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Anticipating Moves and Developing Strategies

The best performers in sport are usually masters of anticipating upcoming difficulties (or the opponent) and developing novel strategies for winning. Climbing is no different. To just “climb a route as it comes at you” is akin to playing chess one move at a time. Of course, the best chess players think many moves ahead, anticipate the challenger’s actions, and constantly visualize a successful outcome. In this way, you must learn to think like a chess player in the vertical extreme.

The first step is to gather information about the route relating to the location of holds, protection or bolts, and rest positions. View the route from three different perspectives–straight on, from the left, and from the right–and scan for hidden holds in corners, around arêtes, above and below bulges or anywhere else they might hide. Next, identify the location of bolts or possible protection and try to surmise the body position you will assume at each location. Finally, attempt to located rest stances and try to figure the ideal position in each case.

Consider the possibility of a heel hook, knee lock, stem, or any other “trick” position that might provide a thank-god rest. While none of these moves or rests is guaranteed to be correct, the act of mentally assessing the situation empowers you to climb with more confidence and a greater sense of “knowing” what’s likely ahead.Most important, it’s your goal to be able to identify the crux portion of the route and then determine the ideal sequence of moves.

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Eric Hörst and John Gill talking through a bouldering sequence outside Pueblo, CO (2005).

As you decipher the best-looking sequence, keep an open mind for alternative possibilities. You may even want to memorize two sequences through the apparent crux section, and then make the choice of which to use when you get there. Finally, don’t get stuck in the bottom-up paradigm when figuring sequences. Often you can unlock a puzzling sequence by mentally down climbing from an obviously good hold or rest.

This skill of “reading” a route is one part visual intelligence and one part climbing experience. Over time you will develop the ability to see the correct sequence of moves up most, if not all, of the climb. Commit to reading every route, regardless of grade, and you will eventually become a chess master on the rock!