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How…?

How’d they get the rope up there?

You’d be amazed how often climbers get asked that question. Imaginative suggestions include a “rope gun” (that’s what we climbers call our strong partners!) to grappling hooks to trained monkeys. I’d thought I’d do a quick write-up here given that a lot of non-climber friends and relatives will be looking at this site and maybe even reading some of what’s written here. My intent here is not to provide a super-detailed explanation, merely to give you a quick overview of common climbing techniques and equipment to better understand what you’re seeing in the pictures or written pages.

I think it goes without saying that this is in NO way intended to be a how-to or instructional page for those looking to learn to climb. Please seek out professional instruction through a registered mountain guide or climbing school. If you put to use any of the ideas or techniques covered here without taking the time to learn them, you could be seriously injured or killed in addition to being a raging idiot. I assume no responsibility for anything that might happen to you!

Wow – do you ever FREE climb?!

Yes, all the time. That’s not as alarming as it sounds if you know what is actually meant by “free” climbing. First off, I should clarify some points about different types of climbing. When most non-climbers think of free climbing they think of the unroped madman/woman climbing at his/her limit way above the deck. Climbers actually refer to this as free soloing. Free climbing refers to using only your hands and feet, your physical strength and technique, for moving up rock or ice or both. Special anchors (see below) are placed in the rock or ice and the rope runs through them dragged by the climber, and are only weighted when or if the climber falls. Aid climbing is just the opposite – the climber uses the rock anchors and equipment for direct progression up the rock. Though this sounds easy, the hardest aid climbs are often major psychological tests as the reliability of the anchors is suspect, and passing over the rock requires a high degree of creativity and technical skill. Personally, I find aiding boring, but occasionally a necessary evil on long routes or to speed up an ascent in bad weather for example.

So how is the rope used to protect a fall?

Ropes can be used a number of ways to protect a fall. The simplest and safest method is called toproping, and means that the rope is running through some type of anchor (a tree or cluster of anchors, see below) and down to the climber, so that the rope is always above the climber. In the event that the climber falls, his/her partner (known as a belayer) catches the fall and the climber theoretically only falls as far as the rope stretches (climbers use specially-designed dynamic ropes that stretch and absorb forces in a fall; static, low-stretch ropes are limited to specialized uses such as hauling gear and rappelling).

In all cases, the belayer manages the loose end of the rope and controls it in a fall with a piece of equipment known as a belay device. Numerous designs exist for different applications, most rely on bending the rope in a way that creates friction to stop it from sliding. In some cases, special knots or even wraps around the belayer’s body or ice axe might be used instead. When done correctly, holding even a hard fall is relatively easy.

Experienced climbers generally lead climb. That is, they begin with their partner and rope at the bottom of the climb and trail it as they ascend. The first climber up, or leader, places anchors or protection (see rock anchors below) at regular intervals depending on the type of route, their ability and comfort level as they climb. In the event that they fall (a lead fall), they will fall twice the distance between them and their last anchor, plus any slack that might be in the rope (always some), plus rope stretch. When they reach the top of the climb, a convenient stopping point such as a ledge, or the end of their rope (climbing ropes are usually between 50 and 70 metres long), the leader stops and places anchors to build a belay. At this point, they may lower off on toprope or stay and the top and belay their partner (called a second) up the pitch (a pitch refers to the section of rock or ice just climbed, the point between the ground and the belay or between two belays). As the second follows the pitch, they remove the anchors placed by the leader thus recovering the equipment and leaving no sign of their passage. Obviously, quite a bit more skill and responsibility is required of the leader who has a much greater consequence if they fall or place equipment incorrectly.

On climbs longer than one pitch (multi-pitch routes), the climbers leapfrog in this fashion until they reach the top.

Solo climbers also have ways of utilizing ropes to protect themselves while climbing alone, all involve techniques reserved only for very experienced climbers as they must belay themselves while climbing, or choose to climb unroped (free-solo), the purest albeit most dangerous way to climb.

Okay, so what are these anchor things and how do they work?

Climbers have a number of options at their disposal to protect themselves while climbing. The simplest option is to utilize natural features such as trees, rock horns or holes or chockstones (rocks wedged in cracks that may be slung). These features maybe used to construct a top anchor, or used to protect a lead climber as he/she ascends (anchors used this way are termed protection or simply pro or gear). The leader slings the feature with a cord or loop of webbing known as a runner (or sling or quickdraw) and clips the rope to it with a carabiner (or biner, or krab if you’re British).

When natural features such as these are not available, the rock climber must use other options. A variety of passive devices exist such as nuts/stoppers/chocks (small metal wedges with wires to clip carabiners) may be wedged in constrictions in natural cracks present in the rock to protect a fall. Some, such as hexcentrics (hexes) or tricams, are designed to have a camming action when loaded that wedges them even tighter in the rock. In parallel-sided cracks with few places to wedge gear, mechanical spring-loaded camming devices (or cams) are used that expand against the sides of the crack when loaded. An older but still sometimes very useful form of protection is called the piton (or pin), and is simply a piece of steel or titanium (multiple shapes and designs/sizes for different types of cracks) that is hammered into the rock. Pitons have the potential to damage to rock and can be difficult to place, so are used less commonly nowadays except by alpine and mixed climbers and on some traditional climbs (see below). The final option for a rock climber is to place an expansion bolt by drilling a hole in the rock. This is a permanent anchor so much experience and thought is required before placing it.

And no, there is no such thing as a “bolt gun” or “piton gun” – thanks Sly.

Ice climbers use ice screws for protection. These are special chromoly steel tubes with cutting teeth and threads that displace ice to the middle of the screw and out the back on one end, and a cranking lever and carabiner hole of some type at the other end. Obviously, much skill and experience is required to place these correctly, as their strength depends solely on the quality of the ice they are placed in, and the ability of the climber to assess that ice. Ice hooks may also be used, but their reliability is questionable. They are often best used as pitons in icy cracks or frozen turf.

So what are the different types of climbing?

Bouldering essentially involves doing shorter climbs low to the ground with crashpads and spotters to minimize the potential for injury, though some big boulder problems look more like rock climbs. The emphasis here is on technique, and the most technically difficult moves on rock to date are on boulder problems. Bouldering appeals to those who prefer simplicity and lends itself well to socializing.

Sport climbing involves doing rock climbs that are protected entirely by expansion bolts, or sometimes other types of fixed protection. The climbing is relatively safe and the emphasis is on gymnastic difficulty as opposed to riskier climbing. The climbers must however blindly trust the person who placed the bolts knew what they were doing. Sport climbs tend to be shorter (usually one pitch, or conveniently half a rope length for lowering), though there are plenty of multi-pitch routes out there, some with very adventurous pitches (i.e. bolts with healthy spacing between them).

Traditional (or trad) climbing involves climbing where the leader must place anchors and protection such as nuts or cams in natural features encountered along the route. Expansion bolts may occasionally be present but usually only to supplement natural protection. This means the climber is limited to climbing where opportunities for protection exist, and where their boldness or headspace allows. Climbs where protection is difficult or nonexistent or poor are termed run out, and reserved for the most confident and experienced climbers. I find this is the most rewarding form of climbing, as a rope team can travel almost anywhere that natural lines are present and they are physically able to climb.

Face climbing refers to grabbing and pulling features on a rock face, such as edges, slopers, knobs, flakes or other stuff. When gym climbers pull on those coloured, bolt-on holds, they are face climbing. Crack climbing refers to utilizing cracks and various jamming techniques (where hands, feet and other body parts are jammed into cracks to hold on) to ascend. True crack climbing can be difficult to master, where face climbing is more straightforward and most beginners take to it more naturally.

Ice climbing is straightforward – climbing ice using ice tools (ice hammers, or axes) and crampons (“spikes” attached to boots). Ice climbed may be waterfall ice (climbs that form seasonally as waterfalls, seeps or melting snow freeze in the winter) or alpine ice (climbs that form from snow compression or repeated avalanches down a gully, or glacial ice, etc.). Unlike rock climbs, ice climbs can be radically different in character depending on the season, temperature or quality of the ice on a given day. One year’s horror show is often the next year’s classic. The hardest pure ice climbs tend to be psychological as well as physical challenges as good ice screws can be difficult to get.

Mixed climbing refers to climbing rock and ice on the same route, at the same time, or in quick succession, and is perhaps one of the most dynamic, interesting, creative and artistic forms of climbing (sorry, some personal bias here). It requires advanced techniques to climb snow-covered rock, or bare rock with ice tools and crampons (known as drytooling – yes, the sharp stuff does wear out), unusual ice features, and even frozen turf, mud or moss. For me, it incorporates all the best aspects of rock and ice climbing, all in one.

Mountaineering refers to climbing mountains, and may be used interchangeably with alpine climbing, which sometimes refers to climbing more technical routes on mountains (for example, the classic mountaineer might prefer the snowslopes or easier way up a mountain while the alpinist might prefer the more technical mixed rock and ice face).

What is a gri-gri?

If you want to know more about technical terms you might see on this site, I encourage you to refer to one of the many good climbing manuals available, or one of the climbing glossaries available on the web (google it).

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