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The Basics of Rock Climbing

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 3

Rock climbing is the art, science, and sport of ascending a vertical rock wall. To rock climb, you need the basic knowledge of rock climbing safety as well as the strength and skills of how to work your way up a rock face. There are several different types of rock climbing as well as numerous pieces of rock climbing equipment and a number of different difficulty levels.

Rock climbing as a sport has been around for many years and evolved from the need or desire to climb alpine peaks. This often necessitated climbing up exposed rock areas. Rock climbing can be done as an independent sport, or in conjunction with high peak ascents. The concept of rock climbing is related to ice climbing and hiking.

Types of Rock Climbing

Bouldering – This refers to the sport of rock climbing on low walls, or the bottom of walls. When you boulder, you are low enough that you don't need a rope. Generally, people who boulder use mats and/or a spotter to catch them if they fall. There are often only a few moves in a bouldering route, and these moves are often overhanging or very challenging.

Top Roping – Top roping refers to rock climbing while being attached to a rope from the top of the climb. The other end of this rope is attached to another person who is belaying the person either from the bottom or the top of the climb. The rope can either be set at the top of the climb by walking around to the top, or by following a climber who has led the climb. When you are top roping or lead climbing you usually follow a pre-set route that is described in a book or by another climber. The person who is belaying, feeds the rope through a device so that if the climber falls, the belayer can stop their fall.

Lead Climbing – Lead climbing involves climbing a rock face while placing protective gear and attaching the climbing rope as the climber moves up the rock wall. As the climber climbs and attaches their rope to the gear, the other person belays the person from the bottom of the rock wall. Often the lead climber moves up and then belays the next person up the wall. As the last person comes up the wall, they clean the gear and bring it up the climb with them. You can either place gear on a clean rock with your own gear called traditional climbing, or sport climb which means clipping your rope to anchors that have been placed in the rock. Both these types of climbing are also referred as free climbing (not to be confused with free soloing).

Free soloing – Free soloing is the most dangerous type of climbing and involves rock climbing without a rope or any support. Free soloing means you rely only on your own strength to ascend the rock wall with no safety back ups.

Rappelling – Rappelling is an activity that involves a climber lowering themselves via a climbing rope down from the top of a climb. You can either rappel along a rock face or freely rappel and lower yourself through thin air.

Places to Rock Climbing

Indoor Rock Climbing Gyms – There are many rock climbing gyms around the country that include areas for bouldering as well as top roping or lead climbing options. Many of these gyms rent equipment and offer courses for beginning climbers. They are usually very safe and are a great place for children.

Top Roping/Single Pitch Climbs – The most basic outdoor climbing locations are top roping locations where you can hike around and set up your rope and then belay and climb from the bottom of the rock wall. When you climb a single pitch, you can also lead climb and then belay the second person up the wall.

Multi Pitch Climbs – These climbs are slightly more technical. During a multi-pitch climb, the lead climber climbs the first pitch and then sets an anchor to belay the second person. When the second climber reaches the anchor, they then belay the lead climber up the second pitch and so on. Multi-pitch climbs can be any number of pitches tall. When you reach the top of the climb you must either walk down another way down or rappel from the top.

The Grading System

Rock climbing guide books use a number of different rating systems. These systems let the climber know how difficult the climb is. Descriptions in books also include the length of the climb, a description of the route, what type of gear you need, and other pertinent information.

Rock Climbing Gear

Rock climbing is definitely a sport where you can purchase seemingly unending amounts of gear. If you are planning on climbing in a rock gym, or top roping with experienced people, you can start by renting equipment or purchasing a harness, shoes, a helmet and a belay device. Here is a list of some of the most common climbing gear.


Harness – these come in different sizes and have a range of comfort features.

belay device

Belay Device – there are many belay devices on the market. Some are more basic, while others will automatically stop a climber if they fall.

chalk bag

Chalk and chalk Bags – these are attached to the harness as the climber ascends and is used to keep the climbers hands from becoming slippery due to water or sweat.


Climbing shoes – these are tight shoes that allow the climber to find small footholds with their feet.


Climbing Helmet – most climbers these days use helmets to protect their heads if they fall

Ropes – ropes come in many lengths and are either static (used for top roping or rappelling) or dynamic (used for lead climbing).


Slings/webbing/etc –these are used for many purposes when climbing, often to create an anchor or to attach a piece of gear to the climbing rope.

Carabiners – this is another commonly used piece of gear. There are many different kinds of carabiners that come in different sizes, shapes, and with various closing or locking devices. They are used in building anchors, attaching the pieces of gear or bolts to the rope, to attach various things to the harness, and pretty much anything you can think of.

Crash Pads – Crash pads are large relatively soft pads used when you are bouldering to protect you if you fall.

Bolts – These are permanent fixtures placed into the rock on climbing walls that enable the climber to clip in their rope as they move up the wall in sport climbing.

Cams/Aliens/Nuts/etc – these are the different types of gear that can be temporarily placed into the rock to secure the climber and the rope.

Climbing has become an increasingly safe sport that is practiced around the world. While there are some concerns about rock climbers such as their environmental impact on fragile rock walls, trespassing, and vandalism, rock climbing is becoming more mainstream especially in the United States and Europe. Rock climbing is a great way to get outside and see the world from a slightly different perspective.



Dec 25, 2009 7:18pm
Well written article; thank you for all the info and the pictures! I rated it!
Dec 26, 2009 3:31am
never had an opportunity to try out this sport... but after reading this I'll probably try it... :)
Apr 20, 2012 3:22am
I started climbing 5 years ago and have never looked back! There is something special about this sport that really makes it stand out. It's intense, social and take you to beautiful places you would never see otherwise.

This article is a nice introduction to the basic vocabulary and equipment involved in climbing. Thanks!
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