A Beginner’s Guide
Climbing has many disciplines, each with its own set of gear, techniques, and ethics. As a beginner, it can feel overwhelming to figure out the differences between all these types of climbing.
Fortunately, we’ve got you covered with an overview of various climbing styles ranging from top roping to ice climbing. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to explain the difference between free climbing and free soloing to concerned relatives and decide which types of climbing you want to explore more in-depth.
Free climbing is the most common type of rock climbing and has many different subcategories. Free climbers make upward progress using only the natural features of the rock. Any kind of protection, such as a rope, bolts, quickdraws, or other gear, is used to keep the climber safe in the event of a fall, but not to advance up the rock face.
Some styles of free climbing, such as sport and trad, use a rope for protection. Others, like bouldering and deep-water soloing, are ropeless. Below, you can find more details about all these different types of climbing and what kinds of skills and gear they require.
The three main styles of roped free climbing include top rope climbing, sport climbing, and trad climbing. Top roping is the most beginner-friendly of the three, while trad requires the most equipment and expertise. In North America, these types of climbing routes are graded according to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), with grades ranging from 5.0 to 5.15d. It’s rare to find a route below 5.5 at either the gym or crag.
Top Rope Climbing
This type of climbing is the way many people are introduced to the sport. Top roping a route means the climber is secured by a rope running through an anchor at the top of the climb. As they climb upwards, the belayer takes the slack out of the system until the climber reaches the anchor or no longer wishes to continue. At that point, the belayer can simply lower the climber to the ground.
With a good belayer, any falls on top rope will be small and limited to the climbing rope’s stretch. As a result, top roping is one of the easiest and safest types of climbing and an excellent way for beginners to learn various techniques.
However, this type of climbing is not only for beginners. Sometimes intermediate and advanced climbers will top rope a challenging route or project before leading it (see below for more on lead climbing). Top roping is also common among climbers who are recovering from an injury or who just want a fun day at the gym or crag without too much physical or mental stress.
Most climbing gyms have preplaced ropes to top rope on, and some even have auto-belays so you can top rope a route without a partner. Outdoor climbs, on the other hand, usually must be set up by a more experienced climber who leads the route and then builds the top rope anchor.
At some crags, it’s possible to access the top rope anchor on foot from above. Climbers can bring the rope up with them and set up the anchor without having to climb the route first.
Unlike top roping, sport climbing requires a climber to use a piece of gear called a quickdraw to clip the rope to preplaced bolts as they ascend a route. This style is called lead climbing and it requires more skills and risk management than top roping.
Any falls while sport climbing (provided the climber has clipped into the first bolt) will be protected by the rope, but have the potential to be much longer than a typical top rope fall.
Sport climbing is possible in the gym and outdoors. Most climbing gyms require you to pass a lead test to climb sport routes and belay a lead climber since additional knowledge and skills are needed.
Outdoor sport routes consist of either a single section called a pitch, or multiple pitches. Routes with more than one pitch are called multi-pitch climbs and can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several days to complete.
Short for “traditional climbing,” trad climbing does not use any preplaced bolts in the rock. Instead, a climber must carry gear, including cams, nuts, and hexes, with them and place the protection as they go. The climber then clips the rope into a carabiner attached to these pieces of gear so that they are protected in the event of a fall.
Whereas sport climbing often involves repeatedly falling while trying to master a difficult move or send a hard route, trad climbers typically try to minimize falls.
Trad routes can be single-pitch or multi-pitch. This type of roped free climbing requires the most gear, technical expertise, and route-finding abilities, so make sure to learn from an expert before you try to lead a trad climb.
Some specialized climbing gyms may have a crack to climb or an area to practice placing gear, but true trad routes are only available outdoors on real rock.
While many people rock climb just for fun, speed climbing is inherently competitive. In this discipline, two climbers race up identical routes set on a 10-meter (33-foot) or 15-meter (49-foot) artificial wall. The climbers are secured with ropes and auto-belays for safety, but must propel themselves up the wall using only their own strength.
Speed climbing routes are generally relatively easy to climb and have many large holds called jugs. Anyone who can climb around 5.10a should be able to get the top of one of these routes. The challenge, however, is climbing the route as fast as possible.
Alongside sport climbing and bouldering, speed climbing is one of the disciplines climbers will compete in when their sport makes its debut at the Olympics in Tokyo.
Speed climbing emerged in Soviet Russia and was introduced to the rest of the world around 50 years ago. Since then, it has not garnered as much popularity as other climbing disciplines and is practiced mostly in competition settings, especially in Eastern Europe. As a result, the decision to include speed climbing as part of the Olympics was a bit controversial. Some people have compared it to requiring marathon runners to also compete in a sprint like the 100-meter dash.
For the Olympics, the routes will be 15 meters long on a wall set at a 95-degree angle. Winning times in the men’s division are usually around five to six seconds and around seven or eight seconds in the women’s division.
Bouldering, free soloing, and deep-water soloing are the three main kinds of unroped free climbing. Many climbers will try bouldering early on in their climbing careers, as this style of climbing is available at nearly all rock gyms. Deep-water soloing and free soloing are rarer, with few climbers ever trying free soloing due to the significant risks involved.
Bouldering is the most common and popular form of ropeless climbing and is possible in the gym and outdoors. Indoor bouldering walls are typically up to 15 feet tall, while outdoor bouldering routes, also known as “problems,” usually range from around 12 to 20 feet.
Because boulder problems are shorter than routes requiring a rope, the moves are powerful and challenging. In many parts of the world, bouldering even has its own grading scale. North America, for example, uses a grading system called the V scale beginning at V0 and extending through V17. Since even V0 problems can be difficult for beginners, many gyms have added easier routes graded VB.
Most modern climbing gyms have a bouldering section and some gyms are entirely dedicated to bouldering. This type of climbing is an excellent way to get into the sport since it doesn’t require a partner or much equipment. To go bouldering in your gym, all you’ll need is rock shoes and a chalk bag or bucket.
Bouldering competitions often utilize large interesting holds and volumes while forcing athletes to perform breathtaking aerial coordination moves. The competitors climb a series of problems within a time limit, where the winner completes the most problems in the least number of tries.
Outdoor bouldering is safest with a crash pad, a type of portable, foldable cushion that climbers place beneath the boulder problems. Crash pads come with straps allowing boulderers to carry them on their backs to the boulders.
Made famous by the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, this type of climbing involves scaling a climbing route with no rope or any kind of protection. This means that any fall will be a ground fall, which could result in serious injury or death.
Few climbers partake in this activity due to the significant safety risks. Free soloing is the most dangerous type of climbing, and many well-known free soloists have died while climbing without a rope. However, free soloists say the risk is worth it since soloing allows them to achieve a hyper-focused, enlightened state that they don’t experience during roped climbs.
Also known as psicobloc or DWS, deep-water soloing involves climbing without a rope on cliffs over a body of water. Deep-water soloing offers similar freedom to free soloing with less risk since any potential falls are cushioned by the water’s surface.
Deep-water soloing routes range from around 16 to 65 feet. The sport emerged in Mallorca in the late 1970s and grew in popularity in the early 2000s thanks to pioneers like Chris Sharma and Tim Emmett. Today, there are even DWS competitions on natural surfaces and artificial walls built over swimming pools.
While DWS is significantly safer than free soloing, it doesn’t come without risks. Injury and death are possible due to strange landings, miscalculation of depth, rocks or other obstacles in the water, and drowning. Before trying DWS, it’s important to learn the correct falling technique. You should also check the tide schedule, and only go deep-water soloing in areas where you are certain it’s safe.
In contrast to free climbing, aid climbing allows the use of equipment to make upward progress. In addition to using the natural rock features, aid climbers can stand on pieces of protection and use gear, including daisy chains, ladders, ascenders, and more, to push and pull themselves up the rock face.
Aid climbing predates free climbing and uses its own grading system ranging from A0 to A5. In fact, some of the most iconic climbs in the world, such as The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite, were first aid routes. Many climbers continue to use aid techniques to help them through difficult sections of longer climbs.
While aid climbing is known to require less strength than free climbing, it is still a very physically demanding activity that requires extensive technical knowledge.
There are a couple of other types of climbing that don’t quite fit into either free or aid climbing. These include mountaineering and ice climbing.
Mountaineering / Alpine Climbing
Mountaineering, also known as alpine climbing or alpinism, is the earliest known form of rock climbing and traces its roots to ancient times. Modern alpinism emerged in the 18th century in Europe, with Jacques Balmat’s and Michel-Gabriel Paccard’s 1786 ascent of Mont Blanc. This ascent is widely considered to mark the birth of mountaineering as a sport.
This type of climbing centers around reaching a summit and can be very dangerous due to avalanches and inclement weather. Alpine climbers must be adept at climbing on various surfaces including rock, snow, and ice. Many alpine routes are climbed free, but some require aid techniques as well.
In this cold-weather climbing discipline, climbers use crampons, ice axes, ropes, ice screws, and other gear to ascend ice formations including glaciers, frozen waterfalls, and more. Like trad climbing, ice climbing requires placing protection as you climb.
Many ice climbers also engage in mixed climbing, which involves climbing on both rock and ice, and dry tooling, where climbers use ice tools to ascend dry rock faces. These types of climbing require in-depth knowledge of the equipment and terrain. It’s best to take a course with a guide to learn the necessary skills.
This guide is meant to provide a basic overview of different climbing styles to help you understand them better and decide which types interest you the most. However, it is not a substitute for proper training and first-hand experience. We recommend finding a mentor or taking a course with a professional guide in your disciplines of choice before heading out on your own.
Have fun and stay safe!