What is rock climbing?

The Goal.

I have been climbing for almost seven years. I started off as a kid at a summer camp, which put me on the fast-track to an amazing Youth Competitive Team and the Canadian national competition circuit which has changed my life (for the better!!) My passion is inspiring youth to lead active lifestyles, and I have my certification from the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides to begin teaching & coaching climbing.

Climbing is now a rapidly growing activity and I want to make it something that is exciting & accessible to all. I hope to see you all out on the walls!

First Impression.

Rock climbing is an incredible activity bound to an incredible community of people. From the bottom of any sheer rock face, looking up, you will notice some edges much smaller than that bagel you had for lunch, and perhaps less appealing, with which you are somehow expected to support your body weight. It’s a steep bet 😉 You might notice some ropes around you– they’re approximately the width of a butter knife, and so you might think back to buttering that fresh, toasty bagel, still enveloped in the warmth of your pajamas….and begin wishing you were back in the comfort of your home.


There is so much more to rock climbing, if you hang in there! 😉

The Climbing Community

#1. Do not be intimidated by the impression that all climbers are huge, ripped, epic beasts that basically rip holds right off the walls.


Nope, climbers are nerds.



That’s right. We’re generally the programming geeks, the neuroscientists, the physicists, or occasionally the poets.

And this is where we get to let loose and show our true colours–on the wall. So it’s guaranteed to be a crazy fun environment.


Climbing is the most welcoming sport I ‘ve ever encountered. The staff at indoor facilities or the dirtbags hanging around the outdoor crags will greet you immediately without question. Competitive climbers actually offer other competitors advice on how to do a tricky section. We share gear, food, and mutual trust. We put our lives in each other’s hands.

Sounds like something you could get on board with?

The Gear

There are two basic items that every beginner climber needs: climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Climbing shoes provide you with a much greater advantage than you might assume. They afford you a firmer grip on your footholds, great friction, and more dexterity. Similar to how gymnasts use chalk on the rings or bars, climbers use it for improved friction, and to stop sweaty hands! Most indoor gyms have chalk bags and climbing shoes to rent. Once you’ve gotten hooked on climbing, you can purchase a pair of shoes that best suit your feet.

Here are some other items to put on your climbing wish list once you’re hooked:

  1. Harness. This will allow you to start using the ropes! It needs to be comfy and fit you well, and be able to catch your falls! Many gyms have these available for rent as well.
  2. Tape. You might find your skin beginning to peel as you climb more. Or the infamous “flapper.” Athletic or climbing-specific finger tape will allow you to tape down those wounds and keep moving!
  3. Rope. Really hooked? Looking to make your first journey to the outdoor crag? Find an experienced climbing partner who can show you the ropes 😉 Buddy up and use one rope or invest in one of your own…
  4. Helmet. This is an absolute must for climbing outdoors. To hell with fashion or sensory issues. What’s important is that you stay alive and able to climb. Sure, a helmet may help in the event of a nasty fall but MORE IMPORTANTLY it will protect you from the very real threat of ROCKFALL FROM ABOVE.
  5. Quickdraws/”Rack”. Once you’ve made a couple ventures outdoors and are still lovin’ it, you can build up your own “rack,” of climbing gear required for lead or traditional climbing (see the section on disciplines of climbing). This will open up a world of possibilities.
The rack

The Disciplines

Bouldering-Not all climbing is done with a rope! And, before you freak out and close the page, this means that not all climbing is done high off the ground. Bouldering is a discipline of climbing that involves a short series of horizontal, diagonal, or vertical moves close to the ground.

Benefits: This is a great way to test your boundaries, develop power & strength, and meet new people, all under the height of 4 metres. The boulder lounge is the major social hub of many indoor climbing gyms– and I cannot stress enough how friendly all the new and experienced climbers are! Everyone is psyched to be there, and will unconsciously initiate conversations with new & smiling faces around them. It’s a great place to go for some quick workouts, or many people head to the lounge just to socialize!

Top-Rope Climbing-This is the best way for beginners to climb higher and get to the top of the wall! Top-rope climbing is done in pairs; the climber is tied into a rope that will catch any falls as they ascend, and the belayer remains on the ground, taking in the slack of the rope. This ensures that when the climber falls, they will be stopped and held lightly at the place of their fall–you won’t actually “fall” any distance.

Benefits: This is a great introduction to managing rope systems and overcoming fear! You can also begin to develop endurance and confidence over longer periods on the wall.

Sport/Lead Climbing-This is a more advanced type of climbing, which involves the climber starting with the rope on the ground, and clipping it into quickdraws as they progress up the wall. In the event of a fall, the climber falls to the position of their last clip. This involves more complex rope-management and a confident climber & belayer. However, lead climbing is a smooth transition once you have mastered the top-rope climbing system, as it involves many of the same processes.

Sport Climbing

Benefits: This type of climbing is very popular outdoors, as well as indoors with many recreational and competitive climbers. It’s a great discipline that opens up many more possibilities, allowing you to climb in location where the rope is not already installed at the top of the wall. This discipline will build your endurance and push your limits.

Some crazier/advanced disciplines…

1.) Trad (Traditional) Climbing-This is another more complex discipline of climbing. It requires a broader range of gear and skill. The climber brings up and places gear (nuts, cams, carabiners, slings, etc)  in order to protect against falls. The gear is then removed after the passage is complete.

Benefits: This type of  climbing opens up a world of outdoor rock faces! It also doesn’t require bolts or permanent gear to be drilled into the walls.

2.) Aid Climbing-This style of climbing involves using gear/devices to pull yourself up the wall. It requires an array of gear and rope-management skills.

Benefits: Aid climbing allows fast ascent and access up potentially impassable sections.

3.) Speed Climbing-This is what many new people assume climbing is all about-speed. This is, in fact, generally a discipline restricted to competition (or goofing off, depending on your approach). Competitors race on an internationally-standardized sequence of holds in an attempt to reach the top of the wall first.

Benefits: You can train yourself on the sequence of holds repeatedly to improve your personal best time.

4.) Free Soloing-Climb as high as you want, wherever you want, without ropes.

Benefits: Yep. Be crazy, be ‘pure,’ be free.

What’s Next After You Get to the Top?

Many people wonder why exactly climbers keep coming back after they’ve gotten to the top of all the walls in the gym. You know what they say–doing the same thing over and over and expecting new results is a sign of insanity. Perhaps climbers are, indeed, partially insane for returning to the same walls seeking a greater perfection & spiritual enlightenment. Other times, we are trying new ‘routes.’

Routes (aka. problems). “What’s your problem?” is a common phrase spoken nonchalantly in a climbing gym. ‘Routes,’ or ‘problems,’ are predefined sequences of moves that climbers attempt to complete without falling. In indoor gyms, these are often marked with different colours of tape, or by a path of holds in the same colour.

You attempt to climb the sequence of moves, using only the marked hand and foot holds.

“Red Route”-You can only use the red holds.

In this way, climbers have ingeniously found a way to make climbing even harder. Routes are a great way to challenge yourself, improve your technique, and try fun, new moves. After you’ve tried done a bit of climbing, you can choose a route towards the top of your ability level as your project. This “project” route is a designated goal for yourself, something that you can work towards completing sections of until you can climb it entirely without falling.


Competition Climbing.

As climbing becomes a more popular sport, the competition climbing scene grows, becoming more and more impressive. Competition is especially popular among youths–you may notice junior climbing teams or clubs meeting regularly at your indoor gym. Competitions are an amazing way to draw attention to this incredible activity and encourage youths to lead active lifestyles and build confidence.

Bouldering Competitions: 

There are two types of bouldering competitions:

  1. Scramble Format: These are the fun, casual competitions hosted by your local indoor gyms. Climbers are given 2 or 3 hours to climb the hardest routes they can. There are usually about 50 problems available to try, and they score you based on your top 8 problems. The harder the problem, the higher the score. These are a great social and climbing scene–a great way to meet new people, try new routes and maybe even get some draw prizes. If you’re lucky, they are sometimes even followed by slacklining or dyno competitions.
  2. World Cup Format: Competitors are given 4 minutes to plan and climb an extremely difficult boulder route that they have not seen before, followed by a period of rest. Climbers are generally kept in ‘isolation,’ a room cut off from outside contact, before the climb so that they cannot gain any knowledge about the routes. Competitors are scored based on how many attempts it takes for them to complete each route without falling. There is also a hold approximately halfway through the route which is designated as the ‘bonus hold.’ Climbers are scored by how many attempts it takes for them to reach this hold, especially if they do not reach the top.

Lead/Sport Climbing Competitions:

There are two main types of lead/sport climbing competitions:

  1. ‘Flash’ Format: A random start list is generated and climbers take turns attempting the lead route. The competitors are free to watch each other climb, gaining tips and tricks for how to approach the problem. The holds are numbered in a progression towards the top of the route, and the higher up you get, the higher your score will be. The start list is then reversed for the next qualifier route to even things out.
  2. ‘Onsight’ Format: A random start list is generated and climbers take turns attempting the lead route. The other competitors are kept in ‘isolation’ room, unable to watch the others climb. The climbers are brought out in a group before the competition commences and allowed to ‘preview’ the route for 7 minutes. They are then brought out individually for their turn. The holds are numbered in a progression towards the top of the route, and the higher up you get, the higher your score will be.

Speed Climbing Competitions:

Climbers are timed on an internationally-standardized route. Climbers generally compete in pairs, competing against one climber to advance to the next round. The climber with the fastest time in finals wins. If a climber falls on the route, they are disqualified and their time for that attempt does not count. Climbers are given one warning, and may not false start twice. The climber must slap the motion sensor at the top to finalize their time.

The standardized speed route & holds.

Watch the incredible Libor Hroza speed climbing!

The Lifestyle.

Cheesy as it may sound, climbing is absolutely a lifestyle. Whether you feel the call of the the dirtbag van life, the weekend warrior, the gym rat, the competitor or the recreational climber–it becomes a way of life! Overcoming fear, building confidence & muscle, making new friends….what could be better?

Now you’ve got the basic run-down of what climbing is about. Go out and live it! I’d love to hear where climbing takes you–comment here on this stream.

Check out my more lyrical articles on climbing that will hopefully inspire you to give it a try and discover similar joy!