When we hear the term ‘free climbing’, our minds may flash to Alex Honnald’s hair raising ascent of El Capitan in the blockbuster film ‘Free Solo’ and our palms may start to feel sweaty all over again. As it turns out, ‘free soloing’, and ‘free climbing’ are actually quite different and free climbing may not be as extreme as we first feared!
So what is Free Climbing?
Though often confused with free soloing, free climbing is a general term for any style of climbing that doesn’t involve using aid, meaning a route or pitch that is climbed only using ropes and belays and without the assistance of any aid devices. Types of free climbing would include traditional climbing, sport climbing, and top-roping. Any climbing that makes use of additional aid is no longer free climbing, but aid climbing.
What is aid climbing?
Aid climbing is a specific technique that enables climbers to climb routes that are too challenging to be free climbed. To climb these routes, climber’s use a variety of equipment such as ascenders, skyhooks or ladders to assist them in moving up the wall. Their progress up the wall is aided by this equipment, whereas in free climbing, the upwards progress of a climber is determined by their movement and strength alone.
Why aren’t ropes considered to be aid?
When free climbing, climbers aim to scale a rock face without using any special gear. However, many disciplines of free climbing do make use of some sort of protection as a safety measure in case the climber falls. Top roping, sport climbing, and trad climbing are all forms of free climbing that involve protective gear such as a rope, harness and clips. The fundamental difference is that none of this equipment directly affects the climber's accent or helps the climber to make the moves to get to the top.
So, whilst free soloing is still technically a form of free climbing, it’s just one small, niche discipline within free climbing. When you consider the variety of styles and disciplines that make up free climbing, the term becomes much broader and varied than you may have first thought.