muscles.. Here are 5 target areas:
- Back: Climbing will help develop your back muscles and make your shoulders and upper back look toner, in particular, the rhomboids, trapezius, and lats. Yes, climbing gives you wings!:)
This is especially good for people who want to look less scrawny and skinny.
- Core: Your core is one of the most important areas for climbing. The constant locking motion of your middle and lower body to keep your body near the wall has its benefits. It helps train the hips, abs and even around the back near the butt.
- Legs: Yes, climbing is all about using your legs! With improved technique and using feet vs hands, you will see that you get toner more defined leg muscles.
- Arms: Climbers have one thing in common, stronger forearms. This uncommonly trained body part gets stronger over time and will be able to hold your weight better with more practice.. The upper arms and shoulders help pull you up when you are unable to utilize your footwork along the route.
- Gluts: One of the best-kept secrets, climbing helps train your glutes to work hard too. One of the biggest rules of climbing is to keep your body near the wall, sit in, stand up. All these motions really help tone and stretch the gluts muscles to give you that toner butt.
- Is it good for people with health conditions
Rock Climbing Training at Home
If you want to further build on your rock climbing even at home, there are things you can do to work on strengthening:
- Chin Up/ Pull Up Bar: Install one at your doorway and you can continue to build strength at home
- Fingerboard/ Hangboard: I find this highly useful when you want to train finger strength. If you are a frequent traveller like me, you would find investing in a portable hang board highly useful as well.
- Resistance Bands: The use of stretch bands or resistance bands help loosen up your muscles. It is especially useful before or after a climb for warm-up or warm down. However, using it daily at home also helps stretch out stiff muscles or shoulders.
- Yoga: Yes, do yoga at home to compliment climbing! Yoga trains similar parts of the body like the core. Also, it helps improve your flexibility, balance and strength, all vital aspects of climbing.
Climbing Terms and Jargon
When we start off as climbers, we tend to start hearing a lot of climbing terminologies and lingos in the gym among climbers or your friends who have been climbing for a while. To not feel overwhelmed with all of it, here are some of the top 17 climbing terms and jargon.
- Anchor: an artificial or natural structure that is used to secure the rope at one point while belaying
- Beta: help or advice by a fellow climber on how to attempt or complete a route or a segment of it
- Bolt: a metal piece that is drilled into a rock permanently to allow for one to attach carabiners to it
- Bump: the fast motion of moving your hand or foot from one hold to another
- Campus: its climbing using purely your fingers and no footwork
- Crimp: a technique where a climber is required to put his/ her fingertips on a tiny small and flat surface, and sometimes even using the thumb over the fingers to secure the grip
- Dyno: the quick motion of springing from one climbing hold to another in mid-air
- Flag: the act of angling your leg at the side to keep a balance in a fixed position on the climbing wall
- Flash: to successfully complete a climbing route in one’s 1st attempt after having received some beta or seen a person attempt it
- Jug: a big, deep climbing hold that is nice to grip onto
- Match: sharing the same hold with your 2 hands or even a hand and foot
- On-Sight: to successfully complete the climbing route in the 1st trial without receiving any prior beta
- Red-Point: to complete a route after multiple attempts with stops in between
- Send: to complete a climbing route in 1 go
- Sit-Start: beginning a climb or boulder from a seated position on the ground
- Spotting: the act of using your hands as a cushion to protect a climber should they fall when starting their climb ( lead/ boulder)
- Traverse: to maneuver your body and climb in a horizontal direction left or right
For a full list of every climbing terminology ever known, check out this list.
So I hope you have enjoyed knowing all about rock climbing, the ins and outs, what are the different types, the safety measures and it has inspired you to climb more. Read on about the different climbing gyms and outdoor natural destinations you can explore.