An Intro to Rock Climbing Terminology

This week, many of climbing's best will compete in Utah. Here's what you should know about it.
Climber Chris Sharma Climbing a Cave in Oman
Chris Sharma climbs a cave in Oman © Klaus Fengler/Red Bull Content Pool
By Andrew Bisharat

The biggest, baddest climbing competition in the U.S. is happening at Utah’s Olympic Park this week, with the finals streaming live online on Friday night, August 8. It’s called the Psicobloc Masters Series, aka Psicocomp, and the format is simple: Competitors will race each other up a grueling, technically demanding, 50-foot-tall overhanging wall in a single-elimination format.

There’s just one catch: They won’t be using ropes.

That means that if (when) they fall, they will plummet up to 50 feet through the air, before plunging into just 12 feet of water -- far from a soft or even all-that-safe landing.

Add in the fact that these climbers will often be leaping between their holds on the wall and their momentum may send them flinging in a tailspin through the air, and you begin to see how this competition tests it all: strength, skill, composure and cat-like agility. Only the best climbers -- those who don’t freak out five heartbreaking feet below the top of the wall -- will survive Psicocomp and stand on top.

Climber Chris Sharma at Red Bull Creepers 2014 in Spain
Chris Sharma at Red Bull Creepers 2014 © Javier Munoz/Red Bull Content Pool

If you’re worried about understanding all the nuances of climbing while watching this competition, you should be. Climbing, with its weird vocabulary and mathematical grading system, is complicated.

However, if the extent of your relationship to climbing extends only as far as the carabiner you use to clip your water bottle to the outside of your backpack, fear not. Read on for a brief intro to the sport, but above all, know that watching Psicocomp is easy -- just appreciate the skill it takes to scale the wall, and enjoy the “rolling up the windows” falls into the pool when it doesn’t work out.

Psicocomp = A “Psicobloc” Competition

Climbing contains many distinct genres, from trad climbing to sport climbing, bouldering to big-wall climbing, mountaineering to ice climbing. One of the newest genres to emerge is something called “deep-water soloing,” which describes climbing seaside cliffs up to 60 feet tall without a rope and only the ocean below you in the event of a fall.

You can trace the roots of deep-water soloing to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, where the local climbers have their own word for this activity. They call it “psicobloc,” which, in Spanish, literally translates to “psycho bouldering.”

[Watch the teaser for the 2014 Psicobloc Masters below]

Why Psicocomp?

Competition climbing on artificial, man-made walls is a relatively new sport. The very first climbing competition in the U.S. took place, coincidentally, in Utah at Snowbird ski resort in 1988.

Over the last 10 years, climbing competitions have spread through the U.S., but they’ve been critiqued because they didn’t have the jaw-dropping “wow” factor of a snowboarder blasting out of a halfpipe or that nail-biting, “crash watch” draw of something like NASCAR racing.

The idea of a deep-water solo comp gripped the imaginations of climbers, but the logistical challenge of figuring out how to pull it off proved to be elusive for years.

Ultimately, Chris Sharma, one of the biggest names in rock climbing and an absolute junkie for psicobloc, joined forces with a psicocomp organizer from Spain, Finuco Martinez, and made it all happen. Sharma brought in one of his sponsors, Walltopia, to build a specialized 50-foot-tall wall at Utah Olympic Park over the aerial training pool last summer, and dozens of the best climbers in the U.S. descended on Park City to try their hand at this most exciting format.

Free Climbing vs. Free Soloing

One of the most common gaffes non-climbers make is confusing free climbing with free soloing. The two are related but they are totally different terms that are worth quickly addressing.

Free climbing is a general term that simply means you are relying on your hands and feet -- not gear -- to ascend a wall (you are equipped with gear as a safety precaution, however). Free climbing is the opposite of aid climbing, which is when a climber places gear and hangs from it in order to make upward progress.

Free soloing, on the other hand, simply means free climbing a tall route without the safety of a rope or gear.

Routes vs. Boulders

Routes are long, anywhere from 25 feet to the big-wall routes of El Cap, with its 3,000-foot routes. Climbers typically use ropes and gear to climb routes in order to protect them in the event of a fall.

Boulders, meanwhile, are typically short, usually between 5 and 25 feet. Bouldering, obviously, involves climbing on boulders -- no ropes or gear, except for crash pads, are used.

Stefan Glowacz climbs Mount Roraima ( 2723 m ) in Guyana, border between Venezuela and Brazil
Don't look down! © Klaus Fengler

Trad vs. Sport

Trad climbing describes a type of route climbing in which the climber carries and places all his own protection into the rock, and clips his rope to it as he climbs. The protection -- typically cams and nuts -- is then removed when the second climber ascends the pitch. The emphasis of trad climbing is less on free-climbing difficulty, and more on the adventure of getting up a tall cliff.

Sport climbing is a style of route climbing where the climber relies on the safety of pre-existing or “fixed” protection, usually bolts that have been drilled into the rock. Sport routes are typically less than 100 feet tall. Due to the pre-placed, fixed protection, sport climbing is considered the safest form of rock climbing, allowing the climber to focus more on pushing himself athletically/gymnastically as a free climber.

Sasha DiGiulian at Waterval Bowen in South Africa
Sasha DiGiulian at Waterval Boven in South Africa © Keith Ladzinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Climbing Grades 101

Grades are numbers assigned to a route or boulder, and are used to describe that route/boulder’s free-climbing difficulty.

There are at least a dozen different grading systems in the world; they vary between different countries and regions. Here in the U.S. we use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) to grade routes, while we use the V-Scale to grade boulder problems.

Route-climbing grades begin at 5.1 and currently go up to 5.15c. Bouldering grades begin at V0 and currently go up to V16. Both are open-ended scales, meaning that harder routes/boulders may exist, but no one has achieved that next level yet.

Why Those Numbers?

A “Class 1” trail is a flat walk, while a “Class 3” is steep and may involve using your hands to scramble over or around boulders. Class 5 is where technical free-climbing difficulty begins, meaning the “trail” becomes so steep that you need ropes and gear to safely ascend it. This is why YDS grades all begin with a “5” followed by a decimal, followed by another number or number/letter combo.

The YDS scale get complicated at 5.10, which is when climbs are further broken down into subsets using the letters “a,” “b,” “c,” and “d.” To wit: 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, 5.11b … and so on.

Chris Sharma climbing the last pitch from the cave.
Cracking up © Klaus Fengler/Stefan Glowacz GmbH

How Hard is Hard?

Climbing difficulty is all relative and variable. You can find small holds and tough moves on routes of any grade -- it really just depends on what you think is “small” and “tough.”

Beginner-level routes are in the 5.1-5.8 range, while climbs in the 5.9-5.10d range are considered moderate.

5.12a is where advanced climbing begins. It typically takes a young, fit, athletic person two or three years to reach this level. Climbing 5.13 requires not only above-average fitness, but superb climbing technique and more years of work.

5.14 and up is reserved for elite athletes with years of experience, dedicated training and good genes. 5.15c is the hardest grade yet achieved, and there are fewer than five routes in the world currently rated 5.15c.

At the Psicobloc Masters Series, the women will be facing routes in the 5.13d to 5.14a range, while the men will be facing routes in the 5.14b to 5.14c range.

Watch it all unfold in the live stream of the event on Friday, August 8, beginning at 6:00 p.m. MT. Spectator tickets are still available if you’re in the Park City area and would like to attend.

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