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At its most basic, rock climbing involves climbing a route with one's own hands and feet and little more than a cushioned bouldering pad in the way of protection. This style of climbing is referred to as bouldering, since the relevant routes are usually found on boulders no more than 10 to 15 feet tall.
As routes get higher off the ground, the increased risk of injury necessitates additional safety measures. A variety of specialized climbing techniques and climbing equipment exists to provide that safety, and climbers will usually work in pairs and utilize a system of ropes and anchors designed to catch falls. Ropes and anchors can be configured differently to suit many styles of climbing, and roped climbing is thus divided into further sub-types that vary based on how their belay systems are set up. The different styles are described in more detail below, but, generally speaking, beginners will start with top roping and/or easy bouldering, and work their way up to lead climbing and beyond.
In top-roping, an anchor is set up at the summit of a route prior to the start of a climb. Rope is run through the anchor; one end attaches to the climber and the other to the belayer, who keeps the rope taut during the climb and prevents long falls. This type of climbing is widely regarded as the safest type of climbing, with the lowest chance of injury. It is also the first type of climbing most people do when learning to climb, as it allows the climber to climb freely and the belayer to learn how to belay more proficiently.
In lead climbing, one person, called the "leader", will climb from the ground up with rope directly attached (and not through a top anchor) while the other, called the "second", belays the leader. Because the climbing rope is of a fixed length, the leader can only climb a certain distance. Thus longer routes are broken up into several "pitches". At the top of a pitch, the leader sets up an anchor, and then belays the "second" up to the anchor. Once both are at the anchor, the leader begins climbing the next pitch and so on until they reach the top.
Climbing on short, low routes without the use of the safety rope that is typical of most other styles. Protection, if used at all, typically consists of a cushioned bouldering pad below the route and/or a spotter, a person that watches from below and directs the fall of the climber away from hazardous areas. Bouldering may be an arena for intense and relatively safe competition, resulting in exceptionally high difficulty standards.