What Is Climbing?

Defining the joy of vertical movement

Darrin Reay climbing Montezuma Tower at the Garden of the Gods.
Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Climbing is simply the activity and sport of moving across vertical terrain like cliffs and steep mountain terrain, including ridges and rock and ice faces. Climbing is usually done for recreation and sport, enjoyment in nature and scenic places, and outdoor fun. We spend most of our lives walking upright on sidewalks and trails but when we climb, we learn to use our arms and legs in new ways. We learn about finding balance in both our movements and our lives, finding an equilibrium so we can reach further, so we can climb higher. Climbing is about flow, the concentrated effort to move up a rock face, an effort that requires a unity of mind and body to succeed.

Climbing Changes Your Life

The first time you go rock climbing on a cliff or mountain face might change your life. Out there on the rocks, you discover parts of yourself that you never knew existed—strong, brave, resourceful, and able to do anything you try. Climbing changes your perceptions about yourself, allowing you to find confidence, insight, and hidden sources of strengths. Climbing helps you overcome fears, weaknesses, and self-doubt, and lets you discover natural abilities that you’ve always had but never used.

Benefits of Climbing

Climbing allows you to fully experience the great outdoors by giving eagle-eye views of the world from lofty mountain summits, increasing your mental health and physical fitness, and offering you safe ways to confront and control a couple basic human fears—fear of falling and fear of heights. Climbing is often a risky sport that requires both skill and nerve for success but climbing tools and equipment such as ropes, harnesses, pitons, cams, nuts, carabiners, and climbing helmets are used to lessen the risks of climbing and gravity and to keep you safe when you are out having fun.

Climbing Is About Moving Upward

Climbing usually requires using your hands and feet to move upward and surmount a steep obstacle such as an artificial climbing wall (usually at an indoor rock gym), boulder or small block of rock, cliffs of various sizes, and mountain walls.

Different Types of Climbing

Climbing is subdivided into various disciplines, including indoor climbing, bouldering, sports climbing, traditional or trad climbing, ice climbing, and mountaineering. Each type of climbing discipline requires specific sets of skills and techniques.

  • Indoor climbing is often used for training and for beginners to learn basic climbing skills.
  • Bouldering is the art of climbing small boulders or blocks of rock, usually without a rope for protection. Boulderers, climbers who specialize in climbing on boulders, make hard moves on difficult boulder problems close to the ground.
  • Sports climbing is the popular discipline of climbing routes on cliffs that are pre-protected with permanently installed bolts, a type of climbing gear that is hammered into holes drilled in the rock. Sports climbing allows the pursuit of difficult climbing by elite climbers as well as fun times by recreational rock climbers.
  • Traditional or trad climbing is the original way of climbing—from the base of a cliff to the top and protecting the route with removable climbing equipment like cams and nuts.
  • Ice climbing is the winter sport ascending steep sections of ice, often frozen waterfalls, using specialized gear like crampons, ice ax, and ice tools.
  • Mountaineering or mountain climbing is the sport of climbing and hiking up mountain peaks of all sizes and elevations from New Hampshire 4,000ers and Colorado’s Fourteeners to Denali in Alaska and the highest mountains in the world in Asia, including Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Mountaineering requires lots of climbing and outdoor skills, including rock climbing, ice climbing, avalanche safety, scrambling, downclimbing, hiking, and good outdoor judgment for safety.