About Climbing: Focus on Sport Climbing - Part 1
Sport climbing is generally characterized as rock climbing in relatively safe conditions for the typically accepted purpose of SPORT.
By "relatively safe conditions," I mean using safe climbing systems with safe protection in safe environmental conditions. Safe climbing systems include top-roped climbing and lead climbing on bolted routes using proper top-rope anchors and belay techniques. As far as safe protection goes, most sport climbs are lead by clipping the rope into bolt-hangers drilled into the rock face. In modern times, bolt hangers are attached to the rock using 3/8 inch bolts, sometimes used in conjunction with bonding epoxy. Note that there are sport climbing areas with routes using older, smaller (1/4") bolts in suspect rock. These climbs should be carefully considered, and each bolt individually inspected before any trust in the system be granted.
Sport climbing in "safe environmental conditions" refers to the LACK of objective hazards imposed on typical alpine mountaineering. Most sport climbing crags are at or very near a roadside parking lot. A short walk to your car for lunch is not unheard of. A minor injury taken at a sport crag can usually be resolved by a short self-rescue to the car and a drive to the hospital. Granted, many of the best sporting areas are in remote areas and your preparation for major injury should be well thought out. When it comes to mountain weather and sport climbing, the claim can probably be safely made that sport climbers don't climb in inclement weather. When the rain, snow or hail starts falling, pack up and head for home. A little preparation for inclement weather should be considered. Obviously a sport climber will dress appropriately for the expected weather and bring a modest amount of extra clothing for protection, maybe to sit out a passing shower.
The safest environment used for sport climbing is your local indoor climbing gym. Indoor climbing gyms provide an abundance of routes configured for both top roping and lead climbing. The bolted lead routes and top-rope anchors are expected to be bomber-safe. Most indoor gyms employ the use of Gri-Gri's for belay devices. This provides an implied safer belay given potentially ignorant or inattentive belayers. Complacency in belay technique while using a Gri-Gri may carry-over to the outdoor climbing world in which a standard belay device is used. Bottom line, you must use proper belay technique and attention while using a Gri-Gri. When you have the burning need to climb, the gym is always warm and dry.
While holds and surface textures on indoor climbing walls are improving and feeling more like real rock, developers still have a long way to go in simulating an outdoor rock experience indoors. Additionally, the grading of climbs in most indoor gyms is difficult to correlate with outdoor grading experiences. (granted, few outdoor climbing areas are praised for their consistency in application of climbing grades). There has also been whispered criticism that some indoor gym managers intentionally back-off the grading system to psychologically please their patrons. The customer needs to feel a sense of progress and accomplishment, not to mention the pride in being able to announce: "I can climb 5.10c". For these reasons, pure indoor sport climbers should enter the real outdoor rock world with lower expectations on their first few experiences. If you climb 5.12 in the gym, attempting a 5.12 outside may stomp on you. You might consider testing the local rock grade at the 5.10 level before committing to your indoor expectations.
The chances of injury
while sport climbing are rarely related to a fall. With sound bolt placements
and proper leading technique, falls are normally clean and safe. This depends
somewhat on the route where I believe the higher difficulty (grade) of
the route decreases the chance of injury in a fall. This is so due to the
steep or overhanging nature of difficult climbs. Low angle climbs (lower
grade) provide a greater chance of having a lead climber falling on rock
protrusions and ledges, or grinding down slabs. Sport climbers are more
likely to be seriously injured by not using their heads: poor anchor set-up,
improper rappelling technique, and the rare falling rock in a well developed
About Climbing: Focus on Sport Climbing - Part 2
Sport climbing is generally characterized as rock climbing in relatively safe conditions for the typically accepted purpose of SPORT. Part One, covered the "environmental" conditions of sport climbing. This second part, will focus on the sporting aspect of sport climbing.
A simple definition of "Sport" would include being involved in a competitive activity requiring physical exertion.
A primary element of any sport is the idea of competition and no doubt, there is real head-to-head competitive personalities in the sport climbing world. Either way, the rule-stick for any competition is a numbers game....in climbing it is the grading system!
The Grading System
The grading system from North America, is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). If you are climbing elsewhere in the world, you will become familiar with the regional preference soon enough. (Here is a basic conversion chart from Climbing Magazine for the interested world travelers in the crowd)
It should be emphasized that grading systems are subjective and depend somewhat on the type of climbing being done (cracks, slabs, off-width, overhangs etc...). Typical climbers do not excel to the same grade on all forms of climb. Just because you are a 5.12 face climber, do not expect to climb a 5.12 crack anytime soon on your first attempt.... 5.8 might be a better place to start. A worthwhile goal would be to attempt to maintain a close relationship between the grades you are climbing for each type of climb. If you are a poor crack climber, it is probably worth your while to spend some time in cracks to catch up. This same advice applies to different types of rock - granite, limestone, and plastic for that matter. The more experience a climber has on different types of rock and different forms of climbing, the better suited she will be as a well rounded climber, able to confidently jump on any new climb.
Note: sport climbers seldom climb cracks since these ethically require placing your own protection in the crack while on lead (a traditional climbing route). The only appropriate crack climbing falling in the Sport Climbing genre, are those done on top-rope, at an indoor gym, or on the occasional outdoor route where someone has either un-ethically placed bolts close to a crack, or where the density of sport face climbs forces this situation (borderline un-ethical, or at least non-aesthetic).
Given the rule-stick, especially in formal competition, the higher the grade, the more awards and accolades granted. At the height of competition, completing a grade with speed and efficiency are also qualifying metrics. Some use the grading systems as self-motivation for climbing improvement and as a general guideline for choosing appropriate routes worth climbing.
If you are interested in the formal competitive side of sport climbing, check out the American Sport Climbers Federation for complete information on upcoming competitive events, the sport's rules, and the results of recent competitions.
Beyond the numbers game, there are a few more rules in this sport - quantified in terms of STYLE. How a climb is done is important in getting full credit for the numbers you are attempting to earn.
Free-style versus Aid: All sport climbing requires the use of free-style climbing - making upward progress through the use of your feet and hands on holds - the rope is solely used for safety, bearing no weight except in the case of a fall. Placing ones feet on a bolt, or worse, pulling up on a bolt (or any other piece of protection) is also not permitted in free style climbing. These blasphemies render you as "using Aid"... the aid of the rope or protection to make upward progress. Aid climbing in a sport climbing environment will tarnish your accomplishment in the eyes of sport climbers. As we will see in other climbing genres, (Big-wall and Alpine climbing), the use of aid is both acceptable and often required to make progress on a climb.
The concept of free-solo climbing - free climbing without the safety net of a rope or any other protection - can be considered a huge one-up-man-ship in the competitive world of climbing. However, free-soloing, is obviously an incredibly dangerous game. The participants of free-solo climbing are Experts with a capital E and masters of the mental game. Better yet, they are experts in understanding their limits and knowing not to go beyond them in a free-solo effort. The level of risk they are assuming is inconceivable to most of us. Climbing several grades below ones limit may be considered risk free, however, if there are other objective hazards to deal with (weather, falling rock, etc.) the consequences are too great.
Back in the real world of climbing style, sport climbers have assigned a few noteworthy style quantifiers to fully define their accomplishment: Flash, On-sight, red-point, pink-point, and hang-dog.
On-sight-Flash: Completing a route that you have previously never seen nor done, you have not received any tips or information (beta), other than "here is where it starts, there is where it ends, and bring ten quick-draws..." You must complete the route in pure free-style without any falls.
On-sight: Same as above, except you may have studied a route map and received a little verbal beta. The term comes from the fact that you climbed the route on-sight.
Red-point: A climb that you complete from the ground up in pure free-style without any falls. You may have attempted the route a number of times previously in lower degrees of style. The red-point is the goal of any climb at your climbing limits.
Pink-point: A climb of debatable quality - you climb it cleanly without any falls, though you may rest on route, using the rope to bear your weight. Like I said, a debatable accomplishment.
Hang-dogging: Working a route. Hanging on the rope as you rehearse difficult segments. Again, not really a climbing accomplishment, but when you are attempting to extend your limits, a determined climber will utilize hang-dogging on his way to a later red-point attempt. The hardest climbs set today are often done after long periods of hang-dogging and preparation, memorizing foot placements and movement sequences.
Note: all of these style accolades require the route to be done on lead, where the climber is placing protection, clipping quick-draws into the fixed bolts on the wall, as she makes progress up the climb. Climbs done on top-rope or by a "follower", essentially top-roped, do not deserve the credit given to the lead climber.
Surely, climbers do not climb for the sake of the competition alone. This leads us to the physical exertion of climbing. Moving your body over rock in a vertical world in a constant struggle against gravity.
Separate from the competitive notion of "style" in climbing, there is style involved in how one moves on rock: Smooth flowing motions, precision foot placements, seamless weight transfer, unwavering balance, flawless dead-points and exciting dynamic movement. These physical skills require highly refined muscular coordination, mental focus and, surprisingly to a beginner, relaxation.
Many people claim that little strength is required in climbing: climbing is primarily done with the feet and legs. Observe that there isn't anyone in the world strong enough to pull themselves up a significant climb with arm strength alone. This is a fair comment for a beginning climber. Focusing on footwork and balance will go a long way in learning how to climb properly. There is no doubt however, that physical strength and flexibility play a large role in climbing at the highest level. By the time you get to a high level of climbing, you will take for granted the strength and flexibility that you have developed along the way. Incidentally, this is why grading easy climbs is so difficult for a master climber.... they have taken for granted that someone climbing a 5.8 doesn't have the subtle strength or skills (typically footwork) that they now have.
Climbers climb for
many different reasons. In fact, hearing the various reasons from a variety
of climbers still won't make sense to a few lay-people. However, the basic
elements discussed here are probably fundamental to every climber's interest
to some degree. The drive to self improvement. Pushing one's limits through
improvements in skill, technique, mental focus and attitude. Achieving
a hard goal. Overcoming past inhibitions and fears. And finally a little
competitive drive never.... Well, hasn't killed too many people.