Rock climbing has come a long way since the early 1900s when men in hob-nailed boots scrambled up rock faces with ropes tied around their waists. This is reflected in the rating system used to describe how hard a climb is. Many well known traditional climbing routes were originally labelled as being very difficult, severe or even hard very severe (HVS) but are now often considered as routes only offering a challenge to beginner and intermediate climbers. Climbing standards have improved so much that the “Extreme” category, once considered the epitome of climbing difficulty, now contains 10 subdivisions with E10 being the hardest.
There are a number of different styles of rock climbing to choose from so it makes sense to take a look at each one in turn…
Bouldering involves solving short climbing problems close to the ground. Initially, bouldering was used by climbers as a training method but has developed into a standalone sport. The main advantage of bouldering over the other types of climbing is that you need very little in the way of specialist equipment other than a pair of appropriate shoes, some chalk and maybe a landing mat.
Immensely popular, indoor climbing venues are becoming more and more common and provide a safe way to hone your climbing skills. Handholds are bolted onto roughened boards supported by scaffolding and the routes can be as hard or as easy as the designer makes them. Some climbing centres used moulded artificial rock faces for the ultimate in climbing simulation. Some climbers only ever climb indoors and never venture onto “real” rock and indoor climbing is a very competitive sport.
This type of climbing is especially popular with beginners and those trying to improve their climbing ability. A rope is secured to a point above the climber so that, if they should fall, the rope is immediately supports the climber’s weight. Top roping can be used indoors and outdoors and is arguably the safest form of climbing after low level bouldering.
Traditional rock climbing
Traditional or trad climbing involves climbing up a rock face placing protection on the route as you go. The climber is belayed from below and clips his rope into removable anchors that are wedged into cracks in the rock. This will then limit how far he will fall if he suffers a mishap. Ironically, the higher the climber goes the safer he is as there will be more pieces of protection to arrest a fall.
Trad climbers normally climb routes “on sight” without prior inspection. Some routes can be so long that they are climbed in sections, called pitches, where the lead climber ascends to the end of the rope, attaches himself to the rock and belays his partner up to meet him. As the second climber ascends, he strips the protection left by the leader and then carries on past the leader’s position to continue up the route. Very long routes can be climbed this way.
This type of climbing is normally reserved for use on “big walls” and involves creating artificial foot and hand holds. Climbers may use pitons (metal spikes), webbing ladders or any number of other devices to allow them to make upward progress. Aid climbing often causes damage to the rock face and so is not normally used on popular, frequently used routes.
Sport climbing involves climbing routes that have pre-fixed protection already in place which is usually permanent. This is very common on the continent and has also become very popular in the UK. Routes are often “worked” which means the climber may spend several days practicing the elements of the climb before attempting to climb it in its entirety. Sport climbers generally climb to a higher level of difficulty than trad climbers but this is mainly because they often practice routes before climbing them and have more reliable protection available.
Soloing is the purest and also the most dangerous form of climbing because no ropes or protection are used; it’s just the climber against gravity and the rock. Unless the climber is over deep water (called deep water soloing) a fall is likely to result in very serious injury or death. Solo climbing is a very serious undertaking and best left to bona fide experts.
What makes a good climber?
Climbing is a very physical sport that places some unique demands on your body. As your weight is (or should be!) supported solely by your hands and feet, strong fingers, forearms, biceps, lats and calves are a must. You can normally spot a climber due to their excellent upper body development which is normally combined with very slim legs. Climbers usually train these muscles by bouldering, doing long traverses (sideways climbs at a low level) and performing a wide variety of pull us often using devices called finger boards to strengthen their fingers.
While strength is important, climbers to have an excellent strength to body weight ratio. Being strong is great but if you are also quite heavy, you are going to have to work much harder than someone equally strong but much lighter. This helps explain why many climbers have minimal lower body size and are also very lean. Subsequently, while climbers may use traditional strength training exercises in their physical preparations, they will endeavour to stay as light and lean as possible.
Some climbing routes feature holds that are far apart – beyond the reach of even the longest-limbed climber. This means that you may have to jump to reach the next hand hold. In climbing terms, this is called a dyno. Like any jumping movement, this type of manoeuvre requires power and more than just a little bit of bravery! Dyno ability is best developed by performing specialised jumping exercises called plyometrics.
In many ways, climbing is comparable to gymnastics because strength, economy of effort and balance are important for success. Also, like gymnasts, climbers need to be very flexible. Reaching high above your head or stepping up or out to reach a distant foothold requires a good range of movement and being stiff may mean the difference between reaching a hold easily or not teaching it at all.
In addition to being very strong, climbers must also have excellent muscular endurance. While a bouldering problem might be over in a matter of seconds, some longer routes take hours of sustained effort to complete. Long sustained climbs can leave your forearms engorged with lactic acid saturated blood – a painful condition climber’s call “getting pumped”. Once your forearms start getting pumped you only have a short time to reach a place to rest before you lose your grip and catch some air. Muscular endurance is enhanced by strength so you reach your physical limit later and aerobic fitness which helps clear lactic acid.
Mentally, climbers need the ability to stay cool under pressure, think ahead, a good ability to solve problems and, of course, a good head for heights. It’s amazing how hard a simple task like tying a knot can become when you are 200 feet above the ground!
Climbing is very much an all round sport that challenges your muscles and your mind and, even if you don’t have a head for heights, can provide a superb workout in the form of bouldering.
For more information on climbing please visit http://www.thebmc.co.uk/