Aid climbing is the technique of using gear to support your weight as you climb. It can be as simple as using a bolt as a single handhold, or as complex as climbing an entire route with your full weight on pieces of specialized gear you have placed.
Aid climbing is clearly a sharp departure from free climbing, where weighting the rope or the protective hardware is poor style. Free ascents are one of the goals of the sport of climbing, while aid climbing is a valuable skill for ascending currently "unfreeable" routes and for use in emergencies.
As standards of difficulty continue to rise, top climbers are freeing many of the routes originally climbed with aid. But despite the rise in free-climbing standards, there will always be tempting routes that are more difficult still—and so devoid of natural features that a climber will need some artificial assistance.
Aid climbing takes a lot of gear, but it needn't be damaging to the rock. With all the chocks and camming devices on the market, you now have a better chance to climb routes clean, without putting in a single piton or bolt. The chocks and other devices can be removed without defacing the rock, and the next climber won't even be able to tell you were there.
Aid climbing may still require bolts and pitons, but keep them to a minimum. Pitons (also called
Skills in aid climbing and pitoncraft can also help overcome unexpected difficulties during normal free climbing. They can provide a way to move safely up or down when weather or accident puts your party in jeopardy. Knowing how to use pitons for aid also helps you in evaluating the soundness of fixed pitons you encounter while free climbing. In winter mountaineering, pitons maybe the only protection that will hold in ice-filled cracks.
Any advice to use pitons always comes with a stern caveat: pitons permanently damage the rock. Don't use them unless you must. And don't use them at all on established free routes.
Aid climbing and pitoncraft require skill, judgment, and a lot of practice. To learn both the basics and the many "tricks" of the techniques, try to work with an experienced partner, and climb often.
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