Beginner's Guide to Rock Climbing Terms

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Every culture has its own language; so does rock climbing. Rock climbing has a rich language that has terms to describe one’s experience of climbing the rock, the different types and styles of climbing, climbing gear, body movement, and ways of holding on or stepping on to the rock.


We have pulled together an inexhaustive list of rock climbing terms to help you get started so that you do not get lost in the jargon! It may be hard to keep track of all the technical terms at first but we promise it will get easier as you go along!


Belayer spotting lead climber

Before we get into the thick of the common climbing phrases here are 3 phrases you are sure to encounter when you are out climbing with local Kenyan climbers:


“Nipatie kamba” Phrase by climber asking the belayer to feed them with more rope.


“Chukua!” Phrase used by a climber to alert a belayer that the rope is about to be weighted. See take.


“Twende!” Motivational phrase to encourage a climber. See come on!



Common Climbing Terms


Abseil To make a controlled descent on a fixed rope. See rappel.


Anchor A point of or method for securing a climber to a rock face to prevent a fall, hoist a load, or redirect a rope.


Approach The walk or hike required to reach the base of a climb.


Belay The technique used to hold a rope in order to stop a climber’s fall. Involves taking up the slack through a belay device (top-rope belay) or feeding slack through a belay device (lead belay) for a climber.


Top-rope belay

Belayer The person who handles the rope through a belay device on the ground so as to catch the climber on the other end in case of a fall or a slip.


Beta Information on how to best complete a climb sequence - what the moves should be and how you should do them. Usually told to you by someone who has done the route or problem.


Big wall An especially long route that requires multi-pitch climbing and typically takes multiple days to complete.


Bolts Metal expansion bolts drilled into the rock for use as permanent protection on sport, aid climbs and for belay and rappel anchors.


Bomber A hold, piece of gear or anchor that is thought to offer very good protection and unquestionable security that it is “bomb proof.”


Chimney A vertical crack that is large enough for a climber’s entire body to fit inside and climb.


Choss Unstable rock that is crumbling off the wall. Choss is very hard to hold on to and dangerous to climb on.


Clean To climb a route or problem from bottom to top with no falls or takes. Also refers to taking all pieces of gear that were used for the ascent out, after you are done with the climb. Refers also to preparing the rock to be suitable for climbing on a new route or boulder problem.


Come On! A phrase frequently yelled by belayers, spotters, and bystanders when someone is trying hard on a route or problem.


Crack A split in the rock that allows placement of gear while trad climbing and that is typically used for hand and footholds while climbing.


Crag A climbing area, often a small cliff.


Crush To send a route in phenomenal style, or to try really hard when sending.


Crux The hardest section of a climb or the most difficult move in a climb. The crux is the place that a climber can easily end up falling.


Elvis Leg The uncontrollably shaking of one leg when a climber is nervous, afraid, or fatigued on the rock.


First Ascent The action of being the first person to climb an entire route in a certain style.


Flapper A large piece of skin that hangs off your finger after having been ripped off on sharp rock or rough holds. 


Flash Completing an entire route or boulder problem with no falls on the first attempt, with some previous beta (knowledge/information) of the climb.


Follow On multi-pitch climbs, to be the second climber up a climb, following the leader up the route, removing and collecting the protection that the lead climber has placed. See second.


Lead A style of climbing where a climber who heads up a route first periodically attaches protection to the face of the route and clips their side the rope into it while the belayer feeds them slack.


Lead climbing

Lower Bringing a climber down from a climb by the belayer slowly letting rope out through the belay device. More often done during gym or sport climbing than in traditional outdoor climbing.


Multi-pitch A route that ascends a tall rock face beyond the reach of a single rope length.


Off-width A crack is too wide for fist jams and too narrow to be a chimney.


Onsight To lead an entire route a first attempt without falling or resting on gear, and with no prior beta or knowledge of the moves or the holds. This is the hardest possible way of climbing a route.


Pitch A length of a climb that can be protected with a single rope length at once. See multi-pitch.


Placement The act of inserting a piece of protection in an opening in the rock.


Project A route or boulder problem that a climber is working the moves on to try to send.


Projecting The process of working the moves on a route or boulder problem, usually over days, months, or even years.


Protection/ Pro Any device or equipment placed in the rock, snow or ice to secure a climbing rope and prevent a climber from falling any significant distance.


Problem A short climb on a boulder with a series of hard moves. The term “problem” alludes to the need to solve the moves or sequence.


Pumped Refers a build-up of lactic acid in the forearms that leads to tightness and an inability to engage the hand effectively. This is form of localized fatigue is often experienced during a long sequence of moves or from a strenuous move or climb.


Rack A generic term for a climber’s personal collection of protection.


Rappel To descend a cliff or other height by lowering oneself on a fixed rope, with feet against the wall. Friction is placed on the rope, usually with a belay device, to keep the descent slow and controlled. See abseil.


Redpoint To lead a climbing route without falling or resting on gear after having tried it at least once before.


Roof A very steep overhanging section of rock, often approaching horizontal.


Rope drag Friction created in a system when a climbing rope is running over features or passing through multiple pieces of protection, especially if not in a straight line up the route.


Route A specific path or sequence of moves up a rock face typically climbed with a rope, equipment and belayer.


Runout The rope length between the climber and their last piece of protection, either bolts on a sport climb or gear on a trad climb. The distance of a fall will be longer when there is a long runout. A route can be described as run out if there are large gaps between the gear placements.


Sandbag A route or boulder problem that is notoriously tougher than the grade/information given.


Second The climber who is belayed from the top to follow a leader up on a multi-pitch pitch.


Send To climb a route or boulder problem from bottom to top with no falls or or resting on gear.


Slack Extra loose rope in a climbing system, between the belayer and the climber.


Spot Help redirect a climber in the event of a fall.


Spray To provide extensive beta, often unsolicited and unwanted, about a climb to someone.


Take A phrase used by a climber to alert a belayer that the rope is about to be weighted.


Technical Refers to climbing routes or problems that demand good technique. Often with small holds and precision footwork. Technical routes are usually near vertical or overhanging.


Topo An overview “map” that shows location, general line, and information about climbing routes.


Top-out The final moves on a boulder problem that involve mounting the boulder to stand on top.


Traverse Moving laterally over a section of rock during a climb.


Whipper Taking a very large and long fall, usually while leading.



Types of Climbing


Aid climbing A type of climbing in which standing on or pulling yourself up by devices attached to fixed or temporary protection is used to make upward progress, rather than using features on the rock itself to ascend the face.


Bouldering Climbing without a rope on rock formations that are close to the ground and low enough to fall from safely, usually over a crash-pad. Bouldering problems are usually topped out.


Deep Water Soloing Climbing above deep water with no partner or protection. In the event of a fall or upon finishing the route, the climber drops into the water.


Free climbing A style of climbing in which a climber uses only their body power to climb. Rope is used only for safety and is not relied upon for upward progress. Any devices such as quickdraws are only used as a protection in case of a fall.


Free solo climbing Refers to climbing routes alone with only your hands and feet and without rope or any additional protection. This type of climbing is very high risk and a climber is most likely to die if they fall.


Highball bouldering Climbing of high, dangerous bouldering problems (without a rope) that often involves a no-fall zone.


Speed climbing A style of climbing a route where the only thing that matters is how fast you climb. It is more popular in climbing competitions where the ascent of a standard route is timed.


Sport climbing A form of rock climbing where quickdraws are clipped to pre-installed bolts for protection. Permanent bolted anchors are also fixed to the rock for protection.


Top roping A style of climbing in which the climber is securely attached to a rope which then passes up, through an anchor system at the top of the route, and down to a belayer positioned at the foot of the climb.


Traditional or “trad” climbing This is a form of rock climbing where the lead climber places removable protection such as cams and nuts as they go up the climb.


Types of Holds


Crimp A small flat hold that relies on your fingertips to hold on, with the fingers bent to bring the hand closer to the rock. Also describes the hand position climbers often use to grab a small hold or edge.


Edge A flat hold that is deeper than a crimp.


Flake A thin piece of rock that is separated from the main wall and is visibly sticking out from the rock. Flakes often make for very positive holds, but can also be hollow and chossy.


Gaston A kind of grip which involves pushing a hold instead of pulling. You need to turn your palm away from you, with the thumb pointing down and the elbow out, and generate friction against the hold by pressing outwards towards the elbow. Visualize it by imagining how you would pull to open a pair of lift doors with your hands.


Jug A large, easily gripped hold. It is a very positive hold which can usually be grabbed with the entire hand and is often be used for resting.


Pinch A hold that is squeezed between the thumb and fingers (pinched) for grip.


Pocket A hold that is a slot or round hole in the rock into which you can usually insert between one and four fingers but not typically the whole hand.


Side-pull A type of hold that is oriented vertically, allowing the climbing to pull on it from the side and put a force on it as they lean towards their body. Also describes the method for gripping a vertical edge that entails pulling with the hand and pushing with the feet.


Sloper A rounded usually smooth hold that requires gripping with the entire palm because of its sloping nature.


Undercling A downward-facing hold that requires the climber to pull upwards while pushing down on their feet in order to move up. This hold needs use of good body tension and strong biceps.



Hand Techniques

Climber reaching for a hold

Barn door To swing away from the rock in an off-balance fashion with the one side of your limbs acting as a hinge as the other side of your body swings out like a barn door does. Often occurs with a layback maneuver or to beginners or climbers that forget to have enough body tension.


Dyno A climbing move in which the climber jumps or moves dynamically from one hold to get to a distant hold.


Jam To wedge a body part into a crack on a rock climb in order to put weight on it and move upward. Includes finger jams, fist jams and hand jams.


Layback Climbing technique that uses counter-pressure of pushing the feet away from the body and pulling the hands towards the body. Typically used to climb an offset crack with the body position leaning backwards and to one side with arms straight and feet shuffling up the rock.


Lock-off Supporting your body in a fixed position with one bent arm, usually while clipping or reaching for another hold with your other arm. Most of the weight is concentrated into your shoulder.


Mantle A climbing move in which downward pressure is applied with one or both palms to a ledge, lifting the body high enough to get the feet on that same ledge until you are able to stand on it. Much like getting out of a swimming pool without using the steps.


Match Putting both your hands to the same hold.


Stemming Technique in which the hands and/or feet are simultaneously pressed in opposition far out to each side, as in a wide chimney.



Foot Techniques


Backstep Pressing the outside edge of a foot onto a hold with the knee dropped lightly. The purpose is to push from the position.


Bicycle One of the advanced techniques for overhanging climbs. You get a foothold with both your feet and the compress it. You use one foot as usual and the other from the other side of the hold using the top of the foot. You combine a toe-hook with a normal foothold.


Drop knee Body position performed by placing the foot’s outside edge or toe onto a foothold, which is off to the side, while rotating the hips so the knee points downward. This allows you to get closer to the wall and create some opposing force.


Flag Dangling or sticking a leg out as a counter balance. This allows for gaining balance when climbing on a one-foot-stand, and when switching feet is not a good option.


Flagging for balance

Heel hook Technique where a heel is applied to an edge/ foothold and used to grip and pull the body towards the rock.


High-Step One foot is placed very high compared to the other. It is generally tougher to engage the upper foot. Rocking over the upper foot is often used to stand up. 


Jam To wedge a body part into a crack on a rock climb in order to put weight on it and move upward. Includes foot jams and heel-toe jams.


Kneebar Locking the lower half of your leg in a gap by pressing with the knee and pushing with the foot against two opposing rock features. Jamming your foot and a knee in between two holds. If the angle is right, you can press strongly enough to release your hands and rest. This is very often used for rest positions in lead climbing.


Match Putting two feet together on a single hold.


Rock-over To gain height by placing the foot on a high hold and rocking (moving) the centre of gravity onto it. Often done by sitting on a heel.


Smearing A friction-dependent climbing technique foothold, where the ball of the foot is pressed over a textured or lower-angled surface to create a non-exist of a foothold in order to provide traction for moving upward.


Stemming Technique in which the hands and/or feet are simultaneously pressed in opposition far out to each side, as in a wide chimney.


Toe hook Technique where the top of the foot is wrapped up or around a rock feature. You pull with the toe towards your body in the same way you would use a side pull for your hand.


Equipment

Climbing equipment

Ascender Any mechanical device that slides upward when put on a fixed rope but catches when weight is put on it, allowing a climber to use the rope to move upward or to haul gear. Used in aid climbing, mountaineering rescue and caving.


Belay Device A special device that is used to create manageable rope friction for both belaying and rappelling. The rope is passed through the belay device which is then clipped to the harness with a locking carabiner. Also referred to as rappel device.


Cam/ Camalot Spring-loaded protection device that, when a trigger is pulled, the cams retract and can be inserted into cracks. When the trigger is released, the cams expand and lock into the crack. When properly placed in solid rock, a cam offers easily removable and bomber protection.


Carabiner Metal loop (usually aluminum) with a spring-loaded gate on one side used for connecting various parts of a climbing system. May be oval, pear- or D-shaped.


Chalk Magnesium carbonate powder applied to hands to keep them dry and improve grip.


Chalk bag Small pouch, usually with a drawstring closure, worn around the waist to hold chalk.


Climber chalking up

Crash pad A small portable mattress used as fall protection for bouldering.


Grigri Belay device with an auto-locking feature. Manufactured by Petzl.


Nut Passive protection piece consisting of a wedge-shaped piece of metal affixed to a wire.


Nut tool A small, hooked pick used to remove protection when seconding (following) up a climb. Used on passive and active protection pieces.


Prusik The sliding friction knot made by wrapping a loop of small-diameter cord around a larger-diameter rope. The loop slides when loosened but holds by means of friction when weighted. Used for ascending fixed ropes and for rescue situations to tie off the climbing rope.


Quickdraw/ draw Two carabiners connected with a short sling, or runner used to attach the rope to a piece of protection or to a bolted anchor.


Runner Loop of sewn or tied nylon webbing of various lengths used to attach the climbing rope to protection or to make anchors.


Stick clip A specialized pole for placing a quickdraw (usually with the rope pre-clipped) into the first bolt of a sport climb.

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