Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility, and balance along with his or her mental control. It can be a dangerous sport and knowledge of proper climbing techniques and usage of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes. The wide variety of rock formations around the world has led rock climbing to separate into several different styles and sub-disciplines that are described below.
Although rock climbing was an important component of Victorian mountaineering in the Alps, it is generally thought that the sport of rock climbing began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in various parts of Europe. Rock climbing evolved gradually from an alpine necessity to a distinct athletic activity.
Aid climbing (climbing using equipment that act as artificial hand- or footholds) became popular during the period 1900 - 1910, leading to ascents in the Colorado and in Yosemite Valley that were considered impossible without such means. However, climbing techniques, equipment, and ethical considerations have evolved steadily, and today, free climbing (climbing on holds made entirely of natural rock, using gear solely for protection and not for support) is the most popular form of the sport. Free climbing has since been divided into several sub-styles of climbing dependent on belay configuration (described below).
Over time, grading systems have also been created in order to more accurately compare the relative difficulties of climbs.
At its most basic, rock climbing involves climbing a route with one's own hands and feet and little more than a cushioned bouldering pad in the way of protection. This style of climbing is referred to as bouldering, since the relevant routes are usually found on boulders no more than 10 to 15 feet tall.
As routes get higher off the ground, the increased risk of life-threatening injuries necessitates additional safety measures. A variety of specialized climbing techniques and climbing equipment exists to provide that safety, and climbers will usually work in pairs and utilize a system of ropes and anchors designed to catch falls. Once a safety system is properly set up, one person will proceed to climb while the other belays (manages and controls the safety rope attached to the climber). Upon completion of a route, the climber can either detach from the rope and walk back down (if an alternate descent path exists), be lowered by the belayer (in the case of top roping), or rappel (abseil) down the rope using a special device. The pair will then switch positions so the belayer can get a chance to climb.
Ropes and anchors can be configured differently to suit many styles of climbing, and roped climbing is thus divided into further sub-types that vary based on how their belay systems are set up. The different styles are described in more detail below, but generally speaking, beginners will start with bouldering or top roping and work their way up to lead climbing and beyond.
Climbing communities in many countries and regions have developed their own difficulty rating systems for routes. Ratings (or "grades") record and communicate the consensus or subjective difficulty of climbs. The ratings take into account multiple factors affecting a route, such as the slope of the ascent, the quantity and quality of available handholds, the distance between holds, and whether advanced technical maneuvers are required. Though acrophobia (the fear of heights) may affect certain climbers, the height of a route is generally not considered a factor in its difficulty rating. Tall routes could be rated low on the difficulty scale if they are not severely sloped and they provide good handholds (in which case the experience would be comparable to climbing a ladder). Likewise, low bouldering routes barely off the ground could be considered difficult if they involve grasping poor holds or supporting one's own weight while dangling from an overhang.
Climbs can occur either outdoors on varying types of rock or indoors on specialized climbing walls. Outdoors, climbs usually take place on sunny days when the holds are dry and provide the best grip, but climbers can also attempt to climb at night or in adverse weather conditions if they have the proper training and equipment. Note that if a route freezes over completely and can no longer be climbed bare-handed, it would be more properly considered an ice climbing route instead.
Most of the climbing done in modern times is considered free climbing -- climbing using one's own physical strength with equipment used solely as protection and not as support -- as opposed to aid climbing, the gear-dependent form of climbing that was dominant in the sport's earlier days. Free climbing is typically divided into several styles that differ from one another depending on the equipment used and the configurations of their belay, rope, and anchor systems (or the lack thereof). Bouldering : is climbing on short, low routes without the use of the safety rope that is typical of most other styles. Protection, if used at all, typically consists of a cushioned bouldering pad below the route and/or a spotter, a person that watches from below and directs the fall of the climber away from hazardous areas. Top roping : is climbing with the protection of a rope that's already suspended through an anchor at the top of a route. A belayer controls the rope, keeping it taut, and prevents long falls. Lead climbing : is climbing without the use of pre-set belays. One person (the leader) will start the climb carrying one end of the rope and will gradually attach it to additional anchors as he or she climbs, thereby establishing a belay system that progresses with the climb. The lead climbing article describes additional subtypes such as:
Climbing activities can sometimes encroach on rock art sites created by various Native American cultures and early European explorers and settlers. The potential threat to these resources has led to climbing restrictions and closures in places like Hueco Tanks, Texas and City of Rocks, Idaho. Environmental Although many climbers adhere to "minimal impact" and "leave no trace" practices, rock climbing is sometimes damaging to the environment. Common environmental damages include: soil erosion, litter, abandoned bolts and ropes, human excrement, introduction of foreign plants through seeds on shoes and clothing, and damage to native plant species, especially those growing in cracks and on ledges as these are often intentionally removed during new route development through a process commonly referred to as cleaning.
Clean climbing is a style of rock climbing which seeks to minimize some of the aesthetically damaging side effects of some techniques used in trad climbing and more often, aid climbing by avoiding using equipment such as pitons, which damage rock.
Climbing can also interfere with raptor nesting, since the two activities often take place on the same precipitous cliffs. Many climbing area land managers institute nesting season closures of cliffs known to be used by protected birds of prey like eagles, falcons and osprey.
Many non-climbers also object to the appearance of climbing chalk marks, anchors, bolts and slings on visible cliffs. Since these features are small, visual impacts can be mitigated through the selection of neutral, rock-matching colors for bolt hangers, webbing and chalk. Vandalism Rock climbing is a conspicuous activity. Vandalism done by non-climbers is often attributed to the climbing population, driving the implementation of new climbing restrictions.
The most significant form of vandalism directly attributable to rock climbers is alteration of the climbing surface to render it more climber-friendly and/or safe.
With the advent of hard, bolted sport climbing in the 1980s, many routes were "chipped" and "glued" to provide additional features, allowing them to be climbed at the standard of the day. This attitude quickly changed as the safer sport climbing technique allowed climbers to push hard without much risk, causing the formerly more-or-less fixed grades to steadily rise. Altering routes began to be seen as limiting and pointless.
Unlike trad climbing which generally uses protection only as a back up in case of falls, some forms of climbing--like sport climbing, canyoneering or, especially, aid climbing--rely heavily on artificial protection to advance, either by frequent falls or by directly pulling on the gear. Often these types of climbing involve lots of hole drilling, but in recent years an emphasis on clean techniques has grown.
Today, the charge of vandalism in climbing is more often a disagreement about the appropriateness of drilling and placing permanent bolts and other anchors. Typically in America, the first ascensionists decide where to place protection on a new route, and later climbers are supposed to live with these choices. This can cause friction and retro-bolting when the route is perceived to be dangerous to climbers who actually lead at the grade of the climb, since the first ascensionists often lead at a higher grade and therefore don't require as much protection. Failing to properly design a new route at its grade is considered arrogant and very poor form. Even in strongholds of rock-climbing tradition like Yosemite National Park, many routes are being gradually upgraded to safer standards of protection.
Another form of vandalism in rock climbing is pulling existing bolts and anchors. This often happens after retro-bolting occurs. Many climbers feel that if the route has been done without the benefit of protection, it should stay that way. However this argument only holds water when the first ascensionists were climbing at the limit of their skill--as in Yosemite's infamous test-piece, the Bachar-Yerian. In the case of first ascensionists failing to install adequate protection because the new route is below their leading standard and they didn't require it themselves, this attitude is harder to justify. Trespassing Many significant rock outcrops exist on private land. The rock climbing community has been guilty of trespassing in many cases, often after land ownership transfers and previous access permission is withdrawn. In response to access closures, the climbing community organized and a group formed to correct problems and represent climber interests.
The Access Fund is an "advocacy organization that keeps U.S. climbing areas open and conserves the climbing environment...Five core programs support the mission on national and local levels: public policy, stewardship and conservation (including grants), grassroots activism, climber education, and land acquisition.