The sport of rock climbing has been gaining a lot of attention and popularity in recent years. Through films like Free Solo documenting professional climber Alex Honnold’s unroped ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, the sport has exceeded its former boundaries, gaining more widespread appeal and appreciation. But what goes through people’s heads when they think “rock-climbing?” For many, the only point of reference they have is Alex Honnold, but, there is so much more to rock climbing than just free soloing.
Rock climbing is an umbrella term that contains an ever-growing list of very different pursuits, each of them with its own distinct appeal. Let’s take a look at two broader categories of climbing: Rock climbing and bouldering.
What is Rock Climbing?
At a very basic level, bouldering and rock climbing are the same thing. Bouldering is a type of rock climbing, but rock climbing isn’t just bouldering. Rock climbing is a MUCH broader topic than just bouldering, and there are huge variances in the execution of the individual disciplines.
With this in mind, let’s separate rock climbing and bouldering from one another. The best way to do that is by defining each of them.
Rock climbing involves ascending some sort of rock feature, plain and simple. This could be anything from a big wall on El Capitan to a long alpine ridge in Alaska. The means used to attain the summit will typically involve a large supply of gear, including ropes, harnesses and removable protection. For the purposes of this article, therefore, rock climbing will be defined as any practice that is emphatically not bouldering. Namely, free climbing.
Free climbing is probably the most popular form of climbing in practice today, though it is NOT to be confused with free-soloing. To free-climb a rock wall, a party of 2 or more climbers each tie into either side of a climbing rope.
One person – the leader – attaches all of the gear they will need to protect the climb to their harness and sets off on route, while the other person – the belayer – uses a belay device to feed rope out to their partner as they climb. If the leader were to fall, the rope between the two of them comes taut between the intervening pieces and the fall is arrested.
Trad climbing was the original form of free-climbing. Using a collection of stoppers and cams slotted into natural weaknesses in the rock, a free-climbing party ascends a rock face, placing all of their own gear as they go. After the leader has completed a pitch – approximately 1 rope length – the belayer will follow their partner up the same feature, removing gear as they go.
Sport climbing is an attractive alternative to trad climbing because it requires significantly less gear. This is a type of free-climbing where, instead of relying on cracks to place gear, a leader’s protection is a series of steel bolts with hangers. These bolts – ½” x 3” stainless steel mechanical expansion bolts being the standard, these days – have been drilled into the rock face. As the leader climbs, they use a quickdraw – 2 carabiners attached by a length of webbing – to protect themselves against a fall.
Sport climbing is the most popular type of rope climbing.
Free solo climbing is without question the most freeing but dangerous form of rock climbing. It is the practice of climbing a rock face with no safety net in place; no ropes, no gear, no belayer, no nothing. The only tools a free-soloist brings are their climbing shoes and a chalk bag.
This term describes the way in which Alex Honnold climbed Freerider in the 2017 documentary, Free Solo. Due to the ‘zero margain for error’ approach, free solo climbing is not for everyone. There are only a handful of people who free solo.
Rock Climbing Grading System
In the U.S., we use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), a codification of free climbing difficulty. This system of grading began as a way of delineating different types of terrain in the mountains. Class 1 is walking on flat, even ground. Class 2 is hiking uphill.
Class 3 is where hiking and climbing start to overlap. Class 4 is non-technical climbing, but that relies equally on hands and feet. Class 5 is where climbing becomes technical. From there, it proceeds on through a decimal system – 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, 5.4, etc. Once you reach 5.10, the system breaks down each decimal into 4 letters – 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 510d, 5.11a, etc.
The YDS is not preferred in Europe. If you ever find yourself climbing there, you’ll find that most countries use the French grading system. Similarly down under, they use the Ewbank System.
To find out more about the different grading systems for sport climbing, take a look here.
Rock Climbing Gear
In order to ascend a larger rock face, the list of necessary equipment starts big and grows, depending on the objective. Ropes, harnesses, cams, nuts, slings, etc.
Additionally, if you are out on a multi-pitch route (any route that exceeds 1 rope length), you must carry all of the food, water and layers that you may need. This increases the weight you have to climb with and adds an entirely new logistical dimension to the day.
What is Bouldering In Rock Climbing?
Bouldering began as something of an offshoot of free climbing. In the infamous Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, strong climbers like John Bachar and Ron Kauk would train for their bigger free climbing objectives by playing around on the large boulders that sat just next to their campsites.
They discovered that there were more difficult sequences of climbing moves available to them on these boulders, just off the ground as opposed to a thousand feet up the nearest cliff. They recognized these boulders as an opportunity to increase their strength and confidence from the relative safety of 10-15 feet from the deck.
And there it is – bouldering is a type of rock climbing in which a “route” or a “line” follows a likely path up a rock face to the summit. The biggest difference is size. Boulder problems will typically never exceed 10 feet in height. For this reason, the list of gear boulderers need to bring along is vastly different from what rock climbers need.
Bare bones, what you need to go out bouldering amounts to little more than a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. French climber Charles Albert, an incredibly strong boulderer, famously climbs without the aid of chalk OR climbing shoes! His barefoot climbing stunts have given new meaning to what is possible in the sport, climbing on par with his peers, even into the realm of V17!
While you CAN boulder without protection from the ground, there is no reason to. Because boulderers seldom venture higher than 10-15 feet above the ground, things like ropes, harnesses and other climbing gear aren’t really needed. Instead, a collection of large mattress-like pads are a boulderer’s protection of choice; if a climber takes a fall, these pads turn the hard ground into a much more forgiving surface to land on.
While bouldering pads can provide a buffer between you and the hard ground, it’s a good idea to add another safety measure – a spotter. When you are committed to working out an intricate sequence of hard moves, it can be difficult to fall in a way that makes the best use of the pads below you.
If the ground beneath the boulder is sloped or uneven, it is all too likely that you will roll off the pads, potentially landing you in a pile of rocks or worse! Having a spotter means that your friend (s) stands close by and watches, making sure that if you do fall, you stay within the pad zone. Their diligence can also help prevent knocking your head on something hard.
There is another element of bouldering that is important to note. Because these boulders are generally easier to access than a hard free-climbing pitch, the level of technical difficulty can and has surpassed even the hardest free-climbing routes.
V Grading System
Pretty early on in the evolution of bouldering, people realized that the YDS was not going to be a sufficient method for rating the difficulty of boulder problems; with the ability to try a problem as many times as you desire – minus the worry of hanging suspended from a rope, god knows how far from the safety of the ground – the level of technical difficulty achievable was skyrocketing. This led to the birth of the V grading system.
The V grading system in bouldering starts from V0 and goes up from there. To date, the most difficult boulder problem ever climbed is V17.
Just like with sport climbing grades, countries use their own grading systems. I have written an article on bouldering grades, so if you want to find out more, check that out!
There is a particular type of bouldering that more closely resembles free-soloing: highball bouldering. Sometimes, especially in places like the Buttermilks in Bishop, CA, the boulders can be enormous, and yet people still want to climb them. It is at this point that the normal conventions of bouldering are left behind in favor of bagging a big one! We’re no longer talking about climbing measly 10-15 foot above the deck; some of the problems in the buttermilks are known to top out above 50 feet!
Too Big to Flail, a high ball testpiece in the Buttermilks, was put up by Alex Honnold in 2012. For many people, a climb of this size would warrant the use of bolts to protect it, thus making it a sport climb. However, whether because of the prevailing ethics of the area, or because of Honnold’s need to prove something, the V10 boulder problem remains to be just that – an unprotected highball boulder.
A boulder problem of this caliber and this difficulty indicate that it is not just like any other problem; what the climber is risking when they near the top is death or serious injury if they fall. You can create an ocean of pads beneath you, it may not matter that much in the end.
On cutting edge highballs like this, it is almost out of the question to climb it onsight. Everyone since the first ascent, including Honnold, worked this problem on toprope before giving it a ground-up attempt.
Bouldering vs Rock Climbing: Is it the same?
So what is the actual difference between bouldering and rock climbing? As I mentioned earlier, bouldering is a discipline of rock climbing. So, next time your friend says, ‘Do you want to go rock climbing?’ make sure you ask what kind so you can prepare yourself (mostly mentally!).