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How to Size Up a Rock Climbing Route | Excerpt from ...but I Won't Fall There

How to Size Up a Rock Climbing Route | Excerpt from ...but I Won't Fall There

Posted by Peter Johnston on 13th May 2024

Gather up all your shiny gear. Keep your newly earned skills for properly cleaning and lowering or rappelling from a route ready to access in the back of your mind, along with all that research you did about the crag. Look at that list of routes that you compiled that seem appropriate for your level of comfort for safety and experience. Remember all that you can about the route you want to climb from the times you tried it out on toprope. For bonus points, hold onto the bits you’ve figured out about what climbing means to you, and what you’re willing to risk.

Even if you’ve executed all of the above perfectly, you could still walk up to your first lead route thinking it’s all figured out, and come to the distasteful realization that one key tool is still missing from your cool little bag of tricks. It’s the easiest one to forget about in your excitement and haste to get to the day’s climbing, especially if the rest of your crew is raring to go. The tool you’ll need is the ability to examine the bolt line carefully and accurately, assessing gear required, fall potential, and belay/logistics requirements.

From the Ground

See if you can figure out what’s wrong with this assessment:

Rick walks up to the route with a pinched, studious look on his face. “Bro, I got this! Check it out.”

He makes a dramatic pause, takes a hit from the joint clutched tightly in his fingers and then begins his explanation while air-climbing every move.

“The first bolt can be clipped from that jug, with a good stance. Then it’s a couple of big moves on those buckets just to the right of the bolt line. Use that positive crimp up and left of the hanger to clip the second bolt. From there, it looks like the route gets a little thinner with a big move to the third bolt, but then you get a no-hands stance to clip before launching into the technical crux.”

He pauses and looks over at you with poorly constrained excitement in his eyes.

“Seems good, right?”

So are you ready to safely belay him while he climbs the route? Rick’s description sounds reasonable. You can tell he’s trying, but since you’re considering the source, something’s likely not going to add up. Let me describe the route and you should have no issue figuring out that there was a ton of context missing from Rick’s analysis. 

The guidebook says this route is called “Noob Crusher,” 5.10c, R, and gives the following description: 

A super classic line that charges straight up the middle of the cliff on good holds to a luxurious ledge stance at the third bolt. A cryptic crux section will greet you soon after, followed by a long sprint past five more bolts to the chains on unrelenting small holds. Bring your endurance game and steel nerves for this one. Demanding, airy vertical climbing that will truly test your 5.10 game.

If you’re observant about the route and the surroundings, you’ll notice a few more key things. The belay area is a crappy heap of large blocks; the first bolt is 15 feet off the deck; and there appear to be a few large, fresh, dinner-plate-sized scars on the wall where rock has recently come off, as well as a heap of broken rubble about the same size on the ground below. There’s also an abandoned carabiner hanging at the third bolt, and that ledge is big. You could park a couch on it.

If you compare what Rick said about the route to the guidebook’s description and the additional info you could easily gather, I hope you realize that he woefully missed the point. This route has an R safety rating and some fairly obvious hazards that he failed to address in his little walk-through.

What happened? Rick did what many gym climbers do when they first get outside. He made the incorrect assumption that safety is a given, and then excitedly focused entirely on the details of how to climb the route.

When you look up at a line for the first time and examine it, you should be viewing it from the perspective of a belayer (even if your plan is to be climbing the route, not belaying). Your thoughts should focus almost entirely on how to keep the climber—whether that’s you or someone else—off the deck and away from ledges or other hazards. In your pursuit of this, you should be greedy for context and detail that will help you succeed. Only once you’ve completed this assessment, should you start figuring out your clipping stances and general plan of attack for actually climbing the route.

Carissa and Marty will redo this exercise for you to demonstrate how it might sound to include the belayer and turn the analysis into something resembling a conversation:

Carissa, “The first bolt is a ways up there. It looks like easy climbing, but the route seems to still have some hold breakage. The second bolt is also spaced pretty far above the first, but it looks like a whip between the first and second bolts won’t result in a deck. The second to the third bolt is spaced a bit better and that ledge will be a nice rest. Easy clip. The book says that the crux hits after the third. The fourth bolt isn’t that far past what appears to be the tough section, but if I blow it at the crux, I don’t have a lot of room before the ledge. The rest of the line looks challenging, too, but all the bolts are spaced better, and I don’t see any other deck potential. What do you think?”

Marty, “Yeah, I agree with all that. Man, this belay area is shit, though, and I’m seeing spots where big flakes have recently been pulled off. If a jug pops when you’re heading to the first bolt, I’m not going to be able to keep you from hitting the ground. The fall on this terrain is going to fuck you up, like broken ankles or worse. I’d definitely feel way more comfortable if you stick-clipped the first bolt.”

Carissa, “I’m totally cool with stick clipping the first bolt, good call.” 

Marty, “I can keep you from hitting anything if you fall between the first and second bolts. It’ll be a hard catch, though, so be ready. Above the third, that ledge has me a bit concerned. It’s huge, and depending on where the crux is, you might not be able to avoid it. I can’t tell from the ground what’s really going on. Can we have another conversation about this once you get to the ledge and see everything up close?”

Carissa, “Yeah, let’s discuss at the third bolt when I get up there. There’s a carabiner that’s hanging there now if the crux seems too sketchy…looks like the last folks decided to retreat.”

Marty, “Cool. But do me a small favor? Bring a couple bail ’biners with you, just in case the one up there looks manky and untrustworthy.”

Hopefully the above conversation demonstrates that the focus of your first read of a route should be on where hazards exist and how to mitigate them. Note that you need to include your belayer in this process because no matter what you learn while looking at the route, if your belayer doesn’t also figure it out, you won’t be getting the catches you need. Just as importantly, he has to be able to confidently tell you that he can provide the types of catches you’re describing, or the whole exercise is pointless. If your belayer tells you he can perform all sorts of miraculous catches and he’s also a beginning outdoor climber, you probably shouldn’t trust him to execute.

Lastly, choosing to climb R-rated routes when you’re first leading outside is counterproductive, as you’ll be missing the opportunity to learn in a reasonably safe environment. It’s more likely you’ll learn less because you’ll be distracted by the potentially serious consequences of the route you’ve chosen.

(Read the rest of the chapter in ...but I Won't Fall There that includes more perspectives to consider in risk assessment).


The first time up a route that you’re unfamiliar with, you may feel like you’re doing more risk assessment than climbing. Some routes require that level of attention from you, but as you get used to this process, it should become more natural and less burdensome. Furthermore, if you’ve done a good job on your first pass, your subsequent laps on the route will require much less in-depth