Types of Climbing

What’s the difference between free climbing, free soloing, sport climbing, traditional climbing, bouldering and aid climbing?

By Rock and Ice | October 4th, 2016

Sport climbing (also free climbing).


Free climbing is the purest form of climbing, and, as evidenced by the magazine you are now reading, the discipline 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, and 99.99% of us are all too happy to have the safety net of protection and a rope.

Sport climbing is the act of ascending a face that has been pre-equipped with bolts anchored into the rock or gym wall. As you climb, you clip a rope into a quickdraw 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. There’s always the possibility of getting injured from a big fall—the gym is a great place to practice your clipping technique and overcome your nerves before you venture outside.

Traditional climbing was the original form of climbing, and all there was until the mid- 1980s, when a few climbers began rehearsing routes with an overhead rope, birthing “sport” climbing. “Trad” climbing simply means walking up to a climb and ascending it ground up, with no rappel or toprope inspection or overhead rope protection. On many trad routes you will place your own protection as you go, although many “trad” routes have bolts, which were always placed on lead. Areas with slabby face climbs such as Tuolumne Meadows in California, for example, have hundreds if not a thousand trad routes that are only or mostly bolt protected. Bolts on trad routes might seem to blur the line between sport and trad, but you’ll know a trad route when you see it: the bolts, because they were drilled on lead, a daring and physical task, are often dozens of feet apart, while on sport routes, which are bolted on rappel, you typically clip a bolt every body length.

Bouldering is the game of climbing boulders, which can be as short as five feet or as tall as 50, or you can just boulder in a gym on an artificial wall. Bouldering in the gym is great for working on body movement, strength and technique before transitioning to roped climbing. Usually, outdoor 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 and gyms are found in every state and near most metro areas, and because the only gear you need is a pair of shoes, chalkbag and a pad, 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 using gear to ascend a cliff. Aid climbers stand in a nylon ladder that is clipped into protection, or sometimes, they 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.


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