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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Accessories. Here are a few supplemental items that you may want to add to your gear collection:
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.
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:
For more details on crag etiquette, check out our blog post, “6 Rules of Etiquette for Outdoor Climbing.”
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.