The Art of Route Selection


Scarface (5.11c). Courtesy of

While many climbers simply pick routes that look good or are highly recommended or considered classic, you can improve your performance and the learning value of your time spent climbing by purposefully picking routes that match your mission for the day. Following are three issues to consider in choosing the perfect line.

First, what is the ultimate goal for the day: climbing practice to enhance skills and overall ability, or climbing for maximum performance? If skill practice is the goal, pick a route that works one of your known weaknesses. For instance, if you are intimidated or have technical difficulty on roof routes, select a route that features a challenging roof or tiered overhang (of course, you only want to do this after completing a few easier warm-up climbs). The fact is, becoming a better climber requires that you get on routes that make you uncomfortable, so whatever your weakness—be it slabs, thin finger cracks, overhanging terrin, thin vert faces, or whatever—it’s your commitment to frequently get on these kinds of routes that will make you a better climber.

If climbing for maximum performance is the goal du jour, then a completely different MO is needed. On these max-send kind of days you want to pick routes that allow you to exploit your strengths! Pick an inspiring-looking route that focuses on the type of climbing you do well and really enjoy. Of course, exploiting your strengths won’t make you much better, but it will make for some personal-best ascents and help stoke your motivation and confidence.

The next consideration when selecting a route is whether you will be going for an on-sight ascent or working a project for redpoint? If you come upon a great looking climb that you are jonesing to get on, then the grade of the line may determine this matter for you. As a rule, it’s unlikely that you’ll on-sight more than one letter grade above your hardest on-sight to date; but if your chosen climb is at or below your on-sight limit then by all means go for this highest style of ascent.

If you have a wide choice of suitable routes near your maximum grade, favor on-sight over redpoint at a 2-to-1 ratio. Both are valuable experiences, but on-sight climbing provides greater potential for learning and refining movement skills, and improving climbing economy. Overemphasis on projecting is an all-too-common mistake of climbers “in search of big numbers.” They spend a lot of the time flailing on the rock, learn very little and, only occasionally, succeed on such difficult routes. Exclusive use of this approach can demoralize and injure you, and it certainly has less learning and practice value than on-sighting slightly easier routes.

Finally, select routes—both for redpoint and on-sight—that will help solidify a newly acquired grade level. Two common mistakes in route selection are: working redpoint routes too hard for you, and on-sighting routes too far below your limit. If either of these MOs sound familiar, then remind yourself that succeeding on routes near your maximum ability level is far more beneficial that walking up super easy lines (though that can be fun, too!) or thrashing on routes that are way over your head. Consolidating your skills and building confidence at a newly achieved grade level establishes a foundation from which you will soon be able to push forward to the next grade of climbing.

So, except for warm-up and cool-down climbs, pick routes within one number grade of your hardest on-sight. For instance, if 5.11c is your top on-sight level, select routes between 5.10c and 5.11c or d to on-sight. Sending several routes at this grade will solidify your ability, while hiking a zillion 5.9’s or hoping to “get lucky” on a 5.13a holds much less value. The sooner you firm up skill and confidence at your current level, the faster you’ll progress to a higher grade.

As for picking the right grade to project, work routes up to one full number grade above your on-sight limit. Per the above example of having an on-sight limit of 5.11c, you’d want to select project routes between 5.11d and 5.12c. Routes in the low end of this range may go in just two or three tries, while a harder line may take several days. Avoid getting involved in projects more than a number grade beyond your best on-sight (in this case, no routes beyond 5.12c). Doing so will consume too much time on too many climbing days when you could be consolidating your current ability level. The bottom line: projecting more than one number grade above your on-sight limit, you may actually stunt your growth as a climber, even though you may occasionally thrash up a super hard line. I’ve met quite a few climbers who engage in this manner of “max projecting”—that is hanging on routes that are way over their head—and there’s no doubt they would become better climbers by actually climbing—or should I say succeeding—on more routes near their limit, and by becoming a more proficient on-sight climber.

Copyright © 2015 Eric J. Hörst | All Rights Reserved.