A climbing route (German: Kletterrouten) is a path by which a climber reaches the top of a mountain, or rock/ice-covered obstacle. The details of a climbing route are recorded in a climbing guidebook and/or in an online climbing route database, and will include elements such as the type of climbing route (e.g. bouldering route, sport climbing route, traditional climbing route, ice climbing route, and alpine climbing route, etc.), the difficulty grade of the route–and beta on its crux(es)–and any risk or commitment grade, the length and number of pitches of the route, and the climbing equipment (e.g. climbing protection gear) needed to complete the route.

There are definitions as to what is a valid ascent of a route (e.g. the redpoint in rock climbing), and the class of ascent (e.g. onsighted, flashed). The first ascent, first free ascent, and first female free ascent, are often recorded for important routes. After a route is established, variations can be created (e.g. directessimas, sit starts, or enchainments), and climbers will try to improve the "style" in which the route is climbed (e.g. minimizing aid climbing or other supports such as oxygen or fixed ropes). Some climbers limit the in-situ protection (e.g. greenpointing), or even free solo the route. Others set speed climbing records on routes.

The ascent of ever-harder routes is an integral key part of the history of climbing, and each type of climbing has notable routes that set major new milestones. There are ongoing debates amongst climbers about routes including the naming of routes, the creation of new routes by artificially altering the surface (e.g. chipping in rock climbing), the role of completely artificial indoor routes (e.g. The Project), the level and maintenance of in-situ protection on routes (e.g. providing permanent bolted protection anchors) and the ethical issue of retro-bolting (e.g. turning traditional climbing routes into safer sport climbing bolted routes).


"Topo" of a multi-pitch alpine climbing route on the South West Pillar of the Aiguille des Deux Aigles [pt] (500-metres, grade TD)

Climbing routes are usually chronicled in a climbing guidebook, a climbing journal (e.g. the American Alpine Journal or the Himalayan Journal), and/or in an online route database (e.g. theCrag.com or MountainProject.com),[1] where the key details of the route are listed, which generally include the following:[2]


Main article: Glossary of climbing terms

Ascent of routes

The definition of what is classed as a valid ascent of a rock climbing route is called a redpoint.[6] Many routes may not be climbed on the first attempt, and will require days (and in some cases, years) of attempts; when a climber undertakes such a task, it is sometimes called projecting a route (i.e. the route becomes a "project").[6] When a climber does climb the route on their first attempt without any falls and without any prior knowledge of how to climb the route (which is called beta), it is known as an onsight;[6] where the climber had prior beta on the route, it is known as a flash.[6] Alpine climbers distinguish whether the ascent was made in summer or in the more difficult winter season (e.g. it was not until 2021 that K2 was climbed in winter).[7]

Style of route ascents

Alex Honnold's 2017 free solo of Freerider (5.13a, 7c+), El Capitan

Climbers will also seek to improve the "style" in which a route is climbed. A route that uses a lot of aid climbing will be reclimbed with less and less aid until it is eventually "free climbed" (i.e. using no aid, either as a sport or a traditional climb).[6][8] Greenpointing refers to the process of even removing any existing in-situ sport climbing protection bolts to ascend the route as a cleaner traditional climb.[9][10] Alpine climbers seek to complete established high-altitude "expedition style" routes in alpine style with no supplemental oxygen or any fixed ropes, and even alone.[11] Free solo climbers seek to ascend a route with no protection equipment whatsoever (e.g. as in the 2018 film, Free Solo).[12] Some big wall climbers set speed records on routes (e.g. The Nose).[13][8]

Variations of routes

North face of the Eiger: The original 1938 Heckmair Route (blue-line #2), contrasts with the 1966 Harlin Direttissima (pink-line #3), and the 1969 Japanese Direttissima (pink-line #6). Not shown is the 2006 Russian Direttissima which is an almost straight vertical line between the Harlin and Japanese routes.

When a climbing route has been established, variations may be added, a typical one being a more "direct" line (e.g. a direct start or direct finish) of the original route, also called a direttissima in alpine climbing, and thus not avoiding the difficult obstacles that the original route went around (e.g. a roof or an overhang, or a section with minimal holds).[14] Boulder climbers might add a harder sit start "SS" (or sit-down-start, "SDS") variation to a boulder route (e.g. the SDS of Dreamtime is graded well above the standing start version).[15] Alpine and big wall climbers often seek to link established routes together in a larger enchainment (or "link-up") route (e.g. the notable Moonwalk Traverse of the entire Cerro Chaltén Group in Patagonia).[16]

The straightforward and frequently used (and usually easiest and often the original) route up a mountain peak is often called the normal route (French: voie normale; German: Normalweg) in mountaineering.[17]


Naming of routes

Traditionally, in many countries, the person who made the first ascent of a route was allowed to name it (in France, the naming rights go to whoever first bolted the route);[4] this concept of "naming ownership" by the first ascensionist led to inertia with regard to the changing of problematic names including route names that were vulgar or had racial, sexual, colonial, discriminatory or other, slurs, tropes or stereotyping.[18][19][20]

In 2020, the climbing community more directly confronted the issue of problematic names.[18][21] In June 2020, climbing author Andrew Bisharat wrote in Rock & Ice that "routes belong to us all. That should include their names" in regard to changing problematic names.[18][22] At the same time, Duane Raleigh, the editor of Rock & Ice, stepped down from his post recognizing some problematic names that he had given his own routes in the past.[18] The debate intensified, reaching national media attention in countries around the world,[23][24] and was described as climbing's "#MeToo" moment.[25]

In 2021, the American Alpine Club created the "Climb United" initiative to bring magazine editors, guidebook publishers and database managers, and other climbing community leaders together to create principles for naming routes that would "Build the best publishing practices to avoid harm caused by discriminatory or oppressive route names".[26] Many climbing guidebook publishers and route databases introduced policies to redact inappropriate route names,[27] including the largest online databases, theCrag.com,[3] and MountainProject.com (who had redacted 6,000 names in the first year).[28]

Manufactured or artificial routes

Some climbers have physically altered the natural rock surface to "construct" a route (or make a route more climbable), by cutting or expanding handholds,[29] which is also known as chipping.[30] Such acts have at times caused controversy (e.g. Fred Rouhling's Akira and Hugh), but at other times has not (e.g. Antoine Le Menestrel [fr]'s famous Buoux route, La Rose et la Vampire).[31] A 2022 survey by Climbing showed climbers were largely against manufacturing routes on natural outdoor rock on public lands, but were less negative on private lands (or on routes in quarries); they were willing to allow "cleaning" of routes (which some consider manufacturing), and also the repairing of routes (e.g. gluing back broken holds).[30]

In contrast, indoor climbing is done on completely artificially manufactured sport climbing routes on climbing walls, as is competition climbing where a route setter manufactures a completely new route for each stage of the competition.[32] In 2017, Black Diamond Equipment launched "The Project" on an indoor climbing wall in Sweden, with the aim of creating the world's hardest sport climbing route at circa. 5.15d (9c); it was later deconstructed having never been fully ascended, despite attempts by some of the world's best climbers, including Adam Ondra, Stefano Ghisolfi, and Alex Megos.[33] Since then, other "Project-type" routes have been created on other climbing walls, with the goal of being the world's hardest route.[33]

Permanent-protection and retro-bolting of routes

In-situ sport climbing protection showing a rope clipped into a quickdraw, that is clipped into a permanently fixed climbing bolt.

There has been a long-term debate in the climbing world on the use of permanently fixed in-situ climbing protection (e.g. such as bolts or pitons) on climbing routes.[34] Such protection is not to provide aid (i.e. it is not aid-climbing per se), but to increase the safety of the route.[34] Climbers call routes that have such protection, "sport climbing routes" (i.e. there is no risk, so it is purely a sport).[34] In the 1980s and 1990s in the US, this debate became so heated that it was known as the "bolt wars", with climbers bolt chopping (i.e. removing in-situ protection) on routes they considered to be traditional-only routes (i.e. no in-situ protection).[34]

While all indoor climbing routes are bolted sport routes, the use of bolts in the outdoor natural environment raised environmental considerations, which led to the development of the clean climbing movement.[34]

Other objections to pre-bolted protection highlighted the effect that such protection had on the very nature and challenge of a climbing route.[35] In 1971, Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner wrote a famous essay called The Murder of the Impossible (which was believed to have been inspired by the 400-bolt Compressor Route), challenging that the use of such protection was diminishing the nature of mountaineering, saying of such climbers: "he carries his courage in his rucksack, in the form of bolts and equipment".[35] Such concerns also relate to the debate on retro-bolting of traditional climbing routes, which is the conversion into safer sport climbing routes,[36] but that also fundamentally alters the nature of the route challenge.[37]

Notable routes

Rock climbing

Main articles: List of grade milestones in rock climbing and Traditional climbing § Hardest routes

Ice climbing

Main articles: Ice climbing § Evolution of grade milestones, Mixed climbing § Evolution of grade milestones, and Dry-tooling § Evolution of grade milestones


Main article: Alpine climbing § Milestones

See also


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  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Ryan, Mick; James, Alan (July 2002). How to write ... a MiniGuide (PDF). RockFax. pp. 1–15. Retrieved 26 August 2023.
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  4. ^ a b Carpenter, Hayden (25 December 2017). "Margo Hayes Sends Biographie/Realization (5.15a)". Rock & Ice. Retrieved 26 August 2023.
  5. ^ Robinson, Doug (23 March 2023). "Guidebooks Are Still a Problem". Climbing. Retrieved 26 August 2023.
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  8. ^ a b Ogden, Jared (2005). "Chapter 1: Wall Climbing Fundamentals - Style & Ethics". Big Wall Climbing: Elite Technique (1st ed.). Mountaineers Books. pp. 87–91. ISBN 978-0898867480.
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