Picking Your Style
Starting out on your climbing journey can be hard to do, especially when there are not only different types of walls to climb, but also different forms of climbing altogether. Top Rope, Lead, Bouldering, Trad, Free Soloing, Deep Water Soloing, Ice Climbing, and Mixed Climbing all have different strengths and weaknesses that draw different climbers to each of them. This will take you through everything you will need to know to find the climbing style that is right for you. See A Guide to Rock Climber Vocabulary for in-depth descriptions of terms.
Special thanks to fellow climber, coach, and trainer Mario Stanley, who gave me a lot of insight into the the eight forms of climbing and was especially helpful in making this article possible. He is the co-owner and co-founder of HighPoint Expeditions, an outdoor guiding company. He is also the director of the Youth Programs Kids Club and Team Summit at Summit Gyms, along with being the founder and director of ClimbFit, an adult climbing program to increase your strength and climbing ability.
Top rope is one of the simplest and most forgiving forms of rock climbing. It is also the one that you, or someone you know, has probably done if they ever went to a climbing gym. Top rope is when you and your climbing partner both wear harnesses that are connected by a rope from the climber, through an anchor point at the top of the wall, and then back down to the belayer. One person is the climber who will start at the base of the wall and work their way up it till they reach the top. The other is the belayer, who works the slack out of the rope as the climber moves up the wall.
This is one of the more simple forms of climbing. It is easy to take breaks while climbing if you get tired, and there is never the fear that you could slip and potentially fall off the wall. I would recommend trying top rope to anyone who wants a good way to practice their movements and get a better understanding of climbing as a whole.
Sport climbing is similar to top rope with one big exception, your rope is not tied into an anchor at the top of the wall. Instead, you are clipping into the wall as you go to reach the top of the wall. There is a lot of gear and special techniques that go into sport climbing. See What It Takes To Lead a Sport Route for a video on it.
When sport climbing a route, the climber is tied into one side of the rope and the belayer is tied into the other side of the rope via their belay device, just like with top rope. Instead of having the rope anchored at the top of the wall, you as the climber are anchoring the rope and yourself along the face of the wall as you climb it.
This is done by clipping. To clip, you use a quick draw. A quick draw is two carabiners that are linked together by a thick piece of webbing. One side of the quick draw is placed into the pre-placed bolts along the route, and the other side is clipped to the rope. You would repeat the process of clipping until the entire route is completed.
After you get to the top, you would go through the process of cleaning the route, meaning that you would attach yourself using your PAS to the chains or permadraws at the top of the route. This allows you to take your weight off the rope so that you can untie it from yourself, string it through the chains or permadraws, and then tie it back into your harness. From there you would put your weight back on to the rope, unclip your PAS from the wall and then allow your belayer to lower you back to the ground. This makes it possible to collect all your gear from the route without having to leave anything behind.
This form of climbing can be done both inside and outside. Things you will need to know: how to clip, how to tie a figure eight knot, how to clean anchors, and how to repel. If you are climbing outside you will need: a PAS, a belay device, rope, a harness, climbing shoes, quick draws, and locking carabiners. This is great for people who are not afraid of falling and taking risks. It requires a little more practice to become comfortable with clipping. Not a beginner form of climbing.
Bouldering is very different from top rope or sport. Instead of having to climb with a rope and partner, you only need a crash pad (a large mat that you can fall on to soften your fall). Bouldering is when you climb shorter rock faces, around 15 feet or so, and then fall onto a crash pad. This allows for more climbing, as you do not have to wait to set up gear. Bouldering is high intensity, with short bursts of power. Think of it as sprinting, where top rope and sport are more like a marathon.
Bouldering can be done inside a gym or outside. If you are climbing outside, make sure to bring plenty of crash pads, and friends to spot you. Things you will need: crash pads and climbing shoes. This is great for beginners and seasoned climbers.
Traditional (trad) climbing is said to be the purest form of climbing there is, because there are no limitations to it. It is very similar to sport climbing because you work the rope up the wall with you as you climb. The major difference is that instead of placing quick draws into the pre-placed bolts in the walls, you place camalots (cams), nuts, or other trad gear in cracks and crevices to anchor yourself. From there, you would then add a quick draw that would connect your rope to your just placed trad gear. Cams, nuts, and other trad gear are small devices that, when placed or wedged in the rock, will lock you in so that you can safely move up the wall. Though trad can be done by any level of climber, it is recommended that you have at least a solid year of rope climbing under your belt so that you are comfortable on the wall.
Trad climbing is done outside. If you are trad climbing, you will need: all the gear for sport climbing and the aforementioned trad gear. This is a challenging form of climbing that I would recommend to intermediate climbers.
To learn more about Trad, check out How To Build Your 1st Trad Rack
Free soloing is climbing without any protective gear, rope, harnesses, crash pads, etc. This is the most dangerous way to climb, because if you fall, you die—simple as that. Free soloing is for people who are extreme thrill seekers, and love a dangerous challenge. One of the most well-known free soloists is Alex Honnold. The world learned his name when he was the first and only person to free solo the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Honnold wrote in his book, Alone On The Wall, that he originally got into free soloing because he had social anxiety and did not want to ask strangers to belay him.
Free Soloing is done outside (gyms do not allow it because it is a safety hazard). If you are free soloing, all you will need is your climbing shoes. This is an extremely dangerous form of climbing and should only be practiced by seasoned climbers, not by beginners.
Deep Water Soloing
Deep water soloing (DWS) is one of my favorite forms of climbing. It combines bouldering and swimming into one really fun sport. DWS is climbing on rocks that come out of the water. It is vital that you only DWS in waters that are deep, so that if and when you fall, you do not collide with rocks that may be hidden beneath the water. Since you are falling into water, there is no need for pads or other protective gear. The water is there to break your fall.
Make sure that you do not climber higher than you are comfortable falling into the water. This is important because many DWS route have only one way down—jumping. This is a very tiring form of climbing, since you are not only climbing routes, but also constantly swimming in between. I recommend bringing pool floats (the large noodles work very well), as this will allow you to rest and save energy during the day.
DWS is done outside. If you are DWS, you will need: swimsuits (for the ladies I recommend some sort of shorts and a full coverage swim top), old climbing shoes that you do not mind getting wet and use only for DWS. This is great for beginners and seasoned climbers.
Ice climbing is a very fun and unique form of climbing. It is similar to top rope and sport climbing in the fact that you are using a rope. The major difference is that instead of using your hands to grab onto the holds, you use special tools. You use an ice axe in each hand to stab the ice. This allows you to put your weight on it, so you can pull yourself up the ice face.
Your feet are in large boots with crampons attached to them. Crampons have spikes on the sole of the shoe, as well as one sticking straight out at the toe. The spikes on the bottom allow you to be able to walk safely on the ice-covered ground. The toe spike allows you to kick into the wall while climbing so that you can push yourself up. Using a combination of your crampon covered feet and ice axes, you can climb all the way to the top of the wall. Ice climbing is an amazing form of climbing that I think everyone should try at least once. I have only done it one time in Alaska, so if you are interested in learning more, check out REI’s How To Climb Ice.
Ice climbing is done outside. If you are ice climbing, you will need: all the climbing gear used for sport climbing, crampons, ice axes, boots for your crampons to attach to, gloves to protect your hands, and lots of warm clothing (it gets cold out there!).
Mixed climbing is simply a combination of all the other aforementioned forms of climbing. This is used when the walls have a combination of different climbing needs. Mixed climbing is only used by extreme climbers who are climbing in areas that do not have a lot of foot traffic, and therefore have not been set up for one particular style.
Mixed climbing is done outside. If you are mixed climbing, you will need everything. This is an advanced form of climbing. You must be proficient in any of the forms you wish to use during this climb.
I hope this has helped you understand all the different forms of climbing that are out there. Please leave a comment with the climbing types you have done, and the ones you want to do!
All image sources can be found by clicking on the image itself.