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Sport Climbing 101 : A Beginner's Guide

Learn the ins and outs of sport climbing: how to do it, the best gear to use, and which climbing areas to visit.

Although the term “rock climbing” might suggest a singular discipline, the sport can be subdivided into three distinct practices. Most experienced climbers would define these as:

  • Sport climbing
  • Bouldering
  • Traditional climbing

Although it seems that everyone exclusively boulders today (a conclusion you might easily arrive at based on social media posts), the most popular form of climbing is likely still sport climbing. Most new climbers are introduced to the sport in gyms featuring roped climbing, many old-school climbers will continue clipping bolts forever...and then there’s everyone else in between.

What it is

You hear the broad term sport climbing all the time, but its definition is quite specific.

Sport climbing: the act of climbing single- or multi-pitch routes, protected by permanently-fixed bolts and anchors drilled into the rock, using a rope and the aid of a belayer.

The main difference between sport climbing and bouldering is the height of the routes being climbed and the form of protection (bouldering = no ropes, with crash pads). Likewise, traditional climbing calls for the use of temporary gear and anchors (ex. nuts, camalots, etc.) to protect the climber, as opposed to permanent ones used in sport climbing.

FL Pro Margo Hayes making her historic ascent of La Rambla (5.15a) in Siurana, Spain. Photo: Greg Mionske

Before you go...find a mentor

This piece of advice applies to any form of rock climbing. As simple as climbing might seem, the technicalities and nuances are staggering. The best way to learn them is through the teachings of an experienced mentor.

How are you supposed to find a person who can teach you how to tie knots, clean a sport climbing anchor, and clip quickdraws? Well, chances are you’re not coming in blind; you probably already know someone who has the skills––you just need to ask them. If you’re lucky enough to score some time from this person, make sure you pay extremely close attention to his/her advice, and take it to heart. It’s critical to familiarize yourself with the basics of gear handling and safety precautions before you start blindly up a cliff.

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How sport climbing works

Before you’re able to actually climb a sport route, the route needs to exist. A developer of a sport climb must first eye the potential line to be climbed. Next, s/he uses either a hand drill or a power drill (depending on local laws and regulations) to outfit the line with bolts and bolt hangers (read this post from Mountain Project for an overview of drill types and techniques).

Many sport climbing areas feature single-pitch climbs. Generally, the term “pitch” refers to a route length that can be climbed and protected by a rope of average length, typically 60-70 meters. Multi-pitch sport climbs are common as well, especially in places with huge walls like Yosemite, and require the climber and belayer to climb the route pitch by pitch while anchored to the wall.

The sport climbing process itself is relatively simple. A climber and a belayer tie into one end of a single rope, with a few meters of rope between them. As the climbers ascends the route, s/he clips into carabiners spaced intermittently up the wall, each of which act as anchors to protect the climber from falls. As the climber climbs, the belayer “feeds” her slack in the rope, and manually brakes any falls with the aid of a belay device.

In the following sections, we’ll take a more in-depth look at the specifics of gear, climbing locations, and crag etiquette.

 FL Pro Jamie Finlayson working Silent Menace (5.14c) in Squamish, Canada. Photo: Michael Lim

Nerd out on gear

There’s no shame in being a nerd. Especially when the subject of your nerdness is the equipment that will keep you alive. Since a full setup of all the gear below will set you back quite a bit of dough, consider going out with a friend/mentor before you drop a grand on shiny new stuff. You might also be able to find the following items used, but you run the risk of acquiring faulty and dangerous equipment. So be cautious.

Here’s a rundown of the basic gear you’ll need to start sport climbing:

  • Harness: Invest in a comfortable and well-made harness, one that won’t completely cut off the circulation to your legs while you belay your friend or dangle from the face of the climb. You really can’t go wrong with Black Diamond or Camp harnesses.
  • Climbing shoes: Choose a pair of shoes that are comfortable and fit your foot, not the super aggressive bouldering shoes worn by your climbing hero. If your feet are uncomfortable, climbing will be uncomfortable! Evolv’s Defy, Five Ten’s Anasazi Moccasym, and La Sportiva’s Mythos are excellent first choices.
  • Rope: Go for durability with your first rope. A safe bet is a 70 meter length and 9.7 - 10 mm diameter. As the rope experiences normal wear, you can trim the ends and make the 70 meters last longer. The Bluewater Lightning Pro is a great introductory rope.
  • Quickdraws: A quickdraw consists of two non-locking carabiners attached by webbing. This is the device you clip your rope into as you climb, and allows for some extra distance between the anchor (the bolt and bolt hanger) and the rope to reduce rope drag. Though a bit on the pricier side, the Petzl Spirit Express is a superb quickdraw.
  • Belay device: It’s absolutely critical that you know the essentials of belaying––that means learning how to belay with a simple locking carabiner and ATC setup. This pairing requires the belayer to make a habit of manually catching the climber with his/her brake hand, which should become second-nature to you. Once you’ve mastered the classic belay setup, consider upgrading to a Petzl GriGri belay device, which has auto-locking capabilities.
  • Chalk bag: Pick a chalk bag that fits your hand easily and comes with a waist strap. Try out a FrictionLabs chalk bag! You’ll even get some free chalk with it ;)
  • Pack: You need a spacious backpack to transport any and all of your sport climbing gear to the crag...and sometimes the hikes are long. Patagonia’s Crag Daddy 45L pack gets the job done.

Accessories. Here are a few supplemental items that you may want to add to your gear collection:

  • Belay gloves: Protect your hands from rope burn while belaying. You can find fancy, expensive belay gloves for sale...but a hardy pair of leather gloves from the local hardware store work just fine.
  • Belay glasses: Save your neck from the strain of looking up at the climber while belaying. These contraptions use mirrors to angle your gaze upward. Y&Y Vertical make some of the best.
  • Helmet: Protect your dome! When hanging out and climbing at a cliff, you always run the risk of taking an awkward fall or suffering the wrath of a falling rock. Wearing a helmet while climbing and belaying is the easiest way to stay safe. The Black Diamond Half Dome is a great pick for your first helmet.
 FL Athlete Michael Hauck prepares his gear for an international sport climbing trip. All the essentials are there!
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Climb somewhere that makes sense

If you’re just starting out, the logical first step would be to learn how to sport climb in the gym. It’s safe, the bolts are closely spaced, and there are people all over the place to help you!

But once you’re ready to get after it outside, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. The first is location––you might as well climb as close to home as possible (unless you’re psyched on an epic journey). The second consideration is the development of the area itself. I would recommend starting somewhere with a large base of developed moderates in the 5.8 - 5.10 range and a solid guidebook you can reference (and if the guidebook is unavailable, you can always check Mountain Project). See below for a list of areas that might fit the bill.

West
  • Owens River Gorge, California: Located near the town of Bishop, this area features a high density of near-vertical routes on volcanic tuff. There is an older guidebook available on Amazon, now out of print.
  • Red Rock, Nevada: Just outside of the insanity of Las Vegas lies this area full of desert sandstone. Skip the craps table and get outside. Check out the detailed guidebook here.
Heather Weidner enjoying Sissy Traverse (5.13c) in Red Rock, Nevada. Photo by FL Athlete Jon Glassberg
Central 
  • Ten Sleep, Wyoming: Nestled in the heart of America’s least populous state is this forested canyon. Pull on featured limestone all day long. Find a well-priced PDF guidebook at rakkup.com.
  • Shelf Road, Colorado: A perfect option for beginners to test out near vertical limestone––and avoid the crowds at Rifle. Located near Canon City, Shelf Road offers over 1100 routes to try. Find Rick Thompson’s guide book right here.
East
  • Red River Gorge, Kentucky: One of the most coveted climbing areas in the entire country. The Red is filled with five star routes on perfect sandstone. There are thousands of routes to explore, documented in the Red River Gorge North and RRG South guidebooks.
  • Rumney, New Hampshire: Located around Rattlesnake Mountain near the small New England town of Rumney, this area offers climbers a huge amount of high-quality routes on schist. The guidebook is more elusive than the 5.14 grade (and will cost you hundreds of dollars), so I would suggest using Mountain Project and help from locals if you decide to visit.
FL Pro Matty Hong on the First Ascent of Apple Juice Flood (5.14c) in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Photo: Andy Wickstrom

Crag etiquette

The way we behave at climbing areas is an oft overlooked consideration. Rock climbing is a highly individualized pursuit, but that doesn’t mean we get to ignore the experience of others. Everyone is trying to enjoy the crag as much as everyone else.

Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to respecting the area and your fellow climbers:

  • Keep it quiet. Avoid yelling, screaming, and loud music. Many climbers enjoy the peace and quiet of the crag, and don’t want to hear your crew conversing loudly over techno beats. The crag is not the gym!
  • Consolidate your mess. Sport climbing requires a ton of gear, most of which somehow finds its way onto the ground. Keep your belongings consolidated in one area, out of the way of paths and belay stations.
  • Trash sweep. Once you’re done packing up, sweep the area for trash. If you find something you left behind, pack it out. If you find something someone else left behind, pack it out as well. It’s our responsibility to keep our climbing areas clean.
  • Play nice. Remember that many developed climbing areas are super popular. If you hate sharing the crag, consider finding a different area off the beaten path. If you do find yourself at a busy climbing area, respect your fellow climbers––don’t rush anyone to climb faster, don’t crowd a belayer’s space, and don’t be mean. Be someone you’d like to climb around!

For more details on crag etiquette, check out our blog post, “6 Rules of Etiquette for Outdoor Climbing.”

Advanced sport climbing techniques and training

FrictionLabs Pro Dan Mirsky will be back on the blog in the near future to advise readers on advanced redpointing (i.e. completing a route without falling) and training techniques for sport climbing. If you’re an experienced sport climber looking to hit the next level and send your projects, this will be the post for you. Check back soon!

Read Dan’s first post about the fundamentals of training for climbing here.

Cover photo: FL Pro Dan Mirsky climbing The Crew (5.14c) in Rifle, Colorado. Photo: Edwin Teran.

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