Route reading is an essential analytical and creative skill that we develop in order not to waste energy trying to spot the next hold while hanging off a hideous sloper, to figure out movement sequences in advance, and also to be able to check potential risks before setting off from the ground. At first it might feel impossibly complex, but with just a little practice, you’ll find it becomes increasingly natural, to the point where you may start figuring out climbing problems in your dreams.
We’re going to start off by breaking down the route reading process into three steps. You’re going to look at the same route a few times, and each time add another layer of complexity. Don’t spend too much time; 10-15 seconds should be enough per step. Try and keep your mind moving, rather than getting too bogged down with details. As with learning any new skills, start by practicing in a non-stressed environment, and with an easy to very easy difficulty level.
Start off by looking at the holds individually. Indoors, you can guess which are primarily handholds and which are footholds by how much chalk from hands or rubber marks from shoes they have on them. Looking a bit closer, you might notice particularities about holds from these marks – is most of the rubber concentrated in one small spot, or does the chalk suggest that what looks like a sloper might actually be a pinch you hold sideways? These could be useful pointers about how to use the holds. Also don’t forget to check for any wall features – arêtes, volumes, corners – which you might be able to use alongside the bolted holds.
#2 VISUALISE HAND SEQUENCE
Check out the handholds. Move your hands as if you were actually holding each one in a sequence from start to finish, miming or at least gesturing each move as you go. You will find that just running through this simple visualisation will be enough to start highlighting the basic body positions of the climb. Try to integrate some of the exact angles and features of the holds from the previous step into your visualisation. By reinforcing the visual aspect of route reading with this physical movement of the miming, you are making it neurologically easier to memorise the sequence, and also to prepare your muscles for each move of the climb.
If your hand sequence goes clearly wrong, see if there are any larger holds earlier in the sequence that you could have matched hands on, or if you get really stuck try reversing the sequence from the top of the climb down & the correct sequence will be revealed!
#3 VISUALISE FOOT SEQUENCE
Now you have your hand sequence more or less figured out, replay the hand sequence as accurately as you can and look at where your feet will be as your hands move from one hold to the next. Again, at the beginning this will feel very vague and you may not feel like you know what to look out for, so move through it fairly quickly without worrying about being too precise to start. With practice you will be able to fill out the details easier and quicker. Also, here’s a worthwhile nugget of advice – don’t try and mime the foot moves!
1. At first, reading routes will feel difficult and unnatural, and miming moves will feel very silly. Don’t worry, keep at it and your climbing will benefit endlessly.
2. Try practicing route reading first on very easy climbs that are more or less ladder-like in sequence, then climb them immediately afterwards. If you climbed it differently to how you read it from the ground, try to re-visualize the problem again afterwards, only this time with the sequence that you just performed.
3. To improve your memory skills for climbs and sequences, try making up routes using any colour holds on a quieter section of wall with some friends. Each person takes a turn adding on 2 or 3 extra moves until you have built up to a 20+ move route. At first use any footholds you like, but later once handhold based routes become easy to remember, try specifying the footholds as well. Simply remembering and repeatedly climbing progressively longer routes like this will develop your visual memory and route reading skill.