How to read climbing routes with Air Karate

Route reading is a critical skill for rock climbing. If you’ve watched elite level climbers at competitions or the Olympics, then you’ve seen them performing what looks like air karate before they step up to send the route.

What they’re doing is called “route reading”. They are miming out the hand and foot sequence for the climb they are about to attempt. If you want to improve your onsight climbing level, then practicing your route reading skills is an excellent place to start.

I’ll be honest, I have an easier time doing these tips at a climbing gym than I do when I’m outdoor climbing. Because of the vibrant colors of the holds, I am easily able to see their orientation, positive edges, and the chalk marks left on these routes.

It’s still possible to read routes in the outdoors, but it’s a skill you need to practice. And the only way to practice is to get out there and do it. On your next climbing trip, make it a point to rehearse the beta from the ground and see if you can stick to it while climbing.

Table of Contents

How to read a climbing route before climbing

Air Karate

I’ve mentioned this idea of air karate before. All this means is that while still standing on the ground, take a look at the holds in front of you and mime out the movements from start hold to finishing holds. This is easy to do on a boulder problem since the routes are short, but on a sport climb, this gets tougher.

For a sport climb, you can rehearse the moves from the start hold until you find the crux sequence of the route. Identify key marker holds right before the crux so you have a frame of reference when you’re about to enter the crux. Take a rest, psyche yourself up and go forth and send.

Spend time identifying visualizing the crux moves. Especially how you’ll enter into the crux and exit. I have frustrated myself countless times slipping before or after the crux. I spend all this time rehearsing the crux, that I forget about the other moves on the route.

Don’t forget about key foot sequences while you’re route reading. In climbing gyms, it’s obvious when a hold is meant only for feet. It will be a small little chip, have no chalk, and be covered in black rubber from climbing shoes standing on it. Think about how the foot sequence correlates with your hands. If you think that the foot sequence requires swapping feet, then climb with that intention.

Commit to what you plan for, but don’t be afraid to switch it up mid-climb. Changing beta once you’re climbing is common. Listen to your intuition.

Body Position

It’s easy to stand on the ground and wave your hands around in the air and think that we have the sequences down. But when we start climbing up the wall, a barndoor, unexpected dyno, or a gaston that we aren’t prepared for, can make us swing off and crash back down to the mat.

Route reading involves thinking of how we can manipulate our body to stay on the wall.
Looking at this route from the ground, I know that I face swinging out to the left. Throwing a heel hook up keeps my position in check.

Our body position is crucial on every route we climb, but it can be tricky to know how our body will fit into the route when we’re on the ground.

Take a look at the wall. If we’re indoors and we see really steep panels towering over us, then we know that we might need to incorporate heel hooks into our climb. But if we’re climbing in a corner dihedral, then stem positions are going to be our best friend.

Identifying Rests

Taking a rest on a route can be what makes or breaks your send. On some outdoor trad climbs, I have been able to stand on a ledge and shake my arms out. But at the climbing gym, it’s not common to be able to totally take your weight off your hands. A rest will usually be a combination of good hand holds and feet placements.

During rests, we ideally want three points of contact, one hand on both of our feet. The primary rest of our focus should be on shaking out our other arm and chalking up. In some instances, we only have one good foothold and we have to flag our other foot out to counterbalance our weight. When we want to switch our arms, we’ll need to swap our feet and flag out the other way.

Getting cheeky on a rest at the New River Gorge

Another good indicator of a resting point on a route is where the route protection is. Old school first ascentionists used to bolt from the ground up. Sometimes they were hanging on a good hold while drilling the bolt into the rock. In a climbing gym, the route setter will usually place a decent hold to clip off of. Not every bolt will have the perfect rest, but it is one of the best clues we can use while we’re searching for a rest.

Incorporate searching for rests into your route reading and practice this skill. It might feel weird to force yourself to hang on a route longer than normal. Next time you’re lead climbing in the gym, pause at each bolt and find a comfortable position to rest, shake your arms out, and chalk up.

How to tell the difficulty of a climbing route

A route difficulty rating is subjective, but it helps us put the climbing difficulty in a range. Sport and trad climbs will use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) while bouldering grades use the V Scale. Some gyms like Sportrock Alexandria, use a colored tag system to denote the bouldering grades.

Climbing grades will vary depending on the area or gym you’re at. When I’m rock climbing somewhere new, I like to warm up and get used to the routes on climbs that are below my flash grade.

Route Reading Tips

Chalk

Chalk marks are one of the biggest clues we can use while rock climbing. At any crag or gym, popular routes will be caked in the white stuff. These clues help us build out the hand sequence. We know where the hand holds will be and more importantly where to grab the hold.

Chalk provides context clues as to hold real rock
Area classics, like Black & Tan 5.10A at the New River Gorge, will be covered in chalk.

I always have a hard time deciphering slopers. But once I began to pay more attention to the chalk on the sloper I started having a better success rate on them. If I see a thumb print on one side of the sloper, I know I’ll be using that hold more like a pinch. But if I see one side chalked up, I’ll need to manipulate my hand to fit there.

But beware of false prints on routes. I’ve neve rheard of a climber intentionally chalking up bad holds. But I am pretty sure that the setters put false holds on routes!

Climbing Shoe Rubber

This tip is especially useful in the outdoors. After many outdoor climbers have stood on the same footholds over and over. The rubber from their climbing shoes begins to rub off. One of my first memories of climbing outdoors was being totally overwhelmed by all of the possible places for my feet to go. I was trying a tricky slab climb that required a precise foot sequence and kept slipping off.

It wasn’t until an experienced climber came over to me and taught me about the rubber marks left on the route. Seeing rubber on routes is a way to note key footholds. Rubber can also be left from our heels after a heel hook.

Hold Orientation

Gigantic volumes in the climbing gym look intimidating at first and inconquerable at first. But the orientation of these holds provides huge clues on how to grab them. Most of these holds can only be grabbed by their edges. The orientation tells us exactly how to grab it

The second chalked-up hold can only be grabbed in a certain way.

When we’re route reading from the ground, look at how the holds are oriented. If a hold is facing right, we can’t do anything about it. That is how the climb is and we need to manipulate our body into the relevant position to climb it.

Readers also asked

How do you read a bouldering route?

Identify the grade, look at each hold to determine the technique needed, rehearse the moves, and look for any potential risk factors. These steps help us know what to expect on the climb and allow us to manage our risk to prevent any injuries. At a climbing gym, the risk is lower, but you could still have holds protruding from the wall, or other climbers climbing underneath or above you.