“There are only three sports—mountain climbing, bull fighting and motor racing—all others being games.” Ernest Hemingway wrote that a half-century ago, when climbing as we know it didn’t even exist. Nevertheless, while equipment, technique and even the medium we climb have changed, the spirit of climbing has endured, making Hemingway’s observation as relevant today as it was back then.
Welcome to How To Climb, a new guide to rock climbing by the editors of Rock and Ice magazine. Inside, you’ll find chapters on almost every aspect of the sport; beta on getting ready, getting fit, getting up and getting down.
Rock climbing is a diverse sport. Whether you’re psyched about tackling a big wall of golden granite or simply amped to mash crimpers on a steep limestone boulder, you’ll accelerate your learning curve by scanning this tome first.
As you’ve probably surmised, clawing up cliffs can be dangerous, (even completely wacky), if you aren’t versed in the basics of rope management, gear and rigging. Not only will this guide help you hone your physique with chapters on training and technique, it will help you cover your ass with detailed instruction on knots, gear, belaying, leading and rappelling.
Of course, no guide, however detailed and well-written, can substitute for experience. Only by taking these techniques and tips to the crag can you truly hope to glean the savvy and wisdom necessary to master this most excellent sport.
Half a rope up a sandstone crack, strafed by swallows, the wind lifting your chalk bag, you might feel as though you’ve stepped through a magic door and entered another realm entirely. In fact, you have
left the old paradigm behind. By stepping off the ground and leaving flat land, you’ve transformed yourself forever.
Congratulations, now you’re a climber … but what is that?
Climbing, like swimming and writing, is a broad activity that can be distilled into specialized disciplines. At its core, climbing is “going up.” The medium we choose to ascend, along with the tools and techniques we use for the climb, comprise the specifics. It’s natural to focus on just one or two areas of climbing. You may be the type who enjoys fast movement in the mountains, and will want to focus your energy on less technical peaks where you won’t be slowed by equipment and difficulty. Perhaps you enjoy the exposure and grandeur of living on a big wall for days, toiling upward ever so slowly, piecing together a route by aid-climbing from one incipient crack to another. For some, the athletic challenge of a hard boulder problem may be the ticket. Rarely do we see a climber who excels at a high level in all disciplines; climbing is simply too challenging and complex for most to master every aspect. However, the varied disciplines keep the sport interesting and our psyche up. There’s always somewhere new to go, or something bigger or harder to explore. Upwards!
FREE CLIMBING is the purest form of climbing, and, as evidenced by the magazine you are now reading, the one you are beginning with. Free climbing means using your hands and feet to ascend natural features on a rock face. The most common confusion among non-climbers is to think “free climbing” means climbing without a rope, or “free soloing.” The term free climbing, however, has nothing to do with protection; it is merely the act of climbing relying on your own body, although it does split into different styles, depending on the type of gear you’ll use.
Sport Climbing is the act of ascending a face that has been pre-equipped with bolts anchored into the rock. As you climb, you clip a rope to the bolts for protection. The goal of sport climbing is to reach the top without falling or resting on any bolts. As a relatively safe discipline, sport climbing allows you to push your free climbing skills, and is akin to gymnastics, where you practice a routine to perfection. When you sport climb, you often rehearse a climb until you are able to ascend it in perfect style, climbing from the ground to the top without falling.
Traditional Climbing is unlike sport climbing in that it does not rely on a grid of pre-placed bolts. Instead, you carry and place your protection, usually nuts and cams stuffed in cracks, then remove these devices when you finish climbing. “Trad” climbing can be dangerous when the natural protection points are far apart, but often, such as when you are climbing a continuous crack, which affords protection every foot of the way if you want it, is as safe (or risky, depending on how you look at it) as sport climbing.
Bouldering is the game of climbing boulders, which can be as short as five feet or as tall as 50. Usually, bouldering is practiced on blocks no taller than 15 feet, which is about the mental limit for most people climbing without a rope. Bouldering is the most difficult and gymnastic of all climbing disciplines—you can spend days (or years) simply figuring out and then executing the moves on 10 feet of rock. Because boulders are found in every state and near most metro areas, and because the only gear you need are a pair of shoes, chalkbag and a pad to fall on, it is an increasingly popular activity. It is also the most social aspect of climbing, one where you climb with a few friends and work on pushing your free climbing skills, notably your power.
AID CLIMBING is free climbing’s antithesis. This extremely technical activity refers to using gear to ascend a rock face. Aid climbers stand in a nylon ladder that is clipped into protection, or sometimes, merely hang from equipment, in order to bypass sections of rock that are too difficult to free climb. Aid climbing is a great skill to learn; it teaches you to place gear quickly, and how to get out of a jam. Since this issue deals exclusively with the various aspects of free climbing, and because entire books are necessary to teach aid climbing, we’ll save the nuts and bolts of aiding for another day.