What Is Rock Climbing?

Rock climbing is an exciting and challenging sport that will give you a rush like no other. Combining physical strength with mental focus, rock climbers study routes, figuring out moves as they go, and then use insane power, flexibility and agility to conquer dizzying heights.

With indoor walls popping up all over the country and some truly stunning outdoor climbing spots, the UK is packed with places to get your climb on.The sport is also exploding internationally as countries all over the world catch the climbing bug so there’s never been a better time to get into this courageous and rewarding pastime.

Rock Climbing History

The earliest evidence of rock climbing comes from paintings dating back to 200BC of Chinese climbers. Climbing spread across Europe as part of early mountaineering but it wasn’t until 1880 that rock climbing became a sport in its own right.Today climbing is used in everything from movie stunts to emergency rescue work and it has a vibrant international competition scene which represents each of the sport’s different disciplines.

Though it might all look pretty much the same, climbing actually comes in a range of different styles, all with a slight twist on the basic rock climbing formula.

Indoor Climbing

The most accessible form of rock climbing is indoor climbing. Indoor climbing takes place on purpose built walls, usually made from wood with man made holds bolted on.Indoor walls are a great place to get started with rock climbing as they provide a controlled environment, free from wind and rain, where you can build up your skills before taking them outside.

Indoor walls have staff who will be able to give you advice and training along with graded routes giving you a good idea of where to start and how to track your progress as you work through the grades. Indoor routes are also regularly reset, with the climbing holds moved around, providing a fresh challenge every few months to keep you on your toes.

Although lots of people see indoor walls as a place to train when the weather is too rough to be outside, there are also plenty of people who climb exclusively on indoor walls so there’s usually a good community of local climbers for you to get involved with too.

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Gym Climbing

Chances are, you’ve been to—or at the very least, have heard about—an indoor climbing gym in your town or city. Gyms attempt to replicate outdoor climbing experiences through the use of artificial walls, handholds, and footholds. At each gym, different “routes” up the wall are set at varying levels of difficulty. Routes are typically color-coded by holds, and their difficulty is marked at the start with a plastic card designating its name and grade. The higher the number, the more difficult the route.

Indoor climbing is typically divided into three disciplines. Bouldering, top roping, and lead climbing. Each of these vary in technique, but the objectives are all the same: get to the top.


Bouldering is a form of climbing that doesn’t use ropes and takes place at lower heights than regular climbing, usually around 20ft or less. As its name suggests, bouldering is normally practiced on boulders or any other shorter obstacle you might fancy.

Bouldering routes are called ‘problems’ and usually require a short series of powerful or technical moves as opposed to the much longer series of challenges facing a regular sport climber.

The biggest distinction between bouldering and other types of climbing is that, in bouldering, there is no use of a rope or harness. Instead of relying on ropes for protection, bouldering usually relies on crash pads (thick padded mats) to protect climbers when they fall. Additionally, routes (called “problems” in bouldering) are not typically more than 20 feet tall. Having a partner isn’t strictly necessary, but spotting is an important skill for bouldering.

Boulder problems are graded on the V-scale in North America, with V0 being easiest and V16 being the most difficult. The V-scale is based strictly on difficulty and does not take into consideration fear or danger.

Indoor problems can vary greatly depending on the hold size, spacing, and shape. Because minimal equipment is needed (usually just climbing shoes and chalk) and little initial training is necessary, bouldering has a low barrier of entry. As such, it’s often the starting point for many new climbers. New climbing gyms dedicated strictly to bouldering are becoming more prevalent because of this.

Unlike sport climbing routes, the focus of a bouldering problem is not necessarily to reach the top of an obstacle but rather to complete the path or problem that has been set across a rock. This may involve traversing and even climbing downwards across a rock to reach the next hold.

Bouldering originated outdoors as part of mountaineering training in the 1800s before it was popularised as a sport in the 1960s. Today most indoor climbing centres have at least one bouldering wall and there are now an increasing number of bouldering centres which focus entirely on low level problems rather than roped climbing.

The fact that bouldering requires minimal equipment and no partner to belay you makes this sport really popular and it’s a great way to develop physical strength before you move into other styles of climbing. While bouldering outdoors in the UK is popular, the fact that multiple bouldering problems can be packed into a small space also makes the sport ideal for urban environments – there are excellent bouldering walls in London for example.

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Sport climbing is the most common form of climbing you are likely to experience. Using metal loops bolted into the rock, sport climbers work their way up mountains and cliffs clipping their climbing ropeinto these loops as they go.Most sport-climbs outdoors are lead climbs. The lead climber will clip into bolts along the route and then build an anchor at the top, while belayed from the ground.

Sport climbing routes are normally planned out for you because they are loosely defined by where the loops are placed into the rock. Sport climbing routes also have fixed anchor points at the top of each climb for you to belay from, making this the easiest form of outdoor climbing to get into. You’ll still need to know a few basic rope techniques and climbing knots however, or go with an experienced climber who knows them already.

Sport lead climbing relies on fixed bolts for protection along a predefined route. The lead climber ascends the route with the rope tied to his or her harness and clips into each bolt or quickdraw to protect against a fall.

In indoor climbing gyms, quickdraws (two non-locking carabiners connected with webbing) are pre-placed on the bolts so that a lead climber only has to clip the rope in as he or she ascends the route.

Lead climbing requires a much greater commitment than top roping, because there is a greater potential for the lead climber to take a more drastic fall (called a “whipper”). As the lead climber ascends, the potential fall distance will be twice the length of the rope between the last clipped bolt and the lead climber; this distance can be exaggerated by dynamic rope stretch.

Sport routes are also graded on the Yosemite Decimal System in North America.

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