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Many climbers consider onsighting to be the purest style. On-the-fly problem solving, knowing how to recover, and holding on define a game in which you have only one shot. As a Las Vegas native and sport climber of 15 years, I see onsighting as climbing’s version of gambling: Just like betting everything on 10 in roulette only to have the ball land on 33, the moment you fall, you’re done. I’ve won a few times, including Blue Light Special (5.13a/b) in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, and Peer 42 (5.13a) in Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado. But I’ve had way more losses—near misses. However, unlike gambling, it’s not all dumb luck: You can up your onsight level with savvy planning and execution.
Before you shoe up for your onsight, lay some groundwork.
Because you only have one chance, it’s easy to want to bone-crush every hold, either out of fear of falling or simply the unknown. But this extra energy expenditure can lead to an accumulation of lactic acid in the forearms: the dreaded flash pump. To combat this, warm up well, climbing a few known routes or routes well below your limit to relax your muscles and encourage unrestricted blood flow.
Consider your best style: If you’re a steep-rock beast, then it may be easier to onsight that overhanging 5.12 face than the slabby 5.11 next to it. Typically, our upper onsight level is one number grade lower than our hardest redpoint, but any onsight up to this threshold can be challenging.
Consider that chalk, shoe rubber, and perma-draws often stack the odds in your favor, though on highly traveled routes, chalk covers every piece of rock, including sucker holds. On less popular routes, a layer of lichen or dust and a lack of foot traffic require a stronger ability to hang on and read the rock.
Now scope the route—stand away from the wall and get an overall sense of it. Take a gander from as many viewpoints as you can; you might even use binoculars. Figure out where the route goes and if you’ll need to traverse or downclimb. A short route will likely demand a fierce, athletic style, whereas a longer route will require patience and precision.
Next, identify big holds and slabby terrain, as these will be good for resting. Where the holds shrink and the terrain steepens will likely be the crux. Consider sequences and how the holds might affect your balance. If you see a left sidepull, is there a right-hand sidepull or heel hook to oppose it? Look also at chalk patterns. Often, thumb prints will tell you which hand people take a hold with.
On the Wall
Prep work done, it’s now time to execute. Get on the rock and give it a go!
Use Your Legs
Weight your feet and legs. This might mean finding a frog position, heel hook, heel-toe cam, kneebar, or stem. Experiment with different body positions at rests. Onsighting requires energy conservation, so use techniques that decrease the load borne by your arms to create a cumulative benefit.
If you feel like you need a high right foot to reach that next hold, look for one where you would want it to be. Often, the rock is grippier than you think, and you might be able to use that tiny smear instead of that lower, more obvious foot.
Rest and Inspect
Camp out on good holds or stances to recover. Allow your muscles and grip to relax, and let your skeleton do the work. Sag progressively in stages until your entire weight is on your frame. As you shake out, chalk up, breathe, and focus your gaze on one point; you might even close your eyes to eliminate wasted mental energy—it’s tiring scanning the rock and environment. Manipulate your breath by slowly inhaling and exhaling until it becomes inaudible and your heart rate slows.
Take advantage of this new perspective to evaluate the next section. Reach up to touch the holds, and then return to the rest. This provides a better idea of the holds’ quality and how you’ll grab them. At a certain point, it will be time to launch. As I’ve learned, it’s a fine line between resting just long enough versus too long. For me, “just right” is when my respiratory and heart rates have decreased significantly or even normalized, and the forearm pump has dissipated.
If staying at a rest requires excessive effort, I’ll climb through the fatigue, hoping to recover elsewhere. To rest on the go, climb with mini-shakes between holds. Watch videos of Michaela Kiersch: She locks off with her hips close to the wall and shakes her free arm, providing a quick recovery. The one caveat is to be either fully straight-armed or fully locked off—anything in between will be too strenuous. Also, after making clips, relax a little, exhale, and cop a quick shake.
Once you’re ready to leave a rest, increase your respiratory rate and allow your focus to shift with a soft gaze—to quickly scan handholds, feet, clips, and rope as needed. By being aware, you’ll decrease the chances of an unsafe fall and mitigate fear so you can go for it.
Your plan from the ground might not feel right on the go, so know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. That “jug” might actually be a sucker sloper, so try a crimp next to it—to find the best holds, walk your fingers over the rock as if reading Braille. Also, when possible, be willing to change sequences. I like to plan so that I have downclimbing and/or re-sequencing options. For instance, I rarely huck for a jug when there’s a crimp intermediate that lets me climb statically.
Finally, be precise and grab the holds with confidence. Anticipate the grip. You’ve held pinches, sidepulls, slopers, and crimps before, so imagine these common grips superimposed on the rock’s features. Try not to readjust your grip too much or gingerly grab holds—this wastes energy. Watch videos of Adam Ondra and Lynn Hill onsighting. They grab holds confidently, as if they’ve touched them hundreds of times before.
Commit to Movement
Particularly in the meat of a crux, never hesitate. Sometimes the energy you expend dithering or downclimbing will sap you so much you can’t recover. It’s often best to keep moving forward, even though the moves seem uncomfortable or too powerful. Big moves, especially dynos to less-than-optimal holds, can be difficult to reverse. Ditto for moves with low feet or long reaches. Once you’ve committed, eliminate that voice in your head that says, “This is too hard,” and go for it. After all, you only get one chance.
The 3 Vs: Volume, Variety, and Vigor
Every time you try a route, even if there’s a 99.9 percent chance of failure, go for the onsight. By increasing your volume of onsight attempts, you’re gaining valuable experience and onsighting skills. Build a base of easier routes to learn how to rest, commit to cruxes, and flow during an onsight effort.
Increase the variety of climbs you try to onsight. Climb on different grade levels, rock types, and styles to learn how to grab different holds and fight through sequences. Climbing varied terrain will provide you with a deeper bag of tricks.
Lastly, climb with vigor. Be ready to let the tiger out, especially when pushing your limit. Double down on your efforts, crimp harder, pull in closer to the wall, and crank, all with a willingness to look less than composed—like jumping to a hold and barely catching it, or using awkward hand positions and “non-standard” sequences. In the end, who cares how you look, as long as you send?
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