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The Climbing Guide

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.

Rock Climbing

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Top Roping

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.

Lead Climbing

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:

  • Sport Climbing: Climbing pre-bolted routes using permanent anchors affixed to the rock face. This type of lead climbing requires minimal gear. It is important for sport climbers to inspect each bolt during the course of a climb, keeping an eye out for loose bolts. If you find a loose bolt, halt the climb immediately and be sure to inform a local climbing club or park ranger of the issue. Just like any piece of gear, bolts eventually wear out and need to be replaced.
  • Trad Climbing (Traditional Climbing): Technical climbing that requires the lead climber to place portable anchors (called protection) during the ascent. Temporary anchors are created by placing cams and tapered “nuts” into cracks and indentations in the rock surface. Each cam and nut is attached to a carabiner with high-tensile wire, which is then clipped onto the rope. Trad climbing takes longer and emphasizes the ability to locate good placement points on the fly.

Indoor 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.

Bouldering

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.

Mountaineering

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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.

Summer Mountaineering

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.

Winter Mountaineering

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.

Yosemite Decimal System

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:

  • Class 1: Walking and ascending along designated trails and easy terrain. No navigation or technical equipment needed.
  • Class 2: Walking and ascending with the occasional use of the hands. Easy to moderate terrain. No technical equipment needed. Trails may or may not be clearly designated. Some navigation may be required.
  • Class 3: More frequent scrambling on steeper, rugged terrain. A rope and harness may be carried, but are not necessarily required. Potential dangerous falls, but no vertical faces and limited exposure.
  • Class 4: Exposed climbing and scrambling. Ropes are frequently used for safety. Natural protection can easily be found. No extended vertical faces, but still a high potential for dangerous falls. May require crampons and winter climbing equipment.
  • Class 5: Technical rock and ice climbing is required to navigate vertical rock faces, ice, snow and/or challenging alpine terrain. Consistent exposure and limited natural protection. Harnesses, rope, belaying and other protection hardware are required for safety.

Ice Climbing

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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.

Climbing Gear Strength Ratings

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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.

UIAA Logo The CE Safety Label

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.

Climbing Gear Overview

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To help simplify which gear you need for which sport, below is a gear checklist for each climbing discipline.

Gear Type Climbing Type
  Bouldering Mountaineering Ice Wall Top Rope Traditional Sport
Active Protection   X   X X  
Avalanche Safety Gear   X X      
Backpack/Daypack X X X X X X
Belay Device   X X X X X
Boots-Mountaineering   X X      
Bouldering/Crash Pad X          
Carabiners   X X X X X
Chalk X     X X X
Chalk Bag X     X X X
Climbing Helmet   X X X X X
Crampons   X X      
Hammer         X  
Harness   X X X X X
Hydration System X X X X X X
Ice Axe/Ice Tools   X X      
Ice Pitons/Ice Screws   X X      
Passive Protection   X X X X  
Piolet   X        
Pitons   X        
Quick Draws   X X X X X
Ropes   X X X X X
Shoes-Rock X     X X X
Slings/Webbing/Cords   X X X X X
Snow Shovel   X X      

Note: Always bring backcountry items like a headlamp, first aid kit, GPS, etc. when applicable.

Climbing Rope

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.

Ice Climber

Some important things to consider when selecting a climbing rope include:

  • Single Ropes vs. Double Ropes: Use a double climbing rope if you plan to hit very technical routes. These ropes are intended to be used in pairs and are clipped alternately into anchors along a route.
  • Dry Climbing Ropes: Dry climbing ropes have a core that will not absorb water. Double dry climbing ropes have a core and sheath that both repel water. These ropes are designed for climbing in ice, snow and wet weather, because wet or frozen ropes are unsafe and much heavier.
  • Climbing Rope Diameter: Always given in mm, ranging from about 8 to 11 mm. A thicker climbing rope is heavier, but also stronger and longer lasting.
  • Climbing Rope Length: Given in meters. More climbing rope length means more distance you can ascend per pitch.

Rope Specifications

  • Static Elongation refers to the length the climbing rope will extend when a climber is suspended motionless from it.
  • Dynamic Elongation refers to the maximum amount the climbing rope will stretch in the event of a fall. For both this rating and static elongation, a higher number means more stretch to absorb farther falls.
  • Number of Falls refers to the maximum number of moderate falls the climbing rope can take prior to needing replacement. You should always replace any climbing rope after just one major fall, though, since its integrity may be compromised.
  • Impact Force is the maximum impact the climbing rope can withstand without breaking.

Quick Tip: Start a diary to record all climbing rope usage. This will help you replace ropes at the right time.

Webbing & Slings

Accessories like webbing, cords and slings may be needed for climbing and mountaineering.

  • Webbing is tubular nylon used to make "runners," which are loops that link the climbing rope to the anchors along your climbing route.
  • Accessory Cords can also be used to make runners and slings, such as chocks, Prusik slings or cordelettes.
  • Slings are loops of webbing or cord with specific uses.

Carabiners, Quickdraws & Belay Devices

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.

  • Tubular: Versatile and light. This is the most common and affordable style of belay device.
  • Auto-Locking: For sport climbing, they lock without requiring the application of extra force from a belayer. This is intended to minimize user error. However, it’s very important to learn how to place the rope inside the device correctly.
  • Figure 8: Intended for rappelling, but can also be used as a belay device in a pinch.

Climbing Harnesses

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

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.

  • Active Protection: Any protection with moving parts or mechanisms. Spring-loaded cams are the most prevalent style.
  • Passive Protection: Similar to active protection, these use a wedge shape instead of moving parts. Tapers and chock nuts are two common examples.
  • Pitons: Metal spikes that are permanently anchored into a crack in a cliff face by the lead climber during trad climbing. Placement of pitons requires a small hammer. However, these are frowned upon by many in the climbing community because they can damage rock surfaces.
  • Ice Screws and Ice Pitons: Used as anchors when climbing an ice wall.

Ice Climbing & Mountaineering Gear

  • Ice Axes (Ice Tools): Curved metal axes with jagged picks that climbers use to create holds on a vertical ice wall.
  • Mountaineering Axes (Piolets): Long ice axes with a straight handle. These are primarily used as walking aids when summiting steep snowfields, and are designed to facilitate a "self-arrest" if a climber loses his footing.
  • Crampons: Metal traction devices that attach to the bottom of mountaineering boots. Crampons are divided into two main groups: mountaineering crampons and ice climbing crampons.
  • Rescue Shovels: Small, collapsible shovels carried for safety in the winter and spring backcountry. Designed to be used in the event of an avalanche.
  • Avalanche Probes: Another avalanche safety device.

Other Climbing Gear

  • Climbing Helmets should be used for every type of climbing except non-technical mountain climbing and bouldering. They will protect your head from falling objects or in the event of a long fall.
  • Crash Pads are designed to help limit injury if a climber falls when bouldering. Multiple crash pads can be used for added safety.
  • Headlamps provide hands-free lighting during low light situations.
  • Backpacks help carry gear.
  • Chalk Bags keep chalk close at hand to increase friction when reaching for difficult hand holds.

Climbing Shoes

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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

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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:

  • General Climbing Clothing includes lightweight shirts, shorts and pants designed for scrambling and climbing. A gusseted inseam is a great feature to look for in climbing shorts and climbing pants. This will help prevent blowing out the crotch of your pants as you stretch out for a difficult foothold. Climbing shirts should be light, breathable and moisture-wicking.
  • Waterproof Breathable Jackets and Pants are necessary for bagging peaks in colder conditions and being prepared for potential weather. Remember: If it’s 80 degrees and sunny at the base of a mountain, it could be cold, windy, raining or even snowing by the time you get near the summit, even in the middle of the summer.
  • Base Layers are ideal for layering underneath your outerwear. These should be made of a lightweight, moisture-wicking material, such as polyester or merino wool. Stay away from cotton.
  • Gloves and Hats come in many forms, from leather work gloves for rappelling to down-insulated mittens for mountaineering to a bucket hat for protection from the sun at high elevation.
  • Socks are not something you want to skimp on. Lightweight hiking socks work great for climbing in mild conditions. Go with midweight or heavyweight for mountaineering and ice climbing, since these will provide added cushioning and warmth. Leave the cotton socks at home and go with wool, synthetic or a blend.

Useful Climbing Tips

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  • If you’re just learning to climb, hook up with an experienced climber, climbing club or guide company. This way, you can learn from people with ample experience, and you can also decide which gear works best for you before you go out and buy your own.
  • Always be sure to knot the ends of your ropes when rappelling or reverse belaying. This is especially important to remember for multiple pitches, so you don't accidentally allow the end of the rope to slide through your belay device.
  • Thoroughly research the area you will be climbing, so you can be prepared for anything, from potential weather to navigation. Don’t just wing it and don’t assume you can climb something. Some outdoor locations don’t allow climbing or only allow climbing with a permit.
  • Never head into the winter backcountry without first knowing how to recognize avalanche conditions and without checking with local authorities on the current snow conditions.
  • If you’ve been sport climbing before and are thinking about getting into trad, remember that frequent falling is not acceptable in this discipline. Temporary anchors are not as reliable as bolts, so keep this in mind when choosing routes. Placing protection properly and frequently can be a life-saving skill. Learn by going out with an experienced climber, let them lead and watch what they do. Ask lots of questions and learn as much as you can before you attempt to lead a climb.

Climbing Disclaimer

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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.

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