The Trad Climber’s Guide to Sport Climbing

There’s an unspoken tension in the climbing world, lurking just below the surface. Sometimes it explodes forth in a string of vociferous comments, usually in an online forum, but much of the time it sits, slowly smoldering in the back of our collective minds. Trad versus sport climbing.

Specifically, there’s a faction of trad climbers out there who generally look down on sport climbers, since they “only clip bolts,” and some sport climbers are pretty sure every trad climber hates bolts and wants them eradicated from the face of the earth. In an effort to spread love and peace throughout the climbing community, we offer up the first in a two part series, this one designed to help trad climbers better understand their skinny legged brethren by dispelling some common sport climbing misconceptions.

Clipping Bolts Isn’t Scary

In theory, yes, but socialism also works, in theory. Just because you aren’t placing your own gear doesn’t mean there aren’t mental challenges. As a reformed trad climber, I can say that when I first embraced sport climbing, it was a little unnerving that I couldn’t put pro when I wanted it. I had to actually climb to that next bolt, whether it was six feet away or twelve. On most crack climbs, you can put in as much gear as you can carry, which really isn’t scary at all. Places like the Gunks or Eldo are of course a different story, and you have to climb a bit in between gear placements…just like in sport climbing…. In fact, much of pushing yourself hard in sport climbing is overcoming the mental challenges, making your body do the moves, even when they feel insecure and you might whip. And let’s not forget that anyone can place a bolt, so while it might seem more dangerous to trust gear you’ve placed yourself, it actually might be safer than that small piece of metal that some guy put in twenty years ago after finding some magic mushrooms in the forest and hanging from a rope all day.

Sport Climbing is Neither

This is simply untrue on every level, logically, metaphorically, spiritually, etc. Sport climbing is a casual way to have fun on the cliffs. Much like surfing, there’s beauty in the simplicity. No excessive gear, no route finding issues, no worries about weather catching you with your pants down. Heck, sometimes we don’t even have to clip our own quickdraws (bonus!). Just roll to the cliff, and bust out some pitches. It can also be a very athletic endeavor, and feels more like a good workout in the gym. It really will get you stronger, as you push yourself to your personal limits, and you can then take these skills to other climbing disciplines. (Trad climbing feels comparatively easier when you get a bunch of no hands rests in between the hard bits!) This appeals more to some than others, but there’s no question that sport climbing, especially when pushing your limits, requires a high level of athleticism. So in fact, sport climbing is in many ways a very pure expression of the sport of climbing.

Sport Climbers Don’t Have Technical Skills

Au contraire, my heavy rack carrying friend. While a fresh-from-the-gym neophyte might not really know much besides how to properly thread the GRI GRI and clip the lowering ‘biners, anyone who’s been in the game a couple years usually has a bag full of tricks not required in the trad game. Stick clipping (aka aid climbing) up a route to work out the moves, pulling the rope through mid-route to re-lead from a certain point, rodeo clipping, boinking, these are all advance rope tricks in the sport climber’s arsenal. I’ve never had to do any of that stuff on a trad route, so maybe they know more than you think.

Bottom line, sport climbing is fun, and that’s why people do it. There’s nothing like hanging out at a cliff with a bunch of your friends, taking in the beauty of the outdoors, pushing each other to break through physical and mental barriers.

Look for part two next week, where we uncover the bizarre world of trad climbing to those whose idea of a heavy rack is carrying fifteen of your own draws.

17 Responses to The Trad Climber’s Guide to Sport Climbing

  1. As a climber that is somewhat new to the sport, I only really enjoy sport climbing. Sport routes are more dynamic and fun. Crack climbing is more painful and repetitive. It is noble of you to make peace between the two parties, but I think the mutual disrespect may grow as the old purist trad-climbers continue to clash with youth and talent. I will hold my judgement until I tune in for the second post to see how you defend trad-climbing to the sport world.

    Jason Keck July 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm
    • I’ve had crusty gear climbers freak out when I belay them using a grigri. It’s almost impossible for most to comprehend why I wouldn’t use an ATC or a Reverso. I’ve got both, I prefer the GriGri. It’s so much easier and faster to bring a second up using it.

      It’s also funny because I climb with an crusty trad climber on a regular basis that poo-poos sport climbing and gives me a hard time for clipping bolts. But he’s been climbing for 25 years, I’ve been climbing for 4. I already climb harder than he does.

      So there’s that.

      Scott July 11, 2012 at 7:34 am
      • Hey Trad is the shit. Yeah you get the old school climbers that are technically a walking trad bible but climb like a average climber, but there is a new school of hard trad routes being climbed with must place gear and scary rum outs on marginal pro! I salute the men pushing trad to new levels (Matt segal and sonnie trotter etc) These men must have big pickups to haul their balls around.

        NZlimber September 1, 2012 at 7:26 am
      • “But he’s been climbing for 25 years, I’ve been climbing for 4. I already climb harder than he does.”

        Could you still climb that hard route if the bolts were gone?

        Matt September 8, 2015 at 11:05 pm
      • The biggest difference is that you are the one spouting off about how hard you climb while the “old crusty trad climber” probably climbs for the fun of it

        Max January 6, 2017 at 9:57 am
  2. What’s with this idea that all tradsters are “old” or “crusty” and the implication that all sport climbers are “young” and “talented”?

    I’m 32. I shower daily. AND I climb trad almost exclusively. I think I hardly qualify as old or crusty. I don’t have anything against bolt or sport climbing, its just that the nearest sport cliff is 6 hours away vs. the Gunks which are 20 minutes from my front door. Occasionally, I’ll travel to Rumney and *gasp* enjoy a little sport climbing when I’ve got some extra time and a long weekend to waste driving. In the end, it’s all climbing and it’s all good.

    First way to make peace- let’s stop making asinine assumptions about people’s age and relative hygiene based solely on the type of climbing they enjoy.

    Christa July 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm
    • Good point Christa, one I’ll be sure to address in the second part. Most of the older climbers around here mostly sport climb, since that’s what the majority of the local climbing is. Besides, I’d much rather make judgements about people based on what kind of harness they wear:

      BJ Sbarra July 12, 2012 at 2:54 pm
    • You may not be old, but you’re also not young, sucker!

      Derek January 4, 2013 at 11:40 am
  3. Pingback: Link To “The Trad Climber’s Guide To Sport Climbing” « Peter Brown Hoffmeister

  4. Pingback: The Sport Climbers’ Guide to Trad Climbing | Splitter Choss

  5. There is a time and a place for all types of climbing. People tent to gravitate towards a style that suits their personality, or budget. I would like to comment on Scott saying he is a harder climber and he has been climbing for less time than his partner. I have also been climbing for 25 years, but the hardest pitches I have experienced were trad, at altitude and due to long pushes. You just don’t get that tired or scared on a bolted line. If you get tired on sport, you lower off and try again later. Maybe one day Scott will live out a 5.9 trad that kicks his ass more than a 5.11 sport climb.

    Doug November 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm
  6. After reading both articles, I find both arguments rather compelling on multiple levels. However, since I reside in the midwest and have to rely on gym climbing for 7 or 8 months out of the year, I’m going to have to explore more of both disciplines before I can pass any judgements of my own. I would eventually like to try both trad climbing as i think im crusty enough to par with those mentioned in the article.

    Kevin January 8, 2013 at 7:03 pm
  7. Why’s it gotta be one or the other? Although trad is my favorite style I also enjoy sport and bouldering. Most of my stronger trad climbing friends at least sport climb too. It seems like the trad vs sport thing is more an issue for old school trad purists and sport climbers who don’t know any better. Trad is why I took up climbing though, I can’t imagine not being able to climb in such amazing places like Yosemite and Jtree which have strong trad ethics. Why limit yourself?

    Justin March 29, 2013 at 11:48 pm
  8. I don’t know why people get so geeked about whether trad or sport climbing is better/harder/cooler. I prefer both over gym climbing, but I “climb” during the week when I can’t climb outdoors. Like most climbing junkies that have 9-5 jobs, most days I wish I were climbing. It wouldn’t matter if was clipping bolts or placing pro. Personally, I prefer trad because I learned climbing multi-pitch in Yosemite, JTree, Red rock, Tahquitz, etc and I just enjoy that environment better. If I learned near sport crags, I’m sure I’d prob prefer clipping bolts. As far as skill level. I’ve seen 5.10 sport climbers back off a 5.7 slab runout and I’ve seen 5.10 slab climbers pump out after two pitches of vertical juggy climbs. Bottom line it’s all climbing, I’ll take whatever I can get.

    William Nelson February 3, 2014 at 5:31 pm
    • Well said, it’s all good!

      BJ Sbarra February 3, 2014 at 5:56 pm
  9. Did you ever post a part II to this? I can’t find it on the website if you did and I’d love to read it!

    Katie October 18, 2016 at 1:45 pm
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