Rock Climbing | Everything You Need To Know
A beginner's guide to rock climbing.
Rock climbing is an exciting and challenging sport that will give you a rush like no other. Combining physical strength with mental focus, rock climbers study routes, figuring out moves as they go, and then use insane power, flexibility and agility to conquer dizzying heights.
With indoor walls popping up all over the country and some truly stunning outdoor climbing spots, the UK is packed with places to get your climb on.
The sport is also exploding internationally as countries all over the world catch the climbing bug so there's never been a better time to get into this courageous and rewarding pastime.
Rock Climbing History
The earliest evidence of rock climbing comes from paintings dating back to 200BC of Chinese climbers. Climbing spread across Europe as part of early mountaineering but it wasn't until 1880 that rock climbing became a sport in its own right.
Today climbing is used in everything from movie stunts to emergency rescue work and it has a vibrant international competition scene which represents each of the sport's different disciplines.
Types Of Climbing
Though it might all look pretty much the same, climbing actually comes in a range of different styles, all with a slight twist on the basic rock climbing formula.
The most accessible form of rock climbing is indoor climbing. Indoor climbing takes place on purpose built walls, usually made from wood with man made holds bolted on.
Indoor walls have staff who will be able to give you advice and training along with graded routes giving you a good idea of where to start and how to track your progress as you work through the grades. Indoor routes are also regularly reset, with the climbing holds moved around, providing a fresh challenge every few months to keep you on your toes.
Although lots of people see indoor walls as a place to train when the weather is too rough to be outside, there are also plenty of people who climb exclusively on indoor walls so there's usually a good community of local climbers for you to get involved with too.
Bouldering is a form of climbing that doesn't use ropes and takes place at lower heights than regular climbing, usually around 20ft or less. As its name suggests, bouldering is normally practiced on boulders or any other shorter obstacle you might fancy.
Bouldering routes are called 'problems' and usually require a short series of powerful or technical moves as opposed to the much longer series of challenges facing a regular sport climber.
Unlike sport climbing routes, the focus of a bouldering problem is not necessarily to reach the top of an obstacle but rather to complete the path or problem that has been set across a rock. This may involve traversing and even climbing downwards across a rock to reach the next hold.
Bouldering originated outdoors as part of mountaineering training in the 1800s before it was popularised as a sport in the 1960s. Today most indoor climbing centres have at least one bouldering wall and there are now an increasing number of bouldering centres which focus entirely on low level problems rather than roped climbing.
The fact that bouldering requires minimal equipment and no partner to belay you makes this sport really popular and it's a great way to develop physical strength before you move into other styles of climbing. While bouldering outdoors in the UK is popular, the fact that multiple bouldering problems can be packed into a small space also makes the sport ideal for urban environments - there are excellent bouldering walls in London for example.
Sport climbing is the most common form of climbing you are likely to experience. Using metal loops bolted into the rock, sport climbers work their way up mountains and cliffs clipping their climbing rope into these loops as they go.
Sport climbing routes are normally planned out for you because they are loosely defined by where the loops are placed into the rock. Sport climbing routes also have fixed anchor points at the top of each climb for you to belay from, making this the easiest form of outdoor climbing to get into. You'll still need to know a few basic rope techniques and climbing knots however, or go with an experienced climber who knows them already.
In trad climbing you can create your own routes, tackling a rock face anyway you fancy. Instead of using pre-defined loops to clip the rope into, trad climbers carry their own gear, known as protection, which they place into the rock as they go.
Protection takes the form of tiny metal wedges and spring loaded devices that jam into cracks and crevices in the rock, giving trad climbers stable anchor points which the rope can hang from if they fall. Have a look at our dictionary of abseiling and rock climbing terms for a rundown on the different kinds of protection you'll commonly find on climbs. Protection is placed by the first climber to go up a route and can then be removed on the way back down, ensuring minimal damage to the rock when they climb.
Top roping refers to climbing routes with a rope attached at a single point at the top of the route. This is the style of climbing you are most likely to see at indoor walls where the ropes are already set up for you when you arrive. It's an easy way to get used to climbing with ropes which can form a basis for progressing to trad and sport climbing.
Multi Pitch Climbing
Multi-pitch climbing is a form of trad or sport climbing where you tackle a big climb in separate stages known as pitches. Climbers ascend as far as their rope will allow before tying off on the rock face, re rigging their rope and then climbing the next stage of the mountain. Multi pitch climbs can take hours or even days for single ascent. Climbers often camp out in specially designed tents, hung from the rock hundreds of feet in the air, so that they can continue climbing the next day.
Commonly used in speed climbing record attempts, simul climbing is one of the fastest techniques for getting two people up a mountain.
In simul climbing, two people, roped together, climb at the same time. The lead climber lays out protection as they go and the following climber collects the protection as they climb past it.
When the lead climber runs out of gear they anchor themselves to the rock and wait for the following climber to catch up and give them the collected pieces of protection so that they can lead off again.
Usually reserved for Arctic explorers and mountaineers, ice climbing requires a pair of sharp axes for each climber. Ice climbers smash their axes into the ice they are climbing, using the metal points to pull themselves upwards. Ice climbers also use crampons, spiked metal footwear that digs into the ice giving them solid footholds.
The UK has a number of indoor ice climbing walls including Vertical Chill in Manchester and London and Ice Factor in Kinlochleven, Scotland, which claims to be the world's biggest ice climbing wall with 500 tonnes of real snow and 12m high walls of ice. In UK winters Scotland is also the place to head for some outdoor ice climbing fun on the snowy slopes of areas like Glen Coe.
For a flavour of what ice climbing can involve, read our interview with ice climber Will Gadd, the first man to scale Niagara Falls when frozen, here. It's pretty extreme.
This is basically ice climbing but without the ice. Dry toolers use all the same gear as ice climbers but will climb normal rock faces and indoor climbing walls instead of venturing out to the snow. This style has a growing competitive scene but is also disliked by many climbers for the damage it does to traditional, soft rock climbing routes.
Free soloing has got to be the most insane type of climbing. Free climbers tackle crazy heights but without ropes, meaning that one slip or mistake means certain death. This type of climbing is only for the most experienced and frankly unhinged climbers out there, proving to be the ultimate climbing test of physical and mental strength.
Deep Water Soloing
Just like free soloing, deep water soloing means that you climb without ropes, but thankfully in this style you climb above water. This is slightly safer than free soloing, though water can be harder than you think and can also hide sharp rocks and other hazards just below the surface. There's also the added risk of drowning if you get knocked out or badly injured on the way down, making this a beautiful but dangerous way to climb.
Free Base Soloing
This form of free climbing takes things up a notch, mixing free soloing with base jumping. Instead of ropes, free base soloers take a parachute hoping that in the event of a slip or fall they are quick enough to pull the chute and far enough off the ground for it to deploy before they reach the bottom.
Urban climbing, sometimes called urban soloing or buildering, uses the same skills as regular climbing but takes place across buildings rather than mountains. Usually done without ropes, urban climbing is incredibly dangerous and often frowned upon by local authorities. Alain Robert, probably the world's most famous urban climber, has been arrested many times for his antics, but has still made a career for himself by climbing iconic buildings like the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
What rock climbing equipment do you need?
Rock climbing, like most sports, has plenty of different gear you can buy but there are some basic bits of kit that you'll need to get started.
Rock Climbing Shoes
Climbing shoes are a simple and super effective piece of rock climbing equipment that should be on the top of your list. It's possible to climb simple routes in regular shoes, but a good climbing shoe makes a big difference to how and where you can climb.
Next on your climbing kit list should be a chalk bag. Chalk helps to dry out the moisture from your hands, giving you better grip on most surfaces.
Chalk bags are small and tough wearing, they clip right onto your belt or harness so that you can dip into them as and when you need during a climb. To fill the bag you can get chalk balls, which are powdered chalk wrapped in mesh that deliver a controlled amount of chalk. The other option is loose, powdered chalk which makes more of a mess but is usually a bit cheaper.
If bouldering is your thing then a bouldering mat is a great buy. With this simple piece of kit you can set up and tackle almost any small bouldering problem you can imagine, from a big rock down the local park to the side of your house.
Bouldering mats, also known as crash pads, are essentially mini crash mats, usually with built in straps so that you can carry them over your shoulder. The mats fold flat while you're transporting them and then open up to give you the biggest area possible to land on if you fall off the rock.
Just remember that boulder mats won't protect you completely from every fall and it's a good idea to have a friend on hand to spot you, moving the mat as you climb, to make sure you've got the best chance of hitting that cushioned sweet spot rather than some gnarly rocks.
Climbing Harness And Rope
If you're going to be climbing anything bigger than your local bouldering wall, you're going to want a harness and some rope to go with it. Climbing harnesses are what attach you to the rope and help you carry any important climbing gear with you. Harnesses come in a range of styles including men's and women's models so it's important to try a few on before you buy.
Climbing rope is usually made from a nylon core with an outer sheath of woven fibers to provide toughness and durability, which is vital to withstand the wear and tear our outdoor climbing and abseiling.
Climbing ropes are usually dynamic, which means they stretch a bit when you fall, easing the impact of big drops.
If you're looking to get some rope it helps to have an idea of the sort of climbing you'll be doing. If you're going to stick to inside climbing walls then you'll probably get away with a 40m length, while outside climbing will need more like 60m plus, preferably with good dry proofing to stop the rope getting wet and becoming difficult to use.
Along with your rope and harness you'll also need a belay device. These handy little tools cause friction on the rope allowing somebody to belay you while you climb, taking up slack rope so that you don't fall too far and lowering you slowly back down when you've finished a route.
Belay devices can also be used to abseil with so that you can make your own way down a drop. They come in a wide variety of models from simple one piece devices to more complex mechanical ones which help slow the rope for you.
Where To Go Rock Climbing?
A great place to get started with climbing is your nearest indoor wall. London has tonnes of great climbing walls as well as dedicated bouldering walls and, with the growing popularity of climbing, most cities have at least one or two walls or a bouldering centre you can pop in to.
If you're keen to head outside for your first taste of climbing a local outdoor pursuits or high ropes centre would be a good place to start. Both of these will usually have at least one climbing wall or tower to try out, which will give you supervision and support for your first climb.
It's not a great idea to head straight to a cliff for your first time climbing unless you are going with someone who knows what they're doing.
Plenty of people get to try climbing for the first time with experienced friends but there are also loads of companies running climbing courses around the UK that can give you professional training. Even if you've already climbed once or twice with mates, it's still a good idea to take a quick course because you'll learn the best and safest way to do things and hopefully avoid developing any bad or lazy habits that could cause accidents in the future.
Once you have some experience under your belt and feel you have a couple of trustworthy climbers to go with, the UK is packed full of stunning spots to climb. From the epic landscape of the Peak District or the Scottish Highlands to the crazy sandstone around Tunbridge wells and the breathtaking coastal views from Portland, there's lots of great climbing in the UK to suit all ability levels, you've just go to go out and explore. Our guide to the top 10 UK rock climbing spots is a good place to start.