Ten years ago, on a miserable wet day I had my first experience of sport climbing in the UK. It involved going to Malham catwalk and barely being able to get off the ground. I left a bit bemused – would I ever be able to climb there? Did I really want to? Ten years later and everything has changed.
I’m now a self-confessed sport climbing addict. There are now lots more easy UK sport routes. And now everyone just goes bouldering instead. Oh well, at least you no longer have to queue. This article aims to give you some tips on how to get started and some ideas on how to improve. So whether you want to be the next Rich Simpson or Lucy Creamer, or you simply want to relax and enjoy clipping some bolts in the sun, read on.
Why sport climb?
Climbing a well-bolted route allows you to focus on the moves and simply climb as hard as possible without the hassle of placing protection. Routes that you’d hesitate to lead on traditional gear become more accessible. After all, if you’re finding a particular move tricky you can just have a go or take a rest so you can figure it out. That’s not to say sport climbing is 100% safe, like any type of climbing you need to look after yourself and whoever you’re belaying.
Before setting off up any route make sure you know how to thread a belay. Whilst some routes on the continent have krabs so you don’t need to re-thread, this is rare in the UK. It’s a simple task, but one which leaves no room for error. You need to untie from the rope, thread it through the lower off point, and then tie back in. All the time communicating with your belayer. It’s a skill best practiced at ground level to start with - see the free BMC booklet Climbing Outside for full details.
Belaying for sport climbing is subtly different to belaying for a trad climb. It’s more likely that the climber will fall off so the belayer needs to always be ready to take. But no sport climber will ever thank you for an over tight rope when they’re leading. If they fall the belayer needs to make sure they have enough slack to smoothly absorb the fall rather than being smacked nastily into the rock. One way of doing this is to jump forward slightly when the climber falls off – assuming of course they won’t hit the ground. Giving a good dynamic belay is probably one of the major areas that trad climbers have trouble with.
Onsighting, flashing, redpointing – what’s the difference? All are styles of ascent that mean you’ve led the route from bottom to top in one go (that includes, with specific exceptions, clipping the chain). You’ve then earned your tick and can brag about it in the pub afterwards. However, some ascents are more equal than others. A true onsight means that you have no knowledge about the route before you attempt it other than what you can see from the ground or read in the guide. You’ve never seen anyone climb it or watched it on film, and ideally you should put the clips in yourself. A flash means you have some additional information about the route before you try it. This could mean watching someone on it or interrogating former ascentionists for “beta” (aka information) however, you’ve never been on it before. Note – claiming amnesia does not count! A redpoint means you’ve pre-practised the climb before finally doing it in one. This could range from a quick-point, when you do it in a few goes, to a campaign spread over months or even years. It’s fairly common to have the rope in the first quickdraw.
If you sport climb a lot in the UK it’s fairly likely you’ll end up redpointing a route at some stage. Everyone approaches this slightly differently but here are some tips that may be useful:
• Warm up properly. Do an easy route or two first and try to get a slight pump going.
• Carefully work all the moves out, including the clips. Aim to find the most efficient sequence for you. Often a move that feels reasonable on its own is too hard when you’re slightly tired. Instead try finding a sequence of smaller, slightly easier moves.
• If you’ve fallen off once there’s no point clinging on for dear life for the rest of the route. Instead rest on all the bolts and work out the moves carefully – and then try again.
• It can be helpful to work a route “top down.” This means climbing it from a certain point to the top and then gradually lowering the position you start from. The top will then become the most familiar part and will be that much easier when you are trying it from the ground.
• As soon as you can, lead the route rather than top rope it. This ensures you are actually doing all the moves properly and that you get familiar with the clips and any runout.
• Don’t try to redpoint the same route every time you go climbing – it can get demoralising and you’ll lose fitness. Have days when you succeed on some slightly easier routes.
Where to Start
Classic sport climbing crags such as Raven Tor, Malham and Kilnsey don’t have many easier graded sport climbs, so check out the guidebooks for some of the following places:
• Portland – for F5s and a whole range of F6s
• In the Peak places like Blackwell Holt and Max’s Buttress in Cheedale have some good F6s. Quarries like Harpur Hill and Horseshoe also have some worthwhile routes.
• In Yorkshire think about visiting Giggleswick Scar South or Robin Proctor’s Scar for a good variety of F6’s.
• Another increasingly tempting option is to get yourself to France or Spain for your next holiday.
And finally, remember to enjoy it - it's climbing, it's meant to be fun!
Since that wet day at Malham ten years ago Jenny Woodward has flashed 7b+, redpointed Supercool (8a+) and made the first female ascent of Zoolook (8a).
Safer Sport Climbing
Thinking of sport climbing for the first time? Here’s Katherine Schirrmacher to answer those niggling questions. Katherine has recently climbed Raindogs (8a) at Malham. She’s no slouch on the trad either, having led up to E7. Katherine is sponsored by Red Chilli, E9 and Moon.
Q. I’m thinking of redpointing a route – how hard above my onsight level should I go?
A. The theory is that your maximum redpoint level is roughly two full grades above your onsight level, so if you onsight 6c, you should be able to redpoint 7b. But be prepared that your maximum redpoint level could take you a number of days.
Q. Will sport climbing improve my trad climbing?
A. Without a doubt! Sport climbing will allow you to feel what it’s like to move and flow on harder terrain in safety. If you know that you can onsight every 6b then E2s should feel fine. Above all, onsight sport climbing will get you much fitter than trad ever will. So if you go on a two-week sport climbing trip to Spain you’ll come back much fitter and ready to rip up some trad routes. Just remember though that since most sport routes climb faces they won’t be doing too much for your crack and offwidth abilities...
Q. Do climbing wall grades equate to outdoor grades?
A. In theory yes, however transferring to the rock can be a lot harder than you think. In Britain sports climbs seem to covered in undercuts, sidepulls and poor feet with difficult crux moves and working out what to do seems a lot harder than as the climbing wall. However some of the routes on the continent are longer with less cruxy moves where you need pure stamina. Brits always have problems when they go abroad dealing with the 30m routes when ours are mostly around half that length.
Q. I know it’s supposedly OK to fall off sport climbing, but I hate falling, what can I do?
A. Practice! Take practice falls with your knees by a bolt, then with your feet by it and then a metre above. It’s the only way to get over your fear, and isn’t that bad - honestly. On some redpoints, I’ve practiced the falls as well as the moves, so I know that when I finally climb the route all I’ll be thinking about is going upwards.
Also learn how to give a dynamic belay to give the leader a soft fall rather than slamming into the wall. When someone is about to come off don’t pull the rope, keep it semi-slack and give into the fall, maybe hop in the air or step forwards. Check your belayer is also clued up on this.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because bolts are about - sport climbing is still a risky business!
- Tie a knot in the free end of the rope when lowering off long routes to prevent the rope shooting through the belay device. Many experienced climbers have been dropped in this way.
- Be very careful when threading the lower off, doing it wrong could be fatal. Read Climbing Outside for more information, and practice in a safe environment.
- Sport climbing involves a lot of tying and untying from both rope and harness. Check yourself and your belayer every time.
- Grigri are not “hands free” belay devices. Always hold the dead rope.
- If bailing off a route or unsure about a belay don’t be afraid to leave a krab or two behind.
- Consider wearing a helmet in case of loose rock or falling awkwardly.
- Some UK sport venues have dodgy rock - don’t hang around beneath climbers.