A Route Description Glossary

A Route Description Glossary

Guidebook route descriptions can be strange beasts.  For something seemingly so crucial as describing which way a route goes and what can be encountered along the way, the language employed can be a little obscure at times and especially confusing to the beginner or climber whose first language is not English.

I originally started this glossary purely for my own use, at the beginning of last year, in an attempt to understand the language used to described the physical features on a route.  It subsequently expanded into the wonderfully euphemistic keywords used in guidebooks together with climber’s idioms for specific types of movement or holds.

Whilst some of these terms may be self explanatory (e.g. bulge, crack, ledge, etc) others are not always obvious, especially in the ways they may be used within a climbing context (e.g. roof, cave, etc)

Part I: Feature Definitions

The terminology used in describing the physical features & morphology of a climbing route.

Term Definition
arête A ridge or a sharp outward facing corner on a steep rock face or mountain.
break A horizontal crack.
bulge May refer to a small rounded steepening or even overhang or a larger protruding area on a crag.
buttress A prominent feature, possibly a steep arête, that juts out from the side of a mountain on which climbs are located.  Sometimes called a crag. Less commonly referred to as a nose or pillar.
cave A distinct hole in the rock face, larger than a pocket but not necessarily as large as ‘cave’ may imply.  For example, may be significantly smaller than that required to accommodate a bear (which is a good thing).
chimney A passage in the rock with mostly parallel sides.  Large enough for a climber to fit into. May be vertical or at a much lower angle.
chockstone A piece of rock which is lodged in a crack or chimney
choss Poor quality climbing material – may include soil, vegetation, stones, or friable rock, etc
col A pass between two peaks. Also referred to as a saddle or gap..
corner Corner on its own generally refers to an inside corner of rock, a deep groove like an open book.  See also dièdre/dihedral. Less frequently, an outside corner can be used to refer to a small arête.
crack A split or fissure in the rock face, the separation of two rock faces.  Can be as wide as a chimney down to so narrow it cannot take protection.
crag An outcrop of rock with climbing routes. Often used to describe a buttress
dièdre/dihedral An inside corner of rock with an angle of more than 90-degree between the faces. See also corner.
edge A thin ledge.
flake A thin slab of rock which may or may not be attached to the main face. The fact that it is not attached may only become obvious once you commit your weight to it.
flared A crack or chimney whose sides are not parallel, thus forming two converging planes of rock.
friable Delicate, easily broken and consequently dangerous rock.
gendarme A pinnacle or isolated rock tower, often found along a ridge.
groove A long indentation in the rock face.  Not extensive or acute enough to be regarded as a corner or deep enough to be considered a crack. Sometimes it may be so slight as to be only identifiable by the first ascensionist and the word was used when they were trying to conjure up a route description.
gully A wide, shallow ravine on a mountainside. Sometimes carries waterflow, permanent or seasonal.
headwall A steeper section at the upper part of a rock face especially at the top of easier-angled slabs etc..
niche A shallow recess in the rock.
nose A protrusion in the rock, larger than a bulge.  Also, more rarely, a synonym for buttress.
off-width A crack that is too wide for hand or foot jams but is not as large as a chimney.
overhang A section of rock that is angled beyond vertical. See also roof.
overlap A step on a slab where an upper layer of rock lies on an exposed lower layer.  Also under cut or under cling.
pillar An isolated finger or tower of rock which need not be detached from the main face.  But also can be a synonym for buttress.
pocket A (small) hole in the rock face which can be used as a hold.
ramp An ascending ledge.
re-entrant A small valley-like terrain feature, formed between two parallel ridges or spurs.
rib A short, small buttress. An outside corner is even smaller.
ridge A high divide extending out from a peak.
roof A horizontal overhang.
runnel A groove in a rock face, often caused by water erosion.
sentry-box A square sided niche, usually large enough for a body.  Classic example at the base of Helios in Dalkey.
slab A section of rock face with a relatively low-angle (significantly less than vertical).  Often barren of features & protection.
spike/spilikin A significant finger of rock protruding (usually vertically) from the rock face.
tufa A protruding limestone rib formation that may grasped in a pinch.
zawn A coastal sea inlet, the sides of which often form climbing crags.

Part II: Terms & Euphemisms

The vernacular used in describing a climbing route.  Important clues to your success on a route can be lurking behind a single innocuous word.

Term Definition
airy See exposed.
anchor Whereby a climber makes themselves safe by placing protection and tying to it so that, for example, they may build a belay to then bring up a second safely. Think IDEAL (Independent, Directional, Equalised, Angles & Loaded)
belay The point between pitches in a multipitch climb.  A belay is build from multiple anchors (2 or more). See also stance.
beta Obtaining prior knowledge & advice on aspects of a particular climb.
bold Similar to committing. A term used to describe unprotected moves at the limit of the grade which would cause serious consequences if not carried out successfully. Pilaster in Dalkey Quarry is graded VS(4c) but the “bold” initial moves have resulted in many broken ankles.
bomber/ bomb-proof A resoundingly satisfying gear placement that can result in near euphoric joie de vivre.
committing That point in a climb when you have to progress from point A to point B whilst every part of your body is questioning your adoption of this sport.
crux The most difficult portion of a climb. Often you may be given an idea of how well protected a crux may be.
delicate A section relying on poise, balance and technique rather than strength and enthusiasm.  Holds may be minimal, as may be protection (see runout below).
eliminate A route between two pre-existing lines which scrupulously avoids both..
exciting If it says it’s exciting, you likely won’t be disappointed.  Bold and possibly difficult with it. Stay calm.
exposure The degree to which one feels one is clinging to the edge of something tenuous over a large drop. Also airy.
gear Nuts, hexes, cams and all that climbing paraphernalia.  As with protection, a route may have good or poor gear. Gear suggestions may also be noted, such as, “thin wires” or “large cam” or even Tricam #3.
“with interest”
A puzzling section of a climb, requiring a period of contemplation before proceeding.
memorable You’ll never forget the first time.
peg A metal spike (piton) from the times before nuts & hexes & cams and all that.  As such, it will be old and quite possibly unsound; although often corrosion may not be visible.
pitch A section of a climb between two belay points.
polish The curse of popularity.  Rock repeatedly smoothed & eroded by climbing traffic. At its worst some rocks (like limestone) can attain a marble-like patina.  Can lead to sandbags (see below).  By its nature, more common on lower grade, roadside crags.
protection Use of gear. May distinguish between part of a route being well protected or poorly protected (or you may have to infer that, see runout)
runout A long portion of a route with minimal protection. This may be indicated by a lower technical grade than expected for the associated adjectival grade.  For example, HS(4b) is a common grade pairing and so to the novice a grade of HS(4a) may, upon first glance, appear to be easier (because the hardest move is 4a) but it still requires HS skills due to the lack of protection.
sandbag An undergraded climb, leading the climber to believe it is within their abilities, only to find to the contrary at a usually inconvenient moment. A sandbag may be genuinely misgraded or may have achieved it over time due to essential parts of the climb falling off or becoming unduly polished due to popularity.
stance See belay.
thoughtful See interesting.
thread/thread belay Protection that can be achieved by threading a sling through a passageway in the rock.  Common in limestone.
traditional In the context of route descriptions, this means an old route and as such may be a sandbag or polished. Or both.
vegetated Those unpleasant sections of a rock climb that are not rock.  Generally green and either slippery and/or prickly.  May possibly be addressed by gardening (in moderation)

Part III: Holds & Movements

Terms used to suggested an approach to a climbing route, less frequent as it can be regarded as a form of beta (see Part II for beta).  Can also be used to provide insight into navigation on a route.

Term Definition
bridge Using two widely space footholds for support, typically in corners. May allow hands free rest.
campus Climbing without using ones feet.
cup See guppy.
crimp A hold that uses just the tips of the fingers.
downclimb To climb downwards (typically reversing a route).
drop knee See egyptian.
dyno A dynamic move, using your momentum to gain a hold that would otherwise be out of reach.
edging Using edge of shoe on small features.
egyptian Position acquired by twisting the body against the wall so that one knee is dropped below the foot.  See also drop knee.
flag Using a leg as a counter-balance (can employ normal, reverse inside & reverse outside flags).
gaston A reverse side pull. That is, pushing away to maintain balance/grip rather than pulling towards. A Double Gaston resembles prying open the doors of a lift. (Named after a famous picture of Gaston Rébuffat).
guppy A hold formed by cupping ones hand over a feature and squeezing.  See also cup.
hook Technique of placing toe or heel on a hold to improve balance.
jam Insert various bodily appendages into sympathetically sized cracks.  May use fingerlocks, hands, toes, feet, arms, legs, shoulders, etc.  Use of head not recommended.
jug A large,easy, immensely reassuring hold.
layback A technique whereby hands side pull on a crack whilst feet walk up close to them.  Check the wall your feet will be using for small bits of vegetation growing from the crack, as to step on said vegetation mid-layback can result in dramatic failure.
mantle/mantleshelf Technique used to gain a ledge by initially pulling up and then pushing down with hands so that feet can be placed on ledge.  Best practised at your local swimming pool rather than on your fireplace.
match To place both hands (or feet) on the same hold.
mono A pocket with room for just a single finger.
pinch As it suggests, a hold that can be pinched.
smear In the absence of defined footholds, placing the full sole of the shoe on the rock and relying on friction for adhesion.
thrutch A non-graceful move generally associate with mucky chimneys.  Normally accompanied by a certain degree of grunting and possible blue language.
traverse A sideways movement.  Be aware of the potential for both lead & second to take a swing if adequate protection not available. And even if protection is available, be aware of creating debilitating rope drag that you will curse further up the pitch.


[Republished from the IMC Newsletter, Summer 2015]