Yosemite Valley. 6:15 a.m. June 3rd, 2017.
The pre-dawn light of an early summer morning blooms across the sky. A lazy cloud of smoke from last night’s campfires hangs over the valley. A young man with black hair and large, doe eyes – unassuming but for his large hands and braided knuckles – clings by his fingertips to the glassy rock of the Freeblast Slab pitch on El Capitan. He is about 1,000 feet from the valley floor. He is alone. He has no rope, no gear; nothing except for the climbing shoes on his feet and a chalk back slung around his waist. His name is Alex Honnold, and he is only about a third of the way up.
Climbing is one of the most popular sports in the U.S. today. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million people who participate annually! But what exactly does “Climbing” even mean?
Climbing means something different to everyone. To the general public, Alex Honnold and his hair-raising free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley is what epitomizes “climbing.” In reality, Honnold and others like him represent only a small part of the climbing community; those who go rock climbing without a rope, or “free-soloists.” This is a dangerous trade and is undertaken by only the most skillful – or crazy – climbers. For most, there is more to climbing than just throwing on a pair of shoes and scaling a 3,000 ft cliff.
Types Of Climbing
Free climbing, a term that encompasses a vast majority of climbing disciplines, is a style of climbing that is as much about the journey as it is about reaching the top. At its core, free climbing is about the intimate connection between the climber and the rock, the delicate dance of strength, balance, and technique that allows one to ascend using only the natural features of the rock itself.
To free-climb a route is to engage in a physical and mental challenge that involves using hands and feet to grip, pull, and stand on the rock’s natural features. This could mean finding tiny ledges, crimping fingers into small cracks, or leveraging body weight against the rock to ascend. It’s a test of strength, endurance, flexibility, and problem-solving skills, as climbers must often find and follow the most efficient path up the rock.
While the goal of free climbing is to ascend using body strength, technique and the rock’s natural features, safety is a paramount concern. Climbers often use a variety of safety gear to protect themselves during their ascent. This can include ropes, harnesses, carabiners, and belay devices, which are used to catch a climber if they fall. In bouldering, a type of free climbing on smaller rocks or boulders, climbers use crash pads to cushion any falls.
These safety measures do not aid in the upward progress but serve to minimize the risk associated with the sport. They provide a safety net, allowing climbers to push their limits without fear of serious injury. The use of safety gear adds a layer of complexity to the climb, as climbers must also manage their equipment and ensure it is correctly placed and used.
The art of rock climbing without ropes. The one type of climbing that gets us shaking in our climbing boots. Free soloing is probably one of the most well-known types of climbing, and not because we all spend every weekend scaling 3000ft cliffs ropeless. It’s well known because it’s the most daring type of climbing and one that Alex Honnold made famous to the world with his movie ‘Free Solo’.
Free soloing is not for the faint-hearted and definitely not a type of climbing that is recommended for the average Joe. As Alex put it in his video with Magnus Midtbø, ‘This isn’t something where you train in the gym for three or four times… and then you’re ready… You spend your whole life playing around the mountains and scrambling… and climbing cliffs’.
Free solo is the purest form of climbing where it’s just you, the rock, the shoes on your feet and the chalk around your waist.
Bouldering – or “pebble wrestling” involves very careful and technical movement on small chunks of rock, sometimes taking the climber only four or five feet off the ground. For this reason, boulderers do not carry rope or gear. Other than climbing shoes and chalk, the only equipment they bring along are large pads that protect them from the hard ground if they fall.
Bouldering routes, or “problems,” are a sequence of very small and, typically, very difficult climbing moves. The top of the boulder, what could be called “the summit,” represents the end of the climb. Bouldering is a type of climb that requires power and precision in just a few moves.
“High Balls” are boulder problems that take the climber well above the five-foot threshold and into something called the “No Fall Zone.” These boulder problems can be just as technically difficult, but with the added element of being so high up that a fall could mean a broken leg. Or worse. Highballing is not quite free soloing, but it definitely dips a few toes into the realm of free solo.
“Trad,” or traditional climbing, is defined by a climber/belayer relationship and requires much more gear than bouldering. The first climber, or “leader” ties into one end of the rope while their partner, the second or “belayer,” ties into the other, forming a tether between them.
Following natural weakness in the rock, a leader will climb, stopping periodically to place Spring Loaded Camming Devices (SLCDs) – what we know as “cams – or nuts into cracks and fissures. Once a piece is placed, the climber clips their end of the rope through a carabiner attached to that piece. Properly set, cams and nuts will serve the same purpose as a bolted hanger – if the lead climber falls, the rope will become taught between them and their belayer. This tension allows for the climber to be caught by the equipment they placed in the rock.
In 1970s France, climbers began rappelling down from the top of the steep cliffs. As they hung from their ropes, they inspected the rock, searching for routes in the unmarked limestone. Eventually, they began to drill bolted hangers into the wall which, once clipped with a quickdraw (a piece of nylon webbing connecting two carabiners), would be their protection. Sport climbing has become one of the most popular types of climbing and they tend to be one pitch long, with some only being a few meters.
As opposed to the bottom-up approach that had so long been the norm in climbing, these climbers pioneered a “top-down” approach, something that allowed them to rehearse much more difficult climbing sequences and push grades farther. Once they had practiced and were able to successfully climb their routes from the bottom, they could claim to have climbed it free!
While free-climbing only uses gear to protect the climber from falling too far, aid climbing relies solely on this same gear to get up the cliff. The climber/belayer relationship is the same as with trad climbing. Aid climbing was a popular method used by early climbers, such as Warren Harding to go up the Nose of El Capitan.
The leader reaches up as high as they can and places a piece of gear in the crack. Then, they clip a foot ladder made of nylon webbing to the piece.
Stepping into one of the rungs on this ladder, they put their full weight on the piece, standing up to place another piece above their head. Using another ladder, they clip, step and weight that piece. As they leave a piece behind, they clip their rope through it. This process is repeated until they reach the end of a pitch.
Big Wall Climbing
If you can imagine going on a multi-day backpacking trip, only the terrain is a vertical rock face that towers thousands of feet high, THAT is big wall climbing. To this day, big walls are primarily climbed using aid tactics. However, with advances strength and training regiments, many of the world’s strongest free climbers are testing themselves on big walls.
Climbing has as many faces as a jagged mountain peak in the Sierra Nevada. There are as many ways up as you want there to be, and there is no one right way to get something done. Whether your passion lies in sending hard gym routes or in the solitude of a night camped out on El Capitan, the beauty of the sport is in one’s ability to make it their own! Be safe, be smart, and you’ll be fine.