A Guide to Types of Rock Climbing
I’m a boulderer. I like bouldering. Boulders are my friends. Boulders good, big cliffs bad. However, non-climbers often ask me about other types of climbing when I mention that I spend a significant amount of my time dangling from my fingertips.
In this post, I’ll take you through some popular types of climbing and explain why I like bouldering better than the rest. I’m more than happy for people to disagree with me about which discipline of climbing is best. It’s a very personal choice and depends a lot on what you enjoy and what you hope to get out of your climbing experience.
These are simply my opinions, which could well be absolute nonsense!
I believe this is what most people think of when they picture rock climbing. A massive wall or rock face. When you first try this type of climbing, you normally begin on a top rope. This involves a rope running from the harness of the climber, through a clip at the top of the wall, down to the belayer on the ground, whose job it is to stop the climber from dying when they fall off. This configuration means that when the climber falls, they don’t tend to fall very far as they are always supported from above by the rope.
Once you’ve got used to top roping, climbers will often progress to lead climbing.
There's still a belayer on the ground and a climber on the wall, but the climber clips the rope into clips (called ‘quickdraws’) as they climb up the wall. This is as close to climbing without a rope as you can get while removing as much of the risk as possible. Lead climbing is scarier than top roping, for me anyway, because of the size of the falls you can take. Because you clip the quickdraws as you climb, you are often climbing above the last clipping point (‘above gear’). The distance you fall is therefore double the length of the rope between you and the last clip, plus whatever slack is in the system. This kind of fall is sometimes referred to as a ‘whipper’ and, I can’t lie to you gentle readers, the idea of taking a big whipper scares the crap out of me.
I may be a coward but at least I’m an honest coward.
However, it is not just the big falls that put me off lead climbing. I find it a total faff. You need a harness that fits properly. You have to learn some fancy knots. You have to clip as well as climb. When you fall it can be a nuisance to get back to where you were. Swapping between climbing and belaying is annoying. It’s uncomfortable to crane your neck up at the climber when belaying. You can buy belaying glasses, which have mirrors that allow you to look straight ahead but see the climber above you. Although, anyone who wears glasses every day and has seen a 3D film will tell you wearing two pairs of glasses at the same time is heckin’ uncomfortable and makes you look like a right tit.
Last but not least on the list of reasons why I’d make a terrible lead climber, lead climbing is about endurance. To be a great lead climber you must keep your head together when your forearms are throbbing with lactic acid. You must keep going when every fibre of your being wants to fall off and rest. This all just sounds like a lot of hard work and no play to me. I have epic amounts of respect for people that excel at lead climbing, but training endurance simply doesn’t interest me that much.
Basically, you need more kit, more patience, and more endurance than I possess to get the most out of lead climbing.
Trad (Traditional) Climbing
Trad shares many principles with lead climbing. It generally takes place on great big walls and you clip into pieces of gear as you climb. The big difference is that you place the gear yourself as you climb, rather than clipping into bolts that have been drilled into the rock.
These bits of gear come in the form of nuts and cams. There are probably more types and categories within categories that an ignorant boulderer like me doesn’t understand but these are the main two that I’m aware of. Nuts are simple blocks of metal of different sizes. Cams have moving parts, called lobes, that you pull into their narrowest position by using a trigger mechanism before slipping them into a crack and releasing the trigger to open the lobes up again to grip the rock around them. The idea is to wedge these bits of gears into the cracks and features of the rock until they are securely in place and can be trusted to hold your weight when you fall.
I can very much see the appeal of trad climbing. It’s arguably more environmentally friendly and ethical than drilling holes into rocks, as is required for lead climbing. However, for me, trad climbing has all the downsides of lead climbing but with the added terror of wondering whether that piece of gear will actually hold or not. I have no doubt that the makers of trad gear have built it to withstand hefty falls and have safety tested it to the highest standards. But I don’t always trust myself to choose the best meal from a small a la carte menu never mind about trusting myself to place lifesaving gear in a big ol’ cliff.
Then there’s more of the aforementioned faff. You generally need more gear and rope know-how for trad climbing and all the gear needs to be bought, maintained, sorted and placed into and removed from the rock once you’re done. As much as I enjoy the sight of a well organised collection of trad gear (known as a ‘trad rack’), I’m not convinced my enthusiasm for it would match the investment of time and money that generally go into learning to do it safely.
I prefer to blow my time and money on sewing projects or fancy climbing shoes.
Nestled within lead, trad, and bouldering is the dark art of crack climbing.
Crack climbing is exactly as it sounds; you climb your way along or up a rock using its cracks. This is achieved by wedging different parts of your body into said cracks. Hands, feet, forearms, legs, and sometimes even your whole body depending on the size of the crack. You can use all these body parts in different ways. You can use jams, stacks, locks, and bars to keep you nestled in cracks of all sizes.
The main reason I’m wary of crack climbing is that it looks painful as hell! The better you get at it, the less it hurts, I believe, but it still looks all kinds of ouchy to me. To preserve the skin that has the roughest time of it, climbers use tape to make crack climbing gloves that mainly cover the backs of the hands. Knuckles really suffer during crack climbing.
Aside from the pain, there’s not much else that puts me off crack climbing. It can be part of bouldering, so you don’t need a harness or a rope to crack climb, removing the faff barrier. Crack boulders are becoming more common in indoor climbing gyms but they are still not super common so that is a bit of an obstacle. I think to really embrace crack climbing you need a good teacher. You can learn from a great teacher in all forms of climbing. However, there seems to be so many tips and tricks to totally nailing crack climbing that you really need someone to teach you.
Two of the world’s best crack climbers, Pete Whittaker & Tom Randall, known as the Wide Boyz, sell crack climbing volumes (big holds) and run crack climbing courses, which I think would be really fun to go to. If you want to see crack climbing at its best, check out their YouTube channel and marvel at the insanity of it all.
Arguably, speed climbing is the most impressive to watch and easiest to understand. The aim is to get from the bottom of the 15m wall to the top as fast as possible. In the case of speed climbing specialists, this is ridiculously fucking fast. At the time of writing (March 2022) the men’s world record is 5.208 seconds, held by Veddriq Leonardo, and the women’s world record is 6.84, held by Alexsandra Miroslaw.
A pad on the floor at the bottom of the wall starts the clock when the climber lifts their foot off it. Another pad at the top of the wall stops the clock when the climber slaps it. Every speed climbing wall is the same height, overhanging by 5 degrees, and features the same holds placed in the same positions so that every wall is as close to identical as possible. There are two identical lanes next to each other so two climbers can race against one another. Speed climbers are clipped into an auto belay device, which is like a giant seatbelt. It retracts as the climber races up the wall then catches and gently lowers them to the ground when they reach the top.
I appreciate both the simplicity and complexity of speed climbing. It’s easy to understand and, crucially for me, doesn’t involve a lot of faff. Get from A to B as fast as possible with some grippy shoes, a harness, and a big seatbelt. On the other hand, when you dig down into the details, there are a lot of intricacies in speed climbing. When you’re talking about such quick times, tiny adjustments make huge differences. Tenths of seconds (a lifetime in speed climbing terms) are to be found in fractionally different foot placements, hip positions, and sequences.
The devil really is in the details.
I would love to have a crack at speed climbing. The problem is the lack of accessible facilities. I am only aware of two speed climbing walls in the UK that meet the requirements for a standard competition wall. Thanks to my formerly nomadic lifestyle I’ve been to a lot of climbing walls across the country and have never seen anything like a speed climbing wall, standard or otherwise. It’s just not something you see in your average climbing gym, although this may change after its popularity with Olympic audiences.
Because of this, I will just assume I’d be excellent at speed climbing and leave it at that for now.
Bouldering (aka The Best Type of Climbing)
Bouldering walls are roughly 5m high and individual boulders typically consist of between 4 and 12 moves, so endurance is less of an issue. Each boulder begins with designated starting holds for your hands and feet. You then use the rest of the holds and features of the wall to make your way to the top of the boulder in whatever way you see fit. To finish the boulder, you must match the top hold with both hands in control. Bouldering competitions have a slightly more complicated scoring system than this but for the average climber, this is all you need to know to understand how bouldering works.
There is no need for a harness, rope, or any gear fancier than a chalk bag so the majority of the faff I’ve been twining on about is removed and it’s cheaper and more accessible. Don’t get me wrong, climbing shoes aren’t cheap and if you go through chalk as quickly as I do that will also put a dent in your bank balance. However, when you start bouldering, shoes can be rented reasonably cheaply and quite a few of the gyms I’ve been to provide chalk for free in communal buckets (at least they did in pre-pandemic times).
The lack of height required also means that more buildings are suitable for use as bouldering gyms so you often find them in greater abundance, especially in cities. They can fit neatly under railway arches, in basements, or in wide open hangars on industrial estates. The possibilities are endless.
Additionally, I find bouldering to be the easiest type of climbing to share with others. As soon as one person falls off or finishes a boulder, the next person can get straight on without having to untie any ropes. You can discuss the boulder while sitting comfortably on the floor rather than shouting at each other from the bottom to the top of the wall.
Finally, boulders are short and intense with the most interesting and complex individual moves you’ll find in climbing. For me, this is where the fun lies. You get to test your mind’s creativity and your body’s flexibility, strength, and balance. You could be pulling as hard as you can on tiny holds on overhangs, clinging on with everything you’ve got. Or maybe you’ll find yourself swinging between holds trying dynos that challenge your coordination and timing. It’s just as much about mentally solving the puzzle as physically climbing the boulder, which is what keeps me coming back for more and more.
To put it plainly, bouldering offers me the most fun, intrigue, and physical satisfaction with the fewest barriers and faff. It’s all I want in a sport and I always heartily recommend it to all and sundry when given the opportunity. This is not to say that other types of climbing are not great and extremely enjoyable. They just don’t suit me as well as bouldering does.
So, there you have it, an idiot’s guide to climbing from a very biased boulderer. I hope you enjoyed it and learned a thing or two about the sport I love so much. Maybe I’ve even convinced you to give it a go some day. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I’ve left out aid climbing, ice climbing, dry tooling, deep water soloing, and multi pitch climbing to name but a few.
Oh, and free soloing but you’ll have to ask Alex Honnold about that one.