I commented on a post using some climbing jargon, and the author responded asking me what I meant. Later on, somebody commented on one of my posts asking for some clarification on some more climbing related jargon. I think that was when I realized that I’ve never really explained anything about climbing, so I’m going to start some posts oriented towards explaining climbing to non-climbers and gym climbers who aren’t familiar with outdoor styles of the sport. These aren’t really meant to be instructional–just informative.

To start, one of the biggest misconceptions about climbing that I experience is the idea that we’re going up these walls with hammers and pitons (metal spikes that get hammered into seams and small cracks). That style of climbing is not really considered ethical anymore. While there are some gnarly climbers out there who are pioneering massive walls that require that style, most climbers have had a shift in ethic that trends towards free climbing and clean aid. That introduces a distinction between the two primary disciplines: Aid Climbing and Free Climbing.

Aid Climbing: In aid climbing the priority is to ascend the wall by any means necessary. If the climbing is to physically strenuous for the climber they hammer in or place gear and clip a device in to step on it as the next foot hold, or pull on it as the next hand hold. On El Capitan in Yosemite Valley most climbers will only ever be capable of ascending this way, however it has been revised to meet a more ethical standard. The Golden Age climbers (the forefathers of our sport such as Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard) hammers pins in thin seems and cracks and drilled bolt ladders up blank slabs that were really destructive to the rock. Today clean aid is the standard, where climbers put in protection that is removable and does minimal damage to the rock.

Free Climbing: Free climbingnot to be confused with free solo climbing–is a style where climbers most often use a rope and gear as protection, but only make forward progress using the natural means of physical movement on rock. This is where the evolution of technique and climbing gear have become essential, and climbers will use a wide variety of techniques to free climbs from jamming hands and feet in a crack, or torquing fingers and toes in thin cracks, to crimping and edging their shoes on thin edges protruding from what appear to be blank faces. I’ll be writing some posts on the different styles of climbing and the techniques that go along with those styles of climbing.

Within free climbing are several disciplines, which I’ll briefly explain by reducing them to five. I’ll have posts coming out that target each specific discipline later on.

Traditional Climbing: 

Traditional climbing, also called Trad Climbing, is one of my most preferred styles of roped climbing. In trad climbing climbers bring protection with them and place gear into cracks and weaknesses, sometimes even tying of knobs or rock and slinging tree’s, in order to clip a rope into. Trad climbing often has staunch ethic, and is very technique and finesse dependent. It’s also intimidating for newer climbers because the gear is subject to user failure.

Sport Climbing: 

Sport climbing is most often done in places where placing protection is not possible, and instead uses bolts. A signature of sport climbing is much closer places protection using expansion bolts and hangars that are pre-drilled and set in the rock. Climbers then climb these climbs with a rack of quick draws which they clip into the hangar, and then clip the rope into.


Bouldering is probably one of the more interesting styles of the sport that is faster paced and funner to watch. Bouldering targets smaller formations, but with often highly technical terrain. Boulderer’s do not use ropes, but instead carry big pads with them (crash pads) as protection. It’s probably becoming the most popular disciplines of the sport, and requires less investment, and depending on the style of bouldering, often less commitment. It is also one of the most dangerous disciplines of the sport because the fall factor results in hitting the ground.

Alpine Climbing: 

This style is synonymous with Mountaineering. The approaches are often long, the routes are often wandering, and the objectives almost always have a summit. In Alpine climbing the summit matters, and if you ask me, in all climbing the summit should matter! This is my preferred discipline of climbing, and traditional climbing could really be looked at as a subset of alpine climbing. Other factors in alpine climbing is altitude, exposure to elements, and commitment.

Free Solo Climbing: 

In my opinion this is the best way to experience life through climbing. Free soloing is a style of climbing where the climber takes no ropes or safety gear, but instead leaves the ground with only shoes and a chalk bag–and usually clothes. I think it’s safe to say that there are a lot of mixed emotions about free soloing in the climbing community. I’ve heard soloist describe soloing as a practice to sense mastery, and also as a free experience. I’ve done a bit of writing about free soloing, which I usually just refer to as soloing, because it is my favorite style and this year I’ve probably free solo climbed more than all the rock I’d climbed in my life prior.

Let me know what kind of climbing interests you most, or if there are any questions you’d like answered, or if there is specific content you’d like to see regarding any specific style. I’m psyched to bring this style of life and sport a little closer to home for people who aren’t as acquainted with it!

Until next time… be safe, but not too safe–just make sure to have fun!

2 thoughts on “Climbing 100: Disciplines

  1. I wasn’t even looking to enjoy this article cause I knew it was about climbing jargon and terms, but it was actually pretty enjoyable for me and I learned a good bit despite myself. Also that pic of you in you living room with all that gear on you cracked me up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I couldn’t expect you to! I mean I try to limit how much I talk about climbing when I see you, but it’s hard. Obsession is a bear. However, I bet you were happier when I was spraying about climbing than my most recent challenge to you: getting your ass back in college! Thanks for your support, Chris. It means a lot to me.


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