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8 Essential Rock Climbing Terms For Beginners



Rock climbing terms can get complicated. Take the often-confused climbing terms “solo” and “free-solo,” which are, in fact, very different things, though you would never know it from the way laypeople – and uninitiated climbers – use them. For climbers themselves and anyone trying to understand climbing, this jargon are hugely consequential. Climbing with a rope is very different than climbing alone with only shoes and chalk. Like an ice climber preparing his axes and crampons before a difficult ascent, rock climbers must sharpen their vocabularies to confront the intricacies of their sport.
Here is a list of essential rock climbing terms explained.

Free Climbing

Free climbing is the most common style of climbing, and probably what you think of when you think of climbing. In its correct usage, free climbing means to climb by using one’s hands and feet (or ice axes) only. Yes, free climbers place anchors in the rock during and after each rope-length of climbing, but only to protect themselves in the event of a fall. Those pieces of protection are not used to make upward progress (that would be aid climbing, explained below). Thus, when a roped free climber falls off a cliff, she is caught by a bolt, nut or piton. At the top of a climb, if the free climber has succeeded, they have pulled only on the rock or ice to get there.

Aid Climbing

As opposed to free climbing, aid climbing is when climbers place pieces of protection into the rock or ice—like pitons, cams or bolts—and step or pull on them to climb higher. Whether this is done over the whole length of the route, or short sections, this is considered aid climbing. In short, to aid climb is to use any means necessary to reach the top of a climb.


To solo means only that a climber is climbing alone, without a partner at the other end of the rope. Despite how many people muddle the meaning of the term, this can be an aid or free climb, though solo climbers are usually aiding. It’s important to remember that not all solo climbs are free solo climbs.

Free Solo

Free soloing, technically, is any climbing that is both free and solo. This is the scary kind of climbing, done at the highest difficulty by people like Alex Honnold, where a climber carries no pieces of protection—no rope, no nothing—and is completely, utterly alone. In the event of a fall, a climber will plummet to a ledge or the ground. They have only chalk, shoes and a lot of courage. It is the purest style of climbing, though to make a free solo onsight (see below for an explanation of onsighting), and without the use of chalk or shoes, is purer and more difficult. To make matters utterly confusing, many people use “solo” as shorthand for “free solo.”


A redpoint is a pre-rehearsed ascent of a climb. A climber can use any technique to get acquainted with the route and practice its moves. The true definition of this climbing term, though it has been somewhat watered down, is that a climber places all protection during the final redpoint ascent. (Otherwise, it would be a “pinkpoint,” a term, most often applied to traditional climbing, to describe an ascent in which a climber pre-places protection on the route to decrease the difficulty


To flash a climb is to ascend it on the first attempt with intimate knowledge of its sequences, holds or other difficulties. In elaborate situations, climbers watch videos of other climbers ascending routes to glean information about where handholds and footholds are located, and precisely how to use them. When trying to flash a climb, anything is fair game—interviewing prior ascentionists, using binoculars to scout holds, examining photographs—as long as the climber doesn’t touch, or “redpoint” the route until the moment of truth: the flash attempt.


Onsighting a climb means that a climber ascends it having no prior knowledge—having never before seen it, tried it, or heard anything specific about it. This is no redpoint or flash climb, you’ve only get one chance to onsight, period. If you have seen a photograph or video of a climber on a route, or you have heard tales of other Adrenalists’ experiences on it, you have lost your chance at the coveted onsight. So when an onsight is what you desire, you must plug your ears with your fingers when another climber begins talking about the moves, the holds, and especially the “cux,” the most difficult move or sequence of moves on the climb. When free climbing (as opposed to free-soloing), onsighting is the purest form of ascent, made only purer by abstaining from the use of chalk or shoes.

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