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What Is Free Climbing? The Free Climbing Vs Free Solo Comparison

LAST UPDATED: 16th October 2023

So your friend has invited you to go on a rock climbing trip but as a beginner, you aren’t sure exactly what kind of climbing you’re going to do. You ask the question and your friend replies with ‘We’re going free climbing! Aren’t you excited??’.

Suddenly, visions of Alex Honnold, perched precariously on Yosemite’s Thank God Ledge, flood your mind. Panic sets in. “Hold up! I’ve barely mastered lead climbing. You expect me to climb without ropes?!” you blurt out. Your friend chuckles, “Relax! We’re not free soloing. Just lead climbing.”

The term free climbing will instantly bring chills to your spine if you haven’t heard it before. The word ‘free’ instantly transports you thousands of feet off the ground with no rope, no harness and no belayer. Indeed, free soloing means exactly that, but free climbing is something entirely different. 

Let’s take a look a what is free climbing and how it differs from free solo!

What Is Free Climbing?

So what does free climbing mean? At its core, free climbing involves scaling rock faces using only your strength, skill, and the rock’s natural features. While climbers are equipped with safety gear like ropes, harnesses, and either quickdraws to clip into or traditional gear, these are merely safeguards against falls, not aids to help them ascend.

Lynn Hill first free ascent of The Nose, Yosemite
Lynn on the first free ascent of The Nose, El Cap ©Helnz Zak

The golden era of the 80s and 90s saw many iconic climbs being “freed”. Take, for instance, Lynn Hill’s legendary ascent of The Nose. She didn’t just climb it; she “freed” it, becoming the pioneering climber to conquer The Nose without resorting to any aid techniques.

Free climbing is a broad term with various styles, but we’ll delve into that shortly.

What Is Aid Climbing? 

Venturing into the realm of big wall climbing? Then you’re likely to encounter aid climbing. Historically, monumental ascents in places like Yosemite, including The Dawn Wall and The Nose, were first tackled using aid climbing techniques. 

Here, climbers like Warren Harding and Royal Robbins relied on equipment such as ladders, pitons, daisy chains, and other devices to bear their weight and assist in their upward journey. Instead of solely using the rock’s features and their own technique, climbers use these aids as crucial stepping stones to reach the summit.

Yosemite Climbing Grade Scale
Royal Robbins on pitch 3 of the Salathe Wall ©Tom Frost

Free Climbing vs Free Solo: What’s The Difference?

Rock climbing, with its myriad styles and techniques, offers climbers a range of experiences, each with its own set of challenges and rewards. Among the most discussed and often misunderstood are free solo vs free climbing. While their names might suggest similarities, these types of climbing stand apart in their approach, risks, and requirements.

Free climbing is a style where climbers use only their hands, feet, and body to ascend a route. While they might be equipped with safety gear like ropes, harnesses, and protection (either quickdraws for sport climbing or traditional gear for trad climbing), these tools don’t assist in the climb. Instead, they serve as a safety net, there to catch the climber in case of a fall. 

Sasha DiGiulian climbing
Photo from Sasha DiGiulian Gallery

This form of climbing allows for a blend of challenge and security. Climbers train extensively to improve their technique, strength, and endurance. They also invest time in learning about placing and using protective gear effectively. Route planning is crucial, and many climbers practice routes multiple times while roped before attempting a clean ascent.

On the other hand, free soloing is the act of climbing without any safety equipment whatsoever. The stakes are incredibly high in this style, as there are no ropes, harnesses, or protective gear. It’s a raw interaction between the climber and the rock, where any mistake can result in a fatal fall.

Preparation for free soloing goes beyond physical strength and focuses on mental toughness. They typically choose routes they are intimately familiar with, having climbed them multiple times with safety gear. Alex Honnold’s ropeless ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider route, showcased in the documentary “Free Solo” stands as a testament to the extreme skill and mental strength required for this form of climbing.

Alex Honnold free soloing Freerider
Alex free soloing Freerider, Yosemite ©JimmyChin

While both styles celebrate the pure connection between the climber and the rock, they differ significantly in terms of safety and preparation. Free climbing is widely accepted within the climbing community, seen as a standard form that many enjoy. 

In contrast, free soloing, despite the immense respect it garners for the skill and mental fortitude required, remains controversial due to the inherent risks.

Type Of Free Climbing

Top Rope 

Top roping is one of the most beginner-friendly forms of climbing. In this style, the rope is already anchored at the top of the climb, either to a fixed anchor or through a temporary setup. The climber is tied in at one end of the rope, while the belayer manages the other end, ensuring that any slack is taken in as the climber ascends.

girl climber stemming on rock

This setup ensures that if the climber falls, they won’t drop very far, making it a safer option for those new to the sport or trying out challenging routes. Top roping is commonly seen in climbing gyms and outdoor crags with easy access to the top of routes. Top roping will not be considered a free ascent if the belayer pulls the climber up the wall or if the climber puts weight onto the rope.

Lead Climbing/Sport Climbing 

Lead climbing, particularly sport climbing, is a step up from top roping in terms of challenge and risk. Here, climbers ascend a route while periodically clipping their rope into pre-placed bolts on the rock face using quickdraws. 

Alex Megos on Bibliographie 9b+
Megos fighting his way up Bibliographie ©ken_etzel

The lead climber starts with the rope below them and takes it up as they climb, creating the potential for longer falls than in top roping. The belayer’s role is crucial, as they must feed out rope while also being prepared to catch a fall. Sport climbing routes are typically equipped with permanent anchors and bolts, distinguishing them from traditional (or “trad”) climbing where climbers place and remove their own protection.

Trad Climbing

Traditional climbing, often referred to as “trad climbing,” is a style of rock climbing where climbers place and remove all the protection as they ascend, rather than relying on pre-placed bolts as in sport climbing. This form of climbing offers a purer, more self-reliant experience, as climbers must assess the rock and decide where to place their gear for optimal safety.

In trad climbing, the lead climber uses a range of equipment, including nuts, cams, and hexes, to create temporary anchor points in cracks, seams, and other natural features of the rock. As they progress up the route, they clip their rope into this protection. The following climber seconds the route and removes the gear as they ascend, leaving the rock face as they found it. This “clean” approach ensures minimal impact on the natural environment.

Woman trad climbing pulling on gear

The challenge in trad climbing is twofold: not only must climbers navigate the physical demands of the route, but they must also possess a deep understanding of gear placement. Proper placement is crucial for safety, as the gear must hold in the event of a fall. This requires a keen eye for identifying suitable cracks and crevices, as well as knowledge of which piece of equipment to use in each situation.

Trad climbing often takes climbers to more remote and less-traveled crags, away from the crowds of popular sport climbing areas. The routes can be varied, from single-pitch climbs close to multi-pitch adventures that span large vertical distances. The latter can involve complex route-finding, belay station setups, and even elements of alpine climbing, depending on the location and height of the climb.

Free Solo 

Free soloing is the act of climbing without any safety equipment, as mentioned earlier. Climbers tackle routes without the security of ropes, harnesses, or protective gear. It’s a high-risk style that demands not only exceptional climbing skills but also immense mental fortitude. The stakes are incredibly high, as any mistake will almost always result in death. Due to its extreme nature, free soloing is practiced by a small subset of climbers who are deeply familiar with their chosen routes.

Famous free soloist include Alex Honnold, John Bachar and Dean Potter.

Deep Water Solo

DWS is another form of free climbing similar to free solo but with a twist; it’s done over deep water. This aquatic setting provides the safety net, allowing climbers to attempt routes without the use of ropes, harnesses, or protective gear. If they fall or choose to jump off, they plunge into the water below.

Chris Sharma deep water solo routes

The essence of DWS is simplicity and freedom. Climbers need only their climbing shoes, chalk, and perhaps a boat or kayak to access remote cliffs. Routes are typically found on sea cliffs, quarries, or other rock formations that rise directly from deep bodies of water. The depth of the water is crucial, as it must be sufficiently deep to ensure a safe landing, free from underwater hazards.


Bouldering involves climbing short but challenging routes, called “problems,” without the use of ropes or harnesses. Instead of climbing high, boulderers focus on technical and powerful moves over a shorter height.

Safety is provided by crash pads placed on the ground to cushion any falls, and spotters—fellow climbers who help direct the climber onto the pads in case of a fall. Bouldering can be done both outdoors on natural rock formations and indoors in climbing gyms. It’s a social form of climbing, with climbers often working together to solve specific problems.

There is also highball bouldering which is much higher and riskier than normal bouldering. Highball boulderers will often practice the route on a top rope first before they try for a clean ascent. This top roping was a method Nalle Hukkataival used to climb Livin Large in the Rocklands.

highball bouldering pads
That’s an insane amount of pads!





Meet Angel, a former desk-jockey turned global wanderer. After catching a severe case of the climbing (and travel) bug, she's now a world traveller, living the dirtbag dream. Highballs? Too mainstream for her taste. She's all about the thrills of lowballs, where the real action happens. Nowadays, you'll find her in Thailand, either precariously balanced on a granite slab or trading stories with Nemo and his buddies underwater!

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