Maybe your friend just told you that they’ve just gotten into rock climbing and you should come to try it with them, but you really don’t understand what rock climbing is. Maybe you’re the one who’s just gotten into rock climbing, and your friend tells you that it doesn’t count as a sport, and you want to prove them wrong. After all, you feel tired after you climb, so why shouldn’t it be a sport?
Whatever boat you’re in, this article is the place for you. We’ll talk about the history of rock climbing and how it came to be the activity that we all know and love today, break down what exactly rock climbing is and how to compete, if you want to, and give you some fun facts about rock climbing to impress your friends with.
What is Rock Climbing?
Rock climbing is a pretty generic term that includes everything from indoor rock climbing competitions to speed climbing records, from outdoor bouldering to aid climbing up the steep faces of Yosemite. This variety is what makes rock climbing so hard to define.
At its essence, rock climbing is using your body to get up a rock or rock-like surfaces, such as an outdoor rock or a man-made climbing wall. This can be done with a pad or mat on the ground to protect you or involving a rope in some capacity.
Since rock climbing is so hard to define, it often is a challenge when someone tells you that they are a rock climber, or that they have just gotten into rock climbing. You really have no idea what they mean until you dig a little more.
In general, if someone says that they are getting into rock climbing, it most likely means one of two things. It either means that they have started going to their local climbing gym, maybe even bought themselves a membership, and that they either boulder, top-rope, or lead climb there. The other option is that they have invested in gear or know someone with gear and have started climbing, again either bouldering, top-rope, or lead climbing, outdoors at some local craig.
What is the History of Rock Climbing?
Rock climbing in some capacity has been around for generations. Originally, rock climbing started out as much more of what we currently think of as mountaineering, or using crampons and ice tools of some sort to walk up an inclined snow or ice-covered surface. This slowly led to advances in gear and a drive to explore new places.
The new places that people were motivated to explore were all up. Across Europe, climbing began to grow in popularity throughout the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. Although not quite as popular in the US yet, the late 1800’s also was the start of the boom in climbing in the Western US with places like Yosemite Valley being appreciated for their huge rock faces.
At this point, rock climbing was an extremely dangerous sport that consisted of either free soloing a climb or pounding metal pitons into the rock to use for protection. As climbing became more popular throughout the mid to late 1900’s, gear advances became commonplace. Climbing was becoming a lucrative industry for those who could get in, but the challenge became that many climbers still used old, beat-up gear because that was all that they could afford.
This slowly turned the “climber” into the first image of the “dirtbag”, as we know the term today. Places like Yosemite Valley became hotspots of climbing activity. This growth is described well in the film Valley Uprising, which gives an amazing history of climbing in the Western US.
The late 1900’s saw the rise of the indoor climbing gym and the introduction of the competitive climbing world. Climbing has only grown in popularity since then, with over 500 climbing gyms popping up across the US alone. The sport has seen major advances in technology and skill and is projected to keep growing for many years.
Although with the growth of indoor climbing gyms, outdoor rock climbing has seen it’s own resurgence in popularity. Climbing groups have popped up all over the county, using social media and the internet to spread the word about events or great climbing locations. Forums like Mountain Project have become the online database of outdoor climbs, making the outdoor climbing areas that used to be used by a few places that are now frequented by many.
Rock climbing has also seen an increase in gyms and groups aiming to get minorities or underprivileged areas or demographics out climbing. The sport used to be dominated by white men, but that has rapidly been changing, and it has become more and more accepting and welcoming of women and people of color.
Is Indoor Climbing a Sport?
Although indoor rock climbing isn’t always thought of when you tell someone that you do a sport or are an athlete, indoor rock climbing is 100% a sport. A sport is something that causes you to physically exert yourself, which climbing does plenty of. Many definitions of a sport include the ability to compete at the activity, even if you don’t actively choose to compete. Climbing has this aspect as well since you could choose to enter a climbing competition if you wanted to.
Rock climbing can be used as an amazing full-body workout since it not only works your arms, legs, and core, but it also works your mind. Rock climbing is known to tone your body and improve your balance as well as your problem-solving skills, although it can affect your body in other ways. Large upper body muscles is a common physical change associated with rock climbing, but this really isn’t the case.
Some of the benefits of rock climbing include the obvious physical health benefits, but also a variety of lesser-known other benefits. Rock climbing is a great way to build trust, both in others and in yourself, and it is increasingly being used alongside conventional therapy to help treat anxiety and depression.
Is Rock Climbing a Competitive Sport?
Rock climbing is a competitive sport and has been for years. If this isn’t enough to convince you, rock climbing is being included in the next summer Olympics, putting it right up there on the same level with all sorts of intense sports. Competitive rock climbing can be lead-climbing, bouldering, or speed climbing. This should give you an overview of each style of competitive climbing, but each organization has its own set of rock climbing rules that athletes must abide by.
Lead-climbing consists of athletes climbing a certain number of routes, depending on the competition. Each route is given a rating, and a harder rated route will give you more points if completed without falling. Only a certain number of route points will be included in your final score.
Bouldering competitions are set up in a very similar way to lead-climbing competitions. These bouldering competitions are becoming increasingly popular with colleges and smaller gyms since they take fewer materials and space to train for.
Speed climbing is a race. That might sound really simple, but when the race is up a vertical wall with spaced out holds and first and second place might be separated by less than half a second, it can get pretty intense.
How Hard is Rock Climbing?
Rock climbing can be as easy or hard as you want it to be, but if you want to make rock climbing super intense, you totally can. The sport has always been pushed to grow by people wanting to do the next great thing to climb the hardest that they possibly could. While you can make rock climbing whatever you want it to be for you, the spirit of the sport is adventure and pushing yourself.
If you want an afternoon activity for you and your friends or family, going to a rock climbing gym can be a great option. Gyms offer climbs at all levels and usually have all the gear you need available to rent, making it a great place to go with a group with varying levels and abilities. They are also a great place to build community or to bring your community to for some fun.
If you watched Free Solo or The Dawn Wall and were inspired by the impressive feats captured in the films, you can make climbing into that level of adventure for you. Sure, you won’t be free soloing El Cap anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an adventure out there for you. Climbing is all about finding what challenges you and working to overcome it.
Maybe you want more of a competitive atmosphere. There’s no need to worry; climbing can offer you that as well. Climbing competitions start at easy levels and increase in difficulty, so there’s something for everyone. If bouldering isn’t your thing, maybe lead-climbing or speed climbing will be.
Fun Facts About Rock Climbing
Rock climbing is a crazy diverse sport, so the amount of random and super interesting information out there has no end. From some of the impressive people who climb to amazing facts about the geology of the rocks, there’s some part of climbing that will interest everyone. Here are some fun facts about rock climbing for you to impress your friends with.
- Lynn Hill was the first person to free climb (not free solo, easy to confuse, we know.) the Nose of El Cap, meaning that she climbed the route without pulling on any gear and using only the holds created on the rock. She is also only 5 foot 2 inches.
- Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold currently hold the speed record for climbing the Nose of El Cap. They did the route in under 2 hours. They also are in second place and third place, meaning that they just kept beating their own record.
- Brooke Raboutou holds a number of youth climbing records, including being the youngest female climber to climb 5.13b at age 9, the youngest female climber to climb 5.13d at age 10, and the youngest female to send a 5.14b at age 11.
- Rock climbing will be included in the Tokyo 2020, now 2021, Olympics for the first time in a combined format. This means that athletes must compete in speed climbing, bouldering, and lead-climbing and are given a combined score.
- Only two routes in the world have a proposed grade of 5.15d. Very few climbs are given solid rating above 5.15b since so few people have climbed them, meaning that there can be no consensus on the grade.
- In 2017, 19-year-old Margo Hayes became the first woman to climb 5.15. By 2019 she had completed two more climbs with ratings of 5.15, making her the first woman to do so.
- Yvon Chouinard is well known for founding Patagonia and for his odd business practices, as he wrote about in his book Let My People Go Surfing, but he actually founded another company before Patagonia. In the late 1950’s he started making and selling steel pitons to use in big wall climbing in Yosemite Valley but quickly learned that these pitons were leaving lasting damage on the rocks he loved. He switched to making hexes and nuts like the ones you might use today and founded a company called Chouinard & co, which eventually became what we know today as Black Diamond.
This is only a sampling of the many facts that are out there about climbing. With so many amazing climbers, climbs, and climbing gyms and groups, this only scratches the surface of what people have done in the sport of climbing.
Wrapping Things Up: Is Rock Climbing a Sport?
So you can tell that we think rock climbing is a sport, but it isn’t a conventional sport as most people think of it. It certainly is a form of physical exercise, and you can compete at it either on your own or on a team, so in our book, it counts as a sport. It’s a sport with a long and complicated history and filled with amazing stories of exploration into the unknown.