Perhaps the most important non-physical technique that will improve your onsight climbing is route reading skill. Practicing it doesn’t require an exhausting training programme. In fact, it requires no physical effort whatsoever. And nor will you need any equipment other than your own eyes – and maybe a note pad and pencil, or a pair of binoculars if you’re feeling keen. It applies equally to indoor climbing, sports climbing, trad, mountain routes, and bouldering. Elite climbers practice it each time they climb, to the extent that they become no longer aware that they are doing it.
Rich White relaxing on a good hold and scoping out the rock ahead on the awesome white wall of Tete du Chien, high above Monaco Palace. Composure and focus are key ingredients to effective route reading, as is the ability to keep calm in a strenuous situation.
But what exactly is route reading?
Quite simply, route reading is having a good look at the route before you try it, and choosing the very best sequence to use whilst you are climbing it. This process gives you the opportunity to work out which holds are best used with which hand, the best way to use those holds, where the climb finishes, where the rests are located, and which holds to clip or place gear from: in fact, by route reading you are attempting to gain all the same kind of information you would find by going on the route and working it.
Route reading is most obviously apparent as a distinct skill during indoor leading competitions, where competitors are allowed to view their route for a short period before climbing it: normally six minutes of jostling for position and frantic arm waving as the competitors mime out the moves as a further aid to memorisation. Some competitors take a note pad and pencil and draw key sections of the route to study later, in isolation. What is obvious, however, is that the best competition climbers are able to glean a huge amount of information from just viewing the route, and are able to onsight much harder routes as a result.
Robin Sutton and Alan Cassidy reading the men's final route at the 2008 BLCC at Blackpool. Notice how both climbers are physically miming the moves, a process which can create a strong neuromuscular memory model of the climb soon to be attempted.
Why is route reading useful?
Assuming you have the physical and technical capability to red-point a route, then the only thing distinguishing the red-point from the onsight, or flash, is information.In the absence of route reading, the only information you have to help your onsight is that gained while you are attempting it. This costs time as you hang around working out the next move. It is also more difficult to work out moves while on the route itself because you might not have the best vantage point to see the moves ahead (such as being under a roof), and even if you can see the next section of the route, if you are getting pumped, the lactic acid will interfere with your brain’s functioning, making it more difficult to concentrate.
So if you regularly find yourself in an impossible situation with your hands committed to the wrong holds, or you routinely find yourself clipping or placing gear from a desperate contorted position – only to make the next move and find a jug which you could have clipped from, or if you can never find rests on on-sights because you’re too busy concentrating on the climbing, then improving your route reading will make a definite improvement to your on-sight climbing.
Ben West onsighting the first pitch of Paradise Lost (7a+) on Cheddar's Sunset Buttress. On steep ground route reading can be critical to a successful onsight ascent, since you have limited time to work out what to do and holds can easily be hidden by overhangs and bulges in the rock. Note the way in which Ben is leaning well out from the jugs in the break, scoping the rock above for all the available clues about holds and the order in which they could be used.
How do you do it?
First of all, be patient. Route reading is a skill that comes with much practice, and will mirror your technical capabilities – for example, you can’t read a drop-knee move on a route if you’ve never done one before. But once you get into the habit of making time to practice it, it will become second nature, and you will appreciate the added challenge of climbing a route with your mind, before using your body.
1: Route Reading For Beginners
To start off, you shouldn’t expect to be able to read every move on the route. Begin by looking for the top of the route, the finishing hold, belay, or chain that you’re heading for, after all this is the goal so set your sights on that first. Now work down the line and look for obvious positions you will need to get into. Holds to the left of the line will naturally be best used with the left side of your body, and the holds to the right, with your right side. Simple. Now look for rests, can you bridge out anywhere? Are any holds particularly chalky – sure sign someone has hung onto it for longer than the others. Can you spot the crux? This will be dependant on your own weaknesses, smaller holds, a steeper angle, or a long reach between holds will be worth remembering.
Aim to spend at least five minutes reading the route, establishing exactly where you think you should climb it. You could involve your partner in this process, if they are at a similar level to you. It could even be useful to write down some notes at this point. Now climb the route, and try and use the information you picked up. Afterwards analyse whether it helps, refer to your notes if you made them and note where – if anywhere, you might have gone wrong. Maybe you thought there would be a rest, or perhaps you misjudged a hold, have a good look at it now, and you might not make the same mistake again.
2: Intermediate Route Reading
Once you have mastered the above, read the route upwards from hold to hold, counting the moves as you do so: you should be able to feel if the sequence you've interpreted is right by miming the moves with your body. If there is a counter-intuitive move, make an extra effort to burn that into your memory. Now polish off the mental map by looking for the least strenuous positions to clip from, and any rests of offer. Again, try the route: did you read it right?
A common problem is that of scale, what looks like an impossibly long reach might be fine, and what may seem a reasonable move might be impossible. A good trick here is to stand next to the wall and measure your reach. With a panelled indoor wall you can judge your height in terms of panels, and project yourself onto the route. Bear in mind also that the most influential factor will be the holds, undercuts/ underclings are great for getting lots of height from, slopers are the exact opposite.
Top Belgian climber Olivier Favaresse doing some advanced route reading whilst onsighting the classic face pitch of 'Coito Luminoso..' (7b+) sector Surgencia, Rodellar, Spain. The technical and intricate nature of slab and face climbing means that this is often the most demanding type of climbing to read, and therefore the best possible medium in which to practice route reading. You'll learn a lot more by trying to read a pitch like this than by spotting the over-chalked jugs on a classic roof pitch!
3: Advanced Route Reading
Now that you’re a wizard at reading hand sequences, and can do the waving the arms around thing with complete confidence, it’s time to look at reading foot moves. Much of the time, the feet will just follow the hands, but look out for drop-knees, body cams, heel hooks, and in roofs, toe hooks. Indoor routes often have specific, small footholds, not only do you have to recognise these for your feet, but be sure not to read them as hand holds.
Pace is a much under-discussed aspect of climbing, and in reading a route it is possible - and often useful - to mentally mark some sections as being suited to a faster pace than others. Clearly, steep terrain is better passed more quickly, and less steep, but more subtly, technical terrain will require a slower, more considered pace. Again, mentally mark sections with notes like: ‘when I get to the steep section make the clip and blast it until I reach the jug’.
So far we have looked at all route reading as though there was a definite answer that can always be unlocked by reading the route. Yet there are often different ways of performing a move: if it’s not obvious which way to tackle it from the ground, then the wisest approach may be to have two possibilities in mind, and make a quick decision when you get to it. Similarly, where there is a section that is too complex, don’t feel you have to decide what you are going to do unless you are reasonably sure that it is the right thing to do – better to work it out when you get there (you can decide the position on the route you are going to work it out from in your route reading on the ground).
This technique was used extensively by French competition climbers in the 1990's – and for obvious reasons is best used on an indoor wall route that you’re not particularly bothered about falling off. Read the route as you have learnt to do, and then climb it exactly as you read it. If you obviously got it wrong, then you will probably fall off, or at least make it obviously more difficult that it really is. The theory goes that this ‘punishment’ will encourage more attention to be given to the route reading.
Much of this article has looked at competition climbing, as this is where route reading has its roots as a specific skill. But it applies equally well outside. Climbing outside, of course, there aren’t the strict rules, and so we can be far more creative in getting legitimate information without blowing the onsight: If there’s a route you really want to onsight, start off by doing the routes that are near it (assuming that they are easier), there’s nothing wrong with having a peek to the side whilst you’re climbing. Walk around to the top and peer over the edge, it often looks very different, check out the finishing holds if possible. You can even use binoculars to look at the holds (a technique pioneered by Japanese ace Yuji Hiriyama). And then there’s down-climbing: go up as far as you feel you can down-climb from, get the gear in and check the holds, and climb come back down to a rest: an incredibly useful tool in the onsight climber's box of tricks.
Amy Colson doing some ultra-long distance route reading with a telescope on Lundy Island. For extremely long pitches (both sport and trad) and mountain routes, binoculars or telescopes are invaluable tools for route reading.
All photographs copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
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