How Rock Climbing Works

By: Marshall Brain

Rock climbing involves strength, control and finesse. Using the muscles in your arms and legs to pull yourself up a sheer rock face takes strength­ and control. Using your brain to place your hands and feet so that your muscles can do their job -- that's finesse.

Rock climbing is a little like skydiving. Both rock climbing and skydiving have an element of danger. Both are sports where people participate mostly for their own personal satisfaction -- these sports do not offer much for spectators­. And both are sports where potential participants either "get it" or they don't. In skydiving, either you are excited about leaping out of a plane into the abyss, or you aren't. In rock climbing, either you are excited about scaling a vertical piece of stone, or you aren't.

The basic premise behind rock climbing is extremely simple. You are trying to climb from the bottom to the top of something. If that was all there were to it, then you would need nothing but your body and a good pair of climbing shoes. The other part of the sport comes if you slip anywhere along the way. Because of the possibility of falling, rock climbing involves a great deal of highly specialized equipment to catch you when you fall. When you're rock climbing outdoors on "traditional" routes, learning to use and properly place this equipment is at least half of the sport!

In this article, we will look at different types of rock climbing and you will learn about the equipment and skills that climbers use to scale rock faces that can rise for thousands of feet.


Types of Rock Climbing

A sport that can be done indoors on plywood climbing structures, or done outdoors on cliffs thousands of feet high, rock climbing comes in several different forms today:

  • Traditional rock climbing - Traditional climbing is the sort of climbing you typically see in movies and in nature documentaries. Connected by a rope, pairs of climbers wearing harnesses scale a rock face carrying racks of specialized equipment. As they go, the climbers place wedges, nuts and other forms of protection from their racks into cracks in the rock. The rope is hooked to these pieces of protection so that, if a climber falls, the rope catches them.
  • Sport climbing - Sport climbing is like traditional climbing in most respects, except that the protective pieces are permanently bolted into the rock. The climber doesn't have to carry protection with him/her or place it along the way. This makes sport climbing safer, faster and less expensive than traditional climbing.
    rock climbing
  • Free solo climbing - Free solo climbing is like sport climbing except you use no rope. If you fall, you die.
  • Indoor climbing - Indoor climbing is like sport climbing, except that climbers scale indoor climbing structures made of plywood or concrete and hold onto artificial handholds/footholds bolted onto the structure. The fact that it is indoors means that the height of the structure is limited by the height of the ceiling in the room. However, there are no weather problems and it is easy to unbolt the handholds and footholds to reconfigure the wall.
  • Ice climbing -­ Ice climbing is like traditional climbing except that the climber is scaling an ice formation (such as a frozen waterfall or a glacier) rather than a rock formation. Specialized equipment that can screw into the ice is used instead of the wedges, nuts and cams used on rock formations.
  • Bouldering and buildering - Bouldering is like sport climbing, but you are climbing on boulders (or the sides of chimneys and buildings) rather than on cliffs and crags. Because the maximum height of a boulder is typically ten feet or so, bouldering is often done without ropes.

Interested in rock climbing and other adventure sports? Check out the ice climbing article, video and images at Discovery’s Fearless Planet.

Now let's find out what it takes to climb a rock.

How strong are you?

You'd probably be amazed to learn how much force your body's joints and muscles actually support on a daily basis. This interactive segment from Discovery takes you inside the body and explains how much strength your bones and muscles really possess. Other activities let you explore even more of your body's systems to see exactly how they move you through your daily life.


Rock Climbing Skills and Technique

rock climbing

Image courtesy of Department of Defense

A U.S. Air Force Senior Airman ascends a climbing wall at Kirtland Air Force Base, NM.

Imagine a 1,000-foot tall sheet of vertical, continuous, seamless glass. If you had to climb it, it would be impossible unless you had suction cups for your hands and feet. Now imagine a 1,000-foot tall vertical rock wall filled with cracks and outcrops that are so obvious and so easy to find that you can climb it like you climb a ladder. Rock climbing always falls somewhere between these two extremes.

In the easy case there isn't really any skill involved at all. As long as a person is in decent physical shape, it's possible for just about anyone to climb a rock like this. As the rock gets smoother and the handholds get farther apart and smaller, the climber begins to enter the realm of nuance and finesse. The climber must be able to find adequate handholds and footholds, balance on them in often precarious positions, and move from one point to the next without falling. On difficult routes there can be thin cracks with little to grab hold of, overhangs that require incredible strength to traverse, and wind and temperatures that make the route up the rock even more challenging.

Whenever possible, the climber is trying to do most of the work of climbing using his/her legs. In the ideal case, climbers try to keep their centers of gravity over their feet and then push upwards with their legs. They use their arms and hands only for balance and positioning. As the rock becomes smoother, it becomes harder to stay in this ideal position. This is where strength and agility come in. On difficult routes, the climber needs incredible arm, hand and finger strength and endurance to stick to the rock. On extremely difficult routes, finding enough things to hold onto in a continuous sequence becomes a complex geometry problem. Check out the videos at to see how strenuous climbing can get.

Rating System

In the United States, climbers use a standard rating system to describe the difficulty of different routes. There are 6 classes in this system, ranging from class 1 (normal walking) through hiking, scrambling and then climbing at class 5. Everything known as "rock climbing" falls in class 5. Class 6 is rock walls that are so smooth that there is no way to climb them without artificial aids like ladders.

Within class 5 there are 14 different levels that break down like this:

  • 5.0 through 5.4 -- beginner level. Easy to climb, like a ladder.
  • 5.5 through 5.7-- intermediate level. Climbable in normal shoes or boots but requiring more skill.
  • 5.8 through 5.10 -- experienced level. Requires climbing shoes, experience and strength.
  • 5.11 through 5.12 -- expert level. Perhaps only the top 10% of climbers in the world can handle these routes.
  • 5.13 through 5.15 -- elite level. Can only be handled by the best of the best.

Probably the easiest and safest way to get started in rock climbing today is to go to an indoor climbing facility and take lessons. There you will learn the basic techniques in a safe environment, build your strength and skills, and meet other climbers. Any major city will have two or three climbing gyms in the area. Once you understand the basics, you can find a partner and head out to start on easy sport routes. As you gain experience, you can move up to more advanced routes.

Many climbers never move beyond sport climbing because they like the safety and speed of using pre-placed bolts. If you want to try advanced routes, or routes in remote areas, then you can learn how to place protection and try out traditional climbing. In making the jump to traditional climbing, it is essential to find a partner or hire a guide/instructor with traditional climbing experience so that you can learn how to safely place protection yourself.

Now you have an idea of how to get started. And, you've learned that there are several forms of rock climbing, and that each requires different levels of skill. Strength, stamina and control are integral to mastering the sport. Some other important aspects are the equipment and climbing technique. In the next section we'll take a look at the equipment and technique involved in sport climbing.


Rock Climbing Equipment

In sport climbing, the equipment is fairly simple. At the minimum you need:

  • Climbing shoes
  • A harness and carabiners for attaching the harness to the rope
  • Gloves or hand chalk
  • A dozen quickdraws
  • A belay device and a rappelling device
  • A rope
  • A helmet
Climbing shoes

Climbing shoes





Carabiners and belay device

Carabiners and belay device

Chalk bag

Chalk bag

rock climbing chalk

On the next page, learn how two climbers would use all this equipment on a typical sport route.


Lead Climbing and Belaying

The first climber to climb the route is known as the lead climber. While he/she is climbing, the lead climber is protected by the rope attached to his/her harness. The other end of the rope is held by the second climber, who is known as the belayer. The belayer runs the rope through a belay device attached to his/her harness and feeds rope out as the lead climber rises.

Belay device

Belay device

As the lead climber climbs, he/she will come to the first bolt on the rock wall. A bolt is a permanent anchor that has been drilled into the rock. There's a metal loop attached to the bolt. The lead climber uses a quickdraw to connect the rope to the bolt. A quickdraw is a pair of carabiners attached together by strong nylon webbing. The lead climber hooks the carabiner on one end of a quickdraw to the bolt, and runs the rope through the second carabiner on the other end of the quickdraw. The lead climber proceeds up the route, hooking into each bolt as he/she comes to it.

If the lead climber falls, the belayer will grab the rope to arrest the fall. The maximum distance that the lead climber can fall is equal to twice the distance between the last bolt and his/her current position, plus the length of slack left in the line by the belayer, plus the stretch of the rope. Climbing rope stretches to absorb the shock of the fall. So, if the lead climber is 4 feet (1.2 meters) above the last bolt that he/she clipped into, the climber will fall 8 feet (4 feet to get even with the bolt and then 4 feet past it), plus the length of the slack in the line, plus the length that the rope stretches. Perhaps 10 to 12 feet (3.4 meters), in other words.

The lead climber can climb to a maximum height equal to about half the length of the rope. If the lead climber goes any higher than that, it will not be possible for the belayer to lower him/her back to the ground if the lead climber falls and is injured. Since most ropes are 50 to 60 meters long, it means that the distance that the lead climber can climb before stopping is 25 to 30 meters (75 to 90 feet).

The lead climber will climb to a ledge, tie into an anchor in the rock with a short piece of rope or webbing, and the two climbers switch roles. The lead climber become the belayer from above for the second climber. The second climber detaches and collects the quickdraws placed by the lead climber as he/she climbs.

Once the lead climber and the second climber are together again, they have completed the first pitch. They will then repeat the process to climb the second pitch, and so on, until they reach their destination.

Traditional climbing follows the same steps. However, instead of attaching to pre-placed bolts, the lead climber carries and places temporary protection (aka pro) along the way. Protection is placed into cracks in the rock and comes in several different forms:

  • Wedges
  • Nuts
  • Hexes
  • Cams

Check out Sportextreme: active protection and Sportextreme: passive protection for details and photos.

The lead climber places protection into cracks as he/she climbs, and the second climber removes all of it as he/she follows. The placement of protection is obviously a crucial skill, since protection devices are the only thing that stand between life and death in a fall. The protection must be placed so that it locks into the rock and holds firm during the stress of a fall.


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