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, the 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.


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 pre-bolted into the route (i.e. the lead climber just clips their rope into quickdraws attached to the bolts).[2] Traditional climbing differs from free solo climbing where no climbing protection is used whatsoever.[3][4][5]

First free ascent[edit]

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]



Traditional climbers carrying the protection equipment 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]


Traditional climber inserting protection while leading Freeblast (5.11b), in Yosemite
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 when placing protection equipment during the climb.

The first concern is the quality of the protection placements. Where the 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 his death.[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 notable 1998 traditional 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[edit]

Pre sport-climbing era[edit]

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[edit]

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 and Ethan Pringle) and female traditional climbers (e.g. Beth Rodden and Hazel Findlay) 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 2023, the following traditional routes (not sport climbing routes) are considered to be some of the hardest-ever ascended:[29][30]

In film[edit]

A number of notable films have been made focused on traditional climbing including:[42]

  • Hard Grit, a 1998 documentary film about traditional climbing on extreme gritstone routes in the British Peak District.
  • Valley Uprising, a 2014 Amazon Prime documentary film about rock climbing in Yosemite, that includes traditional climbing.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Trad climbing". Cambridge Dictionary. 2023. Retrieved 18 July 2023. the style of climbing (= moving on rocks, up mountains, or up special walls as a sport) in which climbers use devices and ropes that they bring with them and remove after the climb, rather than using devices that have already been fixed to the rock
  2. ^ a b Bate, Chris; Arthur, Charles; et al. (8 May 2006). "A Glossary of Climbing terms: from Abseil to Zawn". UK Climbing. Retrieved 29 April 2018. SPORT CLIMBING. Climbing on routes which use bolts. TRADITIONAL "TRAD" CLIMBING 1. Climbing where the leader places protection as they go up.
  3. ^ a b c d e Ellison, Julie (March 2022). "Learn to Trad Climb: A Beginner's Guide". Climbing. Retrieved 28 February 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d e f "What Is Trad Climbing? – Get Started With Our Complete Guide". Climber. 18 October 2021. Retrieved 28 February 2023.
  5. ^ a b Long, John; Gaines, Bob (August 2022). "Chapter 12: Trad Climbing". How to Rock Climb (6th ed.). Falcon Guides. pp. 311–334. ISBN 978-1493056262.
  6. ^ Pardy, Aaron (5 November 2022). "Redpoint, Pinkpoint, and Headpoint – What Do They Mean?". Gripped Magazine. Retrieved 21 December 2022.
  7. ^ Huttom, Mike (3 November 2022). "How the World's Boldest Climbing Area Got that Way: How headpointing became a legitimate, go-to tactic on Peak District gritstone". Climbing. Retrieved 13 February 2023.
  8. ^ "Heiko Queitsch greenpoint climbing in the Frankenjura". PlanetMountain. 3 August 2012. Retrieved 22 December 2022.
  9. ^ "Chasin the Trane greenpoint in the Frankenjura". PlanetMountain. 7 November 2011. Retrieved 22 December 2022. Greenpoint? OK redpoint, even pinkpoint is tried and tested (i.e. with gear already pre-placed) . But greenpoint? Ay yes, it's the term used to define climbing a sport route without the bolts but using trad gear such as nuts and camming devices! What might at first glance seem somewhat contorted is in fact a movement that is gaining popularity.
  10. ^ Zhu, Beifeng; Chen, Ruizhi; Li, Yuan (9 August 2021). "The Origin and Early Evolution of Rock Climbing". Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research. Proceedings of the 2021 5th International Seminar on Education, Management and Social Sciences (ISEMSS 2021). Atlantis Press. 571: 662–667. doi:10.2991/assehr.k.210806.124. ISBN 978-94-6239-414-8. S2CID 238693283.
  11. ^ a b Middendorf, John (1999). "The Mechanical Advantage: Tools for the Wild Vertical". Ascent. Sierra Club: 149–173. Retrieved 21 December 2022.
  12. ^ a b c d "40 years of American Climbing". Climbing. 22 April 2010. Retrieved 2 March 2023.
  13. ^ "The Indian Face by Johnny Dawes, the story of Britain's first E9". PlanetMountain. 1 June 2020. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  14. ^ Wilkinson, Freddie (14 March 2019). "Rock climbing: from ancient practice to Olympic sport". National Geographic. Archived from the original on March 27, 2021. Retrieved 2 March 2023.
  15. ^ Smith, Craig (22 July 2022). "American Sport Climbing's Contentious Beginnings". Climbing. Retrieved 2 March 2023.
  16. ^ "Weekend Whipper: First-time Traditional Climbing Leader Rips-Out 3 (out of 4) Pieces". Climbing. 2 April 2022. Retrieved 1 March 2023.
  17. ^ Hobley, Nicholas (23 December 2012). "Johnny Dawes - the rock climbing interview". PlanetMountain. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  18. ^ Hutton, Mike (3 November 2022). "How the World's Boldest Climbing Area Got that Way". Climbing. Retrieved 13 November 2022.
  19. ^ Hutton, Mike (12 November 2019). "No-Bolt Roulette: The Evolution of Headpointing on Peak District Gritstone". Climbing. Retrieved 11 February 2022.
  20. ^ "Climbing Grade Conversions". Rockfax Publishing. 2023. Retrieved 2 March 2023.
  21. ^ a b c d "Grade Conversions: Alpine Grading System". Rockfax Publishing. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  22. ^ "International Grade Comparison Chart". American Alpine Journal. 2013. Retrieved 1 May 2023.
  23. ^ a b Mandelli, Gabriele; Angriman, A (2016). Scales of Difficulty in Mountaineering. Central School of Mountaineering, Italy. S2CID 53358088.
  24. ^ "Sonnie Trotter finds The Path 5.14 R at Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada". PlanetMountain. 23 August 2007. Retrieved 8 February 2023.
  25. ^ Lambert, Erik (31 August 2007). "Trotter Chops Bolts, Sends Marathon Project". Alpinist. Retrieved 8 February 2023.
  26. ^ Campbell, Duncan (17 July 2013). "Ullrich and Muskett Climb Indian Face (E9 6c/5.13a X)". Climbing. Retrieved 10 February 2023.
  27. ^ a b c Oviglia, Maurizio (23 December 2012). "The evolution of free climbing". Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  28. ^ Hobley, Nicholas; Grimes, Niall (26 February 2009). "Jerry Moffatt Interview". Retrieved 14 January 2022.
  29. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Top 16 Hardest Trad Climbs in the World". Gripped Magazine. 25 March 2019. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "The World's Hardest Trad Routes by Winter 2021". Gripped Magazine. 1 February 2021. Retrieved 21 March 2023.
  31. ^ Slavsky, Bennett (28 October 2020). "James Pearson Climbs Second Ascent of Tribe, Possibly The World's Hardest Trad Climb". Climbing. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  32. ^ White, Xa (29 September 2023). "Pete Whittaker makes first ascent ascent of trad project Crown Royale". Climbing. Retrieved 8 February 2024.
  33. ^ Ethan Pringle on Blackbeard's Tears, 5.14c,, Sep 23, 2016
  34. ^ "Meltdown: Beth Rodden's Unrepeated Yosemite First Ascent", Climbing, Aug 25, 2016.
  35. ^ "Valle dell'Orco: Tom Randall climbs Pura Pura 8c+",, Jul 1, 2014.
  36. ^ "Nicolas Favresse climbing The recovery drink in Norway",, Jan 1, 2015.
  37. ^ "Dave MacLeod frees Rhapsody E11 7a at Dumbarton Rock in Scotland". Apr 12, 2006.
  38. ^ "Hazel Findlay Does "Magic Line," 5.14c Trad!". Nov 26, 2019.
  39. ^ "Desert Testpiece Century Crack (5.14b) Sees Third Ascent by Danny Parker", Climbing, Oct 29, 2018
  40. ^ "Sonnie Trotter frees Cobra Crack 5.14 b/c",, Jun 29, 2006.
  41. ^ "MacLeod's Boldest: Echo Wall". Retrieved 22 February 2006.
  42. ^ Bisharat, Andrew (6 September 2022). "The 20 Best Climbing Films of All Time". Outside. Retrieved 28 September 2023.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]