Rock climbing will make its Olympics debut on August 3rd and 4th in Tokyo. Brush up on your lingo below, then tune in on TV or online.
In recent years rock climbing gyms and public walls have been popping up in cities across the world—it’s time we face how popular climbing has become. (It's a dang Olympic sport these days even!) Even in a pandemic climbers are finding urban climbing spots in cities like NYC & Boston. And while the growth is great for the industry, it means an influx of enthusiastic and often clueless climbers.
The very uniqueness of the culture that draws people to the sport can itself be a daunting barrier to overcome as a beginner—a whole new language has to be learned in order to seamlessly communicate within the climbing community. In short, for newbies, deciphering what the hell anyone is talking about at the crag or the gym can be a real challenge.
Learning the lingo, language, slang, etc is the first step that any prospective climber should take. To help you avoid sounding like a total kook, we’ve gone ahead and outlined 45 essential climbing terms you need to know before you get in too deep.
Types of Climbing
Bouldering is the most simple, most accessible, and thus most popluar form of climbing. No ropes, only shoes and chalk (and hopefully some ground pads). It’s all about technical, difficult moves on short routes—generally no higher than about 15 feet from the ground. While rope climbing is more of a focus on endurance, bouldering is all about power and finess. What started as a way to train for roped climbing but has now evolved into a sport of its own.
Don’t call free-soloing free climbing. They’re different. This is one of the most common mistakes made by new climbers. Kind of like the old, all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares colloquialism, free-soloing is free climbing, but free climbing isn’t always free-soloing. Free climbing simply refers to any style of climbing where you strictly use your strength and skill to ascend a route (no tools, like ascenders or aiders). As long as you’re only using hand and footholds to get up a climb, you are free climbing. Free-soloing is just free climbing without a rope or partner, which is where the “soloing” comes in.
No partner, no gear, highest stakes. To free solo is to climb a route alone, without using any protective equipment—yes, just like Alex Honnold did on El Cap. A fairly uncommon type of climbing due to its extremely dangerous nature, those who do attempt free solos often choose easier routes, and rehearse many times before soloing harder grades. Deep Water Soloing is a less dangerous and more common type of solo climbing. Deep water solo-ers climb without a rope on overhanging rock faces above deep water. If the climber falls, the idea is that they fall unharmed into water, although rough seas can still pose risks.
Belaying is an essential part of any type of climbing that uses a rope. The belayer is the one responsible for catching the climber if they fall. They do this by running the rope through a belay device which is connected to their harness by a locking carabiner. When the rope is locked into a climber’s belay device, they are “on belay.” The climber is then as safe as they can be and free to get moving.
This type of climbing is done by running the rope up through an anchor at the top of the climb and then back down to the climber. This is the safest type of climbing as the belayer can constantly take up slack in the rope as the climber ascends the route, reducing the threat of falling.
Sport climbing is different from top roping in that the rope is not redirected through an anchor before it is attached to the climber. Instead the rope hangs below them with the belayer letting out slack as they climb. The climber will place quickdraws at bolts drilled along the route. That way, the climber can only fall as far as their last draw. This type of climbing where the rope trails behind the climber is called “lead climbing.”
Trad or traditional climbing is another form of climbing where leading is required. Instead of clipping quickdraws into preplaced bolts like in sport climbing however, the climber will place their own protection as they ascend. This protection is non-permanent and the climber relies on pockets, cracks and other rock formations to leave gear in that works much like quickdraws do in that they will only fall as far as their last piece of protection.
Climbers with permanent physical disabilities may be considered Adaptive climbers. Adaptive climbing can look different depending on the individual and the ways they need/prefer to adapt their climbing technique to work with their body. In some cases, an adaptive climber may use a chair harness and an ascender to scale walls (pictured).
Instead of boulders, you’re climbing buildings or other human-made structures—buildering, get it? Make sure you've got an extra spotter to keep an eye out for security guards.
The method of descending from the top of a wall or pitch using a belay device on a doubled rope, fixed from above. If you're Eüro, you might say abseil!
Climbing Slang & Terminology
This is one of the most useful terms for beginners to learn. Beta is any help or advice from another climber in regards to a climb. Stuck on a move? A request for beta from a more experienced climber will often help get you past it. Careful though, it isn’t usually wanted unless asked for!
To “sus” is to check out. Before your first attempt on that boulder problem, you probably want to sus it out first. Inspect the holds, visualise the movement, feel the texture of the rock.
The rock tears a massive chunk of flesh that hangs from your finger. It may look like a bloody mess, but don’t fear - flappers heal quickly and they are an inevitable part of the rock-climbing experience.
This is a term that you’ll hear and probably use a lot. And contrary to what you might think, getting pumped doesn’t mean excited in the climbing world. Far from it, getting pumped describes the sensation of extreme fatigue you get in your forearms. When you’re hanging on with everything you’ve got for an extended period of time, lactic acid begins to accumulate in your muscles as the forearms fatigue, making them feel inflated and clumsy, hence the name.
Sending a route is the most common use of the term. This means successfully reaching the top and finishing a climb. You might also hear someone yelling at you to “Send it!” If you’re climbing strong, they’re most likely encouraging you not to give up and keep at it. If you’ve been frozen in the same position for the last 5 minutes, scared to make the next move, being told to “send it” likely means, “Quit being a wimp and go for it already!” Either way, it’s a good term to know.
Basically, bomber just means, really good. If you have a bomber anchor, or hold, it means that it wouldn’t budge even if you nuked it. You won’t have to worry about falling if you have some bomber protection in the rock.
A whipper is a big fall. It’s called this because when a climber falls on lead from above their last piece of protection, they’ll plummet in an arcing, whip-like motion. If you take an impressive fall, you might hear another climber exclaim in admiration, “That was a whipper!” Hopefully the verbal support will reduce the sting of the fall.
A command phrase used for roped climbing. The phrase refers to taking up slack in a rope system. For example, when a climber completes a route they’ll often shout “Take!” so their belayer knows to tighten the rope by taking slack through the belay device, allowing the climber to weight the rope without moving down the wall.
“The crux” refers to the most difficult move or series of moves on a climb. Climbs are rated based on the crux, not their average difficulty. You might cruise easily up half a climb but find yourself unable to make it past the crux move. While the moves in gyms are usually fairly consistent with their ratings, top to bottom, when climbing outdoors, you might be in for 100 feet of 5.9 or 90 feet of 5.7 with about 10 feet of 5.9. This is why reading guidebooks and researching routes is so important in climbing. Know before you go.
General term for an outdoor climbing area with plentiful routes. Can also be used as a verb- cragging is the activity of spending a day at a climbing spot and hopefully having a great time working a project or just sending some moderate routes.
A project is a route or climb that a climber is dedicating time to work on—generally at or just above their ability level. While not terribly specific to climb, it's a term you'll hear plenty. Often used as a verb, as in "projecting" or in shorthand as proj—even if only in a kind of jest. "Let's go to the crag on Saturday so I can work my proj."
The route or hike to the base of a climb.
At the gym you usually jump or downclimb from the final holds, but most outdoor boulders must be “topped out” in order to complete problems. Topping out by definition is the final act of climbing a problem, up and over until you’re able to stand on top of the boulder. Unfortunately, after pulling through pumpy moves, topping out can sometimes be the hardest part of the climb!
Spotting is a safety measure most commonly used in bouldering and sometimes before a climber has placed protective gear on a sport or trad route. A spotter remains below a climber, with arms raised, prepared to help guide their fall to a crash pad and ensure they don’t fall head first or backwards. There’s a lot that goes into being an excellent spotter and if not done correctly, spotting can lead to injury. Be sure to read up on spotting technique before offering a spot to others!
Those mattresses you see boulderers carrying around on their backs. When bouldering outdoors climbers, will strategically place crash pads in the fall zone of whatever their attempting to provide a cushy landing.
A rack refers to a climber’s sport climbing or trad gear, usually organized onto a sling and harness.
Climbing Holds & Wall Features
This will quickly become one of your favorite words. A jug—coming from the term “jug-handle”—simply means a great big hand hold. Something you could do pullups on if you wanted. It’s always a relief to slap your hand onto one of these. Stretches of rock that have a stockpile of amazing holds are endearingly referred to as “jug-hauls.”
A sloper is a type of hold that can’t really be held onto by gripping or using fingers. Instead, you’ll be relying a lot upon friction, palming the hold and creating as much surface area contact as possible. A slopey climb will usually be a slightly less steep pitch where you’ll have to rely on friction instead of the more distinct hand and footholds found on other types of climbs.
Like jugs, crimps are a kind of hand hold. though unlike jugs, crimps usually aren’t much to get excited about. These are small holds, only large enough to engage the fingertips. If you’re going to tackle a “crimpy” climb, you’ll want to have some good footholds to take the weight off your fingers. Also be prepared for a healthy dose of forearm pump.
Exactly what it sounds like. The type of hand-hold best used by squeezing both sides with thumb and fingers.
Another self-descriptor. Pockets are smaller circular hand-hold that often can only be held with 2-3 fingers. Such a hold with only enough room for one digit is known as a mono-pocket.
Named after the world-class bouldering destination Hueco Tanks, Texas, “hueco” is the Spanish word for hollows, describing the type of hold commonly found at Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site. These are large circular handholds ranging from a size to fit your whole hand or in some cases, your whole body.
A wide, vertical crack large enough for a climber to fit inside and shimmy up. Successful climbers will ascend the inside the chimney by using opposing force with the feet and the body.
Crumbly, or loose rock, usually considered unsafe to climb. If you’re one of the twisted few who choose to tackle chossy rock, carefully inspect and test holds by gently tapping on it. If it sounds hollow or moves, don’t use it!
An overhang refers to a rock face at an angle greater than 90 degrees (vertical). Particularly steep overhangs that nearly or completely reach horizontal, are called a roof.
The type of rock face positioned at an angle less steep than vertical. Successful slab climbing is often dependent on trusting friction, precise footwork, and balance.
A highball is a boulder problem that is long and high off the ground, so a resulting fall could result in serious injury. Any boulder taller than 15 feet is usually considered a highball, with an upper limit around 25-35 feet. Even with the most crash pads and best spotters, falling from a highball boulder can result in injury, that’s why successful high ball boulderers climb with the mindset that they won't fall. Added height and risk can make a highball send feel extra rewarding!
A fancy, French way to refer to the outward-facing corner of a rockface. Difficult arête routes will demand heel hooks, toe-scums, and slap moves.
Climbing Terms Denoting Movement
It seems simple in theory- throw your heel around a hold or feature to use those powerful leg muscles to pull you into the wall. But when used properly, this simple move can is one of the best climbing techniques available for taking weight off your arms, keeping your hips close the wall for balance, and generating power towards your next hold.
An essential footwork technique for steep overhangs. Using the friction of shoe-rubber on the top of your toes and flexing your foot up, against the rock. This position is useful for keeping four points of contact on the wall, and distributing body weight to your feet - giving your arm muscles a rest.
When there’s a lack of footholds, using friction to of shoe rubber on the bare rock. A tip on smearing - fake it til you make it! The more pressure you put on your smearing foot, the friction there is to help it stick.
Flagging is a body position essential for beginners breaking into higher grades! Flagging allows you to use a free-hanging foot as a counterbalance to statically make the next move. By extending your foot out to one side of your body it acts like a tail, keeping your balance and helping you use less energy on the wall.
A static, controlled movement of pulling down on a hand-hold until your arm is in a bent position, then using body tension to hold the locked position in order to reach the next hold with your free hand.
A dynamic climbing technique in which the climber times a their movement with the brief instance when their bodyweight is not being pulled downwards by gravity. Not to be confused with a dyno.
A dynamic climbing movement that requires an explosion of momentum to send your body in the direction of your next handhold. A true dyno requires that both hands to simultaneously leave the wall on their way to grabbing the next holds. While dynos occur in outdoor boulder problems and roped routes, they are often set for indoor competition boulders due to their showy and outrageous nature.
Traversing means climbing horizontally instead of vertically. Traversing can be an excellent way to warm up, but there are also plenty of classic outdoor boulder problems that simply traverse to a low top-out.
Drop-knee is a footwork technique that allows certain moves to feel significantly easier! It involves extended straight on a foothold, and heavily weighting the outside edge of the opposing foot— swiveling the corresponding hip towards the wall and torquing the knee downwards. This knee torque brings your hip close to the wall, allowing an easier reach to the next handhold.