Just your hands, your feet, and the rock

When it comes to physical activity, a growing trend is the desire for more than just a way to keep fit; people are also seeking thrills. For physical fitness, fun and adrenaline, nothing beats rock climbing. Contrary to the impression given of rock climbing by the opening sequence of Mission Impossible 2: Tom Cruise scales Dead Horse Point in Utah (almost falling to his death at least twice); rock climbing is very safe and very enjoyable for any reasonably fit person with proper instruction and equipment. What’s more, it can be done both indoors and outdoors.

Rock climbing is done on more or less perpendicular rock faces or climbing walls (unlike hiking or mountaineering where climbers ascend slopes of 0-70 degrees). Rock climbers may even climb inverted slopes greater than 90 degrees. In addition the rock climber has no equipment (such as picks and axes) to assist them to climb up the rock. The sole purpose of rock climbing equipment is for support so that participants don’t fall and injure themselves.

Climbers use their legs and feet to push off, rather than just their arms to pull themselves up. Therefore, climbing is an all round fitness and strength activity. Exercises and gym equipment that build muscle strength and endurance in the arms and legs (such as Kinesis) will support individuals to improve their climbing skills.

Rock climbing has its own lingo and terms, which can seem daunting to the beginner. However, understanding the basics makes it a lot easier to communicate with other rock climbers and to learn about the sport. At the end of this article there is a list of commonly used rock climbing terms.

Outdoor Rock Climbing

Whilst indoor rock climbing involves a lot less risk; if you are looking for amazing scenery, unpredictability, camaraderie and the opportunity to push mind, body and spirit to the limits, outdoor rock climbing is the "gig" for you. There are several different categories of outdoor rock climbing:


Traditional climbing (also known as "trad" in rock climbing circles)

Trad rock climbing’s lure is in the beauty of the places it takes you. Plus the thrill of knowing that where you place your hands and feet could mean the difference between ascent and a catastrophic fall! If you are a true adventurer at heart, Trad is for you.


Trad routes have few permanent anchors. The lead climber fixes nuts or camming devices into fissures in the rock known as protection (their purpose is to stop the lead climber falling). The second climber removes the protection and it's then placed again by the lead climber. Carabiners and quickdraws are used to connect the rope into the protection.


Sport climbing

Sport climbing routes have pre-placed anchors and protection where you can attach your rope. It is a "clip-and-go" style of climbing and therefore offers more of a workout as climbers can move faster because they don't have to worry about placing protection.



Bouldering is close-to-the-ground climbing without a rope. Climbers only climb as high as they can safely jump off without the risk of serious injury. Bouldering is great for beginners as they can "climb" by moving along the rock horizontally, parallel to the ground. This enables those entering the sport to work on their strength and movement without going too high.


Another good reason why bouldering is great for beginners is because it requires less equipment. Individuals only need climbing shoes, a crash pad to cushion jumping (or falling) off the rock and a chalk bag for chalking the hands. Climbers use chalk to keep their hands dry and stop them slipping when they grasp the rock. It is also a good idea to take someone to spot (see list of terms below) for you when bouldering, which makes it an ideal family and friends activity.


Indoor Rock Climbing

If you want a more gentle entry into rock climbing, instead of being challenged by nature, you can start indoors. However, indoor climbing can still be extremely difficult and many very experienced climbers are dedicated indoor participants.


Similar to sport climbing, the predetermined holds on climbing walls provide the opportunity to have a more energetic workout because of the possibility of climbing at speed.


Indoor climbs are created by bolting resin, wooden or fibreglass holds to a wall.  Beginner climbers use all the holds (which are different colours) to scale the wall. However, once climbers gain experience they can challenge themselves by climbing a designated route using only certain colours. Generally, climbers are also allowed to use the natural features of the wall such as edges, corners, and cracks. There are three common types of indoor climbing walls:


Bouldering — rope-free climbing undertaken at a low height over crash pads

Top-rope climbing — Climbers are harnessed and attached to a rope, which passes through an anchor at the top of the wall and down to a partner at ground level. The partner holds the rope taunt so the climber does not fall if they let go of the wall.

Lead climbing

— In lead climbing, the climber is not anchored to the top of the wall.

As the climber ascends, they clip themselves into different points on the wall. The partner holding the rope at ground level gives the climber more rope as and when they require it. Lead climbing is ideal for more experienced climbers as it presents a greater challenge.


Rock Climbing Rating Systems

Both indoor and outdoor climbs are rated according to difficulty. The rating scales can be quite varied and complex, ranging from the Yosemite Decimal System to the International French Adjectival System (IFAS), due to the many different types of climbing performed across many different regions. Therefore, let’s look at the two most common rating scales:


V Scale for indoor climbing

This has a scale starting at V0 (zero being the easiest) and going up to V16 and beyond for the most challenging and difficult routes. Lower rated routes have easier holds for your hands, flat platforms for your feet, and shorter distances between holds. The harder routes will have holds that are considerably more difficult to hold or push off from and are further apart.


5 Point Scale for Trad/Sport Climbing

Ranging from 5.5 (easiest) to 5.15 and beyond (for very experienced climbers). Letters are also use in this rating system. For example, a 5.5a is easier than a 5.5b.


Commonly used rock climbing terms

Abseiling - Lowering oneself down a fixed rope using a belay device. (Also known as “rappelling” in America.)

Aid Climbing - Ascending a wall by using protection points to make progress (as opposed to free climbing).

Belaying - Securing a roped climber with a friction device called a belay device.

Carabiners - A metal loop with a sprung gate. (Also spelled karabiner.)

Free climbing - Ascending a wall by climbing (without using protection points for progress).

Mantling – this is when you use your knee or shin to push yourself up to the next hold. Just like a child climbing onto a couch, knee first.

Quickdraws - A short sling with carabiners on either end.

Rainbow - Using all available holds to climb a route.

Redpointing - Leading a route in one go without stopping, with prior practice on the route.

Route - A roped climb.

Runners - Short for ‘running belays’. These are protection points along a lead climbing wall. Climbers connect the rope to these points using Quickdraws (carabiners and sling).

Spotting - A technique to help a boulderer control their fall. The spotter stands below the climber, with arms raised or at the ready.