When selecting routes or outdoor climbing venues we often don’t take in to account much more than our ideal choice of grade and the length of walk-in we are willing to endure for that day.
There are, however, many ways of becoming just that little bit more savvy with your choices, and often that makes the difference between having a great day, an average day, or a day when your warm up turns out to be a total epic.
Here are some of my top tips to help beginner and intermediate climbers make good venue and route choices.
Take the time to research
Remember that saying, ‘prior preparation prevents ……..’?!
Guidebooks - look for more than just the grade selection
- What aspect does the crag face (north, west etc) and how will this affect the temperature, wind, drying time? Modern guidebooks also often recommend the best time of year for some crags to get the most shade or sun, depending on your preference.
- How sheltered or exposed is the crag? A few trees at the bottom will be great on a hot sunny day, but could be horrific on a muggy, windless day when the midges are out.
- What is the rock type? And how will this be affected by the weather? For example, limestone quickly becomes treacherous in the wet, and gritstone needs cold conditions to maximise friction. Climbs can also feel entirely different grades in different temperatures.
- What is your climbing experience on that rock type? If you have only ever climbed on volcanic mountain rock, it’s likely your comfortable grade will be a lot lower on gritstone, and vice versa.
- Classic three star route? Great! Be wary though, if this is the most popular low-grade route at the crag, then consider the potential for it to be busy on a sunny weekend and whether you have any other options should this be the case. Star ratings are great for helping us to choose high quality routes, but look a little further than the stars. Sometimes routes are given stars for their historical significance, because a guidebook author particularly likes off-width cracks, or thinks this slightly neglected (aka dirty) route deserves more attention. I’ve climbed three star routes that really weren’t that great, had poor gear or loose rock, and have climbed zero/one star routes which were ace.
- UKClimbing.com is the definitive online guide for climbs across the UK, and can be really good for checking the suitability of routes in advance. Look out for comments on gear, grade difficulty or anything worth noting about a particular route. Is it a frequently climbed route, or was the last logged climb in 1959?! Also, be aware of the pitfalls of reading numerous other accounts of routes; there will almost always be someone that has had a total epic on that route and thinks it is much harder than the grade! Likewise if the person who onsight soloed it says it’s ‘easy’, then they’re probably going to have a different idea of what ‘easy’ is.
- Facebook – there are numerous Facebook groups now for different climbing areas in the UK. This can often be a really useful source of information about crag updates, conditions and parking issues, as well as being a place to find climbing partners if you are new to an area.
- BMC RAD database – this app has up-to-date information on crag access, bird bans, parking issues etc. Some crags have really sensitive access issues, and we need to respect those if we want to be able to continue to use them.
- Don’t be afraid to ask others! Getting advice from others on what routes to choose (or avoid!) can be really helpful, and asking experienced, local climbers about appropriate venues for the weather conditions is a great way of making sure you get the most out of your day.
You can glean a lot of information about a route from the ground once you know what to look for
- Use the guidebook photo and description to spot exactly where the route goes before you set off. If it’s a particularly long and complex route description, then I find it helpful to spot key features that I will aim for along the way, or even just a general direction of travel. If it’s a short route you can often see the gear placements from the ground, and this can help you to refine what trad gear you carry and help to minimise the weight.
- Does it look clean or recently climbed? A bit of chalk showing the way can be really helpful and reassuring. Likewise if you have to fight your way through brambles to get to the start and the route is covered in moss, it may have a more adventurous feel.
- Is there a lot of chalk at a specific section?! This could mean it’s a good resting point, or it might be before a crux section where the climber has been stalling before committing to the moves.
- Route reading from the ground is harder than indoors, but spending a few minutes, often discussing with a partner, makes for a much smoother lead. Can you spot resting foot ledges and handholds? Are there any specific bulges or steep parts that might be more tricky? Can you see any cracks that might have good gear placements? Can you spot the style of climbing the route will require, i.e. laybacking, crack climbing, bridging?
- Are you choosing routes for their grade or their quality? There’s no right or wrong here and usually we are after both, but sometimes choosing a good quality route of a different grade can lead to a better experience than choosing an unpleasant, run out route just because you wanted to climb that grade on that particular day. I’ve certainly been caught out on a few scary routes just because I wanted to satisfy my grade chasing!
- Sometimes the easiest grades at venues are not necessarily the best protected or the best quality, so again, do a bit of research.
Having said all this, climbing inherently contains a bit of adventure and we can’t (and don’t need to) control every single outcome. There won’t be a single climber, no matter how good or experienced they are, that hasn’t walked in to a completely soaked crag a few times, or had to bail on a route, or who chose a venue that was completely unrealistic for the weather conditions, or has been really scared on a route well below their ‘usual’ grade. Don’t be afraid to try things, that’s how we learn after all, but hopefully these tips will help you on your way to becoming an experienced outdoor climber.
For those seeking practical tuition and coaching on the tactical, technical and physical aspects of climbing, get in touch or check out my website.