No matter what type of climber you are, you’ve probably onsighted something, even if you don’t know what it means. For some people, their onsighting grade can mean a lot to them, while others may not even know what onsighting means. We’re going to break down some onsight climbing tips and tricks to help improve your ability with both sport climbing and bouldering.
Entering into the world of climbing can be overwhelming for a variety of reasons. It can be very costly, it can take lots of physical and mental strength and endurance, but it also is a community filled with jargon. Every aspect of climbing can seem to have its own distinct language at first glance. Onsighting is just one of the many words that you are likely to come across as you begin climbing.
What is Onsight Climbing?
Onsight climbing is to lead a climb on the first attempt, no prior knowledge or attempts. It’s a term that is often used to discuss someone’s level of climbing. For example, your friend might ask you what your onsight grade is. What they’re really asking is what grade of climb you are able to complete on the first try.
Although onsighting is a term that is most commonly associated with sport climbing, it can be used to describe bouldering too. Onsighting is about pushing yourself to the comfortable edge of your limit. It’s not necessarily the hardest thing you could ever get up, but it’s the hardest climb you can complete cleanly, that is to say, with no falls.
One of the main characteristics of onsight climbing is that you go into the climb with no previous knowledge. This means that you haven’t read the beta in the guidebook or on mountain project, or worked on the climb years ago, or had your friend climb it and tell you all about it. Onsight climbing is about reading the rock and the climb with your own eyes and being able to understand what you need to do to get to the top.
How is it Different than Flashing or Redpointing in Climbing?
Other commonly used terms in climbing are flashing or redpointing a climb. A climb that you have flashed or redpointed is a climb that you either got beta or moves from a fellow climber, had previous knowledge such as reading the beta beforehand or had previously tried the climb on toprope, but you are now able to lead the climb. The first time you lead a climb that you had previous knowledge of or experience with is called a flash or redpoint.
Flashing and redpoint aren’t skills to be downplayed at all and take lots of practice as well. While this article is focusing specifically on onsighting, it is not meant to say anything negative about flashing or redpointing. In fact, if you want to improve your flash grade or redpoint grade, you can use many of these same tips to push that grade up as well.
Onsight Climbing Tips for Sport Climbers
Onsight climbing is an art that takes practice, but there are some tips and tricks that you can use to help improve your onsight climbing abilities. These tips and tricks will help to guide your training to improve your onsighting ability but are not a magic key to onsighting harder climbs. They are more of guidelines to keep in mind and to help focus your training more.
1. Find a flow
In order to develop your onsighting ability, you have to be able to develop a flow to your climbing. This serves multiple purposes, it allows you to connect moves more smoothly, and it will enable you to climb at your limit for longer. Choppy, dynamic climbing is more likely to tire out your muscles and can lead to injury. Your best bet for completing a climb on the first try is to map out the climb in your head and then find the flow in the climb.
Another way to think of flow is a smooth, static climb. Static climbing tends to be smoother overall and take less energy than harsh dynamic movements. Sometimes dynamic movements are necessary, but if you only focus on dynamic movements, you’re more likely to get tired quickly, hurt yourself, or fall. Focusing on static movement may not seem as exciting, but it can help you climb for longer.
2. Understand why you are falling
This might sound obvious, but don’t just look at the spot you’re falling, look at the exact move. Maybe you fall when you try to stem out left. That gives you a direction to focus on. If you understand exactly what moves tend to cause you to fall, you are better able to practice those moves so you won’t fall the next time.
The next time you go out climbing for a day, bring a notebook with you and jot down each time you fall. Take note of the move you were doing and why you fell. Were you too pumped? Did you not have enough flexibility or finger strength? What muscle gave out first? What style of move was hardest? Understanding these questions can allow you to better train in the gym. You can find routes that utilize or emulate these skills and practice there to gain confidence and precision.
3. Learn to read the rock
This is a skill that can only be developed with time spent climbing. If you can walk up to a crag that you’ve never seen before and understand the flow of a route just from looking at it from the ground, you can read the rock. To develop this skill, we recommend climbing. This might sound simple, but the more routes you climb, the more the flow of routes will make sense to you intuitively.
If you find that climbing a particular style of climb is easy for you while you always get stuck on a different style, maybe try working on some routes in your challenge style. That way, you can start to understand that style of the route more and be better able to read those routes. If your goal is to onsight a slab climb of a certain grade, but you only ever climb overhanging climbs, you are likely to struggle if you don’t take the time to learn to read slab rock first.
4. Use your rests efficiently
Plan out the rests that you plan to take while you’re still on the ground. If you see a really good chalked up jug, aim for that. All you have to do is figure out how to get to that rest. From that rest, pick the next good rest spot and aim for that. This breaks the climb up into more manageable and smaller chunks. Often times it is easier to think about a series of 10 moves as opposed to trying to think about a series of 50 moves.
Good rest spots on larger sport climbing routes tend to be the obvious jugs that are covered in lots of chalk. Just don’t get mixed up by looking at the small challenging holds that are also likely to be covered in chalk. Places, where you might be able to hook a knee or get in a solid stemming position, are also good potential rests. These might even give you a hands-free rest so you can shake out both arms at once.
One thing to note with rests is that a more extended rest is not always a better rest. If you stay on a rest for 5 minutes, shaking out one arm and then the other, you are not utilizing that rest as efficiently as you could be. A good rule of thumb to follow is that your rest should never be longer than it took you to get from the previous rest to where you are. So, for example, if it took you one minute to climb from the last rest to where you are, you might think about resting for 30-45 seconds and then moving on. This tends to give you the most optimal rest length.
5. Climb with purpose
Don’t waste your energy trying out every single possible handhold within your reach before you finally decide to commit to one. By the time you commit, your hand has lost all its grip strength, and what might be a good hold, will now feel poor. We know it can be hard, but as best as you can, stick to the first or second hold, you try. The more times you readjust your body and try a different grip or a different stance, the more likely you are to run out of energy.
Like the previous tips have stressed, planning is super helpful when it comes to onsighting. Planning can also help you climb with purpose and not scramble around every time you move. If you have planned out even a few moves in front of you, the odds that you flow through the section and not try every hold are much higher than if you don’t plan at all.
6. Don’t overlook the warm-up
It might be tempting to get to the crag, rope up, and immediately start sending it. While this might work for climbs well within your range, if you’re working at pushing the upper limit of your climbing range, you should highly consider at least one warmup climb beforehand. Not only will doing a warmup climb warm-up your muscles and help to minimize the risk of injury, but it will also help wake up your mental game. Climbing anything will help get your climbing thoughts flowing and make it easier for you to focus on your climbs.
7. Project harder climbs
Projecting harder climbs on toprope is a great way to develop more confidence on challenging moves. It also gives you places to practice and perfect skills that you might be working on developing on the ground. Say you’re focusing on using your rest efficiently. Even if you plan out every rest while you’re still on the ground, it’s always better to get up a climb and actually practice it.
You could try projecting climbs on top rope or on lead; either style will help you to develop the flow and thought process necessary to improve your onsighting ability. You can pick a climb that you know you can do and try to think about it as if you were going to onsight it. Pretend that you’ve never seen the climb and try the thought process. Maybe you could pick a really challenging climb and just work on your flow. Focus on finding a training style that works for you and keeps you motivated to keep going.
8. Have patience
Onsighting is a skill that takes time to develop. It takes time for you to develop your ability to read the rock and to read your body and how you’re doing, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it feels like your onsight grade isn’t changing much. The process of climbing and developing skills is not something that happens overnight. The best advice we can offer you is to have patience and just keep trying.
Onsight Climbing Tips for Bouldering
While some onsight tips are the same between bouldering and sport climbing, not all tips carry over. Here are some tips and tricks more tailored to bouldering.
1. Understand common moves
Bouldering problems tend to focus around certain styles or common moves. Practice bouldering at your local gym or outdoor boulders frequently to try to get a better understanding of these common moves. For gyms, the common moves will depend on who is setting the routes, but outside it depends on the geology of the area. Some areas will have boulders that emphasize certain moves, but two hours away, the boulders will emphasize a totally different move. It’s all about where you are.
2. Read the chalk
Bouldering problems are short enough that most holds on a boulder problem get at least some chalk on them. Learning to look at the chalk and study it for areas that look indented, like a good hold, or for areas marked off with some type of dash, typically smaller holds that you can’t always see from the ground, can be really helpful. Make sure you avoid any areas that are X ed out, as those are unsafe places to grab on.
Unlike the longer sport routes, where not every hold is likely to have chalk, most boulders will be heavily chalked up, making it easy to read the route. Don’t be afraid to try out new holds, though. Maybe you have a longer arm span than many people or more flexibility, and a different hold works better for you. Outdoor climbing is unlike indoor climbing in that you can use any of the holds on a given area of rock, not just the most obvious ones.
3. Utilize your center of gravity to your advantage
Bouldering problems and moves tend to be more dynamic than longer and more sustained sport routes. This means that understanding where your center of gravity is at all points in time can be extremely helpful. It can allow you to use the swing of your body better and also allow you to stay safe while pushing yourself. If you don’t know how a certain move will affect the rest of your body, it may be hard to position a bouldering pad to adequately protect you if you do fall.
Wrapping Up How to Become Better at Onsight Climbing
There are so many ways to improve your onsight climbing ability, but they all take patience and some dedication. Onsighting is not a skill that is developed overnight. It’s not something that can be taught in one class. You can’t go out and learn to onsight, the same way you might go out and learn to tie a knot, for example. That being said, you can improve your onsight grade. It is a process, but it is a very achievable process. All it really takes is the motivation to go out and climb and the patience to keep working at it!
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like our other climbing tips here.