In the sport of rock climbing, there is something for everybody. If what you’re after is easy access and maybe a little more of a social scene, bouldering will scratch that itch. If you’re more interested in a full day adventure with a picturesque summit thrown in for good measure, then you belong in the world of the hardy alpine climbers.
Whichever discipline you choose, it is good to understand what else is out there! Who knows, you may eventually get bored with the boulders and want to start bagging some peaks.
This piece is concerned with two of the more mainstream types of rock climbing: sport climbing and trad climbing.
What is Sport Climbing?
Sport climbing is a form of free climbing where a party of (generally) two people ascend a rock face with a rope between them as their lifeline. As the leader climbs, they use a piece of equipment called a “quickdraw” – in essence, a piece of nylon webbing or dyneema webbing that connects two carabiners – to secure their rope to the rock wall.
Drilled into the rock are a chain of bolted hangers that are spaced intermittently along the path of the climb. The leader clips one end of a quickdraw through one of these hangers and their rope through the other.
What is Trad Climbing?
Trad, or “traditional” climbing, is another form of free climbing in which the leader, instead of clipping pre-placed bolts, brings along a variety of tools that they use to protect the rock. Cams, nuts and slings are all part of a trad climber’s arsenal, and it is important to have a multitude of these tools; the cracks, fissures and other weaknesses in a rock face are what a trad climber uses to protect the climb.
What is the Difference Between Trad & Sport Climbing?
Fixed Protection: Sport routes have pre-placed bolts drilled into the rock, which climbers use for protection.
Focus on Physical Challenge: Sport climbing often emphasizes the physical aspect of climbing, with routes typically being shorter and more intense.
Less Gear Required: Climbers only need quickdraws to clip into the bolts, a rope, harness, climbing shoes, and a belay device.
Route Grading: Routes are often graded more on physical difficulty than on the complexity of the climb.
Safety: Generally considered safer due to the presence of fixed, reliable protection points.
Accessibility: More accessible for beginners due to the lower amount of required gear and knowledge.Climbing Style: Often involves dynamic and powerful moves on steeper terrain.
Use of Removable Protection: Climbers place their own gear (nuts, cams, etc.) into cracks and crevices for protection, which they remove when the last climber ascends.
Emphasis on Technique and Problem-Solving: Trad climbing routes can be longer and require a blend of physical and mental skills, including route-finding and gear placement.
More Gear Required: In addition to the basic climbing gear, a range of protective devices is needed, which can be expensive and heavy.
Route Grading: Routes are graded on a combination of the physical difficulty and the complexity of placing gear.
Risk Factor: Generally involves higher risk due to the reliance on climber-placed protection.
Skill and Experience: Requires more knowledge and experience in gear placement and route finding.
Both disciplines offer unique challenges and rewards, and many climbers enjoy both for different reasons. Sport climbing is often seen as a way to push physical limits in a relatively safe environment, while trad climbing is admired for its adventure, self-reliance, and connection with the history of climbing.
Which is Safer?
When we get down to brass tax, sport climbing is the safer discipline, and the biggest reason for this is that the type of protection (bolts) removes some degree of user error. Trad climbing can be more dangerous because proper use of the gear is key to it working properly. The harder trad routes you climb, the more spaced out the protection will be. Many trad routes are notoriously runout, where any fall could result in potential ground falls.
With sport climbing, unless something has gone terribly wrong, or your belayer has messed up, the chances of you having a ground fall and incredibly slim.
While it is still a good idea to practice in a controlled environment like the gym, the prospect of clipping a carabiner to a bolt and then clipping a rope through the carabiner is pretty straightforward. However, a popular misconception of sport climbing is that the bolts are always safe. This is ABSOLUTELY not the case.
When a sport route is being developed, you have absolutely no idea who is “putting up” the route. Seriously, it could be some 20-year-old kid who has no idea what they are doing. On the other side of the coin, you have sport routes which are still protected by an archaic type of bolt called a button head.
These and others of similar quality/age were popular during the 70s and 80s and, while the first ascensionist may have been surpassingly competent, the steel has gone through that many seasons of weathering. Moreover, it’s impossible to tell how many people have whipped on these bolts, gradually loosening them over time.
Just for reference, by today’s standard of safety, bolts used for a sport route should be an expansion bolt, measuring at least 3/8” by 3”. ½” is rapidly becoming the standard, especially in areas where the rock is comprised mostly of sandstone and other weaker rock types. Most hangers will list a kilonewton (kN) rating, as well, and are rated up to 25kN. If you read anything lower, or nothing at all, it is unwise to trust a bolt fully.
Guidebooks usually say when a certain route was bolted, what types of bolts were used and whether they are safe to climb on. So, if you are visiting a new crag, it might be wise to buy the guidebook or check on the Crag.
The Freedom of Trad
While we can usually judge sport climbing as the “safest” between the two, trad climbing and the tools that you have at your disposal open up a whole new world. When sport climbing, you are following a prescribed path set by the first ascensionist; you can’t deviate from the line of bolts because that is usually the only protection available.
With the right trad climbing gear and know-how, you are able, in theory, to walk up to any rock face and climb it, using the natural weakness in the rock to plug gear. Unless you are developing your own routes, and you are HUNGRY, you will generally be following a route that someone else has established.
Even so, a trad climber needs to make calculations and important decisions on the fly – where does a pitch end? Where does the anchor need to go? Do I have enough gear to finish the pitch AND build an anchor? While this sounds daunting, the possibilities that open up once you have achieved a certain level of competency are very, very attractive!
Which Discipline Will You Try?
While there are big differences between sport climbing and trad climbing, there is no reason to be restricted to just one of them. Sure, sport climbing is less gear intensive and typically easier terrain to access, but trad climbing teaches problem-solving, and perseverance and can get you on top of some pretty cool features. Even for those whose main trade is trad climbing, sport climbing can be a huge asset for strength training, and vice-versa. Both are fun and both offer something that the other can’t, but that doesn’t mean they’re mutually exclusive!