Telling your friends that you’re going rock climbing is often met by peals of laughter, disbelief or ridicule of some sort. A frequently-held view is that rock and wall climbing is for death-wish lunatics only, a bizarre macho sport in which you traverse vast distances of treacherous terrain, only then to climb hundreds of metres of featureless, overhanging rock in a blizzard.
Climbing can, of course, come to this, but for the majority of climbers it is simply an exciting and pleasant way of temporarily escaping the monotony of everyday life a thrilling physical experience during which you have some fun whilst engaging in the absorbing business of calculated risk.
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A Calculated Risk
One of the greatest climbers in the world, Reinhold Messner, describes climbing as ‘controlling risk’ if the risk factor is too great, then you are ‘out of control’, and danger replaces adventure. In climbing, the aim of the
exercise is to become expert enough to assess situations accurately, and retreat or not even begin if the risk of a serious accident is too high. Coming from Messner, who has summitted all of the 8000m peaks, most without oxygen, and pioneered some of the world’s most extreme climbs (and lived to tell the tale) this is very good advice.
The aim of this website is to help teach you how to reduce the risk factor, without losing the exhilaration and adventure inherent in, and essential to, climbing. It focuses on rock climbing, only touching briefly on other forms of climbing such as artificial walls, snow, ice and ‘aid’ climbing. The basic principles, however, remain the same for all forms of climbing. Merely reading this website, and following the advice to the letter, will, of course, not guarantee your safety gaining experience, using your common sense and seeking advice and help from expert climbers will both enhance your enjoyment of climbing and reduce the chances of an accident.
It’s All In The Game
In reality, climbing is just a game. No one has to climb mountains or rocks it is done as a pastime providing great enjoyment and simply, as the saying goes, ‘because the rocks are there’. Certainly some people have made climbing their livelihood, in the same way as professional golfers or football players, for example, make their living from sport but the vast majority of climbers participate in the sport purely as a game.
A keen climber, Lito Tejada-Flores, in his landmark essay, Games Climbers Play, outlined, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the various types of climbing and the rules that apply. Rules are generally made to ‘control’ a game, but also exist to prevent the game being ‘too easy.’ for instance, being able to run with the ball in your hands would make a mockery of soccer, whereas it is part of the game in rugby football. In the same way, climbers have largely unwritten, but nonetheless well-known rules to ‘level the playing field’ or, rather, to ‘steepen the mountain’. If you are climbing a huge alpine face, with bad weather looming, then to pull up on or stand on pieces of equipment placed in rock cracks might be deemed acceptable, whereas to do the same on your local short crag would probably bring disapproving looks from other climbers. This is not to say that you cannot choose your own way of doing a climb but some things would simply not be considered ‘good style’!
Let’s examine some of the games climbers play:
This is possibly the simplest game of all, requiring the least equipment and, for this very reason, it is subject to some of the most stringent unwritten rules. Essentially, all that is needed is a low boulder and a climber. Boulders can vary from half a metre (1 .6ft) to a terrifying (and possibly unwise) 10m (33ft) in height. If you want to add ‘equipment’, you may opt for using special rock shoes sticky-soled, tight-fitting, sensitive footwear that allows you to take advantage of every ripple in the rock and chalk, a powder used to dry off the fingers and palms and thus increase their power of adhesion.
Now the rules begin. In truly serious bouldering, the use of a rope is ‘out’, you cannot stand on pieces of gear inserted into the rock, your partner cannot support you physically, and you must keep to the acknowledged route (on many boulders, for instance, there are numerous different boulder problems sharing a very limited space).
For many climbers bouldering becomes an all-consuming passion, and some can happily spend hours in the cellar at home, where a small home-built overhanging panelled wall is used to take the place of a natural boulder. Of course this is fine, but the joy and beauty of being outdoors is lost.
Some offshoots of bouldering are the following:
Free Solo (Unroped) Climbing
In essence, free solo climbing is bouldering taken to new heights quite literally. Solo (unroped) climbing involves climbing to any height with none of the usual climbing safeguards. This unfettered form of climbing can hold great appeal, as it allows the climber to move fast and fluidly. This is certainly not recommended as a way of beginning your climbing career, as many a climber, including renowned experts, have met their death on free solo climbs. If all goes smoothly, and the climb is well within the physical and mental capabilities of the climber, then free solo climbing is exhilarating, a pure form of the art. If the slightest thing goes wrong, however, your attempt may end in tragedy.
Perhaps a slightly more ‘sane’ way to engage in free soloing is to climb above water. Many parts of the world, including the Calanques in France and parts of the British coast, boast long stretches of cliff bordering deep sections of ocean. These can have traverses which stay at a reasonable height above the water for miles on end. Not only do you experience testing and sustained traversing, but also the benefits of a fall that may involve a wetting and perhaps a long swim but not severe injury or death. It comes as no surprise that this kind of climb is particularly popular on warm summery days! Remember, however, that water can seem as hard as steel if you hit it from 10m (33ft) or higher, and that the hazards of cold water and large waves are just as substantial as sharp rocks below or, in some areas, unfriendly neighbourhood sharks! Educate yourself well about your chosen climbing environment by consulting guidebooks, and speaking to people with local experience.
Here the name says it all – this kind of climbing is done on man-made structures not built for climbing purposes, but that lend themselves to great sport nonetheless. Beware, though, as climbs like these can and do lead to fines or arrests. Architects and property managers take their responsibilities very seriously, and convincing the court that you ‘were only doing a little wall climbing on the bank’ might not be all that easy. Climb these structures, by all means, but do seek approval first. (And sometimes it may even be a good idea to check timetables there is a well-known case of a climber who had to cling precariously to a steep railway embankment as a slow goods train rumbled along below him for what seemed like ages.)
Climbing Walls and Rock Gyms
Rock gyms and artificial walls are extremely good places to start your climbing career they usually have equipment to rent and trained staff on duty to offer advice and to make sure that you don’t go wrong during the tricky starting phases. Most gyms provide a wide range of routes of varying difficulty,and offer you the opportunity to learn from other climbers. Many countries where sport climbing is popular offer good facilities, with a particular abundance in Belgium, France, the UK and the USA. The main danger of rock gyms is that enthusiastic beginners often push their limits too hard and too fast, resulting in muscle or tendon injuries. Poor belaying practices can also result in a number of avoidable accidents.
Most purpose-built centres for climbing started as small, basic constructions that allowed climbers to train all year round. Many of them, however, have developed into huge creations valued in their own right, and are no longer regarded as mere substitutes for the ‘real thing’. Some climbers enjoy climbing gyms so much that they never leave the ‘plastic’ (as these walls are known) to head for real rock faces.
In certain cases, the ‘wall game’ can also have a set code of highly restrictive rules, where you may not touch this or that hold, for instance, or must stay to one side of a line. However, in a gym you are far freer to ignore these than on the rock faces after all, you are there for training and fun!
The advent of climbing competitions has enhanced the popularity of rock walls and gyms, and the frequent media coverage has given a huge boost to climbing in general. In these competitions, the ascent of a set route with a carefully determined grade of difficulty has to be completed within a certain time limit. Climbers score points according to how far they manage to climb the route within the given limit time is not a factor in determining your score, unless you run out of it!
Speed climbing events are a separate category, where a much easier route has to be completed in the fastest possible time. Many countries now have regular climbing circuits, which are particularly well-supported by school and college students.
Apart from local and national competitions, there are international events, including the World CUP circuit, and ‘Invitation’ events for the creme de la creme, held at places like Serre Chevalier in France, Snowbird Lodge in the USA and Arco in Italy. There are also annual World Cup events in the youth (under-13) and junior (under-19) categories.
Major competitions offer some good incentives, fame, fortune, and substantial prizes. In addition, competitions provide opportunities for safe climbing under controlled conditions, and offer pleasant social interaction. They do, however, demand rigorous training, immense self-discipline and motivation, and a cool head under pressure.
Sport climbing is a fairly modern climbing game with its roots in France in the late 1970s. The Alpine areas of France had many climbs where guides had banged pitons (metal stakes) into rock fissures to offer protection to the leader in the case of a fall, and left these in place for convenience when guiding parties of climbers. Young climbers spotted the potential of this practice, and also started to protect harder, steeper routes – first with fixed pitons, and then with expansion bolts inserted into holes drilled in the rock. The advent of battery-powered drills and quick-set epoxy resins has led to more and more areas being bolted.
Most sport climbs are a single ‘pitch’ long. This means that you climb up to a point from which your belayer (your partner, who belays or holds you, with the aid of a mechanical device) lowers you back to the ground. There are, however, many multi-pitch sport climbs, which allow you to climb for hours up a single route.
There are many climbs and certain types of rock which are best protected by bolts, these being the only possible and reliable form of protection and a good number of local authorities have agreed to specified areas becoming bolting areas, leaving other rock faces for the natural gear-aficionados. There is little doubt that the ease of the use of bolts has been responsible for a large increase in the numbers of climbers on rock faces, and there is ever-growing pressure to bolt more and more areas. The degree of real damage bolts do to the environment is debatable, particularly if one considers the impact of walking paths, trails, fences and even signs proclaiming ‘no bolting’! In certain areas the banning of bolts is justified, though, and this must be respected.
Sport climbing has led to standards in extreme rock climbing improving dramatically, as here you can ‘push your limits’ until you fall, with little danger of the protection points giving way (although this can happen). Sport climbing often takes place on very steep overhanging rock, where tremendous strength, power and gymnastic ability are required to succeed. These skills, and the fitness resulting from numerous repeats of strenuous routes, transfer to long alpine routes or other natural-gear rock climbs, and there can be little doubt that many of these modern extreme climbs owe their existence to the techniques and power derived from sport climbing.
Natural-Gear Rock Climbing
This kind of climbing is what most people still conceive of as ‘real’ climbing. One person, the leader, starts up a rock face, trailing one or two ropes. He or she places protection (referred to as gear) into cracks in the rock at intervals, and clips the rope(s) into these via snaplinks (carabiners). The second climber safeguards the first by holding the rope, usually via some form of belay device. Once the leader reaches a suitable spot, he or she places more protection, attaches him or herself, and then belays the second climber up to his or her level. The second climber removes all of the protection as they climb up, for later use.
This game too has rules, the most common being ‘thou shalt not pull on, or stand on, the gear’ (unless conditions are really extreme only then may it be acceptable). It is customary, with these climbs, that subsequent climbers will undoubtedly try to repeat the route in better style by free-climbing the moves that were originally done with the aid of the gear. For a really ‘pure’ ascent, you would not pre-examine the route on rappel or by seconding it, you would not have ‘beta’ knowledge information gathered from other climbers specifying exactly how to do tricky sections you would simply get there, and do the climb.
The great advantage of traditional (or trad) climbing is that one can climb any piece of rock, anywhere, with a relatively small amount of protection gear, providing the rock has a fair supply of cracks, fissures or ‘eyes’ into or around which to place the protection. The disadvantages are that some rock is too blank or friable (crumbly) to accept natural protection, and that the gear you place yourself is usually more likely to pop (come out of the rock) under the force of a fall than if it was being held by fixed bolts.
Placing natural gear is both an art and a science, and it takes time to develop the necessary skills. You would be well advised to spend a good deal of time practising gear placement before putting it to any real test! The gear is expensive, and you will need a wide variety if you want to protect all possible situations adequately. It is also far more nerve-wracking placing your own gear than simply clipping into pre-placed, solid bolts, so start off at a much lower grade than you would normally climb if you were using bolts.
Trad climbing techniques are used from small crags, via big wall and aid routes, to alpine-scale climbs.
This is practised on small outcrops, some 20-100m (65-330ft) in height, with only a few pitches. A pitch is the length of one section of a climb, dictated either by the length of the rope normally used, or any natural features which lead to good belay ledges or which force a belay (such as a spot just before a large overhang). Crag climbing differs from sport climbing,
not only in the lack of bolts, but in the tendency of crag climbers to walk or scramble down via easier pathways after a climb, rather than be lowered off by the belayer. Crag climbing is still the most popular form of climbing in a number of countries, including the UK, USA, South Africa, Austria, Germany and Australia.
Crag climbers are usually very particular about the rule of not using gear to provide aid, as this helps to stack the odds against the climber in a situation that usually has little other objective danger.
In this sub-game, the object is to get a number of climbers (a pair, or a larger team) up a huge rock face by any reasonable climbing means. Often aid may have to be used to overcome blank or overhanging sections; that is, the climber pulls up, or stands, on slings attached to pieces of protection gear. Frequently this aid includes the odd bolt drilled into the rock.
A second important feature of this game is that other members of the team do not have to climb the pitch they often ascend ropes fixed by the leader by means of mechanical ascenders such as jumars. In this way, they save both time and energy. On big walls, large amounts of food, water and survival equipment are normally hoisted up stage by stage in haul sacks.
The boundaries between the various games and sub-games are becoming increasingly blurred as climbers push the limits. Many older routes, where aid was previously used, are now free-climbed or even free-soloed.