“What is free climbing?” That was a question on my friend’s mind when she was at the rock climbing gym for her first time. Climbing is permeating the culture at the moment. Academy award-winning films, medals in the Olympics, and indoor gyms popping up in every town in the country.
Climbing has a lot of jargon that has developed throughout the sports history. We talk about different holds like crimps, gastons, and side-pulls.
Then there are different disciplines within the sport with their own jargon! Climbers have their own language to communicate all the intricacies of the sport. It’s pretty amazing how it has developed!
We’re going to investigate all of the different types of climbing within the sport. At the end of this article, you’ll understand the differences between aid and free climbing!
Free Climbing Definition
The term free climbing means you are ascending a wall using only your hands, feet, and physical ability. You are not relying on equipment to assist you in moving upward. Your hands grab the rock, your feet stand on the rock. That’s it.
Free climbers still have a rope and protection in place to catch them if they do fall. But the takeaway is this. The equipment isn’t helping them ascend the wall. The equipment will protect them if they fall, but free climbers are not using equipment to assist them in upward progress on a wall.
Imagine that you are 2,000 feet up El Cap in Yosemite National Park, side by side with Tommy Caldwell (do you feel your hands starting to sweat?) Don’t worry too much, you are tied into a rope! You can see Half Dome and you are surrounded by a sea of granite.
You climb up El Capitan by reaching one hand up and grabbing granite. Your sticky rubber climbing shoes are wedged into a crack in the rock and you can stand up to grab the next granite handhold. Guess what? You are free climbing!
Now imagine you lugged up a silver extension ladder you bought from the Home Depot. You attach the ladder to the granite wall and begin to climb up the ladder attached to the wall. Now you are no longer free climbing but are now aid climbing. And one discipline isn’t better than the other. Some climbs can only be climbed by direct aid.
Types of free climbing
Sport climbing and traditional climbing are the most common forms of free climbing. Both disciplines utilize different protections systems in case the climber falls. Here are definitions for two of the most popular forms of rock climbing.
Sport climbing is one of the most popular forms of free climbing at the moment. It even made its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games! Sport climbing is a form of lead climbing, and specially made climbing bolts will be drilled into the rock. At the beginning of a climb, a climber will tie into the rope and start climbing up. As they get higher they will clip a quickdraw into the bolt and then clip the rope into the quickdraw.
If the climber were to fall, they would fall two times the distance to the bolt. If they were two feet above, they first fall two feet to the bolt and then an additional two feet because of the two feet of slack rope needed to climb above the bolt.
Sport climbing can be done at indoor climbing gyms and in the great outdoors! If you’re new to the sport, we highly recommend signing up for training with your climbing gym or another qualified instructor.
Trad climbing stands for traditional climbing. Instead of pre-drilled bolts in the wall, you place your own pieces of protection into the rock. Trad climbing is similar to sport climbing in that the lead climber will clip into protection as they climb up the wall. The difference is that the trad climber will place their own removable pieces of gear in the wall as they climb. On some trad climbs, you can expect the anchor points, or the end of a climb, to be secured with bolts.
Maybe not what you would traditionally consider free climbing, but I think that bouldering is a form of free climbing AND free soloing. You are technically climbing ropeless and by only using your hands and feet. Any falls while bouldering will be ground falls, that’s why it’s critical to have a crash pad underneath you!
Tell me the difference between aid climbing and free climbing?
Aid climbing uses special gear, like nylon ladders or etriers, to help the rock climber ascend up the wall. Similar to sport and trad, a climber will ascend up the rock and clip ladders into bolts, cams, or nuts.
They can then stand and fully weigh these pieces of gear. The ladders have steps on them that allow them to climb to get an eensy bit higher. Then they can clip a new ladder in and repeat the process.
Free climbing does not rely on the use of nylon ladders or etriers. But solely on the climber’s finger strength, foot placement, and overall climbing technique.
Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park is an aid climb that is also a free climb. Some climbers have the crack climbing strength to send this route freely. But for those of us who don’t this climb has been aided in the past. However, there is some controversy surrounding aid climbing on Moonlight Buttress.
Modern aid climbing has caused some impact on the route. The cracks have widened and ropes have grooved into the soft sandstone rock face. While this is one of the most famous lines in the United States, it’d be best to leave this route for free climbing.
The Nose may be the most famous rock climb in the world! The first ascent was made by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore in 1958 and it took them 47 days! The Nose is another climb that started out as an aid climb but began a free climb as climbing standards improved.
Lynn Hill, a famous free climber, ushered in an era of free climbing when she free climbed The Nose in 1993. She made the impossible suddenly possible. And climbers began to follow in her tracks converting aid climbs into free climbs through sheer will and determination.
Is free climbing without ropes?
A free climber can climb with or without a rope. Since free climbing just means that you are only ascending via the power of your own hands and feet, that doesn’t mean the climber is or isn’t using ropes.
When the climbing world is referring to someone climbing without ropes, they will use the term free solo. Someone who is climbing without a rope is free soloing.
What is the difference between free soloing and free climbing?
The difference between free climbing and free soloing is that free climbers have a protection system in place that will catch them if they fall.
When free climbing, a climber will ascend using only their hands and feet but will use ropes to catch them if they fall. When free soloing, the climber will use no ropes or any other protection system to catch them if they fall. Free solo climbing is dangerous and you can receive a serious injury or killed doing it. We do not recommend anyone every free soloing. Even the guy from the movie.
Is Alex Honnold the only person to free solo El Capitan?
Alex Honnold is the only known person to free solo El Capitan! Maybe somewhere out there, a rock climber free soloed El Cap without telling anyone. I really doubt it as it would take a lifelong climber many years of training to accomplish this feat. But you never know!
If you’re interested in seeing how he did it, check out the incredible movie Free Solo. Watching that movie is as close to free soloing as I want to get! My all-time favorite climbing movie is The Dawn Wall, a must-watch!
What rock climbing movies should I watch?
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of rock climbing, aid climbing, and free climbing, then we highly recommend watching Valley Uprising. This movie takes us to the center of the climbing universe, Yosemite Valley, and shows how fellow climbers have changed the game over time.
The Dawn Wall follows an unlikely duo, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen, as they attempt one of the hardest big wall climbs in the world. They have attached with a rope the whole movie, so don’t worry about your hands sweating too bad! I’ve seen his movie five times and this movie leaves me pumping my fist in triumph every time.
Free Solo features the worlds greatest free soloist and one of the most famous climbers, Alex Honnold, as he attempts to climb a 3,000 foot wall without a rope. I’ll spoil the movie for you to let you know that he survives. So there’s nothing to be too scared of! This movie leaves your hands weating and jaw on the floor.