Created | Updated Jan 13, 2012
Rock climbing is a method of crossing mountain ranges used by people who are too impatient to walk around them. Instead, they use all four limbs to project themselves up rock faces, no matter how steep. Climbing these cliffs can be achieved by several methods, each reaching different levels of difficulty and danger.
The most common method of climbing up a cliff. You are attached to a harness, which is in turn attached to one or more ropes. The rope passes through a carabina (metal loop) attached to the top of the cliff being climbed. On the other end of the rope is another person, belaying. If you fall off, you are stopped from completely falling by the weight of the person on the other end. This method of climbing is the safest, but can only be achieved if somebody has been up the cliff first to attach the rope securely to the top.
Another method of climbing is lead climbing. You are still attached to the rope, but for some reason - usually because nobody has been up the rock face yet - the rope is not attached to the top of the cliff. Instead, you carry a variety of implements with you, which you jam into cracks in the rock, and pass the rope through a carabina attached to them. This is slightly more dangerous than following because you can never be sure that your connections are secure. If you do fall, some of them may come out before one holds properly, but at least they'll slow you down.
The most dangerous method of climbing - and the most exciting - is solo climbing. This is rock climbing in its purest form; without the use of any safety equipment at all. You are not attached to a rope and no extra person is needed to belay. This can be a lot more fun than conventional methods, because you have enormous freedom of movement - you are not limited to a pre-set route. To be able to solo climb, however, you must be confident that you can climb the route you have selected, because if you fall off, you might encounter problems. It is recommended that you never solo climb without people around to call mountain rescue teams, phone for ambulances, or notify next of kin.
This is not a method of climbing, but a method of helping somebody who is lead or follow climbing. You are there to pull in the rope when they climb up (following) or pass it out (if they are leading). You have to be fairly precise; you shouldn't pull excessively on the rope, because it is annoying to the climber. It can help them climb up, but this might ruin the challenge. Do not let excessive slack out in the rope either, because that means they have further to fall if they fall off.
For a right-handed person, this is the most common method of belaying:
A belay loop is attached, via a carabina, to the front of your harness. The rope passes from the climber's harness through the carabina at the top of the cliff down to you, through the belay loop, round your carabina, up through the belay loop again, and down onto the pile of slack rope beside you.
Your left hand stays on the taut rope above the belay rope. Your right hand is very important: it must be holding the slack rope, below the belay loop. When you need to draw in slack, you pull it through the loop with both hands where they are, then bring your left hand down to hold the slack rope while you bring your right hand up nearer the belay loop again. This is so you never take your hand off the slack rope. This is important, because if the climber falls off, the jerk in the rope would pull the rope through the belay loop without a hand on the slack rope. You hold the slack rope tight down next to your hip, and that compresses the belay loop against the rope, creating enough friction to stop them falling further. If you are light you might bounce up into the air, but usually there's enough friction with the carabina at the top of the cliff to stop you shooting up too far.
This all probably only makes sense if you try it.
The belay loop is only one method of belaying; a metal 'figure of eight' loop can also be used.
Abseiling is the art of going down a cliff without falling. You are still attached to a rope, but you have control over how fast you go down it. It can be a very enjoyable experience, and is very relaxing compared to struggling up the cliff in the first place. You can also go very fast, nearly falling speed, because you can slow down again nearer the bottom. However, it's worth remembering not to go too fast because you can burn your hands trying to stop again.
Apart from the equipment mentioned above (rope, carabina, harness, etc) there are a few climber's aids and important pieces of safety equipment. The most obvious is a climbing helmet, which most climbers wear. This is to protect you from things falling on your head; don't expect it to save you if you fall off yourself. It is not very substantial, usually just sufficient to bounce stray stones and carabinas off.
Most climbers also wear climbing shoes, though some prefer bare feet. Climbing shoes are very tight, with pointed toes, and are made of a kind of rubber. They are in fact usually made out of old aircraft tyres, because of the excellent grip which results.
In addition, a lot of climbers use hand chalk on difficult routes. This is a powdered chalk you rub onto your hands to give you extra grip.
Climbing equipment is expensive and has to be replaced every few years, for safety reasons. A cheaper way of climbing is to join a proper climbing centre or club, which will provide equipment.
This is a related but very different sport. It is obviously an awful lot harder to gain a grip on ice than on rock, and you are not so worried about damaging the face. So extra equipment is used: on your feet you wear crampons, a kind of climbing shoe with mean looking spikes. You use an ice axe to gain grip with your hands. Ice climbing is considerably more dangerous than rock climbing.
Artificial Climbing Walls
These are boring compared to real rock, and you will probably have to pay to use them, but they do have a few advantages. You can be assured of safety; the wall won't crumble or be slippery and there's a good range of difficulties to practice on. At most climbing centres you can hire equipment, which is useful if you don't have your own. They can also be a great place to meet other people to go on organised climbing expeditions.
Grading and Naming
Rock faces that have been climbed in the past have often been graded in difficulty. There are several methods of grading, and they are all confusing.
Should you climb a face which has never been climbed before, you have the right to officially name it. This has produced some very obscure and obscene names.
Why Rock Climb?
Rock and ice climbing can be seen purely as a part of climbing a mountain or travelling, but they are also exciting and enjoyable sports in themselves. Most people are overly worried about the dangers of climbing. Admittedly, it is more dangerous than say, bowling, but it is statistically safer than crossing a road. You just have to remember to obey the obvious safety rules, and be sensible. If you are not experienced, always climb with an experienced person. Also, if you are climbing on real rock, respect the natural habitat: do not damage the rock face, do not climb near nesting birds, do not leave litter. If you follow all theses common sense rules then you can't help but enjoy yourself immensely.
If you only occasionally go climbing, you can practice on indoor climbing walls, often found in leisure centres, and you can practice pull-ups on door frames.
Places to Climb
The best place to find out about climbing in your local area is to look for a climbing club or climbing centre. In rural areas with mountains, these climbers may solely rely on real rock, but in urban areas you may find climbing centres with artificial walls, which you can practice on.
If you are serious about climbing, there are many holiday organisations that take groups to the Alps, Himalayas, and Rocky Mountains.
There are also a lot of places to rock climb in the USA and Canada. All of them are in mountain ranges; and all of them take a little while to get to.
Some popular places to rock climb are:
Squamish, British Columbia, Canada - This little town about two hours north of Vancouver, British Columbia, boasts some of the best climbing in the Northwest. Hundreds of faces dot the hills, and the town is dominated by the famous 'Chief'. The Chief is a rock that rises about 200m into the air, towering above Squamish. You can climb, hike or, if you feel particularly boring, drive to the top.
Smith Rock, Oregon, USA - Smith Rock is an incredibly popular climbing heaven. Its slabs are revered throughout the Northwest.
So, climb on, and remember... don't panic.
This article was written in memory of one of the Researcher's uncles, Antony Lodge, a fellow climbing addict, who died in a climbing accident in Africa.