Face-Off: Sport vs. Trad Climbing

Face-Off sport vs. trad climbing

Scrambling for the top hold.

Climbing rocks is fun, no matter how you slice it. There’s a visceral thrill in scaling cliffs by the pads of your fingers and tips of your toes, overcoming a natural urge to stay on the ground. Or is there a natural urge to ascend? After all, we did evolve from tree-swinging ancestors. Our anatomy—and perhaps even psychology—is at least partly wired for climbing.

So it’s no surprise that in a town full of folks indulging their instincts to engage the natural world, rock climbing is a popular pursuit. But anyone who’s put some time into the sport has surely confronted the following question, whether at the crag, campground, or bar: which takes the higher ground, sport or traditional climbing? Well, we’re going to settle the score once and for all.                       

Adventure Aspect
The word “adventure” gets thrown around recklessly these days, and if you’re using it to describe a day out sport climbing, you’re probably a culprit. Not to say that pulling pockets at Bozeman Pass isn’t a day well spent—if you’re outside, you’re doing it right—but trad climbing takes the cake for risk and reward. You’re likely walking farther, getting more scared, facing greater consequences of failure, and feeling more deserving of a pint afterward. That’s what we call an adventure.
Edge: Trad

Strength Building
As with many outdoor activities, climbing is a great way to stay in shape. But what kind of shape are you getting yourself into? For sport climbing, you’re presumably maximizing upper-body muscle while minimizing mass elsewhere. Big arms and scrawny legs are great for wrenching up steep walls, but for any other mountain activity, you’re pretty much screwed. Trad climbing requires a more well-rounded type of strength. With long approaches, stubborn slabs, and tedious descents, your legs are sure to get a workout, too.
Edge: Trad

Sex Appeal
With slender bodies, flashy colors, and tight-fitting clothes, sport climbing seems to engender an unrivaled sexiness. But not so fast—there’s something to be said for an unchiseled mountain man or woman cruising up crack climbs with gravity-defying ease. Whether you find the shredded gym-fit look or a humble alpine aesthetic more attractive, this one comes down to personal preference.
Edge: Tie

Ease of Entry
There’s a reason most climbers get their start clipping bolts: sport climbing is simpler, safer, and less expensive than trad. You don’t need much gear to start out, and the concept of clipping quickdraws to bolts is easy to comprehend. Trad climbing can be daunting for beginners—it takes a lot of mentorship, which isn’t easy to come by. Not to mention, a trad rack can cost close to a grand. But if you do find a mentor, take the opportunity to learn!
Edge: Sport

The annals of both sport and trad climbing are rife with commendable icons. Sport climbing greats such as Alan Watts, Lynn Hill, and Adam Ondra have pushed the envelope of what’s possible on rock. Badass trad climbers like Peter Croft, Tommy Caldwell, and Hazel Findlay are outstanding in their ability to cope with fear. But here’s the thing: most of history’s greatest rock climbers reach a point of convergence where they’re excelling in both disciplines—at least since the ’80s, when sport climbing first hit the scene. This one comes to a natural draw.
Edge: Tie

Speaking of sport climbing hitting the scene, putting bolts on previously unprotectable pieces of rock raised hell with traditional climbers in the ’80s—and still does today. You may be in the purist camp where marring a natural feature with metal is downright repulsive, but to play devil’s advocate, these climbers have a laudable spirit of not giving a f@&#. Of course, there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed—bolting a climb that’s protectable with traditional gear is widely considered unacceptable. But we’ll throw a bone here to those who have dared to innovate.
Edge: Sport

We’ve got a few great sport-climbing crags in the area—enough to keep you satiated as you get stronger. But when it comes to climbing opportunities, trad blows sport out of the water. The sky is the limit—with thousands of previously-climbed routes in southwest Montana and untold more awaiting an ascent, trad climbing will take you wherever you want to go.
Edge: Trad

Score: 3-2
Winner: Trad

It’s a close call, but trad climbing takes the edge over sport. With a rack of cams, some know-how, and a bit of strength, climbing’s traditional form will surely deliver excellent mountain adventures. But we don’t care to discriminate—any day getting high in the hills is a good one. Whether it’s clipping bolts or plugging gear that calls your name, at least it’s not bouldering...