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What is the difference between Sport Climbing and Traditional (Trad) Climbing? Is it just that Sport Climbing uses bolts?

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Both sport climbing and trad climbing are a form of lead climbing, which means the first climber to go up is not protected by a rope from above. A sport climber uses quickdraws which, as you mentioned, get clipped to bolts that have been placed in 10 to 15 foot intervals. At the end of the climb a sport climber can expect to find a belay anchor consisting of two to three bolts with rappel rings that he/she uses to build an anchor.

A trad climber carries not just quickdraws, but a whole rack of climbing gear consisting of cams, nuts and sometimes hexes that get placed into cracks in the wall. In difficult to protect places there might be a bolt that has been placed by the first ascent team. At the end of the climb or pitch (one rope length on a multi-rope length climb) a trad climber often has to build an anchor with the trad-gear, but sometimes, just like in sport climbing, routes have belay stations with two to three bolts.

Sometimes the classification of sport and trad climbs gets a little messy. In Joshua Tree National Park in California for example, guide books refer to some climbs as "bolted climbs." These climbs are by no means sport climbs, even though the only means of protection on these routes are bolts in the rock. The difference is that those bolts are spaced 30 to 60 feet apart, which means the leader might fall up to 120 feet.

Often sport climbs are rap-bolted, which means the first ascent party rappelled down the route, placing bolts on their way down. Traditional climbs get established from the bottom up, which means the first ascent party placed bolts they deemed necessary as they were climbing up.

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    +1 - good for distinguishing between sport climbs and old-school bolted trad routes. – DavidR Sep 17 '13 at 13:46
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    Nice answer. Another way of stating the distinction is that trad is more of an outgrowth of mountaineering, and pretty much everything you do in a trad climb is potentially something you could do while mountaineering. Sport climbing, on the other hand, is more about gymnastic skill. – Ben Crowell Feb 28 '14 at 5:22
  • Could you add the difference to Freeclimbing, too? – Phab Sep 30 '15 at 5:43
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    @fgysin: with modern dynamic climbing rope, a 120 feet fall is survivable (if you don't hit the ground or a ledge) and won't destroy gear (though depending on the fall factor, one might want to retire the rope). – Michael Borgwardt Oct 1 '15 at 8:47
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    @Phab: What you are talking about is a classic trad climb. There is a category of climbs, often referred to as "bolted climbs" which are not sport climbs and have large runout sections between bolts. Dike Route in Tuolumne is a good example: summitpost.org/dike-route-5-9/716885. As to your suggestion to add the difference to freeclimbing: both sport and trad climbing are forms of free climbing, which means you don't rely on gear for forward progress. Are you perhaps referring to "free soloing" (climbing without a rope)? – DudeOnRock Oct 1 '15 at 19:30

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