How to Read a Rock Climbing Route, as Told by Conrad Anker

Essential climbing advice from the greatest living mountaineer, Conrad Anker.


When he approaches an unfamiliar mountain or rock face, Conrad Anker says he sometimes feels intimidated. That’s surprising, coming from a man who’s conquered many of the world’s most difficult climbs: Everest (three times, once without supplemental oxygen), El Capitan in Yosemite, all three peaks of the Cerro Torre mountains in Patagonia and, perhaps most notably, the first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Mt. Meru — a climb that was previously thought to be impossible, and has not yet been repeated — among dozens of other astounding ascents.

Any apprehension that Anker has about summiting a new peak or climbing a new route, however, eventually fades once he has taken a step back to gather himself and consider a few key things. He studies the rock. He identifies the holds. He draws a map. He says to himself, “OK, it’s been done before — it’s not that bad.” And then he climbs high, gracefully and free of inhibition, toward his goal. You, too, can climb like the greatest living mountaineer — all you need is some climbing gear, a healthy amount of ambition and a few useful tips from the man himself.


Above are two climbs from Anker’s journal: the one on the left is a pitch from his Cerro Torre climb, the other is his historic first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Mt. Meru.

1. Keep a journal. On particularly long, intense routes, or on routes you’ve never tried before, observing from the ground and miming the moves can only get you so far. For these types of climbs, Anker recommends mapping out the route in a notebook. It’ll help you plan your climbing strategy before hopping on, and will help you remember the details when you climb it again.

2. Understand the rock type. Before you squeeze into your climbing shoes, Anker says it’s crucial to understand the rock you’ll be climbing on, as it will affect all aspects of the climb. Granite, a favorite among big wall climbers, is the hardest and smoothest of climbing rock types, while sandstone and limestone are soft and jagged. Bumpy rock types are easier, flakey necessitates more safety, and featureless requires more finesse.

3. Know the route rating. The majority of American climbers use the Yosemite Decimal Rating System to assess the difficulty of climbing routes. The system describes five classes, increasing by degree of difficulty — Class 1 is a simple hiking trail, Class 5 is a sheer vertical face — but for now, forget about the first four classes. Class 5 is where the real climbing occurs. Here’s a breakdown:

Yosemite Decimal Rating System

5.0-5.4: Basically just a steep ramp. Plenty of good holds. Nothing crazy.

5.5-5.7: This is where most first-time climbers begin. Holds are big and jug-like, spaced out like rungs on a ladder.

5.8: Holds are getting smaller now.

5.9: This is a good starting point for people who exercise regularly. Not too difficult, nor too easy. Likely a few tricky moves that require some ingenuity.

5.10 (a, b, c, d): Here’s where the men and women are separated from the boys and girls. Holds are scarce, and most of them are about the size of your fist. The route likely has an overhang, a beyond-vertical angle all the way up, or both. The letters indicate relative difficulty — for example, a 5.10a is closer to a 5.9, whereas a 5.10d is closer to a 5.11.

5.11 (a, b, c, d): Every climber remembers their first 5.11. Achieving this takes serious dedication and plenty of hours spent shredding your hands in the climbing gym. Holds are either tiny or frustratingly slippery, and often require awkward contortions of the body to reach. Overhangs are often brutally steep.

5.12 (a, b, c, d): Basically a 5.11, but with steeper overhangs and smaller holds.

5.13 (a, b, c, d): This is where the pros like to hang out and hone their skills. Yet even for them (or most of them, at least), a 5.13 can be a real bastard.

5.14 (a, b, c, d): Conquer one of these, and you’ll become a world-famous climber. Red Bull will probably contact you about a sponsorship. Ascending rock, just for the fun of it, is now your full-time job.

5.15a: The hardest climb in the world. If you successfully climb a 5.15a, either you’re a) Chris Sharma, or b) a mountain goat with suction cups for hooves.

4. Rehearse the moves. Step several feet away from the wall, pop a squat and take a nice, long look at the route. Determine which holds are for your hands and which are for your feet, and memorize them. “If it’s a route you’ve done multiple times, you’re not really looking at the rock. Rather you’re rehearsing the moves in your mind: where I need to match my feet, where I need to get that one bolt that’s on an overhang,” said Anker. Also, it helps to memorize the moves by miming them while you’re still on the ground, like a dancer choreographing a dance routine. Visualize the vertical dance in your mind, and you’ll climb more safely and efficiently.

5. Spot your rests. Anker describes rest stops on a climb as “money.” They’re crucial for giving your tired muscles a chance to recharge for the remainder of the climb. Without rest stops — especially on longer, more difficult climbs — you’re more likely to burnout before reaching the top. “The best type of rest is a hands-free rest, where you’re on your feet or you can wedge yourself into a crack,” Anker said. Know where the rests are, map them out in your journal, and use them whenever you can.

6. Don’t get cocky. The most important tip Anker can provide, to any young-and-hungry climber: “It’s a dangerous sport so, climb at your comfort zone — maybe a little bit below. Don’t go way out and try something that’s way beyond what your abilities are.”

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