When in Rome….

Just like in any sport, climbing has its own terms and language, and knowing how to speak and understand this language isn’t necessarily essential.  Just like you can go into a foreign country without knowing the language, but if you wish to function, and get around in that country you must learn to speak the language, same thing goes for the crag.   It is most beneficial to know the terminology before hitting the rock, especially when going out with an experience climbing, because when you are belaying and your climber says “Take!”  You had better know what to do.  So I have compiled a list of climbing terms or diction if you will to help out with that.  Some of which, you will soon learn while out on the rock, will be used far more than others, but all will help you to get around in the climbing world.

Short dictionary of rock climbing terms 

Aid Climbing

The use of anything other than the natural features to ascend up the rock.


A 90-degree outside corner, i.e., the cleaved edge where two cliff facets meet at a right angle like a building corner, or an arête-like or flying buttress such as Rebuffat’s Arête in Eldorado Canyon. Difficult arête routes exploit heel hooks, toe scums, slap moves, etc.


A belay/rappel point generally atop a pitch, marked by fixed protection (like bolts) or built using removable protection.


The hike or walk in to the base of a climb.


An off-width technique in which you insert your entire arm into a crack and place your palm/wrist/forearm flat against one wall, the elbow cammed against the other.


To press your shoe’s external edge onto a foothold and drop the knee lightly, thus bringing the sole’s bottom-outside in contact with the rock and your hip in; often opposed against your other foot’s big toe, off which you resolutely push. Unlike a Lolotte (drop knee), the less aggressive backstep typically exploits footholds below knee level.


Any additional protection that is added to provide redundancy to an anchor.

Barn Door

An off balance move that causes a climber to pivot on two points of contact,  The result looks like you are opening a barn door.


To secure the rope while your partner climbs; you can belay a leader, a second, or provide an on-the-ground top-rope belay. Today, belaying involves using a belay device that introduces friction into the system to help arrest a fall; the guide hand stays on the rope above the device, while the brake hand clasps the rope exiting the device so it’s ready to catch a fall. The one who belays is the belayer, while the imaginary working area (personal space) the belayer needs to safely operate is the belay box.

Belay Device

Usually a metal device which the belayer uses to control the rope.


A specific, blow-by-blow description of a sequence or climb. More generally, information about a climb or climbing-related (or any) topic.

Big Wall

A long route  that takes many pitches, or lengths or rope to ascend.


Short for “Carabiner”. (see carabiner)


Rock and/or protection of such peerless quality and/or reliability that it could withstand a hypothetical bomb blast. Yosemite granite is bomber, while Fisher Towers Cutler sandstone is not.


Climbing low to the ground and without rope. Typically with the use of a crashpad for protection.

Brake Hand

The hand that holds the rope when belaying.


The most secure of handholds; a hold so deep, incut, and big it’s like grabbing a bucket lip.


Short for spring-loaded camming device (SLCD), a cam is any trigger-activated protection unit employing spring-loaded cam lobes in opposition.


A snap-link connecting the rope to your protection. Carabiners are the fundamental building blocks of fifth-class climbing.  (also called a “biner”)


A chicken-wing (noun) is a creased elbow jammed horizontally or even upward into an off-width or dihedral corner. As a verb, it can either mean to use the hold specified above, or to be so pumped that your elbows, instead of pointing toward earth, stick up and out like chicken wings: Bawk-bawk!


A crack so wide/deep that you can crawl inside and climb up between its two walls; named for its likeness to the inside of a fireplace chimney. To chimney (v) is to shuffle up a chimney by pressing your back/buttocks against one wall, and, in an Egpytian-like position, to bridge and oppose your feet, alternating which foot presses which wall. You might also bring your hands palm out, fingers down against the opposite wall.

Crack Climbing

Climbing continuous cracks in rocks, reoccurring specific techniques and protection methods.


A steep or rugged cliff or rock face, or the term for a small climbing area.


A small edge upon which you crimp your fingers, i.e. bend your digits to exert pressure on the knuckles, bringing your thumb against your index finger to close the grip.
*Variant: Any small edge is a crimper, while a crimp-intensive climb is crimpy.


A route or problem’s most difficult passage or sequence. To crux (verb) doesn’t always mean to reach a route’s crux, but instead to redline anywhere on a climb.

Daisy chain

Runner with multiple loops for use as an adjustable anchor. Often used by aid climbers.


The high point—the moment of weightlessness—achieved by a dynamic move upward, whether or not the body completely separates from the rock; or a movement that incorporates this type of lunge, with the feet typically not leaving the rock (as they do in an all out dyno.


A device used for rappelling.


A perfectly cleaved corner that opens at 90 degrees.

Dirt me

Climbing speak for “lower me down”, after finishing a  lead or top rope climb.

Down Climb

Climbing down a route or to reverse the moves one just did.


A “dynamic” move in which the climber springs for a distant hold, his feet leaving the rock. Ideally, the hold is grasped at the deadpoint if the motion is vertical or nearly so.

Elvis Leg

A leg shaking uncontrollably during a climb, usually due to nerves or other contractions of the muscle.

Figure 8 Knot

The most common knot used to attach the climbers harness to rope.


A hold formed by inserting your digits in a finger crack and then twisting, with your weight coming onto the lowest cammed knuckle. Fingerlocks can be done either thumb-up or thumb-down.

Fist jam

To place your fist frontally inside a crack, then clench it to cam it in; can be executed with your palm facing toward or away from you.


To drape one leg crosswise across the other, usually behind it (an outside flag), while pointing the flagged leg’s toe into the rock to counter a barn door. With an inside flag, your flagged leg crosses between the other leg and the rock, generally engaging the shoe’s outside edge.


Any crack, hole, pod, etc. wider at the mouth than in the back, thus flaring outward. The worst kind is a bottoming flare, both cranky to jam and difficult to protect, though offset cams (different size lobes) make the latter chore easier.


To send a pitch first try, but with specific beta (perhaps running beta from a friend on the ground).

Free climb

To climb using only hands and feet on the rock. Rope is used only for safety and is not relied upon for upward progress.

Free Solo

To climb without rope or protection.


A reverse lieback in which the fingers face inward, as if prying open an elevator door.


The most popular belay device with an auto-locking mechanism to catch a climber’s fall. Widely used by indoor and sport climbers.

Hand jam

A crack technique in which you slot your hand and cup the palm, wrapping the thumb underneath or beside your fingers, to jam against the crack’s walls. A secure hand jam can provide a chance to dead-hang and de-pump.

Heel hook

Jamming your heel onto or around a rock feature and pulling. Heel hooks can be lateral and below you, as in around an arête; and also horizontal and frontal, as in on a ledge in front of your face. Hooks are common on overhanging rock, and rock shoes have evolved accuracy-augmenting advents like ribbed and suction heels.


A frontal heel hook that cams the big toe against an opposing lip or rooflet, locking you in for a rest on overhanging terrain, or acting as a lever from which to reach. An outside heel-toe involves stepping one leg through, dropping your heel onto a hold, and then camming your shoe’s pinky-toe side.


A hollow, slung, or wired, six-sided chock placed into a rock crack as protection for climber on lead.


To bring one foot high and stand frontally on the big toe, recruiting the quadriceps muscle to push and reach.


A hold not locked off but merely held, en route to a better handhold above with the same hand. Intermediates can be faux holds that let you scootch your hips higher or otherwise adjust your body position.


To wedge a body part into a crack on a rock climb in order to put weight on it and move upward. Includes fingers, hands and feet.


A bucket hold so incut and hand-friendly, it’s like the handle on a one-gallon jug (n); to jumar a fixed line (v).


The original mechanical ascender, often applied to all brands of ascenders. Also the term for using an ascender.


A leg “hold” created by camming your knee/lower thigh up under or against some blocky, cracky, or roofy feature in opposition to your foot. A solid kneebar might let you take off both hands and de-pump, even on overhanging stone; however, it also requires calf flexion and core tension. Kneebar aficionados wear neoprene kneepads with sticky-rubber patches, held fast by duct tape and spray-on adhesive; this, in turn, requires diligent leg shaving.


Starting with the rope on the ground, climbing by clipping into protection points on the way up.


To lean horizontally (sideways) off a hold, often a crack, and walk the feet high in opposition.


Pressing down on a ledge or boulder lip with one or both arms, recruiting the triceps, while you rock over your foot; short for mantelshelf. A beached whale is a poorly executed mantel.
*Variant: Lip experience  (a high, heinous mantel or similar transition from steep to slabby terrain atop a boulder problem)
*Usage: “Gym boulderers have no clue how to mantel. Get them outside and watch the fish-flopping begin!”


A climb longer than one rope length requiring a climber to setup a belay station and bring up there partner before preceding higher.


A passively (versus actively, as with cams) seated, removable metal wedge. The brand name Stopper (originally made by Chouinard Equipment, starting in 1972) might also be used—stopper, or wired stopper—in the generic sense.

Nut tool

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


A wide, off-sized crack too big for fist jams yet too narrow to be a squeeze chimney. Off-widths are generally 4 to 12 inches wide and require hand-fist stacks, kneebars, Leavittation, etc.


To climb a route on your first try with no prior knowledge of the beta.


A rope length; more slangily, a climb (“Get some good pitches in today?”). This is another unit of climbing measurement that, unlike standard units of measurement (meters, feet, etc.), remains open to fluid interpretation. If simul-climbing (the alpinist’s day out in the mountains), a pitch can be climbing before the leader stops, builds a belay, and brings up his second so they can exchange roles. Thus a simul-climbing “pitch” can be 1,000 feet on rock, or even 10,000 feet on the face/slope of a mountain. In sport climbing, a pitch can be as miserly as 15 feet.
Alternatively, to pitch out a climb describes the way a multipitch route is done, i.e., how the individual pitches are broken down.  As a verb, to pitch means to fall.


An inset hole, divot, or rock hollow. Pocket climbing, as often found on welded tuff and limestone, isolates finger tendons, so can be tweaky. Many of the original (1980s) sport areas featured pockets: From Buoux and the Verdon Gorge, France, to Smith Rock, Oregon.


That tight, weak, swollen feeling in the forearms that comes, while climbing, from the accumulation of lactic acid combined with restricted blood flow. It’s much easier to get pumped than to de-pump. Also, as a verb, to sag to a straight-armed position and then cock to initiate a dyno or deadpoint.


A bar-tacked nylon runner (dog bone) with a loop on each end to accommodate a carabiner. Used to clip the rope into protection while reducing rope drag.


The climbing gear carried during an ascent.


Descending down the length of a rope.


Numerical (and sometimes letter) value given to a rock climb to reflect its relative difficulty.


To free-climb a route sans falls, after any amount of rehearsal (i.e., not on your first try).

Runout (run-out)

The length of rope between each protection piece; more specifically, a runout is any notable (10 feet or more) protectionless stretch. Most run-out routes assume danger grades.


A climb that is less than vertical, typically relying on friction to climb rather lots of holds.

SLCD (Spring-loaded camming device)

A piece of active climbing protection composed of a number of cams on a stem with a trigger bar. When the bar is pulled back, the cams compress to a size small enough to fit inside a crack or pocket. When the bar is released, the cams flare outward and rotate/wedge into place, providing protection. The rope is then clipped with a runner to this piece of protection.


A sewn, typically shoulder-length nylon runner used to clip in long to protection, build anchors, carry gear, etc.


A downsloping handhold that relies on skin friction and an open-hand grip. Slopers can prove unusable in poor (hot and/or smarmy) conditions.


To apply your entire forefoot (and not just toe) to the rock, often while slab climbing, stemming, or on large, sloping features.

Sport climbing

Gymnastic face and overhang free climbing, with the climbs typically having fixed protection like bolts (usually equipped top down with a power drill). Another key feature is the acceptance of hangdogging. Brits for some reason call it sports climbing.

Squeeze chimney

Bigger than an off-width but smaller than a chimney, a squeeze chimney (12 to 18 inches or so) is a crack up which you must wriggle; these are infamous for provoking claustrophobia. A wise climber will ensure that his torso squeezes through unimpaired, even on a full in-breath.


To splay and oppose your legs, {sansV}-like, across a dihedral or to otherwise enter a splits position.

Top rope

A rope that is passed through a fixed anchor at the top of a climbing wall or cliff, with each end tied to the climber and the belayer at the bottom. “Top-roping” is the term for this type of climbing.

Traditional climbing (Trad Climb)

Before sport climbing, all climbing was traditional climbing, in which you started on the ground, placing pro as you went. Today’s slightly modified meaning seems to encompass all gear-protected (natural) leads. (Headpointing is rad trad: “Radical” trad climbing using sport-climbing tactics.) Picture someone walking up to a 5.9 X off-width and leading it from the ground, no falls, no hanging, and perhaps only minimal whimpering: That guy is a core, experienced trad, tradster, or trad dad.
*Variant: Trad climbing


Any hold used by turning your palm upside-down, as if receiving alms, and walking the feet up.
*Variant: Undercut.

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