Sport climbing is one discipline of rock climbing that is focused on single pitch climbs at maximized difficulties. Sport climbing routes are typically protected by bolts-only that are drilled into the rock. Using bolts combined with short climbs makes sport climbing less committing and more predictable than other styles of climbing such as mountaineering, trad-climbing or Big Wall climbing.
Generally speaking, almost any climb that only uses bolts can be classified as a sport climb nowadays. The origin of sport climbing traces back to France where in the 70’s, climber’s started bolting rock faces that otherwise were unable to be protected. Worldwide, it was followed by a huge wave of new development in the 80’s when climbers seemingly bolted everything that had not been possible to climb via traditional gear. This style of development sparked a huge ethical debate about the rules on how to establish new climbs. Power drilling and fixing bolts while rappelling was often doomed to be a style that takes away from the boldness and adventurous aspects of rock climbing. Opponents of this style did not accept rappel bolting as they would only place bolts while being on lead (ground up bolting) and only where there is no other option available.
There has been a lot of drama around using bolts and many routes have been chopped, re-bolted and chopped again as a result of disagreeing climbing ethics.
For a reflective overview of the debate refer to Christian Griffith’s October 1986 Climbing perspective “Manifesto”, in which a wizened old climber writes,
…”The slaughter of the last bastions of traditionalism has begun…. Like a bull crashing in the hands of its tormentors through the walls of the arena, a new generation shakes its horns and parts the crowd. They are free. They are the new power that will decide whatt direction climbing should go” – He had earlier established Colorado’s first rappel-bolted sport climb, the 5.13a Paris Girl in Eldorado Canyon.
Today bolting is widely accepted and often permits are required depending on where routes are planned to be bolted. Often, each climbing area has it’s own ethics and regulations. Joshua Tree and Yosemite are great examples for places where traditional climbing ethics have widely been protected and practiced. Bolts are only placed where no other gear is possible, including anchors.
However, at many other areas there are often no second thoughts on the correctness of bolting a route on rappel. Sport climbing is part of the evolution of free-climbing and has consistently pushed the limits of the possible.
To summarize, sport climbing is mainly characterized through:
- bolts-only for protection
- short climbs (mostly up to 100 feet +/-)
- climbing at physical limit (often! but not necessary, there are also “easy” sport climbs)
- well-protected with often minimized accident potential (climbing still is an inherently dangerous sport!)