Getting started: sport climbing outdoors

Posted by Tina Gardner on 22/05/2014
Naomi Buys shows how the pros do it: Photo: Mike Hutton

If you've learnt to climb routes indoors, sport climbing can be a logical first step into the exciting world of outdoor climbing. Neil Gresham gives us the low-down in an extract from our new special edition magazine: Get into Climbing.

The French are widely accredited with inventing sport climbing in the mid-1970s and soon the practice spread to neighbouring European countries such as Spain and Italy, before finally arriving in the UK in the late 1980s. Sport climbing took a while to catch on in Britain. For many years, it was deemed unethical to place bolts and traditional climbing was favoured here for its ethical purity.

Initially, there was much heated debate about which crags should be bolted and which should be left for trad. A general trend emerged of inland limestone outcrops being targeted for bolts, and mountain crags and the majority of sea cliffs, gritstone and granite outcrops being left bolt-free.

What's to like?

The sport climbing style is fast, light and gymnastic. Sport climbs are equipped with pre-drilled expansion bolts, which means a minimal amount of equipment is required and generally speaking, there’s a higher degree of safety compared to trad climbing. You can push your technique to the absolute limit.

Where to start?

It’s always best to head out with a more experienced climber or instructor to start with. Climbing indoor routes leads naturally to climbing sport routes outdoors, but there are a few extra skills and bits of kit required.

How does it work?

As at a climbing wall, the leader climbs using a single rope and clips into quickdraws along the way. A quickdraw consists of two snap-gate karabiners, connected by a short sling. However, when sport climbing the quickdraws aren’t in-situ as at a climbing wall –you need to carry your own. When you get to the top, there isn’t usually a karabiner in-situ either. A vital skill you need to learn is how to rethread the lower offs at the top of sport routes. Read our article and watch our video of how to lower off from a sport climb.

Who sets and monitors the bolts?

Sport bolts and lower offs are often set, monitored and replaced by local climbers. However, in general no-one is ultimately responsible for maintaining fixed gear at sport crags. Occasionally you may have to leave a karabiner behind because the belay is not complete or looks damaged or corroded. The BMC has a free, in-depth bolt user guide if you want to be in a better position to judge bolts.

Grading system

The French grades used on sport climbs are, in theory, the same as those used on routes at indoor climbing walls. Of course, it’s hard to make a direct comparison between rock and an artificial surface, so drop your grade on those first climbs to get used to the rock.

The French grade takes into account the relationship between the difficulty of the moves and the length of the route. For example, a French 6a that is 10m high and sustained in difficulty will most likely have harder moves than a French 6a that is 25m high.

When climbing outside, it’s common to find routes on varied terrain, with easy sections interspersed with short cruxes. These are always harder to grade, but the French system attempts to strike an average for the overall climb.

UK Grade Comparison Table (source: Rock Climbing by Libby Peter)


Ethics

On-sight: A route that was led successfully on the first attempt, without falls or resting on the rope and without prior knowledge of the moves was climbed ‘on-sight’. It’s common for leaders to place the quickdraws themselves but a climb can still be on-sighted if the quickdraws are already in.

Flash: If the route was completed on the first attempt but with the aid of beta (prior knowledge of the moves), it was a flashed ascent. The beta usually comes from watching or talking to another climber who has done the route. The term is clearly open to misinterpretation and some who are told just a snippet of beta will call the ascent a flash whereas others will claim the on-sight.

Red-point: A red-point means a successful lead of any sport climb that you’ve attempted previously. Most climbers understand red-pointing to mean working (practising) a climb many times before completing it. However, even if you have only tried it once before then succeeded on your second go, it’s still a red-point.

Gear

As well as your normal climbing wall equipment (harness, rock shoes, chalk bag, helmet and belay device), you’ll also need a set of quickdraws, some spare karabiners, a few slings and a rope.

Some hazards

First, remember that most sport crags offer a relatively hazard-free environment, but some may have loose rock on them or unstable terrain at the base. Second, always check that your rope is long enough to get you up the climb and back down to the ground. Keep a knot tied in the end, just in case. Also, remember that bolts on sport routes are nearly always further apart than at indoor walls, so falls are likely to be longer.

Article written by Neil Gresham one of Britain’s best known all-round climbers and is at the forefront of climbing coaching in Britain. 
www.masterclasscoachingacademy.com / www.climbingmasterclass.com

Outdoor sport climbing courses for young people

The BMC subsidises a series of outdoor sport climbing courses for 11-17 year olds, teaching the skills needed to safely climb on bolt protected routes. Find out more information about course content and dates.

Get into Climbing: special edition magazine for new climbers

This article is an extract from Get into Climbing, our special edition magazine for beginners. The magazine contains 100 pages (over 30 articles) of essential information and expert advice on how to start climbing.

Buy your copy from the BMC shop for just £5 (£3 for BMC members).

Watch our Rock Climbing Essentials DVD trailer on BMC TV:


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