There are four terms that we use quite often on this blog. First, the term top-rope. Second, the term lead, as in lead-climber. Third, the term bouldering. And fourth, the term free-soloing. Following is a breakdown of these terms and their definitions.
A top-rope climber is a person who has a rope running from his or her harness, up to an anchor at the top of a cliff and then back down to a belayer at the base. This is a standard technique, and it is the technique regularly used for beginning level climbers and at rock gyms.
A Climber Belays another Climber on Top-Rope in Joshua Tree National Park
Photo by Jason Martin
The value of a top-rope is that it is highly unlikely that a climber will fall very far. The rope can be somewhat tight if the climber is a beginner or somewhat loose if he or she is comfortable.
In essence, the lead climber is the guy that "gets the rope up there." A belayer pays out rope to a person as he climbs up. The leader places rock protection as he goes and clips his rope to it. He then continues climbing above the protection. Should the leader fall ten feet above his last piece of protection, he will fall past his gear, and the belayer will catch him after he has fallen twenty feet. The rope stretches so that the impact is not as great on the leader.
A Leader Working His Way Up a Climb
The act of falling on lead can be very safe, or quite dangerous. It all depends on whether the fall is "clean" or not. A clean fall means that there is nothing for the leader to hit. A fall above a ledge or a protrusion could lead to serious injury.
Leading can be done in a very responsible way that limits one's exposure to danger. But it does take a lot of training and practice to bring one's abilities to such a level where he or she has a good understanding of what kind of gear placements will hold a fall and what kind will not.
Bouldering is one of the fastest growing types of climbing. In this, a climber does not use a rope, but also does not climb more than a few feet off the ground. A boulderer is focused on making a handful of hard moves and will often work on those moves for a long period of time before completing a sequence.
Most boulderers use a pad or commercial bouldering mattress to protect themselves from ground-falls. Every climber who falls bouldering hits a mat or the ground, as such there is some danger involved in the sport.
Often confused with free climbing, (which is simply climbing without the use of direct aid, but with a rope) free soloing is the art of climbing a route without a rope.
Obviously free soloing is the most dangerous type of climbing that there is. If an individual falls in this situation, survival is highly unlikely.
Climbing is a varied sport with many different aspects to it. Not every aspect is for every person. Ultimately, the amount of risk that you choose to engage in within the sport is completely up to you. Indeed, the level of accomplishment you feel engaging in any kind of climbing is also completely personal.
--Jason D. Martin