After publication of the first edition of my book A Life Outside in 2007, one minor but fairly consistent criticism I received about the book was the use of “rock climbing jargon without explanation.” To address this issue, I went through the entire book and attempted to identify all of the climbing and other outdoor-related jargon used in the book, and then wrote a simple, practical introduction to the second edition (2012) explaining what these words meant. It was actually quite a painful experience, but in the end I was pretty happy with the results. The introduction also came in handy when it was time to release A Life Outside 2, which contained a lot of the same “jargon.”
If you’re interested, pasted below is my introduction to rock climbing, bouldering, mountaineering, kayaking, and mountain biking terminology. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, and focuses mostly on terms I used in A Life Outside and
A Life Outside 2.
A kayak is a small boat, often only big enough for one person but occasionally built to hold two or three people. Essential gear includes the kayak itself, a paddle, and a personal floatation device or life jacket. A spray skirt is a cover sometimes used to protect from water getting in to the kayak in the space between the kayaker and the opening in the boat in which he or she sits. A put-in is the place where you put your kayak into the water. If you are paddling somewhere and need to take your kayak out of the water and carry it past an obstacle, this is known as a portage. A kayak is different from a canoe in that kayakers sit closer to the bottom of their boats and use paddles with two blades instead of just one.
Mountain biking involves riding special bikes off of paved roads and on rough and rocky terrain. Mountain bikes include special tires and other features so that the rider may better handle the rugged conditions they are exposed to. In addition to riding them on dirt roads, mountain bikers often take these special bikes on singletrack, a term that typically describes a dirt trail about the same width as the bike itself. A fire road, also sometimes referred to as doubletrack, is wider and suitable for use by off-road vehicles and is a frequent destination for mountain bikers.
Mountaineering might be most simply described as a mixture between hiking and rock climbing: it typically involves hiking up steeper trails, or even where there is no trail at all, and often to the summit of a mountain. Depending on the challenge, mountaineering can also include technical rock climbing techniques, and it is an activity that is sometimes pursued during inclement weather. A special mountaineering ice axe is helpful in cases of self-arrest, where the mountaineer may be tumbling wildly down a steep snow or ice-covered route and needs to apply very specific techniques in order to stop the fall. The difficulty of a mountaineering route is described by the Class system, with ratings ranging from Class 1 (easiest) to Class 5 (most difficult and technical).
Rock climbing is technical Class 5 climbing requiring the use of protective gear. The gear includes a rope; a harness that wraps around your waist and legs and attaches you to the rope; and caribiners, which are used to connect ropes, harnesses, and other gear together. As a climber ascends a roped climb, he or she is put on belay, a technique where another person controls the intake, outtake, and tension of the rope using a small piece of gear known as a belay device or stitch plate. Belaying is used in both toproping, where the rope is pre-set above the climber, and in lead climbing, where the climber places gear and moves the rope upwards while climbing, and which is more challenging and technically complicated than toproping. Special shoes with soles made of extra-sticky rubber are worn by climbers in order to gain as much purchase on the rock as possible. A route is an agreed-upon pathway up the rock, and routes are often named and have difficulty ratings attached to them. The difficulty of “Class 5” rock climbs is further refined by Yosemite Decimal System ratings such as 5.6, 5.8, 5.10, and 5.11b (the higher the number, the more difficult the route). A pitch is the section of a route equivalent to what can be safely climbed using a single length of rope; routes longer than this require stopping to re-set gear, and are known as multi-pitch and are very common in mountaineering.
Rock climbing on smaller, shorter routes without the use of ropes for protection is called bouldering, and the routes are commonly referred to as problems. The only form of protection typically employed in bouldering is a crash pad or bouldering pad, which is composed of multiple layers of special foam design to absorb most if not all of the impact of a fall. A boulderer may also employ a spotter—a person standing behind or underneath the boulderer who will use their hands and attempt to steer the body of the boulderer clear of serious danger in the case of a fall. The Yosemite Decimal System and other ratings systems are sometimes used to describe the difficulty of boulder problems, but the system most widely used for this application is the V system invented by noted boulderer John “Vermin” Sherman—for example, boulder problems may carry difficulty ratings such as V1, V3, or V6 (the higher the number, the more difficult the problem).
Rock climbing, bouldering, and mountaineering can share many terms. Gymnastic chalk is often used to remove moisture from the hands and get a better grip on the rock. Often similar descriptors are used to describe qualities of the rock itself, such as slab (a rock face of less than 90 degrees), vertical (a rock face close to or exactly 90 degrees), overhanging (a rock face of more than 90 degrees), and roof (so steep that as you climb your back might be parallel to the ground). An arête is a narrow ridge of bare rock which sticks out prominently, while a buttress may refer to a wider but still prominent protrusion. The crux is the hardest part of a route or problem. Climbers often take advantages of weaknesses in the rock, such as a crack; different techniques are used depending on the width of the crack, such as a finger crack or a fist crack.