“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. All this exposure has a lot of people wondering about free climbing vs free soloing.
Climbing has a lot of jargon that has developed throughout the sports history. Rock climbers have a name for everything in the sport. When you’re looking at a hold, it could be a crimp, a gaston, or a side-pull. Having this shared language is what makes rock climbing such an exciting new sport to learn. You get to dive deep into a world that you didn’t even know existed.
Then there are different disciplines within the sport with their own jargon! But now that gets us to wondering about things like the difference between free climbing and free soloing.
We’re going to investigate all of the different types of climbing within the sport. At the end of this article, you’ll everything there is about free climbing and the difference between free climbing, aid climbing, and free soloing.
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. Think of free climbing like climbing a ladder. When you climb a ladder, you use your hands, feet, and your muscles to ascend up. Free climbing is just like that, you’re using the power of your muscles and body to ascend a rock face. Your hands are holding on to rock and feet are standing on rock.
Free climbers still have a rope and protection in place to catch them if they do fall. But the takeaway is that 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. The equipment is aiding you in your ascent up the wall. 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.
Free soloing is one of the most easily understandable forms of climbing. All the climber needs is their chalk bag, climbing shoes, and the rock face. Then the game is just to go up. There are no ropes or other equipment to protect the climber in the event of the fall. The hit climbing movie Free Solo goes into the depths of training for a massive ascent done sans rope. Check out the movie if you want to get a taste of it. No one should free solo, even the guy from the movie.
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!
Moonlight Buttress – Zion National Park
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 – Yosemite National Park
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.
Frequently asked questions
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 free climbing, a climber will ascend using only their hands and feet but will use ropes to catch them if they fall. Free soloing means that 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.
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!
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. Aid climbers stand and fully weight 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.