What Are Climbing? - The Ultimate Climbing Primer

One of my best girlfriends Rachel told me on Facebook one day that the lingo we use as climbers sounds like a foreign language. It takes a long time to get used to all the terminology used in climbing, on top of building the strength, technique, and endurance needed to not suck as a climber. So, for those of you that read my blog and social media nonsense about climbing but don't climb yourselves, here's a reference guide.

1) Types of Climbing
2) Terminology
3) Grading of boulders and roped climbs

Thanks to my awesome climbing friends for causing this post to get wildly out of hand. I've removed a lot of the more advanced terminology to try and cut this beast down. 0.0

And also thanks to my favorite little brother and crusher, Elan, for modeling for my photos.

Types of Climbing

Bouldering - shorter walls, or literally 'boulders' outside (big-ass rocks). No ropes. Crash pads are used outside, thicker moveable pads in the gym. Totally still possible to get hurt, but you can learn how to fall and sorta-kinda avoid it.

Sport/lead climbing - Climbers wear harnesses and other gear, and start on the ground with the rope strung between them. As the climber ascends, he/she clips the rope into quick draws (explained below). Outside, quick draws are not already attached to the walls as they are indoors, so the climber climbs with several quick draws attached to their harness. When they reach a clip, they first clip the draw into a pre-set bolt in the wall, then clip the rope into the draw. Indoors or out, when the climber falls, they fall the distance from their body to the draw below them, to the draw below that, and then typically a little more than that as the rope stretches and they pull their belayer off the ground (called a whip, explained below).

Top roping - Climber and belayer tie in to a rope that is strung over a cross-bar near the ceiling. As the climber ascends, the belayer essentially acts as a pulley system, keeping the rope taut so if the climber slips, they don't go anywhere. Literally no where. (Unless your belayer is literally the worst belayer ever, then why are you even allowing them to belay you....)


Approach  - the hike to get to a climb.

Ape index - the ratio of your height to your wingspan. Normally -1, 0, or +1, meaning your arms span a length roughly the same as your height, one inch shorter or one inch longer. (If you are 57 inches tall, and your wing span is 58 inches, then you have a +1 ape index.) It's typically considered better for climbers to have longer ape indexes because it allows them to reach further. The struggle here is real for me, because my ape index is -3. I'm basically a T-rex. It's fine.

Back clip - in lead climbing, when a climber accidentally clips the rope into the draw backwards so the climber's end of the rope is coming from behind the quick draw, closest to the wall. Increases friction, slows the climber, makes the climb more difficult and significantly increases the chance of a blown clip should the climber fall.

Barn door - one side of your body swings away from the wall, literally like a barn door.

Bat hang - hanging from a hold by the tops of your toes. Pretty sketchy; Elan didn't even want to model it because of the possibility of falling on your head.

Bat hang position
Beached whale - exactly what I do during a sketchy copout (explained below) - just lay down. On your face.

Belay - using gear and techniques to manage your climber's rope while they are ascending a climb. Top roping belaying is straightforward and easy, and lead climb belaying is a little more complicated and (to me) daunting, because in most cases your belaying abilities are what separates your climber from a comfortable whip (explained below) to a serious deck (explained below), and injury or even death.

Beta - information about a climb, how to do certain moves, or seeing someone else climb a climb before you. If I can't figure out a move on a boulder problem, I usually ask someone stronger than me to show me how to do it - aka, I ask them for beta.

Bicycle - squeezing a hold between the tops of the toes of one foot and the bottoms of the toes of the other foot.

Bicycle foot position
Blown clip - two types: 1) a lead climber has just pulled up slack to attempt to clip a draw and fell in the process, causing them to take a longer-than-average whip (explained below), or 2) when a climber has made a mistake in clipping that wasn't caught by their belayer, such as a back clip or z-clip (explained below) - when the climber falls their rope 'blows' out of the draw and that piece of equipment doesn't catch them.

Cheese grate - on a slab (explained below) when you fall, you slide down the wall and go bumpity-bumpity-bump, literally like a cheese grater. So much fun.

Crimp - A teeny little hold that comes out of the wall that is the width of the last pad on your finger, or less. Sometimes denoted by full-pad, half-pad, etc. Often called "sharp" for obvious reasons, or even "jug crimp" if it's little but super positive.
Hand position on a typical crimp
Crux - the most difficult part or move of a climb.

Deadpoint - the furthest point you can reach in one move. Usually requires a full extension of your body from the tip of your toe to the tip of the fingers of your reaching hand (if you're doing it right.)

Deck - when you have a sucky belayer and you fall from wherever you are on the climb all the way to the ground. Obviously not ideal.

Dyno - abbreviation for 'dynamic', or 'dynamic movement'. A dyno is a movement that is not static (see below.) Usually requires some sort of momentum or 'swing' in the movement to get you to the next hold. Because of my size and ape index, I tend to be a very dynamic climber. I fight against it a lot because it does take away some of your control over your movements, but it's often a necessity for me to compensate for my physical attributes.

Flag - using your opposite foot to counterbalance your weight. Usually used to help prevent a barn door….or just because it looks pretty.

Foot position for a flag
Flash - finishing a problem after getting some beta about the climb. For example, walking up to a boulder problem, watching someone else climb it, then climbing it yourself and finishing it on your first try.

Gaston - a hold with a grip facing toward you, so you have to face your palm away from your body to utilize it.

Right hand positioned for a gaston
Grade - the difficulty level of a climb. Different systems are used for bouldering versus roped climbing, and I'll explain them below.

Heel hook - putting your heel into a hold and pulling down on it to create momentum. My personal favorite climbing move, because I'm a shrimp.

Foot position for a heel hook
Jug - a big-ass hold you can essentially hold with your entire hand. As close to a ladder wrung as you're going to find in climbing.

^ That's a jug from the side
Lock-off - drawing a hold downward or across your body by drawing your elbows in - draws your body toward the forward hold without requiring you to dyno to it.

Elan locking off with both arms
Match - putting both hands on a hold at the same time.

On-site - to finish a problem (explained below) on your first try, without receiving any beta about the problem ahead of time.

Overhang - a wall that has an angle less than 90 degrees. Think climbing with your back toward the ground, more parallel than perpendicular.

Pinch  - just what it sounds like. A hold that is designed for you to have to 'pinch' it with your fingers.

Hand position for a pinch
Problem - a climb, from bottom to top. Used in bouldering because a climb is literally like a problem you have to 'figure out' - both mentally and physically - in order to get to the top.

Project - a climb you're working on but haven't finished yet. For me these are in the V5-V7 range.

Quick draw - a piece of equipment used in lead climbing to clip the rope into the wall. Consists of two carabiners attached by a thick piece of nylon.

^ That's a quick draw
Route - a roped climb, from bottom to top.

Send - completion of a bouldering problem.

Side-pull - a hold that has a grip facing sideways, away from your body.

Left hand position for a side pull
Slab - a wall with an angle of greater than 90 degrees from the floor. Thinking climbing with your chest slightly angled toward the ground. It sounds like it would be easier, but it's not - 1) If you fall you're going to cheese grate, making the climb a lot scarier (especially outside) and 2) slab climbs are usually a lot more technical. I personally love slab climbs, but that could be because there aren't many in our gym, so they are still very novel to me.

Sloper - a big round hold. Think trying to palm something, like a basketball.

^ That's a sloper
Smear - when no foot holds are present, literally 'smearing' the toe of your climbing shoe against the wall to get friction and cause momentum.

Foot position for a smear
Static  - a non-dynamic move (ok, I know that's lame.) Essentially means keeping most of your body still (static) while reaching for a hold using no swing or uncontrolled momentum.

Toe hook - using the tops of your toes against a hold to hold your body steady. I suck big butt at these. Elan does not.

Foot position for a toe hook
Top out - when the top of a boulder problem is reached, 'topping out' requires a climber to climb up and over the top of the boulder to complete the climb. Lots of indoor boulders require you to either down-climb or simply jump down when you reach the top of the problem, but some indoor (and nearly all outdoor) boulders require a topout.

^ This is what a topout boulder looks like in the gym.
Note the down-climb ladder.
^ This is not a copout boulder. To come down from this wall a climber must jump or down-climb.

Undercling - a hold with a grip facing toward the ground. Much more useful once your upper body is level with or above the hold.

Hand position for an undercling
Whip - when a climber falls on lead, they fall the distance from their body to the draw below them, plus the distance to the draw below that, and then typically a little more than that as the rope stretches and they pull their belayer off the ground. If a climber has just pulled up a large amount of slack and attempted to clip a draw and fell in the process, they will also fall the distance they created with all that slack. There are such things as 70-foot whippers. Learning to whip and becoming desensitized to the fear of whipping is a huge part of becoming a good lead climber.

Z-clip - in lead climbing, when a climber pulls the rope from below the last quick draw to clip into their current quick draw. Causes a ton of friction, making the climb more difficult and increasing the chance of a blown clip should the climber fall. Basically makes the climb feel as if gravity just increased tenfold.

Grading of boulders and roped climbs

The two basic grading systems you'll see in U.S. gyms are bouldering grades (on a V scale) and roped climbs (on a 5-point-X scale). Climbs are basically graded by how difficult they are - how big the moves are, how strong your muscles and finger tendons have to be to complete the climb, how technical the moves are, etc.

Boulder grades in our gym typically range from V-Intro (as close to a ladder as you'll get) to V11, though outdoor boulders go up to …the Hell if I know, V16? Someone can correct me on that. I typically finish V4's in a couple of tries, V5's usually take me a couple days, and I've done two V6's since I started climbing. You can see a video of me climbing a V5 here, and a video of Elan climbing a V8 here.

Roped grades in our gym typically range from 5.6 (as close to a ladder as you'll get) to …. 5.13d? I only occasionally do roped climbing and thus don't know my actual skill level, but I think the hardest thing I've done is on-site a 5.11a on top rope (leading is more difficult, for the record).

The End! SHEW!


  1. I'm totally bookmarking this so the next time you say "I sent a V76 with half pad crimps and didn't even cheese grate on the slab" I'll know what you're talking about. Also I literally LOL'd at your ape index description. :)


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