Mental Maps for Climbing: The information processing loop and strategies for sequencing

In the first part of this series, I laid out my thesis that one primary goal of performance climbing is to reach a flow state where the physical climbing is intuitive. This thesis should hold true regardless of the style of ascent, as ideal redpointing begins to functionally look and feel like effective onsight climbing. I provided three basic suggestions for improving the redpoint process: 1. treat every trip up the wall as information-gathering; 2. become familiar with intuitive & conscious modes of climbing; 3. recognize that the process of learning on a route never ends unless we end it. With those basics laid out, let’s turn to some strategies that we can use to improve our sequencing.

Most of the smaller tasks that go into sequence creation can be sorted into three buckets: information gathering, filtering, and hypothesizing. With most climbers these are happening concurrently. This is especially true in bouldering. In sport climbing, trips up the wall are often condensed information gathering trips. Some information is filtered on the fly, but much of the filtering and hypothesizing happens on the ground, prior to the next attempt.

Note that redpointing doesn’t necessarily mean information gathering is over. (Master-pointing.)

These tasks make the importance of gaze and visualization in climbing self-evident. We cannot gather information without paying attention to the holds and features. And while we technically could perform all filtering and hypothesizing using actual time on the wall, it’s not ideal. Skin, time, and physical fatigue are limiting factors that make filtering and hypothesizing tasks better performed “virtually.” We should cultivate our gaze and visualization skills in order to improve our sequencing and concordantly our overall performance.

Overall strategy

A good guiding question for coming up with a sequence for a problem or section is “What information do I need for this section in order to climb it well?”

It’s not necessary for a sequence to contain the exact minutiae of every hand and foothold. That strategy is not scalable.

The information necessary might not relate to the sequence of movements at all. Especially for difficult sequences, often what’s happening in the body requires more attention than the hands and feet. Breathing, gaze, body tension and balance are all factors that should be considered for sequencing and visualization. Our gaze almost always precedes grabbing a hold; climbers can benefit from considering the gaze itself in the sequence.

A useful tool for deciding where to focus your attention is to look for gaps. Where are the areas of greatest uncertainty? If you visualize the sequence, where do you hesitate or feel anxiety? It’s important to check your biases when using this tool. For instance, climbers who have anxiety with mantles or runouts may be inclined not to focus on these sections, when in fact those are the sections where dedicated information-gathering would prove the most useful to their success!

Finally, we should practice not having a structured strategy. We need to develop our ability to climb intuitively. Insisting on sequencing and processing everything is a crutch. In his book Maximum Climbing, Eric Horst recommends that advanced climbers never take beta for anything – try every route onsight. This can be a stressful and fatiguing strategy, but one that climbers can undertake at least occasionally/seasonally to ensure that the intuitive mode is not neglected. In chess, there are always many moves available, with nearly infinite permutations of following situations. Chess masters do not consciously process each option; they prime themselves with the minimum conscious information, and let their intuition do the work.

Onsight attempts are risky. Personally, I like having an onsight phase after a limit redpointing phase, or trying one or two routes onsight after the hard redpoint attempts for the day. For climbers who prioritize redpointing, these strategies minimize the chance that severe pump and skin loss from hard onsight tries will negatively impact performance.

Strategies for information gathering

Obviously, we look at wall features, and consider their usage as hand and footholds. This can be an overwhelming amount of information. In cases where there’s no chalk, or too much chalk, we rely on our intuition to tell us what shapes might be usable without conscious consideration. This can be considered “rock sense,” and is one of the most curious traits that elite climbers tend to possess. Rock sense is an example of how intuitive climbing feeds back on conscious climbing: while it’s best developed by spending more time in an intuitive mode, even during conscious modes it acts as an automatic filter on the information we get from the wall. Much like a virtuoso musician knows what notes are available in a given key by ear, master climbers see automatically what pieces of the rock are likely usable.

A huge part of rock sense is awareness of the terrain and how your body fits into it. This is arguably more important than holds, unless the terrain is a blank, flat wall. Climbers who prefer board climbing probably have a very hold-dominant way of conceptualizing movement and would benefit even more from thinking in terms of terrain. Where does the wall swoop in, allowing space for the body to press inwards? Where does the wall swoop out, forcing the body to hang in space?

Developing rock sense requires absorbing information and doing the processing relatively manually at first. The best advantage to be gained here is to always be gathering information. I like the cue of “keep your head on a swivel” when at the crag – and not just while climbing. The more you notice about the wall, the higher the chance that something you notice will be usable. Don’t stress too much about it being too much information at first. This is also why familiarity with a crag is important to being able to perform; the less novel information being received, the stronger the signal of useful information.

Considering every single option is impossible; this is why filtering, discussed below, is a necessary component of mental modeling. An ideal state for information gathering is one where only the holds that are most relevant are chalked or present; this can be seen as one reason that commercial gym climbing generally requires less information gathering than outdoor climbing. No chalk and excessive chalk both create information overload situations.

Another part of our initial consideration is protection, whether bolts or gear, as well as generally analyzing where risk or uncertainty might be highest on the climb. Information about pro can be gathered from the ground, or from a rest point. Information about risk can be received as direct feedback while climbing, in the form of fear, anxiety or uncertainty during a certain section.

Rock features, hands and feet, and protection/risk can be considered the first layer of information. Each attempt we take up the wall or on a boulder results in direct feedback that verifies or repudiates the information we’ve gathered so far. This is the second layer of information – what works and what doesn’t. This second layer also includes indirect feedback we get during our climbing – sensations in the body and emotions we feel. We may feel a sensation of fear with a dynamic method, for instance; but that shouldn’t be conflated with whether or not the dynamic method is effective. Even though functionally the result is the same – an inability to perform the movement – it’s important to our development as climbers that we know whether the reason is a physical or mental one.

In addition to our internal process, we gather information from other climbers. This includes sessioning with others in person, hearing their thoughts on our climbing, and possibly seeing them climb and talking with them about the information they gathered. Social media and internet videos are also a prevalent source of information. In fact, videos are now a primary source of information for some climbers, especially in bouldering.

Getting information from others can be a bit of a process shortcut, and sometimes save energy and skin. However, it also undercuts our ability to gather information for ourselves. In the long run, this downside outweighs any short-term gains of sending something quickly. Not only because one will experience great frustration when they inevitably don’t have an easy source of beta available, but also because so much of the joy of climbing is in figuring it out for ourselves!

Summary of information gathering tools:

  • Think about terrain, not holds
  • Pay attention to the wall; keep head on a swivel
  • Develop intuitive & conscious modes
  • Pay attention to feedback about what works and doesn’t
  • Pay attention to body sensations and emotions
  • Learn to receive information from others, but resist being dependent on it

Strategies for information filtering

The most important strategy is to remain open-minded. While information overload is a real issue with figuring out a method, it’s more important that the best method is not overlooked. Potential limitations of body type, morphology, climbing style, etc. should all be explored directly on the wall unless you’re sure beyond a reasonable doubt. Nine times of not being able to reach something from the low foot is easily worth the tenth time when you’re shocked to discover that you can reach it.

Popularity and grade range might be important aspects of filtering. One can be more dubious of chalk on common grade ranges in high-traffic areas. For instance, chalk at the first bolt of a 5.10b near the parking lot is more suspect than chalk on a 5.12 a few miles into the wilderness.

We should consider our climbing strengths during filtering. Factors like an inclination towards more static or dynamic methods, skill with toe hooks vs heel hooks, degree of flexibility, and grip type preference may all weigh into our filtering process. We should look at this both through the lens of strengths (what method would bring success fastest) and the lens of weaknesses (what method would be most productive for my development as a climber.)

Tolerance to risk and uncertainty is also relevant. We should consider our willingness to make risky movements that may result in unpredictable falls, excessive damage to skin, and injury in general. We should also consider our tolerance to fatigue; even when they don’t result in pain or injury, low percentage movements endanger the attempt itself and thus accumulate fatigue at a higher rate than more reliable movements.

Information filtering is inextricably tied to hypothesizing. It’s a mark of a climber who knows themselves extremely well to be able to effectively choose a method from the ground. Most climbers need to form an idea, test it out on the wall, and then use the new second-layer information received to perform some further filtering and hypothesizing. However, the filtering process is essential because when done right it cuts down on the effort needed to climb something effectively. It’s a delicate balance between being open-minded enough to get the right ideas in the mix, but being restrictive and selective enough to find those right ideas without having to try them all.

Summary of information filtering tools:

  • Remain open-minded
  • Be aware of strengths and weaknesses
  • Consider goals; immediate success, and long-term development are often opposed
  • Consider risk and fatigue tolerance
  • Be aware of amount of on-the-wall effort being used to filter ideas

Strategies for sequence hypothesis

We really only have one tool for trying out a method without using our precious physical resources. Going through a sequence of hand and foot movements in our head can help prevent dead-ending, and identify any gaps in our sequence. There seems to be a subconscious ability to determine when something’s fishy about a sequence, which we can tap into with practice. This skill in general is called visualization, although it comes in many forms.

Visualization can be useful not only in discovering gaps in our sequence, but in uncovering mental and emotional blocks. Hesitating during visualization often results in hesitating on the wall. Anxiety and fear can often be potent during a closed-eye visualization of a dangerous climb. Learning to control these emotions during our mental rehearsal can actually be an important step towards conquering them on the wall. In this way, we essentially create our own reality with the skill of visualization.

We gather more second-layer information when we try a variety of methods. This reinforces us to be open-minded, and to not get “locked in” to one method. Long-term projects may involve a point of commitment where we resolve to only try one beta on our serious attempts from the ground. However, we should continue to try new things such as during the warm up, or after a fall. We can also still absorb new information from others, and continue integrating it into our sequences. Trying the same thing over and over also results in localized fatigue, which can cause us to make bad judgments about what beta works. This is true over a session, but may also be true over a season.

Complexity cannot always be avoided, but it is the enemy of effective information gathering. We should try to work on one piece of a sequence at a time. Consider trying independent moves first, before working on linking them together. The beta might not be simple, but strive to make the process of discovering it simple.

Similarly, don’t overthink sections that are easier. A 5.12 climber should not need to sequence every move of a 5.9 intro. Reduce the sequence to the information necessary to get through each section. That might be a word, like “jugs” or “slab” or something more abstract like “easy section.” As our skills of visualization and intuition both develop, we get better at leaving sections abstract, and our comfort with having less information for a section increases. This is important, because our projects will likely get longer and more complex. We need our sequencing strategy to be relatively scalable.

Summary of sequencing tools:

  • Visualize, visualize, visualize
  • Prevent dead ends and practice gap-finding
  • Don’t get locked into beta (unless you have a compelling reason, like working a weak movement style)
  • Avoid complexity when possible; reduce to necessary information only


These strategies for information gathering, information filtering and sequencing should all be useful for developing our skills of climbing movement.

Putting them into practice may seem overwhelming, as this article contains a ton of information. I recommend practicing one thing at a time. Each day out, resolve to simply work on one part of your sequencing strategy. Here are a few examples:

  • Absorb as much information as possible about the climb (head on swivel)
  • Practice visualizing your gaze as part of your sequence
  • Look at the terrain as you climb it, rather than focusing on the holds
  • Have a day of onsighting where you don’t think about your sequence ahead of time at all

As you can see, these are all just yoinked from the above lists and made more practical. In the long run, putting them all together is just a matter of practicing each individual piece.Climbing mastery is built out of years of deliberate practice. Figure out where your weak points are, and practice those frequently. Because mental practice is much harder to exhaust than physical practice, mental maps are a crucial aspect of performance to work on.

Leave a Reply