Rock Climbing


  • There has been a rapid growth in rock climbing popularity and access in recent decades.

    • The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 2007 noted that the number of recreational climbers had increased from 7.3 million to 9.2 million over the preceding decade.

    • The development of local climbing facilities and clubs continues:

      • Climbers are starting at younger ages.

      • Year-round climbing is available indoors.

  • Climbing requires endurance, strength, and agility.

    • Athletes must be in good cardiovascular shape to climb.

    • Climbing-specific training reduces injury and increases ability.

  • Equipment advances that accompanied the development of the sport have made climbing much safer.

    • Proper equipment maintenance optimizes safety.

    • The rule of thumb is to replace soft goods after 5 years and hardware after 10 years of use.

General Principles


  • Belayer: The one at the bottom or top of a climb who controls the rope with a belay device

  • Rappeller: The one who descends on the rope, controlling the rate with a figure 8 or another device

  • Top rope: The rope that is placed through chains or metal loops attached to the top of a climb; enables a higher level of safety, alleviating the need to place protection

  • Lead climber: The climber elevates the attached rope while climbing, periodically “clipping-in” to protection; task contains higher risk and difficulty. Subsequent climbers then climb using the top rope.

  • Problem: Bouldering involves the sequential dismantling and eventual conquering of a problem, which can be a particular route or even simply an extremely challenging segment or overhang.

  • Pots and Keepers: Canyoneering features carved by water out of sandstone, often filled with water. Pots are easy to swim or walk across and exit, while keepers are difficult to navigate without specialized techniques and gear

  • Prusik: A friction hitch or knot used to put a loop of cord around a rope, allowing sliding in one direction and a braking action in the opposite

Types of Climbing

Free Climbing (Traditional Rock Climbing)

  • “Free” indicates the absence of pulling or hanging on gear, rope, or stepping on anchors

    • True rock climbing with a rope simply used as protection for falls

  • “Pro” (protection) indicates equipment used to facilitate free climbing; is removable ( Fig. 99.1 ),

    • Passive: nut, hex ( Fig. 99.2 : Passive Protection)

      Figure 99.2

      Climbing equipment.

    • Active: cam (see Fig. 99.2 : Active Protection)

    • Aid climbing: climbing on placed or fixed pieces

    Figure 99.1

    Types of climbing.

    (Figures courtesy of Matt Turley.)

  • Climbers ascend in “pitches.”

    • 20–50 meters per pitch

    • Gear and ropes are cleared and carried with climbers to be placed on subsequent pitches.

    • Climbers belay one another up each pitch.

    • Climbers rappel down from the top, controlling their own descent.

  • Minimal impact on natural environment

Sport Climbing

Outdoor (see Fig. 99.1 )

  • Climbing on established routes, often with ratings and maps

  • Fixed protection

    • Bolts: are anchored into rock at intervals of 2–4 meters

      • Climbers fix a carabiner onto bolts as they pass.

      • Lead climbers use bolts to safely ascend.

    • Chains: chains or welded loops anchored to the rock at the top

      • Following climbers clean the bolts as they ascend.

    • Bolts and chains must be inspected for the safety and stability of the route and rock surface.


  • “Rock gyms”

  • Molded holds attached to climbing walls

  • Risk of overuse injury, as climbers can do repeated routes, leading to excess fatigue

  • Athlete skill level is augmented due to the presence of a safe environment free from natural hazards.


  • Often requires travel to austere environments in remote areas

  • Climbers employ variable techniques, from hiking to rock and ice climbing over multiple days.

  • Injury risk:

    • Serious injury or death from falls, usually related to fatigue and human error

    • Minor injuries can be more serious than major ones due to remoteness and limited rescue potential.

    • The most common injuries are acute and chronic musculoskeletal injuries.

    • Most of these occur in the hands and extremities.

  • Environmental risks:

    • Hypothermia/exposure

    • Altitude sickness

    • Falling rocks

    • Wildlife


  • Indoor and outdoor varieties (see Fig. 99.1 )

  • Climbers solo problems, which are usually 3–4 meters in height, and contain traverses and overhangs.

    • Optimal strategy is repetition, working on one or a few moves to complete the problem

  • Spotting and mats provide adequate protection, but short falls can lead to lower extremities injury.

  • High demand on upper extremities can lead to overuse injuries, especially to the fingers.

  • Indoor and outdoor bouldering carries similar risks.

  • Outdoor bouldering presents added risks from the environment and remoteness.


  • Descent from cliffs using rappel devices on a rope ( Fig. 99.3 )

    Figure 99.3

    Rappelling from multiple pitch climb.

  • Rappeller controls the rate of descent via friction between the rope and the device.

    • Increased by holding slack end of rope behind the back

    • Use of gloves prevents friction burns.

  • A second safety rope can be attached with a belayer at the top or bottom of the cliff for redundant safety measures.

  • Backup prusik cords may decrease the risk of injury or fatality.


  • Canyoneers descend into canyons, narrow riverbeds, or channels, often with steep cliffs on the side.

  • Slots cut deep trenches into sandstone due to running water and flash floods over centuries

    • Slot canyons are notoriously dangerous with limited access and contain stretches without escape routes.

  • Combination of hiking, rappelling, climbing, swimming, camp­ing, exploring, and courage

  • Require “pots” and “keepers,” which pose great danger to inexperienced explorers

  • Pack rafting—canyoneering down to a river (such as the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon), floating down in a personal raft, then hiking or climbing out

  • Weather presents a great danger that can lead to tragedy and death.


  • Cave explorers refer to less experienced counterparts as “spelunkers.”

  • Requires horizontal and vertical movement through caves with extensive use of ropes for pitches, crawling, and squeezing through narrow openings

  • Experienced guides and acquiring knowledge of the terrain reduce risks

  • Caving can require digging and diving (or even scuba diving for intense cavers).

  • An excellent light source, specialized equipment, and redundant safety measures help avert potential disaster.

Solo Climbing

  • No ropes or gear

  • Highest risk of injury

  • Even elite climbers risk extreme danger, including death.

  • Solo climbers may feel that the rewards of accomplishment outweigh the risks, enjoying unencumbered speed without ropes and gear.

Ice Climbing

  • Specialized equipment including crampons and axes (see Fig. 99.1 ) to ascend the ice

  • Anchors are specially designed to drill into ice to ensure protection.

  • Unfavorable weather conditions or unstable, melting ice leads to potential tragedy.

  • Unique risks include exposure to cold and falling ice as well as the traditional risks of free climbing.

Difficulty Rating Systems

  • The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is the most common US climb difficulty rating system and was started in the 1930s by the Sierra Club.

    • Classes —rated by difficulty:

      • Class 1: Walking is sufficient

      • Class 2: Hiking with scrambling; occasional use of hands required

      • Class 3: Scrambling with some exposure and the use of handholds. A rope is not required, but falls can still be deadly.

      • Class 4: Simple climbing with natural protection and exposure; ropes are often used; falls may be deadly

      • Class 5: Technical free climbing with ropes; belaying and protection used. Solo climbs often result in severe injury or death. Rated from 5.0 through 5.15c, with letters (a–d) added after 5.10. Advanced climbs start at a rating of 5.10 and progress to expert levels.

      • Class 6: Aid climbing (designation is now rarely used; a separate scale from A0 to A5 is available)

    • Grades— rated by time

      • Grade I: One to two hours

      • Grade II: Less than half day

      • Grade III: Half day

      • Grade IV: Full day

      • Grade V: Two day climb

      • Grade VI: Multiday climb

      • Grade VII: One week or longer

    • Protection —rates spacing and quality of bolts/protection

      • Follows the movie rating system: G, PG, PG-13, R, and X

      • Significant variation exists. Climbers are advised to typically avoid anything beyond PG-13. R and X noted as caution.

  • Bouldering Rating Systems

    • The Hueco Scale is the most commonly used rating system in North America. The scale spans from V0–V16 and is open-ended.

  • Ice Climbing uses the Water Ice (WI) Scale, with numerals 1–11 applied, and a + option added. The Alpine Ice (AI) scale is used for glacial ice, which is less dense.

  • International rating systems vary by country.

Equipment and Safety

  • Rope

    • Use of dynamic (high stretch) ropes lessen the impact of falls, often by 5%–7% of the length being used

      • Used in vertical rock/ice climbing

    • Static (low stretch) ropes are better for rappelling, as they are stronger and less supple.

      • Used for glacier travel and rappelling, as well as rescue

    • Dry ropes are specially treated to repel moisture, as water weakens ropes.

    • Nondry ropes are less expensive and suited for dry environments only.

    • Length choices include 50 m, 55 m, 60 m, and up to 70 m.

    • Diameter ranges from 7.5 mm to 11 mm.

    • The typical rope has a length of 60 m and a diameter of 10 to 11 mm.

    • Ropes are rated by diameter and number of falls.

  • Harness (see Fig. 99.2 )

    • Proper fit and sizing is essential for manufactured harnesses.

    • Should be inspected for damage

    • Climbers should inspect each other’s harnesses to ensure proper fit and use.

  • Shoes (see Fig. 99.2 )

    • Tight-fitting, but should be bearable; smaller than a normal shoe

    • Creates a “hoof effect” of the foot to provide strength and grip, as well as protection from the rocks

    • Shoe types range from general use to slipper-like supple shoes for indoor climbing and bouldering, to stiffer boots for more vertical, outdoor climbing.

  • Belay device

    • Controls rate of descent on the rope

    • ATC: “air traffic control”

    • Grigri: autolocking belay device

    • Figure-8

  • Surface

    • Indoor, outdoor

    • Type of rock, condition

      • Loose rock, dirt, sand, or trees and brush in rock climbing

  • Protection (see Fig. 99.2 )

    • Active: cams with spring loading

    • Passive: chocks, nuts, hexes, tapers

  • Carabiner (see Fig. 99.2 )

    • C -shaped with hinged closure of the ring

    • Attaches the climber to a harness, bolt, or rope

    • Locking carabiners are stronger and safer.

  • Quick draw (see Fig. 99.2 )

    • Two carabiners attached by webbing, used to attach a rope to bolts while climbing

  • Chalk

    • Held in a pouch behind the back; used to improve hand friction and reduce moisture

  • Webbing, cord, slings

    • Used to carry gear, attach protection, or create a top rope with a carabiner by tying onto a rock, tree, or other solid structure

  • Helmet

    • An essential piece of equipment that is often overlooked

    • Should also be worn by the belayer to protect them from falling rocks, ice, and debris

Biomechanics, Training, and Physiology

  • Training variables are more important than anthropometric determinants.

  • Leanness, strength, flexible, and having low body fat are characteristics of more successful climbers.

  • Energy expenditure:

    • Outdoor climbing expends greater energy than indoor

    • Metabolic Equivalent of Task (METs) values are less than those of running at the same heart rate.

    • VO 2 max reaches a plateau during climbing.

    • Handgrip fatigue lasts 20 minutes.

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Jul 19, 2019 | Posted by in SPORT MEDICINE | Comments Off on Rock Climbing
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