It’s a key skill - whether you're on-sighting a trad climb or competing at an international level, gaining information in advance is critical to success.
People often confuse the technique of route reading with the tactic of red-pointing, as if it’s not something you should practice unless you are projecting.
This is article is aimed as much at keen trad climbers as it is at competitive athletes. Regardless of the climbing style, knowing more about how to do it is always desirable!
If you‘re ready to get stuck straight into some exercises to develop your route reading skills, then scroll down to Part Two!
Part One - Some Theory
The amount of “beta” (Information about a climb) that can be gained in advance varies depending on discipline, as does the amount of opportunity we have to apply, test and adjust that beta.
Speed climbers compete on the same standardised route worldwide. They can train, practice and adjust their beta as much as they want prior to a competition, but one mistake on the day, and their attempt is finished.
Competition athletes often have a short time window to gather visual beta which they then need to retain until it'd their turn to climb.
International format lead competitions only allow one attempt on a route, whilst bouldering competitions only allow a short window of performing time (so a little bit of testing and adjusting is possible).
In either case, knowing how to do the moves gives an athlete the best chance of reaching a high point on a route or topping a boulder in the fewest number of attempts.
The on-sighting purist, and those attempting any route that cannot be viewed in advance, still need to make decisions about how they are going to attempt the move ahead of them.
Often these decisions are made on the spur of the moment, looking only one or two moves ahead, however the results of a poor decision are the same for the competitive athlete - once you’ve make a mistake, the game is over!
Similarly, climbers attempting to flash routes (first attempt, but with as much information as possible gained in advance) will only get one attempt, though they should already have a solid idea of how they are going to execute their moves.
Those happy to return repeatedly to redpoint, headpoint and boulder projects have the most amount of time and least amount of pressure to accurately route read. The nature of these disciplines allows them to physically test and adjust their ideas as they go. Nevertheless, the better they are at route-reading, the fewer errors they will make, and the quicker those projects get unlocked and sent.
Regardless of the discipline you’re interested in, we can all benefit from making the most of our opportunities to gain and apply beta.
So how do we do it? Gathering the right beta is the first thing - the demands of different disciplines vary, so the way you gather beta is really key.
Speed climbers are again slight outliers in this, with all the time they want to gather information and try it out, but the least amount of time to apply it under pressure.
Those projecting still have unlimited time, so their efficiency (or lack thereof) will only impact on how long it takes them to tick their route.
Climbers out to flash routes and blocs can take as long as they like gathering information, watching others, and even memorising sequences or holds before their attempt.
When Alex Honnold, Kevin Jorgeson and Matt Segal stormed onto the British gritstone scene in 2008, they said they couldn’t really call some of their routes "on-sights", because they'd watched the film Hard Grit so often!
Competition formats vary, but usually in leading and bouldering there will be an "observation" period in which the athletes can look at the routes before going into isolation to wait for their turn to climb.
The difference is that lead climbers get one attempt that is over as soon as they fall, whereas boulderers can have as many attempts as they like within their time slot, so they can test their ideas and change them as they go.
On-sight climbers gather most of their beta whilst climbing, as the whole route is rarely visible from the ground, so they're often working it out one move at a time.
How We Learn
Route reading is a skill just like any other; it needs to be tested, practised, revised, and rehearsed. And like most skills, you will improve over time, and your progress will likely not be linear.
Creating structure and ways to measure how you are progressing is key to purposeful and directed learning.
Increasing your opportunities to test, assess and change your new skills is also key. Try getting to the wall when they have a re-set, start projecting at your local crag (top rope the things you will never lead) or plan to focus on on-sighting or on red-pointing next time you have a climbing trip.
How can we improve? Regardless of the discipline, we all need to focus on these three points:
Part Two - Putting it into Practice
Route-reading is a holistic skill. You will see benefits in whatever situation you apply it in, but specificity in your training is key. If you're predominantly interested in a particular discipline, then the majority of your training should be relatable to the conditions you will normally face. The exercises below work for all disciplines.
Increasing the quality of information (Exercises 1 & 2)
This takes time to calibrate and practice. Run through the moves in your head, describe them to your partner, even lie on your back and move your arms and legs as if you were climbing! It’s unlikely you will immediately be able to remember and visualise long sequences of moves - you need to practice and build up to this.
These exercises are 1 and 2 not because they are "beginner" exercises, but because they underpin everything else and relate the fundamental movement skills of climbing.
There is no climber in the world who would not benefit from improving these skills, regardless of how good they already are at applying them!
You can check out the entire back catalogue of videos from Junior, Senior and Para comps on the International Federation of Sport Climbing YouTube channel.
Application, testing and adjusting (Exercises 3 & 4)
When we look at improving the application of beta, it all comes down to conscious testing and adjusting. Once you're comfortable with the process of gaining quality information, start applying this skill consistently - route read before you leave the ground every. single. time.
Be brave enough to change your beta - at this stage you will need to make a LOT of mistakes - it’s all about trying things out and then altering them until they work!
Once you can read a whole route from the floor, start to consider the pace at which you climb.
This is one of the first big steps towards understanding the entire climb, not just the component moves. This knowledge is what unlocks the ability to apply good tactics in your climbing, not just good techniques.