Physics of Rock Climbing

Physics of Rock Climbing

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When thinking of rock climbing it is good to think of all aspects of climbing in terms of energy. While thinking of energy, remember basic geology and know that not all rocks are formed in the same way, in other words know what type of rock you are dealing with, it is good to think of the process of formation behind the type of rock you may be climbing. Understanding the formation process will drastically change the climbing technique used to climb that particular rock. Another aspect of energy that one should keep in mind is drastically changing your potential energy. Typically people climb along a vertical direction and move off of the surface of the earth using the rock to help them defy gravity. This can be an exhilarating experience, using ones own body to absorb the energy of the rock and change their potential energy. And last but not least not every human can undergo this change in energy without fall protection, because it is very probable that a foot may slip or a hand hold might come loose , a person will fall, and of course a rope is a spring when dealing with falling.

Volcanic rocks provide a very easy climb, with lots of big pockets and foot placement for a begging climber. Usually these rocks have a very high friction coefficient making them seem easy to "stick" to. This young lad, is pressing the rock with his hands not really using a hold, instead using more friction.

Here is an example of a rock made from harder material, with a lower friction coefficient, making the climbing a little more difficult, causing the climber to rely more on hand strength, rather than friction to move up the rock. This rock type is very popular among climbers today. This man is climbing using an open handed grip with his right hand ensuring him the most positive force on bigger holds.

And last is sandstone, which is considered the most dangerous rock type to climb, due to low friction and easy to break. As you can see the this climber has the least amount of hand holds causing this climbers techinique to change in hand holds, she is using a closed grip with her hands ensuring the most positive force her fingers can exert on the rock.

Those are not the only type of rock

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climbed but they are examples, as you can see the texture of the rock, size of holds have a direct relation ship behind the physics that a climber will use to climb a rock, such as, friction climbers press the rock, with their palms, and shoes, and jug climbers (picture two) will grip bigger holds with an open hand to get the most positive force, whereas, in the last case a closed handed grip(picture three) is the best to use to get the most positive force.

Climbing techniques ........
When discussing climbing techniques from a physics standpoint, think of static equilibrium, or as the potographs depict climbing, as motionless, and still. Observe where the climber is applying the force and where the climber has positioned his/her center of gravity. As previously discussed we saw techniques of move ment however there are techniques of, safety as well that all apply directly to physics, to properly use the rope.

"In top-roping, a rope from the top of the climb always holds the climber, making most slips off the climb harmless. As shown above, the climber is attached to one end of the rope, the middle is passed through an anchor at the top of the climb, and the other end is held by the belayer.
The anchor at the top of the climb is assembled from loops of webbing connected to carabiners attached securely to the rock. The rope is passed through some of the carabiners, and the others are attached to either pieces of protection, wedged into a convenient crack, or bolts, which other climbers have drilled into the rock.
The anchor's carabiners with the rope passing through are suspended below the top of the climb to prevent the rope from rubbing. When bolts or protection are far from the top of the climb, substantial lengths of webbing are needed to place the carabiners correctly.
Not all climbs can be top-roped because of two requirements:

1. There must be a safe way to the top to set the anchor before the climber starts. Most popular top-roped climbs have an easy way to hike to the top.
2. The climb may be no longer than half the length of the rope; when the climber starts, the rope must cross the full length of the climb twice.

The belayer stops the rope with a belay device attached to his harness if the climber slips. The belay device makes it easy to apply enough friction to stop a falling climber. If there is some danger of the belayer being lifted into the air, he can be anchored down.
The belayer must keep the slack in the rope to a minimum since when a climber slips, any slack must be taken up before the rope can stop the fall. To take up this slack, the belayer pulls the rope downward as the climber climbs. While doing this, the belayer must never release the rope fully to ensure the climber could never fall far. " - Stephen Edwards.

Forces generated by falling

"A falling climber gathers energy as long as he/she gathers speed. When the rope slows his descent, this energy is absorbed, by the deformation of his body, by stretching of the climbing rope, by the friction of the rope sliding over carabiners and perhaps through belayers hands, and by movement of the belayer and perhaps some of the anchors. Rope stretch and slide are desireable as long as the climber doesn't hit anythingand the rope doesn't cut on a sharp edge. Within narrow limits movement of the belayer is ok, even desireable. Movement of anchors is frightening, if not dangerous." (Michael Loughman)

Think of how a spring works and you will understand the main priniciple of physics behind a force generated by a fall. Yes there is a formula for calculating these forces,

F = W * K * (Xfall/ Xstop) + W

I know it doesn't make much sense like that, however, W is the climbers weight, K is the spring constant, ranging from 1 to 2, and X fall, is pure falling distance, while Xstop, is the distance the rope was stretched by the climber.


Upon the event of a fall, most of the force is delivered to the anchor, which is basically a vector diagram, here are a couple of pictures to help you get the idea.

This is the only type of anchor I have ever used, and if you look closely, you will see that it is a very basic triangle, which divides the forces between them.

"The diagram shows the loads on each bolt with a 4.5 kN (1000 lb.) force applied. At low angles, 20 degrees or less, the bolts split the load. As the angle between the slings grows, the forces grow rapidly. If the bolts are spaced 2 feet apart, and we build our anchor using 2 foot slings, the angle is about 60 degrees. This raises the force on each bolt to 666 lbs."- (southeast


"anchor forces in climbing " 1999-2004 ( 11/20/04)

"how to guides" 2004 (11/20/04)

Serway "Physics for Scientists and Engineers 6th Edition" Thompsom brooks/cole (11/20/04)

Michael Loughman "Learning To Rock Climb" Sierra Book Clubs 1981

"climbing techniques" 2001 (11/20/04)

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