What is Free Climbing?

Definition of a Climbing Word

Climbers free climb up the steep face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley using only their hands and feet to ascend upwards. Photograph copyright Corey Rich/Getty Images

What is Free Climbing?

Free climbing is when a rock climber ascends a cliff using only his hands, feet, and body to make upward progress and to support his body in the vertical world. Free climbing is done both with and without a rope, although most climbers use a rope for personal safety and to avoid the dire and fatal effects of gravity. Free climbing done without the use of a safety rope is called free-solo climbing, a dangerous climbing discipline since the consequence of a fall is usually death.

Free Climbing Versus Aid Climbing

When a climber free climbs up a cliff or rock wall, the climbing rope and other climbing equipment like cams, nuts, pitons, and expansion bolts, are not used for body support or to aid the climber to move up. The rope is used by a free climber to protect her from injury during a fall. Aid climbing is opposite to free climbing, since the climber places gear and either grabs it (French Free Climbing Style) or stands with his feet in aiders or small ladders made of webbing, which support his weight and allow him to reach past a blank rock section or to climb a severely overhanging wall. 

Free Climbing is Most Common Climbing Discipline

When free climbing, climbers use ropes and equipment to protect themselves and don’t rely on the gear except for safety. Free climbing is perhaps the highest and most aesthetic expression of the climbing game since it requires strength, ingenuity, skill, and experience to be successful on the most difficult routes.

Most climbers ascend routes using free climbing skills, including jamming cracks, grabbing different kinds of handholds, and using a variety of footholds. Free climbing is done on a variety of rock mediums, including boulders, short cliffs, big walls, and indoor climbing walls. Free climbers often go sport climbing, which is often the pursuit of extremely difficult climbing routes that are preprotected by bolts, and trad climbing, which is climbing a rock face and placing climbing gear for protection and belays.

Types of Free Climbing Ascents

Free climbing routes, usually called free climbs, are done in various styles of ascent

  • Redpoint Ascent: When a climber ascends from the bottom of a route to the top, often times a set of anchors, without falling, taking or hanging on the rope, and either placing his gear or clipping quickdraws to bolts.
  • Pinkpoint Ascent: When a climber ascends from the bottom to the top or anchors without falling but uses gear, usually bolts, which is preplaced and equipped with quickdraws so the climber only has to clip the rope into the quickdraw. A pinkpoint ascent is easier than a redpoint since placing gear takes more effort.
  • Onsight Ascent: When a climber free climbs a route without falling from the bottom of the route to its anchors without prior information and firsthand knowledge or beta from another climber, relying instead on his own free climbing skills and strength to figure out all the movements.
  • Headpoint Ascent: When a climber practices and rehearse the moves, usually on an extremely difficult route, on a toprope. Later, after the moves are all memorized and dialed in, the climber then attempts to redpoint the route without falling. Headpoint ascents are common on difficult short climbs on the gritstone cliffs of central Britain.