Climbing: everything you need to know

Indoors or outdoors, climbing covers a wide range of styles and its popularity is reaching unprecedented heights. Welcome to the vertical world of climbing!

Une femme escalade une paroi rocheuse

Want to learn to climb? Great! Climbing is a thrilling activity that comes in many forms and can be practiced inside, outside, or both. The most common styles of climbing are: bouldering, traditional rock climbing, top rope, sport climbing, ice climbing, and speed climbing. If the number of choices makes your head spin, this guide will help point you in the right direction (up!).

Once considered a fringe activity outside the realm of traditional sports, climbing has now been democratized thanks to the emergence of indoor climbing gyms equipped with artificial rock structures. For over a decade, climbing has been on the rise and has attracted a growing number of followers.

If you’ve never climbed, we highly recommend taking an introductory course at a climbing gym to get a solid grasp of  the basics before heading out on the rocks. Indoor climbing is done on artificial walls dotted with colourful holds. Each route or “problem” is assigned a colour code indicating its level of difficulty. You’ll be able to practice bouldering, top rope, and lead climbing. Speed climbing is also offered in some gyms.

gros plan sur une chaussure d'escalade à l'exterieur

Bouldering

Bouldering was invented by rock climbers and mountaineers who wanted to train and have fun on rest days or rainy days. Whether indoors or outdoors, this discipline is practiced without a rope or harness and consists of climbing walls or rocks that reach up to about 5 m tall. Protective landing mats called “crash pads” are placed on the ground below the wall to cushion falls. One of the advantages of bouldering? It’s not very expensive. All you need to get started is a pair of climbing shoes (that you can often rent on site for a small fee) and some chalk (sometimes called a “pof”). You don’t even need a partner. You can just show up to the bouldering climbing gym on your own. This may seem a bit intimidating at first, but the climbing community is generally very welcoming.

coucher de soleil avec un grimpeur sur une paroi rocheuse

Climbing at the olympics

Fun fact: Sport climbing will be making its Olympic debut at the Tokyo games in 2021, and will combine three disciplines: bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing.

un binôme qui pratique l'escalade à l'extérieur

Top rope

Top rope climbing is all about teaming up and working as a duo. This is often the type of climbing a beginner will try before moving on to sport climbing. You start the climb with a safety rope secured to an anchor at the top (in an indoor gym, the anchor will already be attached to the top of the wall). One end of the rope is attached to your harness; the other end is held by your partner standing below you on the ground. This person is called the belayer and they manage the rope for the climber’s descent and help them to avoid falling.

Speed

In speed climbing, two people (wearing harnesses and safety ropes) compete in a dramatic race. The goal is to climb a 15 m wall as fast as possible—the first person to reach the top and press the buzzer wins. The climbing path for each climber is always identical—the same holds, in the same places, with the exact same incline.

grimpeuse monte sur un mur d'escalade intérieur à toute vitesse
L'escalade en plein air pratiqué en duo

Outdoor climbing

No matter how many times you’ve climbed indoors, your first time on a natural rock wall may surprise you. First of all, don’t expect to master the same difficulty level as you would on an indoor climb. On rock, you don’t have the colourful holds to clearly mark your way. Reading a cliff wall or rock face is different from the surface of an artificial wall. Also, rocks are much rougher on the hands. The maximum height of an indoor wall is about 5 m, with crash pads strategically placed anywhere you might fall. Outside, boulders can easily surpass 5 m. In the event of a fall, the mat (or mats) you have placed on the ground below you are much narrower and uneven than those found in an indoor gym. It’s essential to overcome your fear little by little and to stay humble. It’s important to build confidence by progressing at your own pace.

Sport climbing

In sport climbing, you clip quickdraws onto bolts drilled along the route to protect yourself from falling. This style requires more equipment: rope, harness, climbing shoes, helmet, quickdraws, chalk, a belay device, and a chalk bag. Indoors, the quickdraws are usually already attached to the wall.

femme pratiquant l'escalade traditionnelle

Traditional (trad)

Traditional climbing is considered to be the origin of rock climbing. Trad is all about adventure—there’s no predetermined path or fixed plan. For this style, you need  to carry all your equipment as you climb the rock face, placing protective gear in natural fissures and cracks to save you from a fall. There is nothing bolted into the wall, which differentiates this type of climbing from sport climbing. Traditional climbing also respects the principles of “Leave No Trace” since modern protective gear is removable. Nothing should be left behind, leaving the rock free and clear for future climbers.

Ice climbing

The name says it all: ice climbing is done on an icy wall with ice axes and crampons. Rock climbing and ice climbing are distinct disciplines. Even if you’re an experienced climber, it’s best to take an introductory ice climbing course and learn the techniques before exploring this new world of vertical ice.

Climbing grades

In North America, climbing routes are graded using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) that ranges from 5.0 to 5.15d. The higher the number, the harder the route. From 5.10 on, grades are subdivided into A, B, C, or D to further define the degree of difficulty. For bouldering, the North American grading system starts at V0 (easiest) and goes to V16.

femme s'habillant pour sortir faire de l'escalade

What to wear

In general, choose stretchy, breathable clothing. Outside, rocks can be unforgiving and can rip or tear light fabrics. Opt for long clothes that will resist wear and tear and offer protection against scratches and bugs. Indoors, wear athletic clothing: T-shirt, tank top, shorts, tights, or leggings. Loose-fitting clothing can actually restrict your movements and make climbing uncomfortable. Finally, be sure to remove any jewelry and tie up long hair to avoid getting it caught or pinched.

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