Rock Climbing vs Mountain Climbing: What’s the Difference


Mountain climbing and rock climbing are two terms that are often used interchangeably by those who aren’t aware of the differences. This might earn you a little disdain while at the outfitters store while trying to impress your significant other, and hopefully, an attentive clerk will let your simple mistake slide.

What is the difference between rock climbing and mountain climbing? Simply put, mountain climbing generally refers to the climbing of a mountain in its entirety, including the use of rock climbing. However, rock climbing is so specialized that it is often in a category of its own:

 Mountain ClimbingRock Climbing
DefinitionAn activity in which people climb mountains, employing skills like rock climbing and hiking.An activity in which people climb the faces of rock or rock walls, typically using rope and equipment.
Technical DifficultyLow to Moderate, often needing little more than basic navigation and survival skills.High, all aspects of rock climbing require a high dree of knowledge and technique
Equipment RequiredLow, basic camping gear is generally all that is required.High. Rock climbing by necessity requires safety and specialized gear.
Physical DemandsLow to High, endurance and strength may be tested on a mountain.Extremely High, endurance, strength, gymnastic ability, and psychological fortitude will be tested to the extreme.

This is just a simple and broad explanation of the differences between these two age old sports. It’s understandable that these two terms are often mistaken for each other. On a difficult enough trek, mountain and rock climbing are both encountered in the climb, and as time has gone on, skills and equipment have been developed that really set them apart.

What’s the Real Difference in Mountain Climbing and Rock Climbing

The best way to look at it is that mountain climbing is a sport that involves the scaling of a mountain in its entirety. This feat of human endurance encompasses many different skills, including rock climbing. However, rock climbing by itself is so extensive that it can be and often is its own sport.

Some mountains are more easily traversed by hiking, such as Mount Baker. The gradient of the slope is steep in some places, with boulders easily reaching hip height in some areas, but easily traversable using your legs alone. Mountaineering is a great way to observe nature and unwind without the need of expensive gear that rock climbing requires.

For instance, the Snoqualmie-Baker national forest is rife with mountains of different gradients of difficulty. If you ever have the chance to be in the area, please, by all means, take a few days and explore. There are alpine flora and fauna there that are indigenous to the area, meaning they do not exist anyway else in the world.

The majesty of being able to obverse a bird or a flower that for generations have existed in one mountainside valley for generations is humbling. This is the kind of experience one can get from mountain climbing. The chance to slow down our fast-paced lives and enjoy the beauty of the natural world and the life contained within is simply priceless.

Rock climbing is a skill some mountaineers have in their skillset. This is because some summits can only be reached by the application of specialized tools, techniques, and hardcore endurance, rock climbing can also be a sport in and of itself. Rock climbing is all about perseverance through the struggle.

El Capitan is a mountain in Yosemite that is familiar to all rock climbers, and it is one of the pinnacles of climbing for that group. This is a sheer rock face of approximately 3,000 feet. This peak has made climbers and unfortunately ended them as well. The climbing of sheer faces comes along with all the dangers you might expect, plus some you may not.

Mountain Climbing

Mountain climbing could require a great deal of equipment, depending on the mountain, or it could be nominal. Chomolungma, known as Mount Everest in its English name, can be traversed with scrambling alone, which is a rock-climbing technique. However, due to the nature of the environment and scope of the mountain, a great deal of equipment and preparation is necessary to reach the peak and still considered a pinnacle of climbing in the community.

Due to the length of the climb, and different environments that can be encountered during a single trek, route planning is often a crucial skill to learn. Especially if the climb will be moving through a glacier at some point, as a particularly sunny day can cause an avalanche.

The very basics of mountain climbing equipment cover the basics of wilderness survival:

  • Compass: First of you will want a quality compass. These are absolutely necessary for wilderness survival. I cannot express enough how easy it is to get lost in a canyon.
  • Backback: Bring at least a 45-liter backpack, preferably one with a pouch for a large water bladder. Water is utterly indispensable and used for cooking, cleaning, and hydration. It will go faster than you think.
  • Water bottle: A redundant water source like a water bottle is important  for emergency reasons. Access to water when out in the wilderness is the difference between life and death.
  • Map: You will want a map of the area you plan to traverse, while a compass can help you find your general heading, a map will allow you to plot a trail with much more accuracy.
  • Food: Meal planning can vary depending on the person. I like to cook since I find it one of the best experiences to have while in the wilderness, others take only dry good. So, the rule of thumb to go by is take food that is calorie and nutrient dense and shoot for 4,000 calories a day. Some people don’t need this much, but I prefer to be prepared.
  • Rain gear: Lightweight rain gear be a little careful with this purchase as some rain jackets will do almost nothing to protect you from water.
  • A place to sleep: A sleeping shelter of some kind, I use only a tarp and a sleeping bag.

After collecting all of this and packing your backpack, you should have all you need to start mountain climbing. In fact, this is an ultralight set-up, meaning it would weigh in at less than 20lbs overall. I pack this way in order to reduce the amount of energy I exert when hiking, because it allows me to cover long distances without exhaustion.

You will probably find that if you pack this set-up that there is plenty more room in the backpack. Take the liberty to fill it with whatever you would like. Mountain climbing is all about the experience after all, and that is personal to you.

You are now ready to begin mountain climbing; all you need now is a destination.

Some Essential Mountain Climbing Skills

So earlier, I mention that rock climbing is part of the mountain climbing skillset. That is only one of the many skills that are needed in order to traverse physically demanding terrain. Some of these skills require the use of specialized equipment.

The other skills in mountain climbing include:

  • Scrambling, which is using both your hands and feet to traverse steep and rocky terrain. While not quite rock climbing, it is still very physically demanding.
  • Glacier travel, since many mountains extend into icy caps, this is an essential skill to know.
  • Navigation and route planning with the use of a compass and map.

Learning these skills is essential to successful and safe mountain climbing. While they are easy to learn, they are harder to master, as putting theory into practice always comes with its set of variances and hurdles. This is especially relevant in the natural world.

Rock Climbing

Rock climbing in and of itself is a skillset, sport, and a feat. It often requires the use of specialized gear, knowledge, and techniques, and a good deal of psychological fortitude. There are varying degrees of rock climbing because there is all manner of rock formations in the world.

Due to the high chance of significant injury or death in the case of a fall, many climbs are used with the assistance of climbing gear and harnesses. Because rock climbing is a sport, it is categorized by the technical difficulty of the climb and the gear involved in reaching the peak.

Types of Climbing

Because of this variance of rock formations and technical difficulty, rock climbing is often split into many different subcategories:

  • Bouldering is the climbing of short cliff faces, often the only safety equipment used in an inflatable fall pad.
  • Solo climbing is a class of climbing that can be divided into several subcategories itself. Often when solo climbing, a climber will climb alone without the assistance of a belay system.
    • There is roped soloing, where a rope is used to mitigate the danger of a fall.
    • Deep-water soloing is where the climb itself is generally over a deep body of water.
    • Then the most dangerous form of soloing is free soloing, where no safety or aid is applied to the climb, often resulting in death or serious injury if a fall occurs.
  • Lead climbing and top rope climbing is done with the assistance of ropes and anchors in the cliff face.
    • In lead climbing the lead climber is attached to the cliff face via a rope beneath them.
    • In top rope climbing, a rope is ran from the ground to an anchor at the top of the climb, and then the rope is attached to the climber.
  • Multi-pitch climbing is where a climber is restricted with a set length of rope and sets anchors along the climb. Then the lead will belay the other climber up to the anchor who removes anchors placed along the way. Once both climbers are at the top anchor, the lead will set off again.
  • Then there is sport climbing, where bolts have been fixed along a route of a climb that the climber will follow, which contrasts with traditional climbing where the climber will place removable bolts along the way.
  • Then there is indoor climbing, which is the easiest and often most accessible path for people to begin learning rock climbing basics. Often these gyms double as an outfitters store with experienced climbing staff and quality equipment. If beginning to dabble with the idea of rock climbing, this is the best way to go about getting a feel for it.

The Different Techniques of Rock Climbing

Since rock formations can have a large variance in their structure, many different techniques must be used in order to scale them.

  • Crack climbing involves literally jamming your fingers into a fissure in a rock face in order to climb. This form of climbing has several different techniques to be used in order to deal with the variance of fissure sizes that can be found on a rock face, covering both hands and feet.
  • Face climbing focuses more on body position than the use of techniques. Face climbing uses natural divots and edges in the rock face. The focus of face climbing techniques is to keep your body as close to the wall and keeping a sturdy foothold under you.
  • Slab climbing is like face climbing in that you use natural hand and footholds to climb; however the wall in question is often at a not so vertical position. The techniques tend to be more friction oriented instead of solely relying on holds in the rock face.

These are just some of the techniques used to climb, as there is always something to learn. Rock faces have a huge degree of variance and require a large degree of adaptability in order to safely and successfully climb. Practicing these techniques in climbing gym, or better yet, learning from an experienced climber is a great way to gain the knowledge of techniques.

Equipment Used for Rock Climbing

The techniques used to rock climb require a large degree of physical endurance in and of themselves. Rocks are not known to very forgiving; crack climbing can really tear a climber’s hands up, and normal running shoes generally do not have enough support to provide a firm grip to a rock face.

Because of this, there is specialized equipment designed to help enhance a climber’s ability to climb and safety involved in the climbing. This equipment helps to reduce the stress and damage experienced by the body on the climb, and damage taken during falls:

  • Climbing shoes are specialized in order to give a climber every advantage when climbing. They have very sticky rubber soles that have a high tension of tension in the sole. This allows the weight of the climber’s body to directed towards the toe of the show, more in line with the flexion of the ankle. There are different degrees of tension and toe shape that further specialize in the type of climbing involved.
  • Crack climbing is inherently painful and damaging to the hands. Traditionally crack climbers have used a combination of hand wraps and chalk in order to reduce the wear and tear. Gloves have been made since they are specially designed for crack climbing.
  • Harnesses have been made that apply the force of the fall across the body, reducing damage and stress of falling. Traditionally climbers would secure themselves to a rope by tying the rope to themselves in the event of a fall. Often this would cause harm to the climber if they did happen to fall.
  • Helmets are often worn during climbing. Even in the event of a short fall a climber can receive significant damage to their noggin if it comes into contact with the rock face. If the climber is hundreds of feet up on a route, this is a particularly dangerous situation.
  • A chalk bag for keeping the hands drying when climbing, it should go without saying that in this sport, even a minor slip can have major consequences.
  • Rope is a climber best friend. Unless free soloing, a rope is used in every type of climbing as a safety device.
  • Carabiners are what climbers use to secure the rope to climbing nuts during ascent.
  • Belay devices are what is used by the belay to increase friction in a rope to assist in catching a fall or lowering a climber.

This is just some of the equipment used in rock climbing. In the case of needing to place permanent anchors, a climber may need drills or other equipment. If a climb is so extensive that it may take multiple days, there are cliffside cots that can be anchored to vertical face.

Rock climbing is a highly diverse sport, and there is always something to learn, as well as constant innovation.

Reaching the Peak

As you can see, mountain climbing and rock climbing both encompass a large amount of knowledge, skills, and equipment. While the climbing of some mountains can be done with a nominal amount of equipment, rock climbing can be a very energy and resource intensive sport.

Mountaineering is a skill that a person can start with little more than a backpack and good shoes, and as their love and skill develop, they can grow into rock climbing, tackling more technical and dangerous routes. These people are some of the hardiest adventures out there, learning how to survive in many types of environments, and quite literally stand on top on the world.

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