Free Climbing Vs. Free Soloing: What’s The Difference?

Climbing is an exhilarating sport that never fails to get the adrenaline pumping, but it’s not all fun and games!

Not only is rock climbing an activity that demands a lot of concentration and physical strength, but there are also several different types of climbing to consider.

Free Climbing vs. Free Soloing: What’s the Difference?

One of the main things that trip up new climbers is the difference between free climbing and free soloing.

A common mistake is to assume that free soloing refers to climbing unsupervised – but actually, that’s not the case. 

In fact, free soloing is a form of rock climbing where the climber scales a rock face without any rope attached to them.

But in that case, what’s the difference between free soloing and free climbing, and which form of climbing should you take up? 

Stick around to learn how free climbing differs from free soloing and why far more people are free climbers than free solo-ers. 

What Is Free Climbing? 

The term ‘free climbing’ is a bit misleading because the word ‘free’ implies that you’re not secured by anything.

Please rest assured that free climbing is not as risky as it sounds – in fact, it’s basically just the climbing terminology for what you’d think of as regular rock climbing. 

Free climbers scale rock faces while attached to a secured rope, massively minimizing the risk of injury or even death in the event of a fall.

The reason this type of climbing is called free climbing is that the climbers don’t use any other tools to make their way up the rocks or climbing wall. 

Climbing with the assistance of bolts or ladders, or other artificial climbing equipment is called aid climbing.

While you might think that aid climbing would be a step down from free climbing (after all, you have extra equipment to help you, right?),

aid climbing is often reserved for very challenging surfaces where free climbing or free soloing is basically impossible.

What’s more, with aid climbing, you have to reposition your gear yourself as you go, which is quite the challenge. 

Free climbing, on the other hand, relies almost entirely on the climber’s fingers and toes to grip the rocks. The rope is only there as a safety net. 

Although free climbing is generally considered to be the norm, it wasn’t always this way. The best part of a century ago, when rock climbing started to gain popularity, aid climbing was very much the norm. 

This isn’t because people in the mid-20th century preferred the enormous challenge of navigating climbing equipment while climbing, but for a few different reasons. 

For one thing, the quality of climbing equipment simply wasn’t as high as it is today, meaning that climbing with the support of a single rope was extremely dangerous, whereas it is now mostly safe. 

It’s also important to remember that protective gear, such as helmets, were not built as sturdily back then. This, combined with the lower quality of climbing ropes, made climbing with bolts and ladders a much less frightening option. 

Finally, rock climbing was more about the exploration side of things in the 1950s as opposed to sticking to designated routes,

meaning that using climbing aids was the better option as exploratory climbing could lead to unexpectedly challenging areas. 

Aid climbing is still associated today with some of the most thrilling climbs in history, executed by famous climbers such as Warren Harding, who is known for scaling the daunting Dawn Wall as well as the Nose. 

The transition from the normalization of aid climbing to the normativity of free climbing was mainly brought about by the fact that, as more practiced athletes began to take part in the sport,

it quickly became clear that aid climbing wasn’t as much of a challenge as previously thought.

The real challenge, it seemed, was perfecting the ability to haul yourself up a rock face using just your own bodily strength. 

Free climbing does not just require a lot of physical strength. There is complex footwork involved and many techniques to memorize.

You have to learn the correct ways to use different types of your body, such as your knees and heels, to get more purchase,

and the various ways to place your fingers and toes into crevices of different shapes and sizes. 

Since the advent of free climbing, many climbers have made big names for themselves through their skill, agility, strength,

and daring. Well-known free climbers (note: most well-known climbers today are free climbers) include Wolfgang Güllich, Lynn Hill, Adam Ondra, Chris Sharma, Tommy Caldwell, Margo Hayes, Kavin Jorgeson, and John Bachar.

Free Climbing vs. Free Soloing: What’s the Difference?

What Is Free Soloing? 

As we mentioned earlier, free soloing differs from free climbing in that you don’t get a rope as a backup in case you fall.

That’s right – free soloing literally involves climbing walls or rocks without anything to catch you if you make a mistake. 

Only very experienced (or hugely self-confident) climbers usually practice free soloing because it’s incredibly dangerous. One wrong move could have terrible, even fatal consequences. 

So, based on that information, why would anyone choose free soloing over the safer option of free climbing? 

Well, to begin with, it’s important to note that free soloing is not a sport practiced by very many people.

It’s primarily an adrenaline sport, which means that the athletes who seek out this kind of experience enjoy the rush of adrenaline that comes with the lack of room for error. 

Some free solo-ers also see the sport as an art form because of the precision and grace required to scale a rock face completely unaided and unsupported. 

Ultimately, though free soloing is basically about pushing your body and mind to the limits of what they can handle.

As well as the huge physical challenge, there’s the mental side to consider. You need to remain calm under enormous pressure, think clearly and quickly, and have lightning-fast reflexes in case a hand or foot slips.

Free soloing is definitely impressive – there’s no question about it. But it’s also clear to see why not many people partake in this nerve-wracking and physically demanding sport. 

Free Climbing Or Free Soloing: Which Is Better? 

If you’ve read this far and are still wondering whether free climbing or free soloing is the rock climbing sport for you, allow us to offer some advice. 

While the decision is entirely up to you, we would always recommend free climbing over free soloing. 

Of course, for some people, climbing with a safety rope simply isn’t enough to satisfy the hunger for adrenaline and the increased sense of achievement that comes with accomplishing a death-defying feat.

However, free soloing is simply not something that we can recommend in good conscience. 

The truth of the matter is that most people who dedicate themselves to free soloing ultimately end up severely injured or even dead.

For the majority of climbers, even highly skilled athletes, there are only so many times you can take your own life quite literally in your fingertips before something goes wrong. 

Free climbing, on the other hand, offers many of the same benefits as free soloing (the increase in physical fitness,

and the mental challenge of figuring out positioning and learning new techniques) without the risk of potential death.

Sure, it may not be quite as thrilling for some people, but it’s better to be slightly less exhilarated at the end of a climbing session than on an operating table, or worse. 

If you’re looking for a fun, challenging sport that you can do indoors and out in nature, we would recommend free climbing. 

Final Thoughts 

Free climbing and free soloing may have deceptively similar names, but they are very different forms of rock climbing. 

While free climbing is the norm today (taking over from aid climbing due to the demand for more challenging and physically demanding climbing experiences), only a handful of people even consider trying free soloing. 

Free soloing involves climbing a wall or rock face totally unaided and without the backup of a rope to catch you if you fall. With free climbing,

you don’t have any aids like ladders and bolts, but you at least get to enjoy the security of a rope to keep you from hitting the ground if you slip. 

Basically, free climbing is the more popular and much safer alternative to free soloing, so if you’re thinking about giving rock climbing a try, we recommend free climbing.

Kevin Macey
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