Sport climbing

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Sport climbing (or bolted climbing) is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber clips into pre-drilled permanent bolts for their protection while ascending the route. Sport climbing differs from the riskier traditional climbing where the lead climber has to insert temporary protection equipment while they are ascending.


Sport climbing dates from the early 1980s when leading French rock climbers wanted to climb routes that offered no cracks or fissures in which to insert the temporary protection equipment used in traditional climbing. While bolting natural rock faces was controversial — and remains a focus of debate in climbing ethics — sport climbing grew rapidly in popularity, and all subsequent grade milestones in rock climbing came from sport climbing.

The safer discipline of sport climbing also led to the rapid growth in competition climbing, which made its Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics. While competition climbing consists of three distinct rock climbing disciplines lead climbing (the bolted sport climbing element), bouldering (no bolts needed), and speed climbing (also not bolted), it is sometimes confusingly also referred to as "sport climbing".


Sport climbing is a form of free climbing (i.e. no artificial or mechanical device can be used to aid progression, unlike with aid climbing), performed in pairs, where the lead climber clips into pre-drilled permanently fixed bolts for their protection while ascending. Usually, the lead climber will use quickdraws to clip into the bolts. The second climber (or belayer), removes the quickdraws as they climb the route after the lead climber has reached the top. [1]

Sport climbing differs from traditional climbing which requires the lead climber to insert temporary protection equipment into the rock as they ascend, and is therefore much safer. Sport climbing differs from free solo climbing where no climbing protection is used whatsoever. [1] Confusingly, the sport of competition climbing, which consists of three distinct rock climbing disciplines: lead climbing (the bolted sport climbing element), bouldering (no bolts needed), and speed climbing (also not bolted), is sometimes referred to as "sport climbing". [1]

First free ascent

Sport climbing developed the redpointing definition of what constitutes a first free ascent (FFA), which has since become the standard definition of an FFA for all climbing disciplines. [2] Redpointing allows for previously controversial techniques of hangdogging, [3] headpointing, [2] and pinkpointing (for competition lead climbing — the sport climbing component of competition climbing — and for extreme sport climbs, the quickdraws will already be attached to the bolts to make clipping in even simpler, which is known as pinkpointing). [2]


By the early 1980s, the leading rock climbers were beginning to reach the limits of existing traditional climbing protection devices. They looked to climb blanker-looking rock faces that did not have the usual cracks and fissures that are needed in which to place traditional climbing protection. [4] In France, leading climbers such as Patrick Berhault and Patrick Edlinger began to pre-drill permanent bolts into the pocket-marked limestone walls of Buoux and Verdon Gorge for their protection. [4] These became known as "sport climbing routes" (i.e. there was none of the associated risks of traditional climbing, it was a purely sporting endeavor), with early examples such as Pichenbule 7b+  (5.12c) in 1980. [4] [5] Around the same time at Smith Rocks in the United States, American climber Alan Watts also started to place pre-drilled bolts into routes, creating the first American sport climbs of Watts Tot 5.12b  (7b), and Chain Reaction 5.12c  (7b+) in 1983. [4] [6]

Sport climbing was rapidly adopted in Europe, and particularly in France and Germany by the emerging professional climbers such as German climber Wolfgang Güllich and French brothers Marc Le Menestrel  [ fr ] and Antoine Le Menestrel  [ fr ]. The United Kingdom was more reluctant to allow bolting on natural rock surfaces, and early British sport climbers such as Jerry Moffatt and Ben Moon were forced to move to France and Germany. Bolting of external rock surfaces was also initially controversial in the US, although American sport climbing pioneer Alan Watts later recounted that American traditional climbers were as much against the "redpointing" techniques of sport climbers (i.e. continually practicing new routes before making the first free ascent), as they were against the use of bolts. [6] Eventually, these sport climbers began to push new grade milestones far above traditional climbing grades, and the use of bolts became more accepted in outdoor climbing areas across America and Europe. [6]

Competition sport climbing

The safer aspect of sport climbing led to rapid development in competition climbing in the 1980s, where competition lead climbing events were held on bolted routes. Climbing noted the importance of events such as the 1988 International Sport Climbing Championship at Snowbird, Utah, for introducing leading European sport climbers such as Edlinger and Jean-Baptiste Tribout to leading American traditional climbers such as Ron Kauk and John Bachar. [7] By the end of the 1990s, the UIAA, and latterly the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), was regulating and organizing major international climbing competitions, including the annual IFSC Climbing World Cup, and the biennial IFSC Climbing World Championships. [8] Competitive climbing not only included sport climbing (which is effectively competition lead climbing) but also competition bouldering and competition speed climbing. [8]


Debates remain about the ethics of attaching permanent metal bolts on natural outdoor rock, which is also related to the broader clean climbing movement, however, many climbing areas — particularly in Continental Europe — have become fully bolted. However, many others remain emphatically non-bolted, such as Clogwyn Du'r Arddu in the United Kingdom, where only traditional climbing techniques are allowed. [9] In the United Kingdom, the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) maintains a register of outdoor climbing areas that are suitable for bolting, and those which are to remain bolt free; in addition, the BMC offers further guidance on related issues like retro-bolting. [10]



A rope clipped into a quickdraw clipped to a bolt Setaki.JPG
A rope clipped into a quickdraw clipped to a bolt

Sport climbing requires far less rock climbing equipment than traditional climbing as the protection is already pre-drilled into the route. Aside from the standard equipment of lead climbing (e.g. a rope, belay device, harness, and climbing shoes), the only important other important pieces of equipment are quickdraws to clip the rope into the bolts without generating friction. [11] On complex sport climbing routes that don't follow a straight line, the alignment and lengths of quickdraws used are important considerations to avoid rope drag. [11]


The pre-drilled bolts will degrade over time — particularly in coastal areas from salt — and eventually, all sport climbs need to be re-fitted after a number of years. [12] The highest quality titanium bolts are too expensive to use regularly, and the next highest quality stainless steel bolts have an expected lifespan of circa 20—25 years (the cheaper plated stainless steel bolts have a shorter span); and in 2015, the American Alpine Club established an "anchor replacement fund" to help replace the bolts on America's estimated 60,000 sport climbing routes. [13]

Notable climbs and climbers

Sport climbing routes are graded for their technical difficulty (i.e how hard is are the physical movements to ascend the route), but unlike traditional climbing routes, do not require an additional grade to reflect risk. While there are many grading systems used in the world, the most dominant for sport-climbs are the French grading system (i.e. ... 7a, 7a+, 7b ... , 9b+, 9c), and the American grading system (i.e. 5.11d, 5.12a, 5.12b, ... , 5.15c, 5.15d). [14]

Bild auf dem Gedenkstein fuer Guellich (retuschiert).jpg
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Adam Ondra by PAVEL BLAZEK 2.jpg
Some of the strongest-ever male sport climbers in history: Wolfgang Güllich (1980s), Chris Sharma (2000s), and Adam Ondra (2010s) [15]

Since the development of sport climbing in the early 1980s, all of the subsequent grade milestones (i.e. the next levels of hardest technical difficulty) in rock climbing have been set by sport climbers. German climber Wolfgang Güllich raised sport climbing grades from 8b  (5.13d) in 1984 with Kanal im Rücken to 9a  (5.14d) in 1991 with Action Directe . [16] American climber Chris Sharma dominated sport climbing development in the decade after his ground-breaking ascent of Realization/Biographie at 9a+  (5.15a) in 2001 and Jumbo Love at 9b  (5.15b) in 2008. [16] Czech climber Adam Ondra took on the mantle of the world's strongest sport climber from Sharma by freeing Change  [ fr ] in 2012 and La Dura Dura in 2013, both at 9b+  (5.15c). [15] In 2017, Ondra freed Silence , the first-ever sport climb at 9c  (5.15d), which as at 2023, remains unrepeated.

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Josune Bereziartu 2012.jpg
Angela Eiter - Tag des Sports 2013 Wien 1.jpg
Some of the strongest-ever female sport climbers in history: Lynn Hill (1980s), Josune Bereziartu (2000s), and Angela Eiter (2010s)

Female sport climbing was dominated in the 1980s by American climber Lynn Hill and French climber Catherine Destivelle who set new female grade milestones and also competed against each other in the first climbing competitions. [16] Spanish climber Josune Bereziartu dominated the setting of new grade milestones in female sport climbing in the late 1990s and early 2000s; her 2005 redpoint of Bimbaluna at 9a/9a+   was only a half-notch behind the highest male sport climbing route at the time, which was Realization/Biographie at 9a+. [16] By 2017, Austrian climber Angela Eiter had broken into the 9b  (5.15b) grade with La Planta de Shiva, and in 2020 made the first female free ascent of a 9b  (5.15b) with Madame Ching. In 2020-21, Laura Rogora and Julia Chanourdie also climbed 9b  (5.15b) sport routes; when only a handful of male climbers have climbed at 9b+  (5.15c), and only Adam Ondra at 9c  (5.15d).

Some of the strongest-ever sport climbers were also some of the strongest-ever competition climbers, such as Adam Ondra, Lynn Hill, and Angela Eiter. However, some of the strongest-ever sport climbers either largely ignored competition climbing, or retired early from it to focus exclusively on non-competition sport climbing, such as Wolfgang Gullich, [17] Chris Sharma, [18] and Josune Bereziartu. [19]

See also

Related Research Articles

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Traditional climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Traditional climbing is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber places the protection equipment while ascending the climbing route; when the lead climber has completed the route, the second climber then removes the protection equipment as they climb the route. Traditional climbing differs from sport climbing where the protection equipment is already pre-drilled into the rock in the form of bolts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> List of definitions of terms and concepts related to rock climbing and mountaineering

This glossary of climbing terms is a list of definitions of terms and jargon related to rock climbing and mountaineering. The specific terms used can vary considerably between different English-speaking countries; many of the phrases described here are particular to the United States and the United Kingdom.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">First ascent</span> Mountaineering and climbing term

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Action Directe (climb)</span> Rock climbing route, Germany

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Free climbing</span> Climbing without using aid climbing

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lead climbing</span> Competitive discipline of sport climbing

Lead climbing is a climbing style, predominantly used in rock climbing. In a roped party one climber has to take the lead while the other climbers follow. The lead climber wears a harness attached to a climbing rope, which in turn is connected to the other climbers below the lead climber. While ascending the route, the lead climber periodically connects the rope to protection equipment for safety in the event of a fall. This protection can consist of permanent bolts, to which the climber clips quickdraws, or removable protection such as nuts and cams. One of the climbers below the lead climber acts as a belayer. The belayer gives out rope while the lead climber ascends and also stops the rope when the lead climber falls or wants to rest.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chris Sharma</span> American rock climber

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