Climbing Lingo 101: Decoding the Jargon of Rock Climbing

Max Lurie is an AMGA certified Rock and Alpine Guide, as well as an accomplished alpinist. Max has been climbing since 2004 and traveling to the world's greatest mountain ranges in pursuit of his passion.
Written by
Max Lurie

Like any sport, activity or tight-knit community, there is often a lot of specialized language used to describe very things that only matter to people involved with that activity.

At best it is just some funny jargon that doesn’t make any sense. At its worst this can be mystifying and off-putting to a beginner or outsider. This article will shed some light on common terminology used while climbing.

In climbing, communication is very important for our safety. Saying or doing the wrong thing could be misinterpreted by your climbing partner with disastrous results. Navigating your local climbing gym and getting hosed down by the resident beta bro at least now you’ll know what he is talking about.

Rock climbing gloves, ropes, and other gear

Basic Terms for Beginners

  • Belay: To belay is actually an old sailing term that means “to fasten,” and climbers use it to mean much the same thing. Belaying someone simply means that you are holding the rope in a way that allows you to catch them if they fall.
  • Crux: The crux of a route refers to the hardest sequence of a route or the single hardest part. Sometimes there are multiple cruxes on a challenging route.
  • Pitch: Refers to the amount of rock or mountain you can climb on a single rope length.
  • Route: Is the predetermined path set forth by others through a specific section of terrain. Often a single cliff has many routes on it.
  • Crag: The crag is just another term for a cliff or area where climbing occurs. Usually, this is only in reference to a single-pitch area and not a larger mountain feature.
  • Anchor: An anchor is something that attaches the climbers to the mountain, usually via the rope.
  • Top Rope: Refers to having the rope through an anchor above and thus limiting the risk of a fall. This is the usual method for introducing people to climbing.
  • Flash: To flash a route or boulder problem is to climb it cleanly from the ground to the top without falling on the very first try. However, you may have prior knowledge from watching others ascend that particular section or route.
  • Beta: Is a shorthand for information. Often associated with the dreaded beta bro who constantly spews unsolicited and often incorrect information at you.
  • Gumby: Refers to someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about or doing. The implication is that they are likely to get themselves into trouble of some sort.

Climbing Gear Lingo

  • Quickdraw: Consists of two non-locking carabiners and a short sling connecting them. The quick draw is used for attaching the rope to protect (often bolts) while climbing.
  • Carabiner: A carabiner is a small aluminum snap hook that can securely connect two things. There are several different types or styles, but they all look very similar.
  • Cam: Is used to secure oneself and their team to the mountain while climbing. The name cam comes from the physical principle on which the function, by camming.
  • Nut: Or stopper is another piece of traditional equipment we can place in cracks or crevices to attach ourselves to the mountain securely. It is simply a small angular piece of metal with a steel wire loop for clipping with a carabiner.
  • Harness: A climbing harness consists of a waist belt and leg loops.
  • Chalk Bag: Lots of climbers use gymnastics chalk to dry the sweat from their hands. But unlike gymnasts, they have to bring their chalk with them. Hence the small bag. 
  • Belay Device: There are many different types and styles of belay devices. These are all small mechanical devices that increase the friction applied to the rope allowing the user to control a fall or descent with many times the same force they’d be able to with just their bare hands.
  • Slings: Connect things together. They come in many different lengths and have an infinite number of uses.

Climbing Moves & Techniques

Aside from all the specialized equipment we use to keep us safe while rock climbing. The whole goal of climbing is to discover the physical movement of ascending a vertical wall. Needless to say, many, many terms have been coined to describe the holds and body positions required to do some. Some of them are often quite comical.

  • Dyno: A dyno is a shorthand for dynamic movement. Basically, jumping between holds or doing something so fast that it is impossible to stop in the middle.
  • Mantel: Think of the body position you use when exiting a pool from the deep end with no ladder.
  • Flag: Flagging is the act of providing counter pressure with a foot that isn’t on a hold itself. Think of it as pushing yourself back into the wall around the fulcrum of your other foot.
  • Smearing: Associated with slab climbing. Smearing is the act of trusting the friction between your climbing shoes and the rock itself. There are no actual footholds and it often feels very insecure.
  • Edging: The opposite of smearing is edging. This is when there is a flat edge worth standing on with your toes. It doesn’t rely on friction but rather how hard you can concentrate the force into a small area.
  • Backstep: When you step behind your other leg to gain a more favorable position or foothold.
  • Gaston: This is particularly hard on the shoulder. Think about the movement you would make if you opened a kitchen cabinet at face level but with all your force.
  • Heel Hook: Pulling yourself into the wall with your heel instead of standing on your toes.

Styles of Ascent/Descent

  • On-Sight: To on-sight something means to do it first try without any prior knowledge of the route at all. There is some serious gray area between this and a flash.
  • Redpoint: To attempt or accomplish a route after repeated attempts. The history of this term comes from first ascensionist who would leave a small piece of red tape at the bottom of their new routes. This would alert other climbers to stay off the route until they have fully established it.
  • Rappel/Abseil: To descend using the ropes and a belay/rappel device.
  • Free climbing: There is much confusion between this and soloing. Free climbing simply refers to the use of hands and feet to ascend the rock. However, the additional use of ropes and equipment is also used in the event of a fall.
  • Free Solo: Free soloing is to also ascend the rock with only hands and feet, however there are no ropes or other safety equipment in the event of a slip or fall.
Max Lurie guiding in Boulder, CO

Types of Climbing


Bouldering is arguably the most physically demanding form of climbing. Because it is done relatively low down to the ground, specifically designed foam pads are used for protection. There is no use of ropes and this allows the climbers to focus purely on the climbing itself making for the most challenging sequences of moves out of any discipline. 

  • Problem: Is just another term for route when specifically talking about bouldering. Because boulders are short relative to other forms of climbing routes they are referred to as problems. To be solved. 
  • V-Grade: This is the generally accepted scale of difficulty used to compare bouldering problems. Often very subjective relative to one's style and body type.
  • Spotter: This is the person who is supposed to catch you or at least keep you from going off the foam pad when you fall.

Sport Climbing

  • Bolt: The bolt is the permanent structure in the rock that allows climbers to clip into while ascending a section of rock. Often referred to as just a bolt it actually consists of a bolt and a hanger. The hanger being the part that we clip with our carabiners.
  • Project: A project is something that someone has attempted to climb multiple times without success.
  • Whipper: Taking a larger than expected leader fall. Can happen for a variety of reasons.
  • Giving someone a biscuit: This means that you’ve pulled the rope in a particular way so that the first few quickdraws are already clipped. Essentially giving them a top rope for a few moves off the ground. Example, “yo dawg, those first few moves are mega sketch so I dropped you a biscuit for your redpoint send!”

Trad Climbing

  • Sketch: This can refer to either a section of climbing with no available spots for placing protection or a particularly poor placement itself. For example, “ yo, that section after the ledge is sketch. If you fall you’ll deck for sure.”
  • Deck: Falling off a rock climb and hitting the ground. 
  • Piton: A piton is a metal spike, typically made of steel, designed to be hammered into a rock crevice or crack to create a secure anchor point for climbers during ascent. Its hooked or tapered shape provides stability and support in challenging climbing situations. They aren’t used much anymore but still exist for us to use at our discretion.
Father and son rock climbing with Alpine to the Max

Frequently Asked Questions

How Important is it to Know All These Terms as a Beginner?

You don’t need to know all the different terms for climbing; it can certainly help you communicate effectively with your climbing partners. A lot of the language used to describe climbing has nothing to do with safety or security, it is just a way to show endearment and enthusiasm for the sport.

Can I Start Climbing Without Knowing All These Terms?

Go to the climbing gym and listen to the teenagers or early 20s climbers talk. You’ll be sure to pick up a few things. Most of it is pretty funny and doesn’t effect your actual climbing experience at all.

Why are There Different Terms for Climbing Moves?

Just like any sport there are certain things that work better than others at specific times or in specific situations while climbing. Having language that reflects that helps us communicate better.


It can be hard to sort through the important terms while climbing and the goofy things climbers say. Like any relationship, communication is key. If you are ever unsure of what your climbing partner is telling you are asking of you, just ask for clarification. Don’t spend too much time worry about what anyone else is doing at the crag.

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