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Free Climbing and Aid Climbing

The 2 Faces of Rock Climbing


Chris Fossili climbs Marathon (5.13a) at Damptjern in Norway.

Free climbing is simply using your hands and feet to ascend a cliff.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Rock climbing has two distinct and different disciplines:

Most Climbers are Free Climbers

Most rock climbers are free climbers, using only their hands, feet, balance, and wits to climb a rock face. Occasionally, however, every free climber will use an aid move or two, like grabbing a quickdraw or a couple pieces of gear, to climb past a difficult rock section. When you climb like this, using occasional aid moves to speed up your climb or enable you to pass the hard parts, it’s called French freeing or French free. This type of climbing not only allows you to climb long routes more quickly, but it also allows you to climb routes that are at a higher difficulty level than what you usually climb. French freeing originated at the Verdon Gorge in southern France in the 1960s and 1970s when climbers pushed long routes up steep limestone walls but were unable to make all the moves so they grabbed gear or placed hooks in pockets to bypass hard sections.

Free Climbing Uses Hands and Feet

For most climbers, rock climbing is free climbing. Free climbing is simply using only your hands, feet, strength, and balance to move upward. Equipment is used only to protect the climber from the effects of a fall, not to aid his movements up a rock face. The free climber avoids using any gear to advance upward, using only his physical skills to climb.

Aid Climbing Uses Equipment

Aid climbing is the other aspect of rock climbing, which is when a climber relies on his equipment to make vertical progress. Aid climbing is when a climber grabs a quickdraw clipped onto a bolt to pull past a hard move on a sport route or when he works his way up a featureless overhanging wall by placing cams and nuts in cracks and stands in aiders suspended from that gear to ascend. Aid climbing is how most big walls, like those in Yosemite Valley, are climbed.

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