Rock climbing is a broad term that covers roped climbing and bouldering. It includes climbs that are only a few feet tall, as well as climbs that are hundreds of feet tall. Understanding all the differences between the types of rock climbing can be challenging, especially since there are so many different types.
In this article, we’ll focus on the difference between free climbing and aid climbing, two of the main categories of roped climbing. We’ll break down the different types of free climbing equipment and aid climbing equipment needed for each style of climbing, as well as give you the tools to help determine which style of climbing is the best fit for you.
What is Free Climbing?
When a friend tells you that they’ve started rock climbing, they are most likely referring to free climbing, which is a large category that includes top-rope climbing, sport climbing, and trad climbing. In free climbing, a climber uses only the rock itself to help move their body up the wall. They are protected from falling by a rope and harness, but the rope, harness, and gear used are only for protection, not as hand and foot holds to assist in climbing.
What is Considered Aid Climbing?
Aid climbing is a very technical form of climbing with its own gear and grading system. Unlike free climbing, where you only use the features on the wall to get up the wall, aid climbing uses gear such as hand and foot holds as well as to assist in ascending the wall.
Routes can start as an aid climbing route and eventually become a free climbing route or can be done with either style, but they would be graded differently and require different gear. For example, The Nose, one of the most famous routes on El Capitan, was first climbed in 1958 as an aid route. While a lot of people still aid climb this route today, it was first free climbed in 1993, so it can count as either free or aid climbing, depending on how you climb it.
How Does Aid Climbing Differ From Free Climbing?
Aid climbing and free climbing differ a lot in the skills used, the gear needed, and even the grading systems used. Here we’ll break down some of the biggest differences between aid climbing and free climbing.
Different Types of Equipment and Techniques Used
While free climbing can use quite a bit of gear and technical knowledge to do safely, aid climbing takes a whole new set of skills and gear. The standard free climbing equipment is a harness, shoes, helmet, rope, belay device, and specific gear for the style of free climbing you are doing. You will need quickdraws and an anchor set-up if you are sport climbing. For top-roping, you’ll only need an anchor set-up, but if you are trad climbing, you will need a lot of cams and stoppers for protection.
On the other hand, aid climbing requires all the same gear as trad climbing, plus some extra. The most common gear in aid climbing is an etrier, commonly called an aider. This gear is a webbing ladder that can be clipped onto cams or other aiding gear, such as hooks. Another piece of gear that is essential to your success in aid climbing is a personal protection tether of some sort. While this is helpful in free climbing, it is necessary for aid climbing to have one.
You’re off to a good start if you know the regular grading system for trad, sport, and top-rope routes. If you are a free climber now and are thinking about trying aid climbing, you’ll have to understand the aid climbing grades. Aid climbing grades are an added grade of A1 to A5, indicating how dangerous the route is. For example, the route “The Wall of Early Morning Light” on El Capitan in Yosemite is rated T 5.9 A2+, meaning it is a trad route rated 5.9 and it is an A2+ on the aid scale for danger.
Physical Demands and Mental Focus
It’s hard to argue if aid climbing or free climbing is inherently harder physically simply because you could climb an aid route or a free route of an easier grade or one of a harder grade. You can have climbs where the climbing moves are easier on an aid route and harder on a free route, but you can also have climbs where the moves are harder on an aid route and easier on a free route.
The challenge comes in the mental focus and the skills you need to safely aid climb. Even if the physical climbing moves of an aid route are relatively simple, the technical knowledge and skills that you will need to get past the aid sections of the route are a challenge in and of themselves.
In aid climbing, you are likely to end up using a fifi hook or an alfifi hook to assist in ascending your aider or etrier. Being able to do the physical movements of this technical move is relatively simple for most climbers, but the mental focus and control that you need is what makes it a more dangerous style of climbing than trad or sport climbing.
The benefits of aid climbing are that you can climb things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to climb. The challenges of aid climbing are the immense technical knowledge you need, the amount of gear you need, and the mental focus to put it all together while hanging in the air. Overall, aid climbing is an amazing way to climb, but it is not for the faint of heart.
3 Techniques and Skills Required in Free Climbing
Free climbing covers a huge range of climbing, but there are some techniques and skills that you will have to master in free climbing before you can even think about trying aid climbing. Here are some of the skills and techniques needed for free climbing that we think are the most important to master before trying aid climbing:
Belaying might seem like the most basic skill associated with roped climbing, but a good belayer really can be the difference between life and death. Knowing how to belay with different devices and being exceptionally comfortable belaying will make it easier if you start to do multi-pitch free climbs or try aid climbing, where you may end up belaying in some pretty uncomfortable positions.
2. Body control and balance
Make sure you work on your balance when you first start climbing because balance is key to crushing many free-climbing projects. You can be super strong, but if you don’t have good control over your body and a good awareness of your balance, it will be really hard to transition to harder free climbs and aid climbing. Good body awareness is key to maintaining constant pressure on fifi hooks while aid climbing and is a skill that is essential to all harder free climbs.
3. Gear management
Talking about gear management might seem silly if all you do is top-rope, but once you start lead climbing and think about transitioning into multi-pitch scenarios, the way you manage your gear becomes a big deal. A poorly managed belay station can not only be uncomfortable for the climbers but can even become dangerous when gear gets tangled up or snagged on other things. Since aid climbing requires so much more gear, the management of the gear becomes even more essential to your success. Practicing good gear management takes time to get good at, so make sure you start early.
What Type of Climbing is Suitable for You?
Figuring out what type of climbing is suitable for you is a personal process you will have to go through on your own, but it depends on some factors. First, it is worth noting that anybody can try and get good at any style of climbing, so don’t think that just because you’re short or tall or any other descriptor means you can’t do one type of climbing.
- What level of risk are you comfortable with?
You’ll want to start by figuring out what level of risk you are comfortable with. If you find that you don’t want to take any unnecessary risks, you may want to stick to top-rope climbing, trusted sport climbs, and easier trad climbs. Aid climbing and harder trad climbs can add a lot of potential hazards that you can’t control to your climbing, making them much higher risk than other styles of climbing.
- How much are you willing to invest?
Another factor that you’ll want to consider is the financial investment you are willing to make. The more gear a style of climbing requires, the larger a financial investment you will have to make in order to start and maintain that style of climbing. If climbing is a casual weekend activity for you and you don’t have much extra income, you might want to stick to top-rope climbing or sport climbing since both trad climbing, and aid climbing can get really pricey quickly.
- Should you worry about a certain grade?
People may say that you have to be able to climb a certain grade before you should even consider things like trad or aid, but if you want to learn aid climbing or trad climbing, don’t let grades be the thing that holds you back. With so many amazing and relatively easy climbs for you to practice on, there is no reason why your current climbing ability has to be the long-term limiting factor in deciding what style of climbing you try.
Decide what you want to do, and don’t be boxed in by what others tell you on what you can do. Similarly, don’t let height or body type be a defining factor for you. While it might seem like all the climbers doing challenging trad and aid routes are tall and thin, plenty of climbers of all body types are doing amazing things.
Wrapping Things Up: Aid Climbing vs. Free Climbing
Aid climbing and free climbing are both amazing forms of climbing. While free climbing uses only the natural rock as holds to help get your farther up the rock, aid climbing utilizes man-made aids, such as webbing ladders, to help you get further up the route. Both are awesome in their own right, and understanding the similarities and differences can help you determine which is right.