Traditional climbing

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Traditional climbing (or trad climbing) is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber places the protection equipment while ascending the route; when the lead climber has completed the route, the second climber (or belayer) then removes the protection equipment as they climb the route. [1] Traditional climbing differs from sport climbing where the protection equipment is pre-drilled into the rock in the form of bolts. [2]


Traditional climbing carries a much higher level of risk than bolted sport climbing, as the climber may not have placed the protection equipment correctly (while trying to ascend the route), or there may be few opportunities to insert protection equipment (e.g. on very difficult routes). Traditional climbing was once the dominant form of free climbing, but since the mid-1980s sport climbing (and its related form of competition climbing) has become more popular, and all subsequent grade milestones in rock climbing have been in sport climbing.


Climber leading a traditional climbing route, attempting to insert a nut for climbing protection. The Climb - - 2480355.jpg
Climber leading a traditional climbing route, attempting to insert a nut for climbing protection.

Traditional climbing (or "Trad" climbing), is a form of free climbing (i.e. no artificial or mechanical device can be used to aid progression, unlike with aid climbing), which is performed in pairs where the lead climber places climbing protection into the climbing route as they ascend. [3] [4] After the lead climber has reached the top, the second climber (or belayer) removes this temporary climbing protection as they climb the route. Some consider the hammering in of pitons while climbing the route, as long as they are only for climbing protection and not to aid progression, to also be traditional climbing. [3] [4] [5]

Traditional climbing differs from sport climbing that has the climbing protection already pre-bolted into the route (i.e. the lead climber just clips their rope into quickdraws attached to the bolts); sport climbing is therefore a much safer, and less stressful, form of free climbing. [2] Traditional climbing differs from free solo climbing where no climbing protection is used whatsoever. [3] [4] [5]

First free ascent

With the greater popularity of sport climbing, traditional climbing evolved to embrace some of its redpointing techniques in making a first free ascent (FFA). The previously controversial practices of hangdogging (i.e. practicing on an abseil rope), and headpointing (i.e. practicing on a top rope) are now accepted by the leading traditional climbers. [6] [7] Traditional climbers subsequently introduced the derived term "greenpointing" (or the Grünpunkt movement, as a play on the sport climbing Rotpunkt movement), to describe making the first free ascent of a pre-bolted sport-climb, but only using "traditional protection". [8] [9]


As 20th-century rock climbers began to free climb (i.e., avoiding any form of aid), they used traditional climbing techniques for protection. [10] Early traditional climbers relied on crude, and often unreliable, forms of homemade "passive" climbing protection such as pieces of metal or chockstones attached to slings. [11]

With the development of "active" traditional climbing protection in the 1970s—called spring-loaded camming devices (SLCDs, or "friends")—the grades of technical difficulty that traditional climbers could safely undertake increased dramatically, [11] [12] and new grade milestones were set on new traditional climbing routes. [4] However, by the mid-1980s, the leading traditional climbers were again facing technical challenges with minimal possibilities for traditional climbing protection (i.e. tiny or no cracks whatsoever in which to insert SLCDs), that required them to accept significant personal risks — Johnny Dawes's 1986 ascent of Indian Face being a notable example. [13]

At this time, French climbers such as Patrick Edlinger began to pre-drill permanent masonry bolts into the almost "blank" faces of Buoux and Verdon for protection (but not as artificial aid); this became known as sport climbing. [12] [14] It led to a dramatic increase in climbing standards — all future new grade milestones were set on sport climbing routes. The increased safety of pre-drilled bolts also led to the development and popularity of competition climbing, and the emergence of the "professional" rock climber. Sport climbing became the most popular form of rock climbing. [15]



Climber with equipment.jpg
The Screamer E4 6a Reiff Scotland 2.jpg
Traditional climbers using various approaches to carrying the extensive protection equipment (or "rack") needed for their traditional climb

Traditional climbing requires more rock climbing equipment than sport climbing as the lead climber needs to carry, and insert, protection devices as they climb the route. The choice of equipment carried will depend on the type of route being attempted. Some of the most difficult and dangerous traditional routes (e.g. Indian Face or Master's Edge ) offer very little opportunity to insert protection into the rock, and thus the lead climber carries very little protective equipment.

Classic traditional climbs often involve crack climbing (e.g. Separate Reality ) that offers greater opportunity for inserting protection — into the crack itself — and the lead climber will carry a lot more equipment to secure their safety. [3] [4]

Two main classes of protection are used in traditional climbing, namely: "passive" and "active". Passive protection devices include nuts, hexcentrics and tricams, and are metal shapes attached to wires or slings, which can be inserted into cracks and fissures in the rock that will act like temporary sport climbing bolts (to which quickdraws and the rope can be clipped into). Active protection consists of spring-loaded camming devices (or "friends"), which are cams that dynamically adjust to the size of the crack or fissure in the rock, but also act like temporary sport climbing bolts. [3] [4]


Climbing in Yosemite Valley - 01.jpg
Traditional climber inserting a spring-loaded camming device for their protection while leading Freeblast (5.11b), in Yosemite
Coyne Crack 5.11+ - Supercrack Buttress - Indian Creek.jpg
Traditional climber leading Coyne Crack (5.11+), Indian Creek; the crack offers lots of opportunity for inserting climbing protection

The traditional climber has two key concerns, or areas of risk, when placing the protection equipment while they are leading the traditional route.

The first concern is related to the quality of the protection placements. Where these placements are considered good and will hold the climber in the event of a major fall, they are called "bomb-proof" (i.e. they behave just like pre-drilled bolts). However, when the placements are poor, and there is uncertainty that they will hold in the event of a major fall — risking a "zipper-fall" — they are described as "thin". [16] For example, when Johnny Dawes freed the traditional climb Indian Face (E9 6c) in 1986, the protection was so thin, Dawes assumed if he fell, the protection would rip out, and he would fall to the ground. [17]

The other concern is the distance between the protection placements. Where there are many protection placements with small gaps between them (e.g. 2 to 3 metres), then any fall will be short and less onerous; even if one placement fails/rips-out, there are more placements that might still hold. However, large gaps between placements — known as a "run out" — means that any fall will be larger and will place more pressure on the existing placements to hold the fall. Famous extreme traditional climbs such as Master's Edge (E7 6c) and Gaia (E8 6c) have notorious run-outs, where even if the protection holds, the falling climber has a high chance of hitting the ground, as spectacularly shown in the opening sequence of the 1998 British climbing film, Hard Grit . [18] [19]

To reflect the greater risk of traditional climbing routes over sport climbing routes, an additional grade is often added to the route's grade of technical difficulty (i.e. how hard are the individual moves) to reflect the risks. In the United Kingdom, this is known as the "adjectival" grade (Diff, VDiff, HS, VS, HVS, E1 to E11). In the United States, it takes the form of a suffix (PG — be careful, R — fall will cause injury, R/X — fall will cause serious injury, X — fall likely to be fatal). [20]


The grading of traditional climbing routes starts with a sport climbing grade for the "technical difficulty", and an additional "risk grade" to reflect how hard the lead climber will find protecting the route as they ascend. Some sport grading systems, particularly the French system (e.g. ... 6b, 6c, 7a, 7b, 7c, ...), offer no additional "risk grade", and are thus less likely to be used as traditional climbing grades (but may be quoted alongside one). The most dominant grading system for traditional climbing is the American system (e.g. ... 5.9, 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, ...), which for traditional routes can add the "suffix" of "R" for risk of serious injury in any fall, or "X" for routes where a fall at a particular place, could be fatal (i.e. a "chop route"). [21] [22] [23] For example, a famous but serious extreme North American traditional climb is Sonnie Trotter's 2007 route, The Path in Lake Louise, Alberta, which is graded 5.14a R. [24] [25]

One of the most detailed, and still widely used, traditional grading systems is the British E-grade (e.g. ... VS 4c, HVS 5a, E1 5b, E2 5c, E4 6a, ...). [23] Two grades are quoted; the first being the "adjectival grade", and the second being the "technical grade". [21] The interplay between the two grades reflects the "risk grade" of the route. For each "technical grade", there is a normal equivalent "adjectival grade"; for example, for the technical grade of "6a", the normal "adjectival grade" is "E4". [21] Where the "adjectival grade" is lower than normal, for example, E3 6a (or even E2 6a), that means the route is much safer and easier to protect. When the "adjectival grade" is higher than normal, for example, E5 6a (or even E6 6a), that means the route is more dangerous and harder to protect. [21] For example, one of the most famous and dangerous extreme British traditional climbs is Johnny Dawes' 1986 route, Indian Face , which is graded E9 6c (instead of the normal E7 6c), or 5.13a X under the American system. [26]

Hardest routes

Pre sport-climbing era

Before the emergence of sport climbing in the early 1980s, almost all new grade milestones in rock climbing were set by traditional climbers. [12] [27] By the end of the 1970s, male traditional climbers were climbing to 5.13a  (7c+) with Toni Yaniro  [ fr ]'s Grand Illusion, [12] while female traditional climbers were climbing to 5.12d  (7c), with Lynn Hill on Ophir Broke. [27] During the early 1980s, leading European traditional climbers like Jerry Moffatt and Wolfgang Güllich changed to sport climbing, in which all future new grade milestones would be established. [27] Moffatt's last major traditional FFA was Master's Wall (E7 6b) in 1984, where he said afterward: "At that time to be respected, you really had to be putting up really scary new [traditional] routes. That was where it was at, in Britain at least. Master's Wall is probably where I risked most". [28]

Post sport-climbing era

Jonathan Siegrist on The Path 5.14a R, 8b+, at Lake Louise 1633A3515.jpg
Jonathan Siegrist on The Path 5.14a R, 8b+, at Lake Louise

While the status of traditional climbing waned during the rise of the safer disciplines of sport climbing (and its related sport of competition climbing), and latterly bouldering, contemporary traditional climbers continued to set new "traditional climbing" grade milestones. By 2023, the strongest male (e.g. Jacopo Larcher, James Pearson, and Ethan Pringle) and female traditional climbers (e.g. Beth Rodden, Hazel Findlay and Barbara Zangerl) were climbing to approximately the same grade of circa 8c+  (5.14c). In contrast, the strongest male sport climbers (e.g. Adam Ondra and Seb Bouin) were climbing at 9c  (5.15d), and the strongest female sport climbers (e.g. Angela Eiter and Laura Rogora) were climbing at 9b  (5.15b).

As of 2024, the following traditional routes are considered to be some of the hardest-ever ascended: [29] [30]

In film

A number of notable films have been made focused on traditional climbing including: [43]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grade (climbing)</span> Degree of difficulty of a climbing route

Many climbing routes have a grade that reflects the technical difficulty—and in some cases the risks and commitment level—of the route. The first ascensionist can suggest a grade, but it will be amended to reflect the consensus view of subsequent ascents. While many countries with a strong tradition of climbing developed grading systems, a small number of grading systems have become internationally dominant for each type of climbing, which has contributed to the standardization of grades worldwide. Over the years, grades have consistently risen in all forms of climbing, helped by improvements in climbing technique and equipment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing route</span> Path to scale a mountain, rock, or ice wall

A climbing route is a path by which a climber reaches the top of a mountain, or rock/ice-covered obstacle. The details of a climbing route are recorded in a climbing guidebook and/or in an online climbing route database, and will include elements such as the type of climbing route, the difficulty grade of the route–and beta on its crux(es)–and any risk or commitment grade, the length and number of pitches of the route, and the climbing equipment needed to complete the route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> For rock climbing and mountaineering

Glossary of climbing terms relates to rock climbing, mountaineering, and to ice climbing.

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

In mountaineering and climbing, a first ascent, is the first successful documented climb to the top of a mountain or the top of a particular climbing route. Early 20th-century mountaineers and climbers focused on reaching the tops of iconic mountains and climbing routes by whatever means possible, often using considerable amounts of aid climbing, and/or with large expedition style support teams that laid "siege" to the climb.

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

Aid climbing is a form of rock climbing that uses mechanical devices and equipment, such as aiders, for upward momentum. Aid climbing is the opposite of free climbing, which only uses mechanical equipment for protection, but not to assist in upward momentum. "Traditional aid climbing" involves hammering in permanently fixed pitons and bolts, into which aiders are clipped, whereas "clean aid climbing" avoids hammering, using only removable placements.

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

Sport 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 a route. Sport climbing differs from the riskier traditional climbing where the lead climber has to insert temporary protection equipment while ascending.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lead climbing</span> Technique of rock climbing

Lead climbing is a technique in rock climbing where the lead climber clips their rope to the climbing protection as they ascend a pitch of the climbing route, while their second remains at the base of the route belaying the rope to protect the lead climber in the event that they fall. The term is used to distinguish between the two roles, and the greater effort and increased risk, of the role of the lead climber.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Redpoint (climbing)</span> Type of free climbing

In rock climbing, redpointing means to free-climb a route from the ground to the top while lead climbing, after having practiced the route or after having failed first attempt. Climbers will try to redpoint a route after having failed to onsight it, or flash it. The first successful redpoint of a route, in the absence of any prior onsight or flash, is recorded as the first free ascent (FFA) of that route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Johnny Dawes</span> British rock climber

Johnny Dawes is a British rock climber and author, known for his dynamic climbing style and bold traditional climbing routes. This included the first ascent of Indian Face, the first-ever route at the E9-grade. His influence on British climbing was at its peak in the mid to late-1980s.

Steve McClure is a British rock climber and climbing author, who is widely regarded as Britain's leading and most important sport climber for a period that extends for over two decades, starting from the late 1990s. In 2017, he created Rainman, Britain's first-ever 9b (5.15b) sport route, and by that stage was responsible for developing the majority of routes graded 9a (5.14d) and above in Britain. Although mainly known for sport climbing, McClure has also been one of the most successful British traditional climbers, and British onsight climbers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jerry Moffatt</span> British rock climber

Jerry Moffatt, is a British rock climber and climbing author who is widely considered as being the best British rock climber from the early-1980s to the early-1990s, and was arguably the best rock climber in the world in the mid-1980s, and an important climber in the history of the sport.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of rock climbing</span> Key chronological milestones

In the history of rock climbing, the three main sub-disciplines—bouldering, single-pitch climbing, and big wall climbing—can trace their origins to late 19th-century Europe. Bouldering started in Fontainebleau, and was advanced by Pierre Allain in the 1930s, and John Gill in the 1950s. Big wall climbing started in the Dolomites, and was spread across the Alps in the 1930s by climbers such as Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin, and in the 1950s by Walter Bonatti, before reaching Yosemite where it was led in the 1950s to 1970s by climbers such as Royal Robbins. Single-pitch climbing started pre-1900 in both the Lake District and in Saxony, and by the late-1970s had spread widely with climbers such as Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dave MacLeod</span> Scottish rock climber

Dave MacLeod is a Scottish rock climber, ice climber, mixed climber, and climbing author. MacLeod was the second-ever person free solo a 8b+ (5.14a) graded route, and for climbing one of the hardest traditional climbing routes in the world.

<i>Hard Grit</i> 1998 British film

Hard Grit is a 1998 British rock climbing film directed by Richard Heap and produced by Slackjaw Film, featuring traditional climbing, free soloing, and bouldering on gritstone routes in the Peak District in Northern England. It is considered an important film in the genre and regarded as a historic and iconic film. The film starts with a dramatic fall by French climber Jean–Minh Trinh-Thieu on Gaia at Black Rocks. Hard Grit won ten international film festival awards.

Beth Rodden is an American rock climber known for her ascents of hard single-pitch traditional climbing routes. She was the youngest woman to climb 5.14a (8b+) and is one of the only women in the world to have redpointed a 5.14c (8c+) traditional climbing graded climb. Rodden and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell were partners from 2000 to 2010, during which time they completed the second free ascent of The Nose. In 2008, Rodden made the first ascent of Meltdown, one of the hardest traditional climbs in the world and the first time in history that a female climber matched the peak of the highest climbing grades.

Sonnie Trotter, is a Canadian professional climber, known for his strength in many rock climbing disciplines – particularly traditional climbing – and contributing to hundreds of first free ascents around the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ethan Pringle</span> American rock climber (born 1986)

Ethan Pringle is an American rock climber with notable ascents in sport climbing, in traditional climbing, and in bouldering. He has also been active in competition climbing, winning the American national competition lead climbing championships in both youth and adult formats, and silver at the World Youth Championships.

Hazel Findlay is a British traditional climber, sport climber and big wall climber. She was the first female British climber to climb a route graded E9, and a route graded 8c (5.14b). She did the third ascent of the Yosemite traditional route Magic Line 5.14c (8c+). She has free climbed El Capitán four times on four different routes and made many first female ascents on other routes. Climbing magazine gave her their Golden Piton Award (Alpine) for traditional climbing in 2013.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Indian Face</span> Traditional climbing route in Wales

Indian Face is a 45-metre (148 ft) rhyolite rock climbing route on the "Great Wall" of the East Buttress of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, in Wales. When English climber Johnny Dawes completed the first free ascent of the route on 4 October 1986, it was graded E9 6c or, the first-ever E9-graded route, and was considered one of the hardest traditional climbing routes in the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Barbara Zangerl</span> Austrian rock climber

Barbara "Babsi" Zangerl is an Austrian rock climber who is widely considered as one of the best all-round female climbers in the world. At various stages in her career, she has climbed at, or just below, the highest climbing grades achieved by a female in every major rock climbing discipline, including bouldering, traditional climbing, sport climbing, multi-pitch climbing and big wall climbing.


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Further reading