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Types of climbing and mountaineering

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

In the early days, there used to just be mountaineering. Early explorers went out of their way to climb the peaks unexplored by humankinds before them, for glory, adventure and discovery. Now most of the famous peaks have been climbed so adventurer and thrill seekers have taken bits and pieces out of mountaineering, most of those that deals with climbing and have turned them into a sport of their own. In this blog post we will look at all there is to climbing and the sports associated with it.

Types of climbing:


  • Alpine Mountaineering (Not to be confused with Alpine style of climbing explained later) – The act of climbing a peak which lies in the Alps, hence the name. Also refers to any other type of mountain which resembles the Alps such as the Himalayas, the Karakoram etc. Usually when people say Mountaineering this is what comes to mind. The peaks are usually pretty remote and inaccessible and are above the permanent snow line. This type of mountaineering requires extensive trekking to reach the base of the peak, and start your climb. Cold and inhospitable weather with hurricane force winds are a part of this type of climbing. Mountaineering also requires knowledge of other hazards such as avalanche, rock falls, storm, navigation in wilderness, emergency medical treatments, cooking etc. Definitely one of the most complex types of climbing there is. Parts which make up mountaineering but are a sport of their own now – Trekking, Rock Climbing, Ice Climbing, Mixed Climbing.

  • Rock Mountaineering (Climbing) – Different from rock climbing as a form of competition climbing in the sense that the main objective is to reach the top and not to climb a difficult route. Climbing a peak which only consists of huge rock wall. El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley would be an example of such a peak. The peaks in this category are below the permanent freezing line and smaller in height, and are usually not that inaccessible and remote. Due to these factors a lot of the popular big walls have some form of permanent aid fixed on some routes. However there are still a lot of virgin rock mountains (Not to be confused with Rocky Mountain Ranges) in Countries such as Angola.

Competition Climbing (Not to be confused with sports climbing)

  • Indoor Climbing – Indoor climbing occurs in buildings on artificial rock structures. This permits for climbing in all types of weather and at all times of the day. Climbers climb indoors to improve their skills and techniques, as well as for general exercise or fun. Another type of Indoor climbing is Sports Climbing, where climbers climb a known route which never changes but the aim is to improve the speed of climbing. Also a type of Olympics sport. (Not to be confused with outdoor sports climbing style, explained later).

  • Ice Climbing – Climbing on ice falls or steep hard snow with the help of Ice Axe (or Ice tool) and crampons.

  • Rock Climbing – Climbing a natural rock wall. Different from the previous Rock Mountaineering in a way that the aim is usually to climb difficult routes and not to reach the top.

  • Dry Tooling (Mixed climbing) – Climbing a rock wall using ice tools and crampons.

  • Bouldering – Climbing a boulder. Similar to rock climbing but the boulders are usually not higher than 15 ft and ropes are not used. Usually done by beginners before they attempt big rocks.

  • Buildering – Climbing artificial structure, such as buildings, etc.

Styles of Mountaineering Expeditions:

Siege Style (Also called Expedition Style) – Expedition style (or “siege” style) refers to mountaineering which involves setting up a fixed line of stocked camps on the mountain which can be accessed at one’s leisure, as opposed to Alpine style where one carries all of one’s food, shelter, equipment etc. as one climbs. Expedition style also incorporates the use of fixed ropes, and climbers (and the porters they frequently employ) will travel up and down the route several times to fix ropes and set up camps. The traditional approach to mountaineering is called Expedition Style, and it’s all about using sheer force and manpower to forge a way up to the mountain’s summit. Also known as ‘siege style’, it uses a series of stocked camps on the mountain and in between these camps are lines of fixed rope, so climbers can move up and down the mountain with greater ease and require a lesser skillset and bank of experience. It involves lots of people, takes a long time, uses a lot of energy and resources, and is generally very hierarchical in nature. For example, whilst you probably know that Mount Everest was first climbed by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Ed Hillary in 1953, what you may not know is that the expedition was led by a British Army Colonel, 7 camps were placed on the mountain, Tenzing and Ed were the second summit team (3 days earlier the first team of British climbers got to within 100m of the top), the total expedition party comprised approximately 400 people, and that the duration of the expedition was about five months.

Alpine Style – The alternative approach, called Alpine Style, is about using speed and finesse to deftly climb the mountain and get back to base camp before the weather moves in. It involves fewer people, takes much less time, uses less energy and resources, and is generally structurally flat. Alpine Style had its origins as a counter-culture movement responding to what its proponents saw as the impure and cumbersome nature of Expedition Style in the 1970’s. Amongst its earliest proponents were a band of British mountaineers led by Chris Bonington who developed the approach in the European Alps and then transferred it to the Himalayas, and Italian climber Reinhold Messner who took the approach to Everest in 1980, summiting the mountain by himself and without bottled oxygen. At its core, Alpine Style is all about people letting go of their innate need to control an environment which is naturally chaotic, uncertain and complex, and instead responding according to the natural ebb and flow of changing conditions. Whilst the last thing you would do when climbing Expedition Style is to give in to the elements, it’s actually the first thing you do when climbing Alpine Style.

Alpine Style

Expedition Style

  • Cheaper

  • Faster

  • Requires less logistic and less equipment

  • Requires more physical fitness

  • Requires mental tenacity

  • Can be done solo

  • Can be very uncomfortable, specially the trek to the base camp and the stay

  • Really Expensive.

  • Slow process, even the fastest expeditions takes at least two weeks.

  • Requires logistics, heavy equipment, manpower, porters, mules, insurance, and a lot more things I wouldn’t want to deal with.

  • Is a lot more comfortable approach than the alpinist style, base camps have their own kitchen tent, toilet tents, you can bring a lot more gear to make life better like music players, laptops, solar power charger etc.

  • Better for someone with more money (or sponsorship) and less physical fitness or mental resilience. Since porters and mountain guides (not all mountain guides are Sherpa), set up fixed ropes, ladders to cross crevasse etc., routes become a lot more accessible and a lot safer for someone with less experience to climb for.

  • If something goes wrong, a lot more people can die, because there are a lot more people and a lot of slow moving parts in the whole process.

  • Can’t be done solo.

Styles of Mountain Climbing:

Here we learn about how different types of climbing use different types of aids and protections.

Only Rock Climb – * Can be attempted Solo – #

Aid Climbing

  • Fixed Rope – Very rare. Found on Mt Everest during climbing seasons where the mountain guides fixes a permanent rope up to the summit to help untrained climbers fix their harness to and help support themselves on the climb.

  • Aiders # – Aid climbing uses permanent or removable protection that’s placed into the rock to help the climber make upward progress. It’s usually reserved for climbs that are too difficult for the lead climber to complete using only the natural rock surfaces. The climber attaches a ladder made of webbing (called an aider) to a protection piece, then stands or pulls herself up on the ladder, then repeats the process. Aid climbers used to hammer pitons (wedge-shaped pieces of metal) into the rock for protection, which permanently damaged the rock. Today most aid climbers practice “clean aid”, meaning they use removable protection (cams, nuts, etc.) or permanent bolts that are pre-drilled into the rock.

Free Climbing

  • Roped – Roped free climbing is climbing with a rope attached to a harness to protect against falls. It has three main categories: traditional (or “trad”), sport, and top rope. Top rope climbing involves building an anchor above the climb before climbing it. Trad and sport climbing are forms of lead climbing, where the climber starts at the bottom of the climb and places protection to clip their rope to as they go up. The type of protection used is the main difference between trad and sport climbing. The difference between free roped climbing vs aid climbing is that ropes are only used for protection during a fall and not as a way of ascending.

  • Lead Climbing – A climbing style in which one or more climbers climb attached to each other and the first to climb is the leader, who attaches the protection rope to the surface of the climbing wall.

  • Sports Climbing #* (Not to be confused with the sport of climbing such as in Olympics which uses a top rope style)- Sport Climbing involves clipping your rope into permanent bolts that are drilled into the rock as protection against falling. Sport climbing focuses on climbing move sequences across rock that couldn’t be protected with removable trad gear because of a lack of cracks, holes, etc. in which to place removable (trad) protection. Because the bolts are pre-drilled, sport climbers only need to carry quickdraws (a piece of webbing connecting two carabiners) to attach their rope to the bolts.

  • Traditional Climbing # – In trad climbing the lead climber carries and places all gear necessary to protect against falls. Generally, a following climber then removes the gear once a section of climbing (commonly called a “pitch”) is completed by the lead climber. Before the advent of sport climbing in the 1980’s, pretty much all free climbing was trad climbing. While the gear and ethics have changed over time, the basic premise remains the same: the climber ascends a rock face carrying all their own protective gear. As they climb they place pieces of protection into a crack or hole in the rock. Then they attach a carabiner to the protection piece and then their rope clips through the carabiner. This way, if they were to fall, their last piece of protection would stop them from falling to the ground. If trad climbing is attempted solo, the person climbing will attach an anchor below, climb up, attach another anchor, climb down to remove the first anchor and then continue like this to the top. It’s also called rope solo.

  • Top Rope* – Top Rope climbing involves setting up an anchor at the top of a climb and running the climbing rope through the anchor and back to the ground. A belayer holds one side of the rope and takes up slack as the climber, attached to the other side of the rope, moves upward. The climber can safely let go of the rock at any point and the rope will catch them, assuming the belayer is doing their job properly. A top rope anchor can be built using bolts, trad gear, or even trees and boulders. It’s a safe way for beginners to experience climbing while more advanced climbers might top rope in order to practice a route they want to lead climb. Top roping is very popular at indoor gyms and is a great introduction to roped climbing. Top rope is also the technique used in Sports Climbing such as Olympics.


  • Free Solo # – During a free solo ascent, a climber uses only their hands (or ice tool in alpine climb) and feet (or crampon in alpine climb) on the climbing surface as protection against falls. Free solo-ers don’t need to attach or carry ropes, and thus have a major speed advantage over other types of climbing.

  • Bouldering #* – Bouldering is unroped free climbing that takes place on rocks and walls that are low to the ground, so that the risk from falls is minimal. Whether practiced outdoors or indoors at a climbing gym, there are usually soft pads called “crash pads” at the base of the climb to protect climbers if they fall. Especially when climbing outdoors, boulderers also have other people (called “spotters”) help guide them onto the crash pads in case of a fall. It’s probably the most popular style of climbing today because of the minimal amount of gear it requires.

There are a lot of other types of terms associated with climbing styles that are either a mix of these forms or a specialized version of them depending on the surface it’s attempted on. My interest has always been in climbing Alpine mountains (Himalayas, or the Antarctica), in alpine style with free solo technique.

PS I am not a professional rock climber and I understand that I may be wrong in some of the information I have given, despite extensive research. If you want to correct something in the post feel free to contact me.

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