Rock climbing is a recreational and competitive sport in which a person attempts to ascend a natural or artificial rock face carrying gear that may range from purely safety devices to more complex equipment that provides both safety and mechanisms for making the climb possible.
Many rock climbers enjoy the sport for the pure pleasure that it brings, both in terms of accomplishing a physical task that challenges one's body to the utmost and in terms of the interface with nature that it provides. Competitive rock climbers have, in addition to this goal, the objective of triumphing over opponents in completing a given course in the least amount of time, or covering the largest part of a predesignated course in a given period of time.
Another good source of demographic data on rock climbing is the British Mountaineering Club, which keeps regular records of the numbers and characteristics of rock climbers in Great Britain. In a 2003 survey, the club found that the majority of rock climbers surveyed were between the ages of 19 and 30 (37%) and 31 and 45 (44%), with only 1% under the age of 18 or over the age of 65. In all age groups, men were in the majority by far, making up 84% of all those in the 19–30 and 89% of those in the 31–45 age group. Some anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that, at least in the United States, the proportion of women rock climbers has begun to increase significantly over the last decade.
Rock climbing appears to be as old as human history at least in mountainous parts of the world. For residents of the Andes, the Rockies, the Alps, and other mountain ranges, people have probably always had to travel at least occasionally over difficult terrain to obtain food, launch attacks on enemies, explore new territories, or other basic human activities. Rock climbing may also have been enjoyed as a form of recreation.
Competitive rock climbing dates to post–World War II Soviet Union, when the first speed events were introduced. These events at the time, and for some time afterward, were limited to citizens of the USSR only. The first international event occurred in 1985 at Bardonecchia, Italy, not far from Torino. That event, the Sportroccia, was held on a mountain in Valle Stretta and was won by German climber Stefan Glowacz. The event was repeated the following year and an indoor competition at a gymnasium in the Lyon suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin was added to the competition. By the late 1980s, rock climbers were provided with a number of competitive events in which to participate, culminating in the first World Cup in 1989.
The governing body for rock climbing was originally the Union Internationale des Association d'Alpinisme (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation; UIAA), established in 1932 for the “study and solution of all problems regarding mountaineering.” The UIAA assumed responsibility for all aspects of rock climbing until 2006 when it decided to create a separate organization to deal with climbing competition exclusively, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), which continues to be a separate, self-governing part of UIAA.
A variety of rock climbing styles are used:
Competitive rope climbing falls into one of four major categories. In all forms of competition, climbers ascend by means of a number of fixed anchors over which they traverse during their ascent. Climbers must focus not on the placement of the anchors, but on the most efficient way of moving from one anchor to the next. The first category of competitive climbing is a speed climb. The winner is the person that covers a designated route in the shortest possible time. The other three types of climbing focus on difficulty and speed, rather than speed alone. In red point climbing, a variety of climbing routes are available to the climber, each of different difficulty and with a different point value. The climber must select the most difficult route he or she can follow in the fastest time to achieve a maximum score. Competitions may also involve on-sight or flash events. In the former case, competitors are allowed to have one preview examination of the wall to be climbed and then one attempt to climb the wall. The person who ascends the farthest on the wall in a given time period is the winner. In flash events, competitors are allowed to watch each other attempt their ascent and to comment among themselves before, but not during, the ascent.
Rock climbing is a very demanding sport that requires superior strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. The sport also requires mental and emotional qualities, such as the willingness to face unknown and potentially very dangerous situations and the ability to deal with sudden, potentially life-threatening conditions on the face of a wall.
The minimum personal apparel required for rock climbing is as simple as that required for swimming. Some climbers attempt a climb in nothing more than shorts or a skimpy bathing suit. For all but the very best climbers, other equipment is appropriate, such as shorts or long pants, a sleeveless or sleeved shirt, socks and shoes, a helmet, and gloves. The choice of personal apparel depends to a significant degree on the climber's self-confidence, the extent to which he or she needs or wants to be in contact with the rock, the protection one needs, along with other factors.
Many forms of rock climbing require a variety of equipment needed for safety purposes or to be used in the ascent. This equipment may include:
A training program for rock climbers should focus on the body parts that are especially important in the sport, namely the arms, fingers, shoulders, legs, and feet. The exercise program should take into consideration any particular weakness the individual may have. For example, pull-ups are very helpful for increasing upper body strength. Forearm curls develop forearm strength, which is essential in maintaining one's grip strength. Rock climbers, like all athletes, should be aware of the importance of stretching and warm-up exercises in preparing the body for a climb and in general training and conditioning exercises. One should also remember the necessity of allowing one's body to rest between exercises and avoiding the risks associated with overuse.
Trainers also recommend a variety of sport-specific exercises in preparation for climbing. For example, an exercise in which a climber uses both hands to ascend a wall and then repeats the exercise using one hand only. Preparation for climbing involves a number of mental factors, such as scoping out the course beforehand, looking for potential hand and foot holds, and watching for potential rest stops along the way.
One of the most comprehensive studies of rock climbing injuries was reported in 2009 by two researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Nicolas G. Nelson and Lara B. McKenzie. The researchers reviewed the records of 40,282 patients who had been treated in emergency departments between 1990 and 2007 for rock climbing injuries. They found that patients between the ages of 20 and 39 accounted for more than half of all injuries, with males accounting for more than twice as many injuries as females. The most common injuries were those to the lower extremities involving sprains, strains, and fractures. In particular, the body part most frequently involved in injury was the ankle (19.2% of all injuries), with sprains and strains being the most common type of injury. Less common than fractures, strains, and sprains were lacerations (17.1% of all injuries), soft tissue injuries (16.9%), and dislocations (4.3%). By far the most common cause of injury during rock climbing was a fall (77.5% of all injuries), compared by hitting an object (7.1%) or being hit by an object (6.4%). Overall, just over 11% of all those who were injured required hospitalization, a high fraction for sports-related injuries.
A similar study was reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2008 of 201 active rock climbers, 163 male and 38 female climbers. About half of all respondents reported at least one injury in the preceding year, for a total of 275 distinct injuries. The most common type of injury was a chronic injury caused by overuse (33% of all injuries), followed by acute injuries caused by stressful moves required as part of a climb (28%), and acute injuries resulting from a fall (10%). The principal location of injuries were fingers and shoulders.
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Hörst, Eric J. Learning to Climb Indoors, 2nd ed. Guilford, CT: Falcon Guides, 2012.
Hörst, Eric J. Training for Climbing: The Definitive Guide to Improving Your Climbing Performance, 3rd ed. Guilford, CT: Falcon Guides, 2016.
Luebben, Craig. Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills, 2nd ed. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2014.
Allred, Trevor. “Start Climbing—Part 1: Introduction & Overview.” rockclimbing.com . April 1, 2010. http://www.rockclimbing.com/Articles/Introduction_to_Climbing/Start_Climbing_Part_1_Introduction_Overview_1.html (accessed January 22, 2017).
International Federation of Sport Climbing, Via Carlo Matteucci 4, Torino, 10143, Italy, 39 011 385 39 95, Fax: 39 011 412 17 73, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.ifsc-climbing.org .
Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation), Monbijoustrasse 61 Postfach, CH-3000 Bern 23, Switzerland, 41 (0) 31 370 1828, Fax: 41 (0) 31 370 1838, http://www.theuiaa.org .
David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD