In 2013, Alex Megos made history by claiming the world’s hardest onsight—Estado Critico, 5.14d, in Siurana, Spain. Later that year, Ondra matched Megos’s feat with Cabane au Canada, in Rawyl, Switzerland. He then did it again, twice, in 2014. Then, in 2018, Ondra flashed Supercrackinette, 5.15a. It was not an onsight because he received beta prior to his attempt.
Onsighting may inherently involve tackling a novel and unfamiliar experience, but neither Megos nor Ondra got as good as they did at onsighting by luck. Onsighting is a practice, and as such, there are tricks of the trade. Here are nine steps, which apply to both indoor and outdoor settings, for learning the nuances of the craft.
1. Get your body into it.
On the ground, while you read the route, do that hand jive (miming the movements) that climbers do, because it’ll help you memorize the moves and gauge what some sequences might feel like. Don’t worry about the fact that you might look like Michael Jackson dancing in “Thriller” … your embarrassment will pay off. Also, don’t be afraid to turn around and stare at moves from different angles. Doing so will especially help to identify feet-first or rose moves (moves that require a cross-under and 180- to 360-degree turn).
2. Plan your pacing.
From the ground, study the holds and identify possible places to shake out or clip from, and where you expect to expend more energy. You’ll want to climb techy sections slowly and juggy or dynamic spots quickly. When you do climb, take full advantage of rests, while moving as efficiently as possible through all other sequences—that means no hesitating (more on this in step 7).
3. Zone in on the beginning.
Onsighting can be scary. Consequently, many climbers may have a harder time getting to the zone or flow state. Read the beginning carefully so that when it comes time to climb, you will cruise through the opening moves and build confidence and tempo.
4. Look for evidence.
Look for signs of thumb-catches, places to undercling, heel hook or toe hook. If you’re competing, remember setters are not trying to trick you. They will have chalked up and smeared on the appropriate surfaces.
5. Pair up.
When competing, most climbers prefer to read a route by themselves first, and then, after knocking out the first four steps, comparing thoughts with a partner. Keep an open mind: You might be wrong about some sequences. Also learn when to stick with your gut. If you’re outside, don’t be afraid to discuss possible sequences with a friend that hasn’t tried the route.
6. Have binoculars.
And possibly a knee pad and sunglasses if it’s bright out. Binoculars will help you spot that extra gib or chalk mark that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen. Don’t be scared to over prepare. If you’re comfortable and used to climbing with knee pads and sunglasses, it might be a good idea to wear them if there’s a chance they’ll come in handy.
7. Trust yourself.
You won’t get it right every time, but your best chance of actually doing the onsight is to commit to your instincts. And your instincts might change when you’re 30 feet off the deck versus when you were on the ground. That’s O.K., too. Go with it. Move! Just don’t hesitate and then, in the event that you do fall, you’ll know you gave yourself the best possible chance of sending.
8. Learn how to switch modes.
As soon as you step up to the route, expect that a crux may be in the first several moves. It’s happened before—at one World Cup, no climbers got above hold 13, which was about a third of the way up. So from the quiet, peaceful chair where you tie in and repeat your mantra or whatever, be ready to switch into fighting mode. Also be aware of other places on the route where you need to switch modes: from rest to try-hard, from techy to powerful, from slab to roof. Your body language will need to change as the style changes—be light and delicate for technical movements and strong and powerful for the dynamic ones. Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Also, sometimes setters will even switch hold types to pump you off. Crimp plus crimp plus crimp plus sloper equals a forearm burn! Be ready for all the changes.
Hopefully this one is obvious. The only true way to get better at onsighting is to practice it. If your local gym has a reset, take the opportunity to give each new route an onsight attempt. If you compete, it’s also a good idea to practice route reading with the time you will be given on game day. If you’re visiting a new crag, try a few routes without receiving beta.