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Definition: rock climbing from Dictionary of Sports and Games Terminology

(mountaineering) the climbing of rock faces

Summary Article: Rock Climbing
from The Gale Encyclopedia of Fitness

Rock climbing is a recreational and competitive sport in which a person attempts to ascend a natural or artificial rock face carrying gear that may range from purely safety devices to more complex equipment that provides both safety and mechanisms for making the climb possible.

A woman ascends a rock climbing wall. (© AP Images)


Many rock climbers enjoy the sport for the pure pleasure that it brings, both in terms of accomplishing a physical task that challenges one's body to the utmost and in terms of the interface with nature that it provides. Competitive rock climbers have, in addition to this goal, the objective of triumphing over opponents in completing a given course in the least amount of time, or covering the largest part of a predesignated course in a given period of time.


The most complete data on participation in rock climbing in the United States comes from annual surveys conducted by the Outdoor Foundation. The most recent survey (2011) was based on interviews with 38,742 Americans aged six and over; results of that survey were extrapolated to the total U.S. population. The survey estimated that 2,198,000 Americans participated in traditional, ice, and mountaineering climbing in 2010, and another 4,770,000 participated in indoor rock climbing.

These numbers were relatively constant for the latter category over the period from 2006 to 2010, although they represented an increase of 38.6% for indoor climbing over the same period. For purposes of comparison, other outdoor sports included adventure racing (1,339,000 participants), birdwatching (13,320,000), canoeing (10,553,000), skateboarding (6,808,000), surfing (2,767,000), and trail running (5,136,000).

Another good source of demographic data on rock climbing is the British Mountaineering Club, which keeps regular records of the numbers and characteristics of rock climbers in Great Britain. In a 2003 survey, the club found that the majority of rock climbers surveyed were between the ages of 19 and 30 (37%) and 31 and 45 (44%), with only 1% under the age of 18 or over the age of 65. In all age groups, men were in the majority by far, making up 84% of all those in the 19 to 30 and 89% of those in the 31 to 45 age group. Some anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that, at least in the United States, the proportion of women rock climbers has begun to increase significantly over the last decade.


Rock climbing appears to be as old as human history in at least mountainous parts of the world. For residents of the Andes, the Rockies, the Alps, and other mountain ranges, people have probably always had to travel at least occasionally over difficult terrain to obtain food, launch attacks on enemies, explore new territories, or other basic human activities. Rock climbing may also have been enjoyed as a form of recreation.

Some historians date the origin of modern mountain climbing to 1492, when a captain in the French army, Antoine de Ville, ascended to the summit of Mont Aiguille (Mount Inaccessible). Other discrete episodes of rock climbing were recorded over the next four centuries, but most experts agree that the sport cannot be said to have originated until the 1880s, when it became popular in three disparate geographical areas at almost the same time, the Lake District and Wales in Great Britain, near Dresden in Saxony, and the Dolomites in northeastern Italy. The leading figure during this time was a member of the British aristocracy, Walter Parry Haskett Smith. Although trained in the law, Smith spent much of his time pursuing athletic adventures, one of which involved the ascent of the 70-ft (21-m) Napes Needle in the English Lake District. Word of Smith's accomplishment spread throughout the country and inspired a new interest in the sport of rock climbing. The sport was just developing in the United States at almost the same time. In 1869 John Muir had made apparently the first free solo ascent of Cathedral Peak in what is now Yosemite National Park, and six years later, 28 year-old George Anderson made the first ascent (in his bare feet) of Half Dome, also in Yosemite. He used a variety of climbing implements, including a climbing rope and fixed eye bolts for holds in the rock.

Competitive rock climbing dates to post-World War II Soviet Union, when the first speed events were introduced. These events at the time, and for some time afterwards, were limited to citizens of the USSR only. The first international event occurred in 1985 at Bardonecchia, Italy, not far from Torino. That event, the Sportroccia, was held on a mountain in Valle Stretta and was won by German climber Stefan Glowacz. The event was repeated the following year and an indoor competition at a gymnasium in the Lyon suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin was added to the competition. By the late 1980s, rock climbers were provided with a number of competitive events in which to participate, culminating in the first World Cup in 1989.

The governing body for rock climbing was originally the Union Internationale des Association d'Alpinisme (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation; UIAA), established in 1932 for the “study and solution of all problems regarding mountaineering.” The UIAA assumed responsibility for all aspects of rock climbing until 2006 when it decided to create a separate organization to deal with climbing competition exclusively, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), which continues to be a separate, self-governing part of UIAA.


A variety of rock climbing styles are used:

  • Bouldering is a style of rock climbing that takes place on relatively short routes at heights from which it is relatively safe to fall. The climber uses no special equipment except for the possibility of a bouldering pad to break a person's fall from the rock and a spotter who watches the climb from below and gives advice to the climber and tries to direct her or him away from dangerous parts of the climbing rock.

  • Free climbing is a form of rock climbing in which the climber relies entirely on his or her hands and feet to make an ascent. Any equipment is used solely for safety purposes, and not to aid in the ascent itself. For example, a climber may be attached to a top rope belay system or on safety anchors installed in the rock along the route. But essentially the climber's success depends entirely on his or her own physical strength, endurance, and skill.

  • Traditional, or trad, climbing is a variation of free climbing in which the climber installs a safety device during the ascent and removes them as soon as they are no longer needed. As in free climbing, the devices installed are used only for safety purposes, and not to assist in the ascent.

  • Sport climbing is another version of free climbing except that the safety devices needed for the climb are permanently installed (or at least not installed by the climber during the climb). Again, the devices are not used to aid in the ascent, but just to provide additional safety for the climber.

  • Aid climbing involves the use of devices installed into the face of the rock by the climber to help with the ascent. At one time, the usual procedure was to drive some type of object, such as a piton (a metal spike), into the rock to serve as an anchor in climbing. Climbers ascend in pairs, the leader (who goes first) and the belayer (who remains at some distance behind the leader). The two are connected by a rope that is also connected to one of the anchors in the rock. If the leader should fall, the belayer controls the rope in such a way as to keep the leader from falling to the ground. Ascent takes place as leader and belayer move upward from one anchor point to the next. A variety of devices are used in aid climbing to make the ascent possible. In recent years, the most popular (because it is the least damaging to the rock) has been a camming device, which provides a tight attachment to the rock.

  • Free soloing might be regarded as the purest form of rock climbing in that the climber relies on her or his own body only, with no gear of any kind, either for the purpose of protection or to aid in the ascent. Free soloing is probably the riskiest form of rock climbing in that a climber who falls during this type of ascent faces a high likelihood of severe injury or death.

  • Deep water soloing is a version of free soloing in that the climber selects a rock that lies above deep water, which provides the sole means of protection should the climber fall from the rock.

  • Top-roping is perhaps the safest method of rock climbing because the climber is attached to a rope that travels over a support system at the top of the rock. A belayer holds the other end of the rope and can control the motion of the climber in case of an emergency.

  • Indoor climbing is the most popular version of rock climbing; in fact, it is twice as popular in the United States as the traditional outdoor version of the sport. The sport is usually practiced on non-rocky material, such as tough plastic, in a gymnasium-like setting. Many people learn indoor climbing on a rock fitted with a top rope system and proceed to bouldering and other versions of the sport.

Competitive rope climbing falls into one of four major categories. In all forms of competition, climbers ascend by means of a number of fixed anchors over which they traverse during their ascent. Climbers must focus not on the placement of the anchors, but on the most efficient way of moving from one anchor to the next. The first category of competitive climbing is a speed climb. The winner is the person that covers a designated route in the shortest possible time. The other three types of climbing focus on difficulty and speed, rather than speed alone. In red point climbing, a variety of climbing routes are available to the climber, each of different difficulty and with a different point value. The climber must select the most difficult route he or she can follow in the fastest time to achieve a maximum score. Competitions may also involve on-sight or flash events. In the former case, competitors are allowed to have one preview examination of the wall to be climbed and then one attempt to climb the wall. The person who ascends the farthest on the wall in a given time period is the winner. In flash events, competitors are allowed to watch each other attempt their ascent and to comment among themselves before, but not during, the ascent.


Rock climbing is a very demanding sport that requires superior strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. The sport also requires mental and emotional qualities, such as the willingness to face unknown and potentially very dangerous situations and the ability to deal with sudden, potentially life-threatening conditions on the face of a wall.


The minimum personal apparel required for rock climbing is as simple as that required for swimming. Some climbers attempt a climb in nothing more than shorts or a skimpy bathing suit. For all but the very best climbers, other equipment is appropriate, such as shorts or long pants, a sleeveless or sleeved shirt, socks and shoes, a helmet, and gloves. The choice of personal apparel depends to a significant degree on the climber's self-confidence, the extent to which he or she needs or wants to be in contact with the rock, the protection one needs, along with other factors.

Many forms of rock climbing require a variety of equipment needed for safety purposes or to be used in the ascent. This equipment may include:

  • Climbing holds: Rubber or plastic grips that come in variety of shapes. They are attached to a wall by means of bolts or t-nuts to provide climbers with objects to grip or stand on during their ascent.

  • Climbing harness: A device worn by a climber to which a rope or other safety device can be attached.

  • Belays and rappels: Closeable or closed devices, respectively, to which ropes can be attached.

  • Climbing ropes: Ropes used for the ascent in a climb or as a safety system for preventing a person from falling during a climb.

  • Carabiners: Spring-loaded loops used for attaching various parts of a climbing system to each other. They snap on to other components of a system quickly and securely.

  • Quickdraws: A short piece of rope or strap with loops at each end used to attach a rope to a carabiner.

  • Climbing shoes: Specialized designed shoes with soles adapted to hold tightly to rock surfaces, flexible enough to fit into tight places in the rock, and otherwise adapted to the special demands placed on feet by climbing.

  • Fingerboards: Strips of wood or plastic with depressions into which the fingers can be placed to provide training tool for finger strength and placement.

  • Bouldering pad or crash pad: Used to provide protection for climbers who fall during bouldering or other short-distance climbs.

  • Powdered chalk: An essential element of the rock climber's kit; it is used to increase friction and improve the grip on a rocky surface.

Training and conditioning

A training program for rock climbers should focus on the body parts that are especially important in the sport, namely the arms, fingers, shoulders, legs, and feet. The exercise program should take into consideration any particular weakness the individual may have. For example, pull-ups are very helpful for increasing upper body strength. Forearm curls develop forearm strength, which is essential in maintaining one's grip strength. Rock climbers, like all athletes, should be aware of the importance of stretching and warm-up exercises in preparing the body for a climb and in general training and conditioning exercises. One should also remember the necessity of allowing one's body to rest between exercises and avoiding the risks associated with overuse.

Trainers also recommend a variety of sport-specific exercises in preparation for climbing. For example, an exercise in which a climber uses both hands to ascend and wall and then repeats the exercise using one hand only. Preparation for climbing involves a number of mental factors, such as scoping out the course before hand, looking for potential hand and foot holds and watching for potential rest stops along the way.


One of the most comprehensive studies of rock climbing injuries was reported in 2009 by two researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Nicolas G. Nelson and Lara B. McKenzie. The researchers reviewed the records of 40,282 patients who had been treated in emergency departments between 1990 and 2007 for rock climbing injuries. They found that patients between the ages of 20 and 39 accounted for more than half of all injuries with males accounting for more than twice as many injuries as females. The most common injuries were those to the lower extremities involving sprains, strains, and fractures. In particular, the body part most frequently involved in injury was the ankle (19.2% of all injuries), with sprains and strains being the most common type of injury. Less common than fractures, strains, and sprains were lacerations (17.1% of all injuries), soft tissue injuries (16.9%), and dislocations (4.3%). By far the most common cause of injury during rock climbing was a fall (77.5% of all injuries), compared by hitting an object (7.1%) or being hit by an object (6.4%). Overall, just over 11% of all those who were injured required hospitalization, a high fraction for sports-related injuries.

A similar study was reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2008 of 201 active rock climbers, 163 male and 38 female climbers. About half of all respondents reported at least one injury in the preceding year, for a total of 275 distinct injuries. The most common type of injury was a chronic injury caused by overuse (33% of all injuries), followed by acute injuries caused by stressful moves required as part of a climb (28%), and acute injuries resulting from a fall (10%). The principal location of injuries were fingers and shoulders.


Specialists in sports medicine note that rock climbers can reduce their risk for injury by following a few common-sense guidelines, such as being certain that one stretches and warms up before taking part in the sport, by understanding the demands of the sport and one's own physical limitations, xand by remembering the risks of overtraining and including adequate rest periods within and between training periods.

  • Brown, Katie. Girl on the Rocks: A Woman's Guide to Climbing with Strength, Grace, and Courage. Falcon Guides Guilford CT, 2008.
  • Hörst, Eric J. Learning to Climb Indoors. Falcon Guides Guilford CT, 2006.
  • Hörst, Eric J. Training for Climbing: The Definitive Guide to Improving Your Climbing Performance. Falcon Guides Guilford CT, 2003.
  • Luebben, Craig. Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills. Mountaineers Books Seattle, 2004.
  • Allred, Trevor. Start Climbing. (April 1, 2010). (accessed November 9, 2011).
  • Rock Climbing Glossary. REI. (accessed November 9, 2011).
  • Types and Formats of Rock Climbing Competitions. (accessed November 9, 2011).
  • International Federation of Sport Climbing, Corso Ferrucci 122, Torino, Italy, 10141, 39011 385 39 95, Fax: 39011 412 17 73,,
  • Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation), Monbijoustrasse 61 Postfach, CH-3000 Bern 23, Switzerland, 41(0) 31 370 1828, Fax: 41(0) 31 370 1838,,
  • David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD
    Copyright © 2012 Gale Cengage Learning

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