Beginners Guide to Rock Climbing: Introduction

By Khai Johannes Jun 24, 2022
The mountains speak in many languages and the more of them you speak the better you understand the mountains. This is Rock Climbing 101, an intro.
Beginners Guide to Rock Climbing: Introduction

The oldest snow sport is rooted in utility. Like many inventions, skiing was birthed out of necessity as our primitive ancestors searched for a way to navigate snow efficiently. First was cross country skiing, then came downhill, and eventually, the evolution of snow sports would look as diverse as other kingdoms. As a German Shepherd can be traced back to a wolf, so could slalom snowboarding trace its way to skiing. Similarly, as a Pit Bull shares DNA with Yorkies, all snow sports and their summer counterparts have something in common: pleasure.

When our ancestors uttered the phrase “we couldn’t live without skiing” between bites of woolly mammoth, it was far more literal than when we say it now, between sips of whiskey from High West Distillery and Saloon. It doesn’t matter if your ideal winter is made up of mellow turns with frequent lodge stops and you counterbalance with summers spent on the golf course, or if you bomb down double blacks on a board then do the same on a bike when the snow melts. Even those who earn their turns through hours of skinning uphill will receive a downhill pleasure payoff when the skins come off. Skiing started as a lifeline and transformed into an act of leisure. Its birth and evolution make complete logical sense. Here’s something that doesn’t: rock climbing. 


Rock climbing is the act/art of vertically scaling rock (while there may be some down or side climbing, most often the start is at the bottom of the route and the goal is above). There is no downhill after reaching the top. No weightless sensation from hovering through light powder. Quite the opposite in fact as you feel every extra calorie you consumed on the tips of your fingers. There is physical straining from pushing your muscle fibers to their limits begging them for “just one more hold!”. There is mental anguish from looking at the same rock face for the 100th time, hoping you’ve solved the puzzle only to fall for the 100th time. There is a lot of skin and blood left behind and there is a fair share of suffering and swearing. This begs an obvious question: what on earth possessed the pioneers of the sport to climb?

While many of our primitive predecessors may have partaken in the gravity-defying dance, climbing that most resembles what we do today dates back to 1786 with the historic first ascent of Mont Blanc. Rock climbing was a byproduct of mountaineering. While mountaineering might be described as a necessity on a spiritual level, it is now and always has been the search of challenge for challenge’s sake. Think of the answer Mallory gave in response to the question of why he climbed Mount Everest; “Because it’s there.”


Similar to the family tree of snow sports, climbing has a diverse lineage of its own with seven different disciplines:

  • Mountaineering (alpine climbing): Where it all started. This type of climbing requires quite a mixed bag of gear and skills. Summiting a mountain may require the ability to climb rock, snow or ice. It requires knowledge of snow pack, rock slides and weather windows. Mountaineering also demands the ability to be self-reliant with having ways of providing food, water and shelter. 
  • Traditional Climbing: Often referred to simply as “trad climbing”, this style of ascending requires climbers to place protection (pro) along the rock face and secure their rope to that gear along the way. In earlier years, pitons were nailed into place. Now nuts and cams are the predominant tools as technology has improved. With trad climbing, the gear is removed on the climber’s descent, leaving the terrain unaltered. 
  • Sport Climbing: Similar in motion to trad, sport also requires the climber to clip the rope into protection as they move. Rather than placing pro in cracks and nooks, the climber clips one side of a quick draw (a piece of nylon with a carabiner on each side) to a bolt that has been drilled into the face and clips the rope into the other side. 
  • Top Rope Climbing: In this style, one end of the rope is tied to the climber, with the middle of the rope running up through a high point (known as the anchors) and the other end attached to a belayer through a belay device that causes enough friction to stop the climber if they fall.  In the previous forms of climbing, rope was doled out as the climber moved upward. In this case, rope is taken in as the climber ascends.
  • Bouldering: The sprint of the climbing world, bouldering problems tend to be shorter than the above styles and thus don’t require a rope. Instead, crash pads are placed under the climber to prevent serious injuries should they fall. While most boulder problems are on large boulders, they can also exist on the lower sections of larger faces. 
  • Free solo: Thrust into the limelight by climbing legend Alex Honnold and his movie “Free Solo,” free solo climbing requires the least amount of gear. Showing up with only shoes and a chalk bag, climbers put their skills and mental parlous to their ultimate test risking major injuries or death. Why would anyone in their right mind free solo? Why would anyone climb at all?

I can’t answer for everyone, but I can speak to why I’ve tied my rope and stomach in knots for over ten years now. Climbing is a perfect balance of mental and physical difficulty. Rock faces are chess boards that I contort my body through. Studies have shown in order for most humans to stick to something it has to be challenging enough to be stimulating but easy enough to see improvement. If something is too easy we grow bored, too hard and we grow discouraged. Climbing is always offering new challenges as what is possible is constantly expanding. It’s an addiction all too easy to get roped into. 

Disclaimer: Climbing is inherently dangerous and comes with risks of injury.