The Unknown: Top Ten Tips to Improve your Onsight Grade

© Dark Sky Media

Onsighting is widely considered the purest and most satisfying style of climbing; ascending unknown territory with no information on the moves, using only your eyes and gut instinct to guide you. That feeling of unlocking a flowing sequence of tricky moves in the heat of the moment, guessing and guessing correctly, or readjusting and succeeding by the skin of your teeth are reasons why this style is so appealing to many climbers.

Gain lots of experience of onsighting and aim high! Natalie Berry in Chulilla, Spain  © Dark Sky Media
Gain lots of experience of onsighting and aim high! Natalie Berry in Chulilla, Spain
© Dark Sky Media

Whilst onsighting within your comfort zone on easier grades can be enjoyable and relatively stress free, onsighting at your limit can be daunting. 'Where are the holds?'; 'Can I reach that clip?'; 'Where are the good holds?'

The following tips relate mostly to sport climbing both indoors and out, but can also be applied to trad climbing with stringent risk assessment of gear placements.

1. Look at the route! (and stop watching so many Youtube videos!)

This may go without saying, but it's surprising how often climbers simply jump straight onto a route without taking the time to look at it from the ground. If the route follows distinct features such as a crack line or arête, the climbing may be more predictable than a face climb with a jumble of holds. The style will affect your approach: if it's slabby and delicate, prepare to slow down and have some thinking time; if it's steep and powerful, you'll be keen to move rather quickly - unless hanging on your arms is your thing!

The Youtube comment may be in jest, but it's true that more and more of us are heading to the Youtube search bar to seek beta for some of the more popular routes at certain destinations. If you're a serial beta-hound, see if you can resist searching for beta on the next route on your ticklist – maybe it'll make you think more about the way you climb and actually help you work out better beta than the video could have shown you!

Route finding and route reading: make sure you're on the right line first of all...  © Ola Stepien
Route finding and route reading: make sure you're on the right line first of all...
© Ola Stepien

2. Practise your route-reading

Another statement of the obvious, but a crucial part of onsighting. The ability to read rock or a route indoors will save you energy and increase your chances of success. If you're too busy swapping hands, dithering and downclimbing, your arms won't thank you for it! Deciphering sequences quickly and efficiently by improving your route-reading skills will therefore help to boost your onsight grade. You've looked at the route to get a general feel for it, so now the aim is to try and break it down into sections and read as much into the individual moves as you can manage. If you have binoculars to hand, they are useful, especially outdoors! You can deduce more information about possible sequences and moves from the ground than you might think. Chalk and polish are obvious signposts, but be warned: there are bound to be a few red-herrings and poor beta. Look at the chalk, polish and the direction that holds are facing as well as the line of the quickdraws/gear. It's all about problem-solving. It's also important to think about your foot placements, too. Look for the polish, but don't feel obliged to use the hold everyone else has used – sometimes small steps on tiny footholds can be more efficient than doing a high step onto a strangely appealing polished hold.

Martin McKenna on delicate ground at Bric Scimarco  © Dark Sky Media
Martin McKenna on delicate ground at Bric Scimarco
© Dark Sky Media

Drawing out the rough shapes of the holds down on paper and using arrows to point the sequence between the holds might seem laborious, but 'route mapping' is a great way to force you to think about what you're doing until it becomes second-nature.

Clipping is another important skill to get right: if you spend too long flailing for a clip, it could cost you a few moves and crucially, the onsight. Plan your clipping (or gear placing) on the ground and again on your en route scope-outs. Try to pick the best hold you can reach the clip from, and be aware that you may have to do one harder move to get there before you can clip! Overreaching, bent-arm clipping and clipping from poor holds mid-move are the least efficient ways of clipping – try to keep your arms straight. If you can plan some clever double-clips – where you clip two quickdraws in one movement – they are highly efficient. You may not spot them from the ground, but sometimes it becomes obvious en route.

3. Plan 3 + moves ahead en route

If you're keen to read a route well, you'll need to do some reading whilst en route and a fair bit of thinking on your feet too, so to speak. My driving instructor used to tell me that reading the road ahead – a vital skill in driving – was just like route-reading. Where are the hazards (the crux/tricky points)? Where are the red lights (the rests)? Which lane do I need to be in for the next turning (which hand is best on this hold for the next move)? When you're driving, you can't afford to 'cross the bridge when you come to it,' so to speak – it can be fatal. You need to be constantly planning ahead. Whilst the consequences of poor planning are (hopefully) less significant on a climb, if you can have an idea of what's coming up, you'll be far more likely to get through it, compared to heading up blindly with no clue as to where the holds are.

Stop and read a few moves ahead to assess what's coming. Siurana, Spain  © Dark Sky Media
Stop and read a few moves ahead to assess what's coming. Siurana, Spain
© Dark Sky Media

When you're up there, you may even find that the holds are bigger than you expected, or that an alternative method would be better. Routes aren't always Left-Right-Left-Right; there can be a number of twists and turns. You might need to: 'go again' (L-R-R); cross-over rather than matching or swapping hands (using both hands on the same hold); turn a pocket you're moving off into an undercut, in order to make the next moves flow. There is no definitive guide for sequence patterns, nor will everyone climb a route the same way, but the goal is to reduce 'faff' and energy wastage to a minimum.

4. Find a pace that suits you

Reading ahead means you'll probably be stopping to look ahead at points and slowing your climbing pace, unless you're on steep ground and the sequence seems clear from the floor. However, there's a fine line between slowing down too much and getting pumped, and going too quickly and misreading a move. Some people naturally climb a bit faster than others, so the hares of the climbing world might be quicker at working out sequences, or they might be 'gung ho' in style and make more mistakes than they'd like. Equally, if you're a sloth, you might have more time to decipher a good method, but struggle to change up a gear when it gets hard and you start to get pumped. If you can alter your pace at certain points on the route - quicker on steep, hard ground, slower on gentler ground where you can comfortably read ahead - then you should be able to find a happy medium.

Pause to shake out and assess the next moves. Or pose for a photo...  © Dark Sky Media
Pause to shake out and assess the next moves. Or pose for a photo...
© Dark Sky Media

5. Learn to find rests…and use them!

The ability to find rests and recover on holds whilst onsighting is a big advantage. You can recover from mistakes or get something back in your arms whilst you're deciding what to do. Use techniques such as keeping your arms as straight as possible, footplants, heel hooks, kneebars, and the elusive no-hands rest. Whilst resting, you can look at and figure out the next few moves. Check out our UKC article on climbing efficiently and finding rests.

6. Do more of it, even on easier routes

Practising your onsighting game on routes below your limit will get you into the habit of actively looking for sequences and figuring them out. It's easy to treat your warm-up routes with disrespect and switch off mentally; climbing them any old way just to get them over and done with. However, this is where many people miss a trick – they are in fact a great means of improving your route-reading and onsighting. Anticipate what's coming next, think of a possible sequence and go with it. Afterwards, assess how it went: Did any moves feel awkward? Could you have done any of them better with some thought? If so, try out a couple of moves again on the way down.

The author on Torque Test HVS 5a  © Dark Sky Media
The author on Torque Test HVS 5a
© Dark Sky Media

7. Don't see a new grade as a barrier – believe in yourself!

A common problem that many climbers experience in onsighting is the mental barrier of tackling a first onsight of a new grade that you haven't managed before – especially if it's breaking into a higher number like 6a, 7a or 8a (or heck, 9a…even Megos must have felt some pressure!). People often approach routes that are a few grades below their hardest redpoint with the intention of redpointing it, rather than giving it a serious onsight attempt. How often have you said: 'I'll try this 7a, I'll just try the moves and hang on the rope a bit to warm up/suss out the moves'? The reality could well be that you stand a good chance of onsighting that grade, but instead of really committing the onsight, you settle for the easier option of trying to redpoint it! Some of the 'pressure' that you might perceive when you want to onsight something clearly comes from your own expectations, but if you tell your belayer or friends that you're going for it, that can pile on the pressure too. If you'd rather not deal with that, there is a simple answer: don't explicitly tell them that you're 'trying' to onsight it, just go ahead and do it!

8. Improve your base level of endurance

Clearly, having a good base in aerobic and anaerobic forearm endurance will put you in good stead for being able to hang around that little bit longer to unlock sequences (and retreat from a mistake). Check out these videos focusing on improving your base level of endurance.

9. Be decisive: Have a plan of attack, and stick with it

The biggest hurdle in onsighting is the Great Unknown – what's that next hold like? Should I go left hand or right hand? How will I clip the next clip? It's daunting not knowing what's coming next, and all too often it makes climbers indecisive. Indecision = more time and energy wasted hanging around. Don't be a 'yo-yoer' - someone who spends ages moving up and down, trying different methods before finally committing to one or just pumping out and falling off. Granted, that approach can work, sometimes for the better – but 9 times out of 10 you'll find yourself wishing you'd just 'done it the bloody first way!' If you can pick out the crux section from the ground, there may be two or three possible sequences. Pick what you think the most feasible would be and go with that method first. If it suddenly becomes laughably implausible as you get to it or when you try it, then Plan B comes into play. If plan B fails, improvisation or a gutsy retry of the first or second method may be necessary!

Jim Pope on - and off - Kaabah 8c+  © Dark Sky Media
Jim Pope on - and off - Kaabah 8c+
© Dark Sky Media

10. Work on your fear of falling

Climbers who have confidence issues with falling will likely find that their fear is heightened on onsight routes at their limit. There is a lot to be said for 'learning' a particular fall on a redpoint project – what at first seems daunting can become manageable or even fun! By desensitizing yourself to the fall, it becomes less of an issue. Falls are very specific to the terrain and route that you choose, so if you're onsighting and you don't don't know what to expect, it's not surprising that it might weigh on your mind. Do some fall practice on bolts at your local wall or crag, or on a similar route to the one you'll be onsighting. Repeated practice falls on trad gear aren't recommended, unless you are totally confident in your gear. Read our UKC article on managing the fear of falling.


Assess your climb afterwards: what went wrong? Was it something physical: Did you run out of energy/power/strength? Something tactical: Did you mess up the sequence? Did you faff or hesitate? Were you giving it 100%, or did you just give up? Or was it something else entirely…

If onsighting still seems like an uphill battle(!) after doing the above, then trying to 'flash' routes is a worthwhile alternative. Watch a friend climb the route, get them to talk through it with you – or go on Youtube – and see how much information you can retain as you climb. Their beta may not work well for you, but it'll certainly get you thinking about planning, pacing and improvising en route…

Tips from the pros

Steve McClure, one of Britain's top onsight climbers up to 8c on sport and notably the infamous Strawberries E7 6b on trad, says:

'Most climbers fall into the trap of stopping when they need to get going, and going when they need to stop. That is, they move past all the rest areas straight into the crux where they immediately stall, hang around wondering what to do and then eventually fall off. The key is to be prepared. You can tell a lot from the ground, not individual moves maybe, but where the hard sections are. Pace yourself, when a rest presents itself take it, use it to relax even if you don't really need it, look up; what's coming? It's all about arming yourself for ' the event', this is the crux, usually not that long, but your attack needs to be forceful and determined. It's going to be hard, of course, you chose it to be hard, it's your choice to push the grade. Now embrace it and give it everything.'

James McHaffie casually onsighting another three star 8a at Terradets, Spain.  © Jack Geldard
James McHaffie casually onsighting another three star 8a at Terradets, Spain.
Jack Geldard - Editor - UKC, Aug 2011
© Jack Geldard

James McHaffie, another one of Britain's top trad onsighters with onsights up to E8, says:

'Before the crux section or hard bit, once you have a decent sequence and are ready to go I'd consciously tell yourself to move fast once fully committed and keep going until you hit gear or a shakeout. Seems dead simple but can be hard to do especially if you're from a trad background. From my trad background as well some of my worst experiences have been attempting a route when pretty tired, the 'just one more route' mentality, it's the same on sport come to think of it.'

Matilda Söderlund, the 24 year-old Swedish climber who onsighted two 8bs in a day in 2012 and has flashed up to 8b+, says:

'Don't hesitate. Once you are on the wall just go on, it's better to take a chance than wasting energy on hesitating on how to do a sequence - especially when you're climbing at your limit. I always try to have a plan for the beginning (or as far as you can see the holds), then I just try to get into the flow and climb.'

Natalie Berry  © Chris Prescott
About the author...Natalie Berry

Natalie is UKC Editor and is 25 years old with over 16 years of climbing experience. She is a GB competition climber and has sport climbed up to 8b and trad climbed up to E7. Natalie has previously coached Junior GB Team members and adults looking to improve their grade. She is a sloth and needs to address points 4 and 9 of this article.

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19 Apr, 2017
Thanks, good/useful article.
19 Apr, 2017
I find trying so hard i want to puke helps my onsight grade too ;)
19 Apr, 2017
Good article. I felt however that the description for route reading and how to improve at it could've been improved or added to somewhat. Here's an article from a general sports perspective that more or less explains how to improve at it:
19 Apr, 2017
Great article. More of these advances skills articles please! I also heard an interesting tip from Adam Ondra on the recent episode of climbing daily. He talked about being able to read the language of chalk, for example looking for a chalky area bellow a crimp is often a thumb print. The position of the thumb tells you which hand people have been using on a hold
19 Apr, 2017
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