Climbing coach Alistair Lee decrypts the often confusing world of bouldering, alpinism and dry tooling. Got a question? Ask us over on Facebook or Twitter.
Think ‘climbing’ and your mind would probably jump straight to someone scaling a ‘sheer rock face’ using ‘just their hands and feet’. But in truth, climbing has many different disciplines and can be enjoyed in many different ways by many different people. This – above all – is why it’s my favourite sport.
The concept of rock climbing seems simple, but sadly not. This fairly basic idea – using your body to get to the top of a route – can be broken down into many sub-categories.
Done both inside and outside, bouldering is a very social, simple form of climbing that’s hard not to enjoy. A large crash pad is used to protect the landing zone, with the aim being to do the biggest, most technical moves on the steepest bit of rock with the smallest holds possible. Routes are generally only about 5m tall but can reach grades of FB 8c+. The boulders are often referred to as ‘problems’ as it requires a lot of problem solving to find the easiest way to do the hardest line.
Like bouldering, sport climbing is enjoyed indoors just as much as outdoors and relies on bolts that are drilled into the wall. Using a quickdraw to clip your rope into the wall, this is a very safe way to get a bit more height than bouldering, with routes generally going up to around 30m high and reaching silly grades of F 9b+.
Traditional climbing (or ‘trad’ climbing) does away with the bolts of sport climbing. Instead, gear is placed en route (using small nuts or camming devices). This allows you to access nearly anywhere, provided your climbing is good enough. So it’s the main means of climbing in the mountains – although the harder climbs tend to be at crags – with grades reaching E11 7a. In trad, the way you do the route (your climbing ethic) is very important; for example if you had prior information on the route, or if you went up knowing nothing. There are many articles and forums on UKC discussing this. Feel free to read or contribute if you like a good old fashioned argument!
Winter climbing can be simply broken down to two main types: mixed and ice. Ice climbing is fairly self-explanatory: climbing frozen water using ice axes and crampons. This is one of the more extreme forms of climbing. Sometimes you’re scaling massive icicles with just ice screws as protection… But it can only be so hard, as with each move you’re pulling up on a massive hold (the axe). What does change the difficulty is how safe the route is – thin ice, or a long and remote route. Grades go up to W15.
To make the climbing more strenuous, people started using their tools (axes) on the rock surrounding the ice. This led to mixed climbing. Mixed is more like rock climbing, with traditional gear being placed and the 'hooks' becoming worse and the route becoming steeper. Here grades can go up to M15 or XII 12. This is what Scotland is famous for, with its stringent ethics and quality routes.
Look up 'mountaineering' in the dictionary and it will be described as ‘walking with the aid of climbing equipment’. Luckily, it really is that simple. Here the aim is to get to the top by any means, and ethics are less important: if you think it would be quicker to pull on the rope, then no one would care. This can be taken to the extreme through alpinism, which has funny grades such as ‘1000m, M6, 90˚, A1’.
This is just a quick run down of a few different types of climbing and there are, of course, many other types such as dry tooling (a mash up between mixed climbing and sport climbing), or aid climbing (barely climbing, this is used when climbing is impossible to bypass particularly hard parts of long climbs). For more information on climbing, or just more photos, I'd recommend www.UKClimbing.com as a good starting point.