How to improve your onsight grade
As climbing instructors we aim to contribute to positive climbing experiences. It is our goal to try and get the most out of people’s potential. An onsight close to your max is one of the most positive climbing experiences to be had. So this blog is all about How to Improve your Onsighting ability. Because let’s admit it: nobody likes blowing their onsight.
What is onsighting?
Onsighting is climbing a route “on sight”. This means that you climb a route without falling or resting on the rope, in your first attempt, without prior knowledge. Even watching a video online might negate the onsight.
Onsighting – a once in a lifetime opportunity
Onsighting is very special because you only get to have one go at it. If you fall, it’s over: you have ‘blown the onsight’. It is no longer and will never ever be an onsight again. (Unless you would like to call it an Alzheimer Onsight when you come back to the route years later and claim to have no recollection of it).
Every route in the world only has one onsight opportunity for each climber. As opposed to redpointing where the climber may need 10 attempts, or a 100, or where it may take the climber years of going back to the same route to practice it and get it completely dialled until they finally (if at all) get it done. The special thing about the onsight is that you only have one opportunity to get it. So you want to give it your full attention. You want to maximise your chances of performing well.
Another way to show the importance of onsight is that if you’re not careful you may run out of routes to onsight. This is most likely to happen in your local climbing area of course, especially if you are not giving it your all any time you set off on a new route. Personally, I deliberately save certain routes for when I am better equipped and more likely to get the preferable onsight experience (which for me is: climbing something that is just about doable but will take a lot of concentration, effort and puzzle solving). So, rather than toproping the route when someone offers me that opportunity, and rather than getting on lead on it just to try some of the moves, I’ll say no until I think I’m ready to give it a proper go.
Climbing is puzzle solving, and onsighting may be the ultimate puzzle: the rock is the crossword, sudoku or 1000 piece Jigsaw puzzle, and you are the one to solve it, with all the tools and strategies you have available to you. Redpointing you can compare to being able to use the ‘crossword-dictionary’, or pencilling in some optional numbers in the sudoku before picking which one it is, or using the picture on the box to see what the Jigsaw puzzle will look like. When onsighting, you set yourself the challenge to solve the puzzle without any help, all by yourself, without mistakes (unless they are mistakes you can rewind, for instance by climbing back down to a rest).
Onsighting close to your max grade is a very rewarding experience; you’ll be fully consumed with the climbing, using all your skills to solve this puzzle. We all have memories of climbing and everything seemed to ‘flow’, where we were fully engaged with the rock, with the moves, and we lost all sense of time and surroundings, completely focused on climbing. We are most likely to experience this state of flow when the challenge of the route hits the exact sweet spot of your capabilities to climb it[i].
Another reason why many climbers prefer onsighting over redpointing, is that it can be a very positive experience: a successful onsight takes only 1 go, whereas a successful redpoint takes more attempts; i.e. the climb-success ratio is per definition higher. (That is of course if climbers measure ‘success’ as reaching the chains – which most climbers do). A climber can onsight 4 routes in a day, whereas it is highly unlikely to redpoint 4 routes in a day.
Improving onsight grade vs ‘normal’ climbing grade
How is Improving someone’s onsight grade different from improving someone’s climbing grade? This blog is not so much about improving your climbing skills (read our previous blog about Climbing Skill Sets here), and thereby improving your grade. What we mean with Improving your onsight grade in particular, is to get better at climbing a route without any previous knowledge of the route. Ultimately the aim is to get your onsight grade closer to your redpoint grade, and to have more of those ‘fully-engaged-flow-like’-climbing experiences.
Some people have a huge gap between what they can climb when they work a route and what they can climb without previous knowledge or experience of the route. This can be the case when choosing routes that are too easy for them, routes that are well within their max. Especially when on a climbing holiday (as opposed to climbing in their local area) many climbers prefer this, allowing them to climb as many different routes as possible. The onsight-redpoint gap can also be big for those climbers spending years on redpointing a certain route; their onsight grade is usually quite a bit lower than the grade they are trying to project.
Three main ways to improve your Onsight ability
- Route finding is crucial in onsighting. Most failed onsights are due to having gone the wrong way. As climbers, it is our job to find the easiest way to climb the rock. Make it any harder than necessary and you’re increasing the chance of getting into trouble, getting pumped, or even falling off. Route finding starts on the ground. From here, gather as much information as you can. Where is the anchor? Where are the bolts? Look at differences in the angle of the rock and any of its features that stand out. Where is it less steep? Where is it more featured? Spot any potential rests. Where do you think the crux or cruxes are – f.i. based on the angle of the rock and/or the bolts being closer together? Using a laser pen while doing this can help hugely so climber and belayer are talking about and looking at the same thing. The belayer can then remind the climber when going elsewhere than was decided from the ground[ii]. Please remember though that although on-ground-route-finding is crucial, that doesn’t mean that this is where it ends. While climbing you need to constantly ask yourself the question where the route goes. And it is also necessary to realise that you can downclimb. Climb up, get information about the holds, then climb back down to the rest, and then decide on your route to what you think will be the next rest.
An extra note to people with limited outdoor experience: the climbing does not necessarily go straight over the bolts; it is a ‘route’ and it is your job to find it. The bolts are there to help protect you from hurting yourself should you fall off, and to keep the rope in an as straight as possible line. You are free to go anywhere left and right of the bolts as long as it is safe to do so. “That hold is on the other route” is very much ‘indoor-climbing-speak’. Mother nature didn’t decide that certain edges belong to this or the other route. Even route setters don’t decide on this. Their aim is simply to create climbing and to make it as safe as possible.
- A deeply ingrained understanding of the basic movement pattern hugely helps when onsighting. It is important to understand what efficient movement is, and to easily recognise which moves to do given the holds available to you, wasting as little time and energy as possible. The more the principles of efficient climbing have sunk in, both in your thinking as well as in your muscle memory, the quicker you’ll see the correct crux sequence. When I get stuck at a certain section of the route, I know where to look for feet, and I can think ahead: for instance seeing a right handhold, I will look for a left foothold below it. Or when I want to release the low right foot, I automatically look for a left hand above my head and a push down for my right hand. It is consciously thinking about these things that will help you work out the crux sequences quicker, thereby saving energy. If you are not sure as to whether you fully understand the basic movement program, then we highly recommend to come on a Performance Coaching Course, and to be disciplined to keep climbing efficiently afterwards.
Besides a thorough understanding of efficient movement, what also helps to improve your onsighting ability is to increase the number of moves in your ‘climbing repertoire’, for instance by redpointing harder routes.
- Getting in the right mindset before stepping on the rock certainly increases your onsighting potential. We like to remind people that they have done their preparation, and that is now time to trust their capabilities and enjoy the process of going into the unknown. Trust the body’s capability to climb and at the same time be very determined. The mindset should be very different from when you’re warming up, or from when you are climbing a route you’ve climbed before, or from when you’re in the process of redpointing. When onsighting especially, you need to set yourself up for:
- When it gets hard, I will fight harder. I will certainly not say “take”.
- If I make a move that’s wrong and I can’t reverse it, then I will keep going and risk falling.
- If I can’t find the technical solution to solve the crux, then I will do it ugly and waste energy. As long as I have been conserving energy on the easier sections of the route, I should be fine. Plus, I may be able to recover higher up the route. It is important to get the balance right between time spent on working out a technical solution and the energy spent while looking for that solution.
What can also help to increase your onsight ability is to do Fall Practice regularly. We want our brains to quickly move from assessing the risk of falling back to focusing on how to climb the next section of the route. Being able to be calm above a bolt means all your focus and attention can remain on the climbing task at hand. Any distractions such as a fear of falling divert part of the brain away from climbing which means you are less likely to succeed in the onsight.
What to do when you’ve blown the onsight?
Accept that you are not going to onsight every route you get on. (If you do, you are climbing below your max. and should be aiming to onsight harder routes). If you are choosing the right challenges for yourself, then you will sometimes fail and you should be prepared to fail. We think it’s a shame that many people walk away from a route when they failed to onsight it. Some do so because they are on holiday and don’t want to ‘waste’ more time on doing the same route again, when they could be climbing a new route. We understand that. But there’s also many people that don’t give it another try because they think they’re not good enough to climb the route. By not giving it a 2nd or 3rd attempt (basically a quick redpoint), they are essentially collecting failures, and missing out on a valuable learning opportunity. There are many gains to be had from turning ‘failures’ into success by redpointing a route. We will go deeper into redpointing in a future blog.
[i] For more information about Flow: Csikszentmihalyi, The Rock Warrior’s Way (Arno Ilgner), Hazel Findlay.
[ii] Our next blog will be about route-finding.