The ultimate guide to rock climbing in the UK

Rock climbing, whether it's practised indoors or out, is a truly awesome sport. More than just a test of physical strength, rock climbing is about coordination, intelligence and endurance. Climbing really develops your skills at strategising under pressure. Like a chess player, you need to plan your next move ahead of the one you're about to take and think which hand or foot hold will be the best ones to get you closer to your goal. It’s undoubtedly a challenge, but always an enjoyable one!

Aspirational scenes from the likes of Mission: Impossible can make the sport seem potentially unobtainable and reserved for the Tom Cruises of the world; but what if you're used to Marks & Spencers not mountains and are just starting out in the sport?

To help, we've pulled together a series of features to demystify some of the questions around climbing that you might have been afraid to ask Bill the bouldering brick sh*thouse from the office.

The origins of rock climbing

Rock climbing may be classed as a recreational sport in the twenty-first century, but that hasn't always been the case. It took a series of developments at an international level, starting way back in the nineteenth century, for it to evolve into what it is now. With flights and accommodation increasingly affordable, travel in this day and age is taken for granted. In Victorian times travelling was a major adventure and limited to the advantaged few. Back then, not many people had witnessed the amazing wonders of Mount Everest or the Matterhorn, let alone contemplated climbing them!

The Alpine Club
During the mid-eighteen hundreds, some of those privileged Victorian travellers visited the Alpine regions. Impressed and inspired by the successful ascent of several major peaks, they brought their passion back to the UK and formed the Alpine Club. In essence a gentleman's club for climbers, the Alpine Club was and still is influential in the development of Alpine rock climbing and mountaineering.

Iconic Napes Needle climb
In the UK, it was the iconic ascent of a British peak which really set the solid foundations for rock climbing to become a sport. When Walter P Haskett Smith, an athletic Oxford student and son of landed gentry, decided to document his ascent of the Napes Needle in 1886 without any equipment, the roots of British rock climbing as a sport were well and truly planted.

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Napes Needle

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Developments in climbing equipment
Equipment used in rock climbing was still fairly basic at the beginning of the twentieth century, taking a joint effort between a group of Italian and German climbers to improve its safety. They came up with the ideas for, and produced, metal pitons and spring-loaded safety hooks called carabiners. To this day, those items remain staples in any standard rock climbing kit. That equipment, combined with new techniques they invented for using ropes during an ascent, soon meant the previously ‘unscalable’ were becoming much more feasible.

Rock climbing competitions
In the late nineteen forties rock climbing competitions were held in the Soviet Union, reflecting a growing interest in rock climbing worldwide. The first truly international rock climbing competition was Sportroccia in Italy, taking place in 1985. Since then rock climbing has gone from strength to strength and is now established enough as a sport to be included in the 2020 Olympic Games.

A sport where you set your own limits
The sport of rock climbing is one in which you set your own limits. Every climb is different and every climber approaches each one in their own individual way. No matter what your skill level, you can make any climb as challenging or as easy as you want.

Climbing is a conundrum and part of the fun of climbing is solving the mental jigsaw puzzle of choosing the best route to make an ascent. Whilst it might appear to be a lone sport, it's the exact opposite. Climbers love to share their experiences and are always ready to discuss routes or share advice on different techniques. The sense of achievement you gain when completing a climb is rarely celebrated by you alone. It'll be felt by everyone who's been there, supporting your every move, whilst you made it to the top.


How to get started with rock climbing in the UK

There's a multitude of different styles of rock climbing to choose from. With indoor, outdoor, bouldering and top roping, it's sometimes hard to know which one to try when starting out as they all have different perks – obviously the best thing to do is try them all at some point!

For example, the advantage of indoor climbing is its year round accessibility. You can still go climbing no matter what the temperamental British weather decides to do.

So apart from at the bottom, where do you start?

There's three main ways to get into climbing:

1) Head over to your closest indoor climbing wall and ask for an instructor (you may have to book in advance). They'll give you an intro and show you climbing techniques, so you'll be able to go along independently later on. If you're by yourself, you can still try bouldering, or rope climbing with an auto-belay (a mechanism that controls the rope for you, without the need for a partner). If there are more of you, then you can try rope climbing where you work together as a team.

2) Head along to your closest climbing club - a quick google search should do the trick

3) Join an qualified outdoor instructor and give outdoor rock climbing a go! If you're looking for a qualified outdoor climbing instructor, check some out here!

Types of rock climbing
There are a number of different techniques and types of climbing.

Bouldering – Bouldering can be practised indoors or out and is a good place to begin your climbing experience. In indoor environments, bouldering is practised on either climbing walls or rocks which are, on average, no more than six metres high. Bouldering is done without ropes or safety harnesses, but there are lots of soft, protective mats to fall on to. Bouldering is also the ideal way to perfect your climbing techniques before attempting greater heights.

what is bouldering rock climbing
Photo by Mike Kotsch on Unsplash

Top roping – Top roping is based on teamwork and requires two people. In top roping, a climber hooks onto one end of a rope which has been doubled over an anchor point at the top of a climbing wall. The other end of the rope is attached to, and controlled by, someone on the ground. In climbing terms, the person on the ground is called a belayer. The belayer controls the slack in the line as the climber ascends. This acts as a safety harness for the climber during the ascent. If the climber slips, then the tension in the rope prevents them from falling.

Sport climbing – Sport climbing is practised on rock faces which have been pre-prepared with protection points and quickdraws. To make sport climbing harder you can attempt to lead climb, which is where you are attached to the rope and clip it in to the climbing nuts, that are already secured onto the wall, using quickdraws (which are lengths of strengthened webbing with carabiners either end). Lead climbing requires someone at ground level to act as a belayer and feed rope to the climber as they ascend. This is a level of difficulty above top roping where the rope is already set up on the wall.

Trad climbing or Traditional climbing is where the climber who takes the lead position is responsible for placing the protection points they will need to clip their safety ropes to as they ascend. The specialised equipment required for trad climbing is known collectively as a rack (gear consisting of cams, nutsand sometimes hexes that get placed into cracks in the wall). Climbing this way is slower, more methodical and requires practice. Trad climbing does less damage to the rock face as equipment used is fitted into cracks. This is unlike sport climbing where bolts are screwed into the rock itself and tend to stay there in a more permanent fashion. Trad climbing is more suited for people with experience who have tried some bouldering and rope climbing before.

Soloing – Soloing is climbing solo in all senses of the word. On your own with no-one else and no equipment. It's a rock climbing sport practised by only the most confident climbers who have seriously advanced climbing skills.

Must watch: Solo climbing at its finest!

Speed climbing – Speed climbing entails getting to the top of a vertical climbing wall in the fastest possible time. Highly competitive, to world championship standard, this sport is often practised with no safety equipment whatsoever and believe it, you need to have Spiderman genes to do it!

How are climbs graded?
The first time you scale an indoor climbing wall, you may well be struck by the fact it looks as if it’s undergone a multi-coloured post-it note attack. Those colourful slips of paper are there to mark the routes and denote the difficulty of the different ascents. Each climbing routes is marked by a single colour so you can check which is suitable for your skill level before you start.

The Yosemite scale
For top roping, lead roping and soloing, routes are graded with the Yosemite scale and begin at 5.0 incrementing to 5.15, but it doesn’t stop there. Complex climbs, from 5.10 upwards also have a letter added to them which shows their extra technical difficulty. The letters are A, B, C and D with A being the simplest and D the more difficult.

V scale
Bouldering grades, whether indoor or outdoor, are denoted by a V and range from V0 to V16 with V16 being the most complicated.

Good to know: If you’re going climbing anywhere other than in the UK, check the country’s climbing grade scales as they can vary from one country to another.

Best places to climb outdoors in the UK

Once you’ve experienced the thrill of climbing indoors, mastered the techniques and gained some experience, you'll be ready for the next step – outdoor climbing! The UK has some amazing areas of natural countryside which are not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also ready made for climbing.

Looking for more climbing advice? Check out our location guides at