Climbing & Canyoneering: Overview

Mini Climbing Glossary
Climb ratings: Most climbs are rated by a system called the Yosemite Decimal System, which divides up slope angles between 1 and 5, where 1 is hiking on a trail and 5 demands (except for free-soloing, see below) that a climber be roped. Class 5 is further subdivided to reflect the difficulty of roped climbs, from 5.0 to 5.14-plus.

Bouldering: Climbing short routes closer to the ground, often boulders, without ropes. Boulder routes are called "problems," and most boulderers use a crash pad to cushion falls. Boulder problems are rated on a different scale than climbs, starting at V0 (easiest) to V14 (roughly comparable to a climbing route rated 5.14 or more).

Crux: The most difficult move or portion of a climb..

Free-soloing: Climbing with no ropes or protection.

Protection: A device, such as a bolt, nut, or piton, that can stop a climber's fall (in turn, defined by as, "To retreat in dynamic fashion from a climb").

Top-roped climbing: Climbing a route where the rope is anchored above the climb, in contrast to lead climbing, where the climber takes the rope up with her/him.


The world's mountains offer an awe-inspiring vision of both beauty and challenge. While people have likely been navigating the rocks for millennia, climbing as a form of recreation started up in the 18th and 19th centuries in the European Alps. On the other side of the pond, one of the hot spots of modern U.S. climbing, Yosemite Valley, has been the site of more than 100 years of climbing innovation. There, a group of luminaries like Sierra Club founder John Muir, who scrambled up peaks all over the Sierras, and Swiss blacksmith John Salathe, who in the 1950s pioneered steel pitons that let adventurers push to new heights, led the vertical way. Today, climbers around the world continue to attempt new routes and push the limits on previously climbed routes—faster, stronger, and sometimes without ropes.

Climbing can take many forms—from acrobatics over boulder-sized obstacles, which offer a series of challenging moves close to the ground, to multi-day pushes up big walls during which climbers sleep midair on portable ledges. Sport climbing, which has become popular in the last two decades, uses pre-placed bolts for faster ascents; traditional climbing involves placing and removing protection as you climb; free soloing is the extremely focused act of climbing without ropes. Indoor climbing gyms festooned with artificial rock walls can help people who live far from scaleable rock faces learn to use belaying techniques and hone their skills. "There are so many ways to excel at this sport," says Ken Yates, a Yosemite climbing guide who wants to establish a museum of Yosemite's climbing history, "and climbers are always trying to up the ante."

People are also trying to take scrambling skills to new places. Canyoneers descend into the cool shadows of places like Utah's gorgeous red-rock slot canyons, navigating narrow streambeds and fissures with ropes and on foot. Indeed, the growth of canyoneering's popularity in recent years has provoked some land managers to decry the environmentally disruptive flood of canyoneers into mostly unspoiled backcountry—not to mention the propensity of newcomers to underestimate the dangers of floods and extreme weather conditions in what can appear a relatively safe undertaking. Aron Ralston's now-notorious brush with death likely did little to dispel such negative press. So if you do decide that canyoneering is your gig, pay heed to the guidance of the American Canyoneering Association (, which espouses proper training and responsible wilderness ethics before the obvious thrill of poking around Mother Nature's rocky wrinkles.

Finally, one of the newest terrains for vertical exploration: trees. Climbers with equipment modified for arboreal adventures scale giant spruce and fir trees, even overnighting high in the canopy. The leading proponent of this craze, Genevieve Summers, is a former chimney sweep who now operates the popular Georgia-based Dancing With Trees. Classes mostly take place in the wooded enclaves of the Smoky Mountains, and cater to students from as young as four to as old as they feel young. As with rocks, the sky's the limit—Dancing With Trees promotes tailored trips "anywhere there are trees to climb."
Pioneer: Tommy Caldwell

This May, Tommy Caldwell rocked the climbing world when he laid down the first free climb—scaling the rock without any mechanical aid, just muscle—of the 2,500-foot Dihedral Wall on Yosemite's El Capitan, a 25-pitch route which he covered in four days. This feat is only one example of 26-year-old Caldwell's prowess—he's free-climbed five other routes on El Cap, along with Colorado's Kryptonite and Flex Luther, possibly two of the world's most difficult sport climbs. "I like it all but seem to have been focusing on big walls lately," says Caldwell. "I pick whatever motivates me most."

Caldwell's been a climber from the cradle, often scrambling around the rocks with his sister while his dad worked his way up Colorado climbs. Family vacations meant trips to climbing meccas like Joshua Tree and Yosemite. "My first memorable climb was of Twin Owls, the most famous feature in Estes Park," says Caldwell, who started roping up at the age of three.

Climbing's still a family affair. Caldwell's wife, climber Beth Rodden, was a three-time Junior National Champion, and at 18 became the youngest woman to redpoint a 5.14 route (redpointing being when a climber leads a climb and places anchor points without falling or resting on protection). This May, Rodden belayed her husband through the triumph on the Dihedral Wall while nursing a broken foot.

"For the past several years I have been looking to try free climbs on El Cap," Caldwell says. "The Dihedral Wall had been tried for so many years so it was an obvious one to try." The Estes Park, Colorado-based pair, who completed their first free climb together on El Cap's Lurking Fear in 2000, climbs four days a week year-round. And in between the ascents? "We also just enjoy being in the mountains and remodeling our house," says Caldwell.

Published: 16 May 2005 | Last Updated: 23 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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