This article about writing realistic rock climbing is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert.
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About the Expert
Michelle Hazen is an author, book coach, and freelance editor who has been rock climbing for thirteen years now, and been annoyed by Hollywood’s misportrayal of the sport for nearly as long. She blogs about writing craft and publishing at Michelle Hazen Books. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.
How To Write Rock Climbing Wrong
The best way to write rock climbing wrong is to copy anything you’ve seen in a movie. Especially Cliffhanger. Or Vertical Limit. There’s no such thing as a bolt gun. The best thing to do is to go to your local rock climbing gym and watch, because you’ll be able to picture everything much more clearly once you see it in action.
How does the rope get up there?
This is the #1 question people ask me about climbing, and the first thing people get wrong in fiction.
First, you can lead climb, or you can top rope. You have to lead climb before you top rope, because that’s how the rope gets up there. One person climbs up, clipping carabiners to pieces of protection and running the rope through them, until they get to the top. If they fall, they fall down past their last piece of protection, until the rope catches them.
Once they get to the top, they run the rope through a carabiner at the top. Anybody who top ropes the climb after that will be caught immediately by the rope, no fall necessary.
Pro Tip: The rope slides through the carabiners, it doesn’t tie off to them. If it did, you’d be like a dog hitting the end of its leash as soon as you climbed past.
Sport vs. Trad Climbing
There are two kinds of climbing. At the most basic level, sport climbing is clipping your rope into bolts that are permanently placed in the rock and pulling yourself up on protrusions or features of the rock wall.
Trad (traditional) climbing is sticking your body parts and gear into a crack in the rock (Unlike with sport bolts, your gear—and hopefully your body parts—go home with you at the end of the climb). Trad involves a lot more gear and is harder to write and describe. If you can, stick to writing sport.
Sport climbing with bolts and quickdraws:
Traditional climbing with cams:
It’s all about the lingo…
If you use the right words, you’ll look like a pro.
- Biner– This is common shorthand for carabiner, the metal clips that are used as joiners for everything in climbing. If you rub a rope over a rope, the friction cuts it, so everything must be joined by carabiners. “Hand me that biner.”
- Crimper/crimpy – A very small hold. “That climb looks crazy crimpy.” “I ripped my fingernail off on that crimper.”
- Jug/juggy– A way to say a climb has big holds and looks easy. “Let’s do the 5.6, it’s juggy as hell.”
- Pro– common shorthand for pieces of protection. “This climb doesn’t have much pro.” This can include bolts, but usually refers to cams, nuts, hexes or other pieces of trad climbing gear.
- Quickdraw– two carabiners connected by a piece of webbing. Used to clip into bolts or trad gear for lead climbing. “He clipped the quickdraw into the bolt.”
- Rappelling– rappelling is using the rope to lower yourself to the ground at the end of a climb. It’s how you get DOWN not up. “Time to rap the route.”
The Yosemite decimal system is how climbs are rated in difficulty.
- 5.6 is about as easy as you’d rock climb.
- 5.7 still easy
- 5.8 standard beginner fare.
- 5.9 intermediate
- 5.10 intermediate. Once you get to 5.10, it also divides into 5.10a 5.10b 5.10c and 5.10d (because it’s America, and our measurement systems never make sense).
- 5.11 (5.11a, 5.11b, 5.11c, 5.11d, etc.) A hard grade for a recreational climber, a fairly impressive accomplishment if you only climb on weekends and such.
- 5.12-5.13 is REALLY hard. Bordering on you’d have to be a professional and do it all the time to do those grades.
- 5.14 and 5.15 can only be done by a handful of people in the world. I think there are only 2 or 3 climbs rated 5.15 in the world.
Head out there and climb! It’s the fastest, most fun way to learn how to write rock climbing in your book. Last but not least, here’s a picture of me crack climbing:
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[…] I’m not an expert in filmmaking, but I know that this form of media, and the industry around it, operates quite differently from the world of publishing. Among the many priorities juggled screenwriters and producers while making a film, scientific accuracy is probably not high on the list. One thing I love about books is that they have the luxury (the space) of informing readers. Movies do not. As veteran rock climber Michelle Hazen put it, in her post about how to write rock climbing wrong: […]