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Six Ways to Read Rock Climbing Routes

Something you learn very early on in the climbing gym is how tricky it can be to read the route you’re trying. What do we mean by “read?”

Just as reading sheet music is both about individual notes and the connections between them, reading a climbing route is an attempt to understand its holds and the movements between them.

Correctly reading a route will save you an enormous amount of time and energy, leaving you with a higher chance of completing your project. You’ll also increase your understanding of movement and climbing efficiency – that means less failure and more success over time.

Here are six tips for you to blow up your route-reading skills.

Find your route

Looking up at tall walls in a climbing gym covered with many routes

It’s important to climb on routes or boulder problems that fall within your personal skill level. It’s okay to aim high and try difficult routes, but this could lead to you getting stuck on one move and missing out on your progression and improvement.

Note: It’s normal to feel a little embarrassed at first when climbing in front of others at the gym. Try to remember that everybody in there started in the exact same way you did and it’s unlikely that anyone cares about what you’re climbing on. One of our favorite things about climbing culture is that effort and #tryhard matter way more than how good you are. It’s inspiring to climbers of all levels when we see other climbers try hard on their projects...that’s how you earn respect in the gym.

Don’t feel bad about picking what you think is the “easiest” route in the gym. Getting some early successes in your session can help set the stage for more success. Choose something within your personal range of ability and block everything else out – get psyched to crush the thing!

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Start + finish holds, and everything in between

Funky looking climbing hold mounted on a wall

Many beginner climbers make the mistake of hopping onto routes without even looking up. This is a great way to become lost in a sea of holds and get bucked right off the wall. Visually evaluating the whole climb before you try it is a great way to learn the basic information you’ll need to complete it. Set yourself up for success.

As you start your evaluation, make note of all the holds on the route or boulder problem you’ve chosen. This may seem obvious, but start at the beginning! Find the start holds, then try to visually follow the route all the way to the finish holds. Getting a good feel for the physical placement of all of the route’s components – including outlying holds and any “natural” features of the climbing walls (rather than the holds themselves) – will help you when you actually begin climbing.

Plan your Beta

Woman climber looking at a boulder outdoors to figure out her beta

Have you ever overheard other climbers in the gym talking about “Beta” and wondered if they were talking about computer software? Or a type of fish? Don’t worry – this is normal.

In the world of rock climbing, Beta is information about a route. The term has essentially become a synonym for “sequence,” i.e. the sequence of hand and foot movements. But it can also refer to much more than that. When Climber A gives Climber B “the Beta,” she is giving him information about how she climbs the route – the sequence of hand movements, which holds to stop and rest on, subtle foot placements, where a heel hook works best, etc.

As part of your route evaluation process, you should be trying to identify which holds are for your hands and which are for your feet. Though it can seem random, in reality every hold was placed on the wall with a certain purpose and sequence in mind. Your ability to recognize the hand holds and the footholds – and plan your Beta through them – is absolutely essential in becoming a more efficient, productive rock climber.

In terms of specific techniques for using handholds and footholds, there are a few things to keep in mind. In general, handholds are the bigger holds on the wall. Note their angles relative to the wall surface, the size and quality of their grabbable surface, and their position relative the the route’s footholds. The footholds – again, generally speaking – are the little guys. They can also be placed at angles and in positions that are crucial to make note of. Handhold will usually have a good amount of chalk dust on them from being touched so often. Likewise, footholds will probably have black rubber smudges on them from being stepped on so often. Pay attention to these clues!

Once you begin to understand the individual pieces of a route, you can more easily understand the route as a whole. The more time you put into visually observing and planning your climb (not to mention gaining actual climbing experience), the better your chances of successfully climbing it!

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Put your plan into action and climb!

Close up of climber's foot on the wall with toe pressed to the top of a hold

You’ve done your research. Time to test your hypotheses! Get your body on the wall and try to transform your theories into reality. As you climb, pay attention to how the plans you made on the ground are actually translating onto the wall. Remember: rock climbing = SCIENCE!

Evaluate – where, how, and why did you fall?

Two climbers looking up at a route talking through beta and technique

If you found your way to the top of the wall, congratulations! This means one of three things: you are a prodigious climber; the route you chose was too easy; you got extremely lucky!

In all likelihood, you fell somewhere. No matter what anyone says – no matter how many V12/13 boulders someone else climbs first try – falling is the most common physical feat in all of rock climbing. So don’t freak out. Evaluate!

Did you fall because of an error in your judgment concerning one of the holds? Did you get lost in a tricky sequence? Did someone in the gym release a bone-chilling, primitive scream that startled you into an uncontrolled plummet? Whatever the reason, try to find a reason for your fall, then think of a way around it. Sometimes this means simply holding on harder. Sometimes you need to find a new sequence to make the movement easier.

Practice the moves and finish your project!

Climber throwing left hand onto the edge of a boxy hold in the gym

Did you ever write a paper during high school in one fell swoop, turn it in, and receive an A+? Even if you managed to, let’s be honest: it wasn’t your best work. Perfecting something takes time and revision.

In terms of climbing, you need to try tricky moves many times – and often revise your method of executing them – in order to complete a route. This can be as simple as switching which foot you’re standing on or shifting your weight to the other side of your center of gravity. Keep practicing and practicing and practicing. If the issue comes down to something blatant, like physical strength, then you have little to worry about: with consistent practice and training, the move you’re stuck on will go down soon (as long as it’s within a reasonable level of difficulty). If your problem is more subtle, then get psyched: now you get to practice and learn the intricacies of climbing movement.

Eventually the moves on any given project will start to feel more doable – this could happen over minutes, hours, or days. As your strength builds and you develop your route-reading skills using the methods outlined above, your climbing successes will start to increase exponentially. Then you will send your projects. The cheers from the crowd will be deafening; the blasts of the trumpets will echo off the city walls; the heralds will sing of your legend for a thousand years.

Now go to the climbing gym!

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