Climbing style

Climbing style

Rock climbing style refers to the method by which vertical progress can be made in rock climbing. Each climbing style can be considered a sort of game with rules or standard commonly referred to as climbing ethic. These ethics are some of climbing's social mores.[1]



The term "style" is used by climbers to describe more than one set of distinctions. Ethics, class, techniques, and goals all can be talked about in terms of "style", and both the usage of the term "style" and the usage of stylistic terms themselves can vary quite greatly by geography.

  • Certain styles are regarded as a matter of climbing ethics, which might be matters of conservation, sportsmanship, personal satisfaction, or competition:
    • Clean climbing contrasts against those styles which can have environmental effects ("leave no trace").
    • Bottom-up and on-sight ascents are regarded as "better style" than the exploration and rehearsal of a route on fixed ropes before actual climbing of the route is attempted or succeeded.
    • "To send" or ascend flawlessly is regarded as "better style" than to hang-dog, yo-yo or work a route until one gets up.
  • There are 2 major divisions in climbing style, by class:
    • free climbing
    • aid climbing
  • There are a variety of techniques which are often discussed in the context of style:
    • Sieging ("expedition"-style), versus Alpine-style ("fast and light")
    • Climbing strictly "on", versus taking liberties with a route's accepted path
    • To "free" a previous aid-only route, or to climb clean a previous hammered route, thus advancing the state of the art
    • To employ equipment in novel ways, or to develop new equipment and associated techniques, thus advancing the state of the art
    • Handicapping, by deliberately choosing to adhere to some restriction on techniques, equipment, holds or some other element of climbing a particular route
  • Climbers with different goals may describe their preferences and choices in terms of style:
    • Traditional climbing can be "adventure"-style climbing.
    • Sport climbing can be "athletic"-style climbing.
    • Bouldering is largely equipment-free.
    • Soloing or free-soloing stimulate one's sense of self-reliance.
    • Top roping can allow one to focus on climbing rather than equipment-handling, or vice-versa.
    • The choice of Leading or following or swapping leads can align one's sense of self-confidence with the route being climbed, can support a climber's progress in developing skills, and can impact the efficiency and speed with which long routes are ascended.
    • First ascents are sought by those who wish to explore or create a legacy

What "style" is not

Certain categories of climbing associated with techniques, classes, grades and locations are not generally regarded as matters of "style".

  • Mountaineering
  • Rock climbing
  • Ice climbing or mixed rock/ice climbing
  • Protection potential (The "style" of a climb on an objectively dangerous or poorly-protected route, is regarded no differently than the style of climbing on a very safe, easily-protected route.)

While Indoor climbing is not a style of climbing it is distinct from climbing outside. Indoor climbing involves bouldering, top roping, and sport climbing in an indoor environment on wood or plastic holds. In recent years, indoor climbing walls, basically artificial cliffs, have become quite popular. Climbing walls can be used to train climbers for the outdoors, but many climbers enjoy climbing indoors for its own sake. The controlled environment and possibility to easily set original routes has allowed indoor climbing to evolve into a competitive sport.

Similarly speed climbing is not a true style since it is mostly a compilation of other styles. Speed climbing does however contain some techniques unique to speed climbing, and the ethics or sportsmanship of speed climbing can be talked about in terms of "style".

Climber leading the sport route Spud Boy, Clark Canyon, California, United States

Free climbing

Free climbing requires the climber use only his/her own body's connections to the rock for upward progress. Commonly confused with "free soloing" which is a specific form of free climbing done without a rope. The essence of free climbing is that, although gear may be used to protect a climber in the event of a fall, the actual "climbing" is being done without the help of any artificial device's adhesion to the rock.

General description

Free climbing can be subdivided into traditional climbing and sport climbing.

Free climbing
Category Description
Traditional climbing climbers carry and place majority of safety anchors during ascent
Sport climbing pre-placed safety anchors

Types of free climbing

  • Bouldering may be described as climbing short, severe routes on boulders or small outcrops. While safety ropes from above are occasionally used, most boulderers feel that the most ethical form of protection is a bouldering mat or pad similar to those used by gymnasts. In addition, other climbers standing on the ground may "spot" the boulderer, to help safely guide his or her fall. Since the climber moves without aid of equipment it is a form of free climbing but the distinction is generally unimportant.
  • Free solo climbing: Usually describes free climbing without a rope or other protective gear. Free solo climbing is distinguished from solo climbing where a climber progressing alone uses a rope and protection devices including a self belay system.
  • Traditional climbing, or "Trad" Climbing. In Trad Climbing, the leader uses mostly removable gear (and the occasional bolt placed on lead) to protect against falls. As with all partnered climbing involving belays the climbing team (a leader and follower, or multiple followers) begins at the bottom of a climb and ascends to the top, the leader placing protective devices in the rock as he/she climbs. Once the leader is finished climbing, he/she establishes a belay. The follower then "follows" the route and removes all of the gear placed by the leader. It is important that the leader be proficient at placing Trad (or clean or natural) gear (cams, stoppers, hexes, tri-cams, etc.) because his/her safety depends upon the soundness of each individual gear placement. Placing trad gear on lead can be time-consuming and thus tiring, sometimes making routes feel harder than their rating. Trad climbing is generally practiced according to ethical principles, that dictate primarily natural gear placements be made. However, when "traditional" was first coined in U.S. climbing literature,[2] traditionalists of the day hand drilled bolts sometimes from delicate stances on lead when cams, stoppers, etc. were not possible to place. Some of the resulting traditional routes have long run outs between bolts, requiring a "bold" mentality. More important to the original traditionalists than bolting or not was the overall approach to climbing: no resting on the rope after falls, instead lowering to a stance or pitch beginning or even the ground for restart; no placing of protection from a top rope or rehearsing difficult moves over and over; and no fixing of ropes to high points (sieging) to return with aid for repeated tries. It is, with perhaps the exception of climbing with no rope and prior knowledge of a route Free-soloing, the purest form of climbing. Since the term traditional first emerged in U.S. climbing literature, its use has changed. Some, for example, now will call a climbing style "trad" only if no bolts are encountered, and may relax the old restraint of lowering off tension for restarts after a fall.
Short (one-pitch) climbs on the Calico Hills, west of Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Simul climbing is a style where climbers "move together", a risky but speedy technique. Both leader and second move at the same time without stopping to belay. The leader - approximately a rope length above the second - usually places multiple pieces of protection as he climbs so that the weight of the second climber might arrest a possible leader's fall. Should the second climber fall, however, the leader may be pulled from his holds, with potentially dangerous results.
  • Sport climbing is a type of freeclimbing which involves the use of pre-placed permanent bolts for protection. This frees the leader from the need to carry and place traditional gear. The leader merely clips one side of a quickdraw (two carabiners connected by a loop of webbing) into a bolt and the other into the rope. A typical sport route will require the leader to carry between 6 and 12 quickdraws or "draws," one for each bolt in the string of bolts that protect the route. Sport Climbing, in essence, is focused more on the gymnastic aspects of climbing than the aesthetics or adventure. Sport routes are bolted with safety in mind and also because they generally (though not always) ascend faces that are not protectable by any other practical mean. Bolts, however, are not foolproof. The same stringence concerning safety found in Trad. climbing should apply to Sport climbing as well. In the case of a fall, sport climbers often rest on the rope and begin from where they are hanging, called "hang-dogging." Hard sport climbs often require that the climber literally rehearse every single move several times before he/she can complete a clean ascent (without falls).
  • Top roping involves suspending a rope from an anchor located at the top of a short climb. The climber ties into one end of the rope and is belayed by his belayer who manages the other end of the rope. The belayer can belay either from the top or base of the route. Its questionable to call top roping a style of climbing. Top roping is included as a style since most free climbing implies segments of lead climbing where the climber is not safeguarded by a rope attached to an anchor situated at the top of the route.

Aid Climbing

Aid climbing involves using artificial devices placed in the rock to support all or part of the climber's body weight, and is normally practiced on rock formations that lack the necessary natural features suitable for free climbing.


  1. ^ Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, Swan Hill Press; 6th Revised edition edition (14 Oct 1997) ISBN 1840370017 ISBN 978-1840370010
  2. ^ "Tricksters and Traditionalists," Tom Higgins, Ascent, Sierra Club, 1984

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