Climbing Dictionary

One of the first things you notice about climbing is that, just like other sports and pastimes, it has its own language and terminology, as well as its own system of grading difficulty. If you hear someone use a word then feel free to look it up on here. This is an edited down list of the words used in our Climbing Club. You can access the full list by clicking here.


ABSEIL. To descend a rope using a descender or maybe with just the rope round your body (a classic abseil). Potentially lethal; the cause of more deaths than actually climbing upwards. Often abbreviated to AB.

ARÊTE. An outward pointing bit of rock; a ridge or rib. Not to be confused with a corner.

ASCENDER. A device for climbing the rope when all else fails, or even, occasionally, by design. May be a simple prusik or more or less sophisticated mechanical device. [Mike Swann]

BACK AND FOOT. A technique for climbing chimneys where you put your back on one wall and push your feet against the opposite wall.

BARN DOOR. To swing round, away from the rock, when all your holds are on one side of your body; especially likely when laybacking an arête. Usually experienced where the hands and feet are on the same vertical surface, or the hands are holding something beyond the feet.

BELAY. (noun) A place where you attach yourself to the rock. This can either be done briefly (during a climb, you put in protection to create a “running belay” that the rope is clipped to) or more long-term, between pitches. In the latter case, the belay should involve many independent connections to the rock (or other immovable objects) that can bear a shockload of one or both climbers falling off. (verb) To protect another climber by preventing the rope from slipping; either with a belay device or with a body belay.

BELAY DEVICE. A piece of equipment which you use to control the rope when belaying. Belay devices include “belay tubes” (many brands), the Figure eight, the Gri-gri, and the Sticht plate.

BELLY TRAVERSE. A traverse that involves wriggling on your belly to get from one side of a shelf to the other (because the shelf isn’t high enough to let you stand up). Done well, looks very professional, as it enables hands and feet off rest. Done badly, is the source of much amusement for watchers. Most people do it badly. Also known as a stomach traverse. [Ian Redmond]

BETA. Knowledge of trick moves or protection or just about anything about a route available before you start. Initially from the US, possibly from “Betamax” (early videotape format). If you get the beta on a route, you shouldn’t encounter any nasty surprises. However, knowing the beta also negates the ideal onsight. Some purists argue that even route descriptions in guidebooks constitute beta, though this makes it hard to know how you could knowingly climb the route.

BODY BELAY. A belay performed by wrapping the rope around the body to provide friction should the climber fall. Painful.

BOLT. An expansion bolt (think: a big metal Rawlplug) fixed permanently into the rock face to protect a climb, thus removing the adventure climbing aspect. Used widely in France and other parts of the Continent; used sparingly (on average) in the UK, but some crags (such as Portland or Lower Pen Trwyn or some Welsh slate) are almost entirely bolt-protected. Arguments about bolts are unceasing on climbing discussion boards, and outside too. Bolts are the “murderers of the impossible” according to Reinholt Messner, but it’s unarguable that sport climbing has played a key part in pushing climbing standards.

BOMBER, BOMBPROOF. (Of holds, or gear) very good; could withstand the fabled bomb hitting them.

BOULDERING. Relatively low height climbing, often very technical, usually solo. Usually climbing is on boulders (hence the name), but the more technical starts of routes are often “bouldered” as well, without ropes or protection, except for a bouldering mat.
BOULDERING MAT. A mattress sized foam block for protecting falls while bouldering (and sometimes climbing).

BOWLINE. A knot, used as an alternative to the figure of eight to attach the rope to your harness. When used in the “double” form, three loops are created, allowing the raising or lowering of an injured casualty. The knot is more complicated to tie than the figure of eight (and so easier to tie wrongly, which can be disastrous) but some climbers prefer its increased secureness. Also easier to untie after having been loaded (by falling or toproping) than the figure of eight.

BREAK. A horizontal crack.

BRIDGE. To climb a route by applying equal pressure with the feet and hands in opposite directions on opposing pieces of the rock face. Useful in chimneys, corners and grooves.

BULGE. A small rounded overhang.

BUTTRESS. A large protruding face or area of a crag.

CAMPUS BOARD. Overhung board with thin (one joint or so) wooden holds; meant to be ascended without using the feet. Can destroy tendons astonishingly fast. The acme of achievement is “1-5-9” (double-handed dynos from the first to fifth to ninth hold).

CAMPUSING. Ascending a route (usually overhung) using only the hands, in the style of one training on a campus board. Can be used as a training technique and also for impressing the girls… [Wendy Allison]

CHIMNEY. A crack wide enough to fit your whole body into.

CHALK. White stuff (magnesium carbonate, in fact) intended to keep hands dry, though “to keep holds white” sometimes seems like a more realistic description. Not the same as teachers’ chalk or gymnasts’ resin.

CHEATING. In a “sport” which has no rules, and where death is always a distinct possibility, it’s hard to say that cheating as such exists while on a route. Pulling on protection, falling off, escaping to another, easier route or simply retreating can all be wise in the event. These only become “cheating” if you deny them afterwards and inflate your claims, perhaps saying you flashed a route when in fact you fell, or rested on the gear. Even this can be irrelevant … nobody cares if you made it up that HVS cleanly except, apparently, you … unless such claims could endanger others. Honesty is thus highly prized among climbers, and the suggestion that someone did not climb a route cleanly or never reached the top is a great insult. With no rules, climbing relies on a web of ethics; without trust, the enjoyment goes. OK?

CHIPPING. The artificial manufacturing of holds where none exist, or the wilful enlarging of existing holds. Punishable by being banished to Holland which is completely flat and has no decent rocks, once the people who caught you let you out of hospital.

CHOCKSTONE. A piece of rock which is jammed immovably in a crack. Can be used as a hold or threaded.

CHOSS. Soil, dirt, rubble, stones, vegetation, in fact anything other than good clean stable rock.

CLEANING. The act of removing loose rock, plant life and gravel from a route which if left in situ would render the route unsafe for you, your second or both. Enthusiastic cleaning is hard to distinguish from chipping.

CLOVE HITCH. A twin loop knot, used when the force exacted on each side of the knot is considered to be equal, Some use this knot in conjunction with two half hitches or thumb knots to form the basis of a ground ancher. Often used when placings for gear-based anchors are missing, or to tie off ropes (say, doubled back from a belay anchor). [Adam Palmer]

CORNER. The inverse of an arête; like the crease of an open book. The most beautiful example in the UK is Dinas Cromlech, cleaved at 90 degrees. A really deep groove is indistinguishable from a corner.
CRACK. A split or fissure in the rock face. Horizontal cracks are known as breaks; wide cracks may be offwidths or chimneys. A very thin crack that will not easily take protection is known as a seam; it may take a piton.

CRAG. Any large expanse of rock.

CRIMP. A small hold onto which you can just get the ends of your fingers (or toes!).

CRUX. The hardest move on a pitch or the hardest pitch on a climb.

DEAD ROPE. The slack rope from the belay device, as opposed to the Live Rope on the other side of the belay device that goes to the climber. It is critical that at least one hand is firmly kept on the Dead Rope at all times. With no hands on the Dead Rope it can quickly turn into the ‘Death Rope’. [Steve Payne]

DECKING OUT. Falling and hitting the ground, usually hurting oneself, through lack of protection. Not recommended. Also known as a Desmond (geddit?).

DEEP WATER SOLOING A climb carried out on a cliff that is situated above the sea. Done without gear as the decking out is reduced in sting by landing in the deep water. [Louis Joyce]

DESCENDER. A friction device used when abseiling, such as a figure eight or a Sticht plate.

DISCO LEG. Uncontrollable shaking of one or both legs on a climb. Curable by pushing the heel of the leg downwards while the toe stays on the rock. Usually indicates imminent retreat, either voluntary or gravity-assisted.

DYNAMIC ROPE. A rope that allows some stretch when loaded. This reduces the shock-loading to the system (and the climber), and therefore improves safety. As opposed to a static rope.

DYNO. A dynamic move (jumping) for an out-of-reach hold. Fun to try at the climbing wall, scary outside on lead.

EXCITING. Guidebook speak for both bold and difficult. At some point before an “exciting” move you will have a brief meditation on life, and how it might shortly be coming to an end. The best way to tackle such moves is actually not in an excited frame of mind, but rather calmly.

EXPANDING FLAKE. A flake that moves when pulled on, or which looks as if it might move or even detach completely if pulled hard enough (for example, by falling onto a Friend placed behind it).

EXPOSED. The kind of position where you suddenly realise how far away the ground has become; a route or move that takes you into such a position. EXTENDER. A quickdraw.

FALL FACTOR. A number describing the severity of a fall, calculated by dividing the distance fallen by the length of rope between the falling climber and the belay. The forces involved in a fall are roughly proportional to the climber’s weight and the fall factor.

FIGURE OF EIGHT. The most commonly used knot to attach a climber to the rope. (Strictly, it is a rethreaded figure of eight.) Solid, unlikely to slip, easy to teach and learn, and easy to see when it is tied wrongly.

FIGURE OF FOUR. Peculiar climbing move which you won’t believe until you see or try it. Essential when you have a brilliant handhold but absolutely no footholds. With one hand on the hold, wrap the opposite leg over the holding wrist. With a good enough hold and enough flexibility, you can get the thigh over the wrist. From here it is possible to reach up to higher holds. Preferable to a dyno if the higher hold is not very good, as it keeps the body close to the wall. Most useful on vertical or overhanging routes. Increasingly used by competition ice climbers, who put their leg over their embedded ice axe.

FINGERBOARD A large piece of wood with individual strips of wood attached. Used by experienced climbers to increase the strength in their fingers by doing pull ups and moves without the aid of their feet. Potentially very bad for finger tendons and ligaments if tried when not completely warmed up.

FLAG. To stick a foot out sideways for balance, especially when stopping yourself from barn dooring.

FLAKE. A partially detached section of rock which will often yield good holds along its detached edge. Beware! Some flakes are expanding.

FLAPPER. Horrible little loose bit of skin that hangs off your fingers, invariably following intense bouldering on sharp rock such as greywacke (eg. Baring Head).

FLASH. To climb a route without practice (but perhaps with beta) without falls on the first viewing and first attempt. (This is very similiar to onsight, which is even purer: no beta.) Opinion is divided as to what constitutes beta: to some people, even knowing the route’s grade makes an ascent a flash rather than an onsight. Also sometimes prepended to “git” when someone achieves this feat.

FLYING LESSON. What a light-weight second gets when he hasn’t anchored himself and his heavier leader takes a fall. [Mike Swann]

FREE CLIMBING. Progressing up a route by using your body rather than the gear.

GARDENING. Cleaning a potential route in such an aggressive manner that it verges on chipping.

GEAR. See protection.

GRADE. How difficult it is to climb something. A complete discussion of grades is far beyond this article (see instead our articles on English grading and Bouldering grading). Grades and grading systems are a source of constant dispute, even more than bolts, despite the fact that all climbs fall into two categories: can do and can’t do.

GRI-GRI. A belay device which automatically locks when the leader of a climb pulls very hard on the rope. This can happen when they fall off, and less conveniently when they urgently need some extra rope.

GRIPPED. Terrified, unable to move, gripping the rock for dear life.

GROOVE. Not foot-tapping rhythmic music, but rather, a long indentation in the rock face which is neither deep enough to be a crack nor defined enough to be a corner .

GUIDEBOOK SPEAK. The idiosyncratic language of climbing guides: bold, delicate, exciting, interesting, thoughtful, traditional.

HARNESS. Combination of waist loop and leg loops, with belay loop and gear loops that climbers wear when not soloing. Should be comfortable for hanging around at belays.

HELMET. Useful device for preventing head injury and for protecting sandwiches during the walk-in. [Hil McMillan]

HEADPOINT. A traditional1 route which is led after (toprope) practice, sometimes with preplaced protection. Sometimes thought to be a modern affliction for routes over E8, though it was clearly already in use in Joe Brown’s day in the 1950s; see the first ascent description for Brown’s Eliminate (E2 5b), which talks of careful practice in the days of nailed boots. The traditional equivalent of a redpoint.
HEEL HOOK. The act of bringing one of your feet up to chest height and ‘hooking’ it onto a hold. Good for reaching otherwise out-of-reach holds with your free hand. Suppleness usually a help. [Louis Joyce]

HEX. Not a spell, but a hexagonal-shaped aluminium piece of protection. Very effective in a crack or a break, though many people nowadays prefers friends to do the same job. (But a hex costs half as much as a friend.) Also known as a cowbell, for the noise that a collection makes on a climber’s harness.

HOLD. Any feature of the natural rockface which assists the climber’s upward motion.

ITALIAN HITCH. Knot used to belay or abseil. Also known as a Münter hitch. Recommended when you have dropped your Sticht plate down the crag. Not recommended for multiple abseils as it twists the rope.

INTERESTING. Guidebook speak for puzzling, often extremely so. The reverse applies for spectators. Sometimes (sloppily) used interchangeably with exciting, so beware.

JUG. An excellent handhold.

JAMMING. The best forgotten art. The technique of inserting part (or all) of the body into a crack to make progress. Thin cracks take fingers, wider cracks take hands and fists, and feared offwidth cracks devour arms, shoulders, knees, feet and legs and spit them out covered with gritstone rash.

KARABINER. An oval metal hoop with a springloaded “gate”. Rope and protection are attached to karabiners. Also known as a “krab”. Karabiners come in many forms, and arguments about which is best occupy many hours in gear shops.

LAYBACK. A technique for climbing on sidepulls (holds that point sideways, especially one edge of a crack or one side of an arête) by using legs and arms in opposition: pushing legs in one direction while pulling on the handholds in the other.

LEADER. The person going up the route first; the one who solves the conundrum of “how do you get the rope up there then?”. Is followed by the second. Hence “lead a route” and “leading a route”.

LIVE ROPE. The rope leading to the climber from the belay device (set link to belay device) is the Live Rope. As opposed to the slack rope on the other side of the belay device, this is referred to as the Dead Rope. [Steve Payne]

MANTELSHELF. American (mis)spelling of mantleshelf.

MANTLE. Short for mantleshelf.

MANTLESHELF. Technique used to establish yourself on a ledge below a blank piece of rock. Colin Kirkus used to practise the move on his mantleshelf at home, which he recommended as a good way of getting rid of fragile unwanted presents from female relatives. If you’ve never seen a mantleshelf because you live in a modern house with central heating, try visualising the stylish way of getting out of a swimming pool. [Tony Buckley] Also: a move in which the climber attempts to stand on the same horizontal surface their hands are holding. Various techniques are possible, most amusing (and last desperate resort of an exhausted traditional1 leader) being the bellyflop. Used most often during topping out.

NUT. The simplest form of protection. A metal wedge threaded on steel wires, intended to go into cracks and stay there. The name comes from the practice of 1950s climbers, who used motorcycle nuts.

NUT KEY. Thin tool with a hooked end used by a second for removing gear, especially nuts, jammed into cracks.
OFFWIDTH. The most awkward width of crack: too wide for fist jamming, but too narrow to chimney. Exotic techniques for climbing them include hand stacks, heel-toe locks, knee bars, “chicken wings”, and “Leavittation”, but most climbers prefer to grunt, swear and thrash around, which we are reliably informed does no good at all.

ONSIGHT. To climb a route free with no beta, without falls, without prior inspection, from bottom to top. The “purest” way to do a route. (The ultra-pure onsight is done nude, possibly at night.) [Adam Palmer.] Any route which is led first time, with no falls. To be a true onsight the climber must not have seen anyone else perform the moves.

OVERHANG. An area of the rock face where the top protrudes further than the bottom thus allowing gravity to come into play to an even greater degree than usual. Requires good technique to overcome. An ideal area for decking out, if it’s close enough to the ground and that’s your thing.

PITCH. A section of a climb, or the whole thing. Some climbing is “single-pitch”, and some is “multi-pitch”. Both versions require a good belay at the top; multi-pitch routes require good belays between pitches.

PINCH. Like a sidepull but with two sides; that is, a hold which can be pinched between thumb and finger.

PLACEMENT. The place in the rockface (or sometimes things like trees growing off it) where protection is actually placed. The ideal is a sinker. Choosing among different alternatives, and finding the best and most efficient placements (in time taken to place them, gear required and final bombproofness) distinguishes the good leader from the bad or average.

POCKET. A hole in the rock face which can be used as a hold. See also monodoigt and bucket. The next up from this is probably “cave”!

PROBLEM. Natural or artificial (especially at a wall or when bouldering) layout of holds presenting an obstacle between you and the top. Usually requires more than brute force to overcome.

PROTECTION. Also known as gear, The devices that climbers use to prevent themselves from decking out.

PRUSIK (noun) A piece of cord which is wound around the rope and grips when weighted. Can be used as an ascender or to safeguard an abseil.

PUMP. The extreme forearm fatigue (caused by buildup of lactic acid in the muscles) that is your body’s way of telling you go to the pub, or that you’ve been to the pub too often recently. So-called because your forearms feel as though they’ve been pumped up, or had wet concrete poured into them which has set.

QUICKDRAW. Two snap-gate karabiners linked by a short sling equals one quickdraw. Used to connect protection to the rope when leading a traditional1 route, or to clip bolts when sport climbing.

RACK. A collection of gear, usually attached to loops on a harness.

REDPOINT. Leading a sport route after inspecting it, and maybe after practising individual moves, or simply any sport lead where moves have been done before (in the event of a fall). Originally, if the quickdraws were preplaced, this would be called a pinkpoint; for a redpoint, the leader would have to place the quickdraws as they went. However, preplaced quickdraws have now become the norm and now would be known as a redpoint. Derived from German Rotpunkt. The word came in to common usage in the Frankenjura in the 1970s: it originated from the practice of painting a small red circle at the bottom of a climb that had only been climbed on aid previously. When the climb was free climbed without aid, a ‘red point’ was added to the centre of the circle. Kurt Albert and others started the trend

RIPPED. (1) v. “His gear ripped out” – means that protection placed by a climber (generally, the leader)) pulled out of the places where it was put. This can be either because the placements were bad, or the forces on the gear when the rope came tight actually pulled it upwards, lifting the gear out – which in effect is “bad placement”. (To avoid this, the first piece of protection placed on a pitch should be able to take an upward as well as downward, and directly outward, force. [Michele McIntyre] (2) adj. A “ripped” person has extremely low body fat and visiblly superior muscle definition, usually on their back, abdomen, shoulders and/or arms. Ripped indivuals are commonly spotted at climbing walls or bouldering crags with their tops off strutting their stuff.

ROCKOVER. Complex but enormously satisfying move that requires pushing the bodyweight over one raised knee in order to reach up to a handhold that is otherwise out of reach. Quintessential routes requiring rockovers: Downhill Racer at Froggatt, Void at Tremadog.

ROOF. The steepest kind of overhang.

ROPE. The thing which (we hope) separates you from decking out and the consequent trip to the hospital or the next world. Will treat you as well as you treat it, except it won’t send you flowers in hospital. Or to your funeral. Comes in two flavours, static and dynamic: you want a dynamic one if you’re leading. (It’s springy.) Also comes in two varieties, dry and, um, not dry: the dry one stays drier (in, say, winter climbing).

RUNNER. A point of protection that allows the free movement of the rope – unlike a tie off, or belay stance, both of which anchor it. [Martin Brierley]

RUN OUT (also RUNOUT). Leading high above your last piece of protection. As in: “You’re getting very run out” and “That route has a long runout”.

SCREAMER. A rather larger and faster than average leader fall.

SEAM. A very thin crack, one too small for any protection wider than a knife blade piton.

SECOND. The person who belays the leader, and gets the fun of taking out their protection on the way up. Being the second is generally less dangerous than leading, because you have a rope above you; except on traverses, when it can open you up to big swings if you fall off and the leader has not put in enough protection.

SIDEPULL. A hold that points sideways; usually works best when used for some form of layback.

SINKER. A V-shaped groove in the rock, getting deeper further down, which is ideal for holding nuts placed as pro. Happily, water erosion has complied by producing such shapes in weathered rock over the millennia in countless locations.

SLAB. A generally flat expanse of rock face which is slightly to the relaxed side of vertical; often gives the illusion of being easy to climb. This impression usually comes unstuck about half way up, when you run out of protection and you get a bad attack of disco leg.

SLAP. Desperate grab for a handhold. Good climbers don’t seem to do it when you watch them, but admit to it afterwards.

SLCD. Abbreviation for spring loaded camming device.

SLING. Loop of rope or tape, useful for racking gear or looping around chockstones for protection.

SLOPER. Sloping hold. Best use involves staying well below it. Good climbing involves being able to make the best possible use of slopers and crimps.

SMEARING. The technique of using the flat soles of the feet to apply direct pressure onto the rock where only extremely small holds or no holds at all exist. Heroes smear! (Except on gritstone, where everyone must.)

SOLO. To climb on your own with or without ropes but usually without ropes is implied when using the term in the UK. This is a high-risk activity which carries the near-certainty of decking out if you mess things up. Enormously satisfying when it works, though possibly not for observers. Americans call this “free soloing” to distinguish it from “roped soloing” (climbing on your own but using ropes).

SPORT. Short for sport climbing.

SPORT CLIMBING. Climbing on routes which use bolts.

SPOT. To position yourself to catch, deflect or otherwise reduce the momentum of a falling soloist. Self-interest on the part of the spotter usually means the soloist is not too far off the ground at the time. The ideal spotter is fat, soft, slightly inflatable and can move very quickly into position. Most climbers aren’t and can’t, which is why bouldering mats are such big business. [Tony Buckley]

SPRING LOADED CAMMING DEVICE. Friends were the first brand but there are many variations. An SLCD has four (in smaller versions, two or three) rounded cams which are forced apart by a spring. To place them you contract the spring, then release it, putting the cam faces into contact with the rock. It’s impossible to believe they will work until you fall onto one, after which you use them relentlessly. However, SLCDs can exert huge sideways forces when fallen on: beware if you place one behind an expanding flake.

STATIC ROPE. Compared to a dynamic rope, a static rope does not significantly stretch when loaded. Used for abseiling, hauling or toproping; disastrous for leading because all the impact is transferred to the falling climber.

STOPPER KNOT. Or just “stopper”; a knot in the tail of a rope that prevents it from slipping through and keeps it out of the way. Used after tying the rope to your harness with a figure of eight, or on the your ropes before you abseil so you can’t slip off the ends. Good stopper knots are the overhand and double overhand knots.

TAIL. The dangling end of rope left over after tying a knot. Tidy it away with a stopper knot.

TAPE. Long, thin, flat fabric. When made of Nylon or Spectra it is very strong and is used to make harnesses and slings.

TAPING UP Wrapping white gymnastic tape around the parts of the hand/fingers where friction usually causesGritstone rash. Mostly used for hand jamming in cracks.

THANK GOD HOLD. A hold that is reassuringly large and easy to rest on after a period of exciting climbing.

THREAD. A hole in the rock, or behind a chockstone, which can be used for protection by threading a sling through it. Also: the sling threaded through the hole.

TOPPING OUT. Reaching the top of the climb and clambering stylishly onto the top of the crag whilst the camera shutters click below. Alternatively a desperate and undignified scramble for the top of the climb using arms, legs, belly, teeth, rope, gear and anything else which will assist the process. Delete as appropriate.

TOPROPE. To climb with a rope above you, usually attached to a belay at the top of the climb, thus avoiding the difficulties, dangers and delights of leading.

TRAD. Short for traditional.

TRADITIONAL1. Climbing where the leader places protection as they go up.

TRADITIONAL2. In guidebook speak, a route climbed a long time ago, often a sandbag or a thrutch.

TRAVERSE. To move across the rock, left, right or possibly diagonally in either direction, rather than directly upwards.

UNDERCUT. An undercling.

UNDERCLING. A hold which must be grasped from its underside to be used to best effect.

WALK-IN.This is the length of time it takes to get from your car to the base of the crag. This figure is inversely proportional to the number of people you can expect to find climbing at your chosen venue. Just make sure that your partner shares the same view of what constitutes an acceptable value for the walk-in time.

WIRE BRUSHING. Cleaning the rock with a wire brush. Generally frowned on by the climbing community, apart from the selfish ones, because it damages the rock (especially gritstone, which often has a surprisingly thin protective layer but erodes rapidly when this is destroyed).

YO-YO. To climb a route in a style where, if you fall off, you return to the ground, leaving all your protection in place and then start climbing again after a rest. The yo-yo refers to the repeated up and down movement of the climber who falls off more than once on a hard move. A common style of ascent in the 1970s and early 1980s, before the preferred style became redpointing.

ZONE. To be “in the zone” is to be in THE perfect mental state for climbing. Some climbers can consciously achieve this state through meditation.