Types of climbing
The most common form of climbing is rock climbing, which involves the ascent of natural rock formations or artificial walls in indoor climbing centres. There are thousands of routes that have been recorded around the country and these are graded by a system measuring their level of difficulty (see below).
Rock climbing may be practiced as aid climbing or free climbing. Aid climbing requires climbers to use various pieces of equipment, such as ropes, harnesses and belays to ascend a rock that could not normally be climbed freely. Climbers usually work in pairs with one person acting as the belayer, using friction to allow the climber to hang by a rope whilst they ascend the rock face. Unmarked routes require one climber to ‘lead climb’ a wall in order to clip rope and gear to the rock as they climb, but most indoor walls and many outdoor routes use a system called top-roping where a rope is threaded through an anchor at the top of the route, allowing all climbers to be attached safely to the rock.
Free climbing is the ascent of surfaces without the aid of traditional climbing equipment. This type of climbing can be dangerous as it requires climbers to rely solely on technique and experience, but many climbers also find it a more liberating and rewarding experience.
Bouldering is the activity of scrambling over smaller rocks, usually without the aid of a rope because of their proximity to the ground. It is often used as a method of training but it is a competitive sport in its own right. This kind of climbing requires great strength in the arms and the legs in order to negotiate the cracks and crevices of the boulder without being able to rely on the aid of the belay. It is a good way to build up strength and technique and requires only a crash mat in the way of equipment.
More extreme than climbing on rocky surfaces, ice climbers use crampons and ice picks to ascend glaciers and ice formations. Ice structures can be very unpredictable and consequently this is the riskiest of all types of climbing. Many indoor climbing centres have ice walls, which is a safe way to prepare for outdoor ice climbing. The world’s largest indoor ice wall is at the ‘Ice Factor’ just outside of Glencoe but there are facilities all over the country.
Buildering is the practice of outdoor climbing in the urban environment and involves negotiating buildings and man-made structures without the use of rope or equipment. Buildering is often associated with the French sport of "parcourt," a form of engaging with the built-up environment and, in recent years, it has become very popular in urban parts of Britain. A sport in its own right, buildering may also be used to train for rock climbing and is a good way to practice techniques and judgement.
Alpine climbing is an extremely challenging type of climbing, requiring the climber to be adept at climbing across ice and rocky surfaces as well as having sound knowledge of survival skills and meteorology, as weather conditions can change very quickly in alpine environments. It is also critical that alpine climbers are able to climb quickly and with sound judgement, as the freezing conditions can be fatal and there is often a high risk of avalanches.
As with alpine climbing, mixed climbers need to have experience of a variety of terrain. Mixed climbing often incorporates varying pitch lengths, ranging from short demanding climbs to alpine climbs of thousands of feet.
Whilst good climbers must have body strength and agility, it is even more important that they have well-practiced techniques so the climber can negotiate rocks, ice or man-made walls with speed and skill. Climbing relies heavily on the arms and legs and it is important that beginners learn to use their limbs effectively to conserve strength and energy for difficult moves.
When ascending a wall, climbers should keep their body as close to the wall as possible, keeping the body vertical to avoid the need to cling to the rock. The legs are the strongest part of the body and climbers should use leverage from their legs, rather than using the hands to drag the body up the rock. It is also more effective to use the inside of the foot as opposed to the toe and this will help maintain an upright position against the rock.
It is necessary to rest at regular intervals, particularly on longer and more arduous climbs. When resting, it will be less work for the hands to place them above the head, then straighten the arm and lean out. It is also important to think ahead when climbing and to position the hands and feet in the hold ready for the next move so as to avoid switching and to conserve strength.
There is no ‘one way’ to climb and it is important that each climber works to their own individual strengths. Practicing the same routes repeatedly is a good way to get to know the body and to improve the technique. It is also useful to watch the moves a more experienced climber makes and to attempt to imitate the way they negotiate the holds. When getting to know new ways of climbing, it is pivotal that you climb slowly in order to plan moves carefully, thus developing good judgement rather than snatching for ill considered holds.