Picture this: You're 2,500 feet above the Yosemite Valley, hugging the sheer vertical face of the granite monolith El Capitan. Your chalked and calloused hands are wedged into a dark, narrow crack meandering upwards in front of you. A half-mile of empty space and breathtaking scenery lies below you, and you have three more pitches to go before you'll finally reach the top. If this sounds like the ultimate rush, you must be a climber. Of course, big wall climbing isn’t the only way to experience some of the world’s most amazing heights.
Climbing is a sport that involves some kind of technical ascent, whether that be a vertical rock face, a craggy mountainside or a frozen waterfall. Each style of climbing has a unique set of challenges and rewards. Some climbing involves more special equipment and skills than others. Some ascents can be done in a few minutes at a local rock gym, and others can take a full day or longer. In this climbing guide, we’ll cover each discipline and go over the required gear. We’ll also offer some tips to help you get started.
Top roping involves setting up an anchor point at the top of a rock formation, usually several stout bolts embedded into the rock. Next, webbing loops or quick draws are clipped to the anchor points using carabiners. The rope is passed through the carabiners until both ends of the rope are touching the ground below (thus the rope must be at least twice as long as the vertical distance being climbed). Finally, one end of the rope is securely tied to the climber’s harness, and the other end is placed through a belay device which is attached to the belayer’s harness.
Once the anchor, climber and belayer are secure, the climber may begin her ascent. As the climber ascends, slack will begin to develop in the rope. It’s the belayer’s job to prevent too much slack from forming. The belayer can also use his belay device to arrest a fall, should one occur.
Rather than a single anchor point at the top of a route, lead climbing utilizes multiple anchor points during the course of an ascent. As the lead climber ascends, they will either clip into existing anchors or create their own temporary anchor points. The belayer will be watching closely to arrest any potential falls. There are two types of lead climbing:
Indoor climbing is done on a man-made climbing wall, usually at a gym. Walls are either set up with a top rope or bolted anchors with pre-attached quick-draws. Indoor climbing is a great way for beginners to learn how to climb, belay and use equipment safely in a controlled environment.
Although many consider bouldering to be a separate sport from climbing, the physical skill is essentially the same. Bouldering involves climbing short, often vertical or partially inverted rock routes without the use of ropes or harnesses. Climbing large boulders is popular, hence the name of the sport, although bouldering routes are typically much more challenging than climbing routes. For safety, climbers “spot” for one another and usually place thick foam pads, called crash pads, on the ground beneath the climber. In the event of a short fall, the spotter ensures that the climber breaks his or her fall on the crash pad.
Technical mountain climbing, called mountaineering or “alpinism,” involves ascending challenging alpine terrain, often in cold, windy conditions. Mountaineering often requires warm, protective outerwear, trekking poles and heavy-duty mountaineering boots. Terrain may include dirt, rock, snow and ice. Depending on the difficulty of the terrain, mountaineers may require helmets, ropes, harnesses, crampons and other safety equipment during certain parts of the ascent. “Mixed climbing” is a combination of rock, snow and ice climbing.
Most climbers attempt to summit peaks in the summer, when conditions are mildest and terrain is the most accessible. Even though it may be 85 degrees and sunny at the foot of a peak, conditions at higher elevations can be drastically different. Above 13,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, for example, alpine snowfields can remain intact year-round. High winds and summer storms can unexpectedly change conditions from mild to hazardous within a short period of time. Always thoroughly research the peak you will be climbing, have a plan of attack, and pack enough gear and clothing so that you’re prepared or any weather eventuality. Be prepared with survival gear if you are forced to overnight on the mountain. If you’re new to mountain climbing, it’s highly recommended that you climb with an experienced alpinist or guide for your first few ascents. The golden rule: Never climb alone.
Ascending peaks in winter and during the off-season (which includes spring and autumn for some peaks) is a totally different ball game, and something only experienced alpinists should attempt. The difficulty and danger of attempting a summit during the off-season can be significantly higher. Climbers must not only be in top physical condition and well trained, they must also be able to contend with a variety of hazards, including sudden storms, sub-zero temperatures, high winds, falling rocks, crevasses and avalanches.
Used mainly in the US and Canada, the Yosemite Decimal System is an ascent difficulty grading system. This system is used to determine the level of skill and equipment needed to safely summit a mountain or other geological feature. According to Climber.org, there are five classes:
Ice climbing refers to ascending vertical ice walls, which may be in the form of glaciers or frozen waterfalls. Like mountaineering, ice climbers wear warm, waterproof outerwear and a helmet. A rope and harness is used to provide protection, similar to rock climbing. Ice climbing also requires a pair of special crampons and two ice axes, also called “ice tools.” Climbers either setup a top rope anchor or place ice screws as protection during the climb.
Like rock climbing, ice climbing involves using technical equipment and special skills. If you’re interested in learning to ice climb, the best ways are to enroll in a class with a guide company, attend a workshop hosted by a reputable climbing club or learn from another experienced ice climber who has been climbing for several years. Even if you have climbing experience, it’s still a good idea to learn from an experienced ice climber before attempting to go out on your own.
Before you look into buying climbing gear, it’s not a bad idea to familiar yourself with strength ratings, since they appear on many items like carabiners, quick draws and slings. Most strength ratings appear in metric units, specifically in kilonewtons (kN). One kN is equal to about 225 lbs. of force, or the strain of about 225 lbs. of weight hanging motionless without added force from falling. In other words, a 150-pound person hanging from a rope is exerting 0.67 kN on the rope and other connective gear. However, if that person fell 15 feet, they would put a much greater force on their equipment. Climbing gear is generally designed to withstand a reasonable fall. It’s important to use proper belay techniques and protection placement to avoid long falls, which put greater strain on equipment.
The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA – Union Internationale des Associations D'Alpinisme) and European Community (CE) equipment safety organization test the designs of new climbing gear prior to production and help set safety ratings. All safe and tested climbing equipment will depict the UIAA safety label and/or the "CE mark," both seen above. You can check out the UIAA safety standards on their website.
|Gear Type||Climbing Type|
|Bouldering||Mountaineering||Ice Wall||Top Rope||Traditional||Sport|
|Avalanche Safety Gear||X||X|
|Ice Axe/Ice Tools||X||X|
|Ice Pitons/Ice Screws||X||X|
Note: Always bring backcountry items like a headlamp, first aid kit, GPS, etc. when applicable.
The rope is your safety line when ascending a vertical face or steep terrain. Ropes intended for lead climbing are "dynamic," meaning they are designed to stretch (called elongation), in the event of a fall to prevent injury. For top-roping, less elongation is needed because fall distances are usually very short. For rappelling, a static (zero elongation) rope may be used. Thinner ropes can be used to haul gear. Just be sure to clearly label your ropes if you have more than one. It’s also important to keep track of the number of moderate falls a rope has endured. A rope that has too much wear or experienced a big fall should be retired. Always cut retired ropes into several short sections to prevent anyone else from using it.
Some important things to consider when selecting a climbing rope include:
Quick Tip: Start a diary to record all climbing rope usage. This will help you replace ropes at the right time.
Accessories like webbing, cords and slings may be needed for climbing and mountaineering.
Carabiners are rounded metal links, usually aluminum, designed to open and close easily. They are used as connectors between rope, harnesses, protection and other equipment. Carabiners come in several styles, including non-locking, locking and auto-locking versions. True climbing carabiners will always be engraved with strength ratings in kN.
Note: If a carabiner isn't engraved with strength ratings, don't use it for climbing. It's probably only designed as a non-weight-bearing gear clip.
Quickdraws (or "draws") are made by joining two carabiners together with a length of high-strength nylon webbing or Dyneema®, which is usually stitched to keep the carabiners in place at either end. Quickdraws allow sport climbers to quickly attach the rope to a fixed bolt.
Belay Devices make belaying possible because they create friction, essentially acting as a brake on the climbing rope when a climber falls. Belay devices come in several forms, and some can also be used for rappelling.
Select your climbing harness based on your climbing style: Multi-purpose, competition, sport, big wall, or alpine (mountaineering). Each climbing harness style has the right amount of padding and appropriate leg and gear loops for the intended climbing style. Be sure your climbing harness fits well when you're wearing the type of clothing you'll use when actually climbing.
Climbing "protection" refers to the anchors that form a linkage between the rock wall (or ice) and the climbing rope. There are multiple types of protection to choose from.
There are three main types of climbing-specific footwear: heavy-duty mountaineering boots, rock climbing shoes and approach shoes.
Mountaineering Boots are much sturdier than backpacking boots, with a very stiff sole and a crampon-ready design. These boots are needed for both mountaineering and ice climbing.
Rock Climbing Shoes (or "climbing slippers") are lightweight, form-fitting shoes that fit very snugly on a climber's foot. They have turned-down toes, protective side panels and sticky, wrap-around rubber soles designed for utilizing small footholds on vertical rock faces.
Approach Shoes are a hybrid type of shoe somewhere between climbing slippers and hiking shoes, and are good for clambering up steep rock faces thanks to their sticky rubber outsoles.
Climbing clothing and outerwear ranges from light, comfy and non-restrictive rock climbing duds to high-performance Gore-Tex® jackets and down parkas for summiting peaks in the off season. Below are the main apparel categories you’ll need to consider to stay comfortable on your next trip:
Climbing and other related activities are inherently dangerous; anyone purchasing or using equipment for this purpose is personally responsible for getting proper instruction on its correct and safe use. Please seek out a professional climbing guide or certified climbing instructor to address any questions you may have about climbing gear or gear usage.