Sunday, February 16, 2020

How much harder is onsighting vs redpointing?

Every rock climber knows that a successful onsight is much harder than an ascent with perfect beta after rounds of projecting. An onsight means climbing a route successfully at the first attempt without prior information or rehearsal on the route. During an onsight, we might not know where the crux lies or how long the route actually is. In contrast, being able to learn about a route, to mentally accommodate to the hard sections, the rest points and footholds, allows us to reach our maximum performance during a redpoint ascent.

Most of us also have a good sense of the routes we typically can climb in a first attempt with or without prior knowledge or in a second or subsequent attempt. But it is much harder to guess how much more difficult, let’s say an onsight ascent is, compared to a successful redpoint ascent. We might know that Adam Ondra did Silence (9c or 5.15d), currently the world’s hardest route, after weeks of practicing specifically for that route. Adam was also the first to flash a route of the grade 9a+ or 5.15a (a flash means a successful ascent of a route in the first go with prior information, for example from other climbers), and he did three 9a or 5.14d onsight. Alex Megos, however,was the first to onsight a 9a or 5.14d, he climbed up to 9b+ (redpoint). Up to today, no one onsighted a route harder than 9a. But is the difference between 9b+ redpoint and 9a onsight an meaningful estimate of how much harder an onsight is? A first attempt without beta might be easier among lower-graded routes compared to the elite level. Here, we want to investigate this question in a quantitative way.

As in previous posts, we will therefore access the data of the website which provides climbers with the opportunity to save their climbs and view personal scorecards. A scorecard is simply an overview about routes achieved, the respective style and the grade among others. In this post, we look at the maximum onsight and the maximum redpoint grade of users who made their scorecard public. We focus here on climbers who climbed redpoint at least 6a or 5.10a or higher. The available dataset covers entries up to September 2017. This leaves us with almost 18,000 climbers.

How do the results look like? First, we take a look at the overall difference between the maximum (redpoint) performance and the maximum onsight performance. The following graph shows the distribution of maximum performance for each climber in our dataset by style. This kind of graph is called a violin graph. The wider the violin, the more climbers there are with a certain maximum redpoint or onsight performance. The average maximum performance by style is illustrated by the black point in the middle of the violin. The average maximum redpoint performance is slightly above 7b+ or 5.12c. This is partly due to the fact that we disregarded climbers who do not climb above 6a or 5.10b. Apart from that the average ability of active users is quite high. Climbers who do not climb very often don’t bother much about creating and maintaining a public scorecard. The corresponding maximum onsight performance is slightly above 7a or 5.11d. This indicates that the average onsight level is approximately three grades below the maximum performance.

Next, we want to investigate whether the results differ across the performance spectrum. For this purpose, we group all climbers together by their maximum (redpoint) performance on their scorecard. Now we look at the average maximum onsight performance within each group. 

How does this grouping work and how did we finally calculate the average onsight performance? Let us take those climbers who sent 9b+ or 5.15c as maximum (regardless of whether they are included in the data). These are Stefano Ghisolfi, Alexander Megos and Chris Sharma (Adam Ondra is not included in this list despite the fact that he did three 9b+ because of his 9c redpoint). Alexander Megos did an 9a onsight while Stefano Ghisolfi and Chris Sharma onsighted up to 8c at maximum, according to Wikipedia. The onsight average of this group is therefore slightly below 8c+.

The following graph shows how the redpoint-onsight performance gap across all grades. On the x-axis, we have plotted the maximum (redpoint) performance. The y-axis shows the maximum onsight performance. If climbers onsighted grades similar to their redpoint performance, we would see a straight 45 degree line (indicated in red). The onsight performance is as one would expect, lower than the maximum performance and this is why the blue points are below the red line. It is apparent that the difference is small for climbers with a relatively low maximum performance and it widens for higher able climbers. This indicates that an onsight becomes harder the harder you climb. The average onsight maximum is 2-3 grades lower for climbers who climb up to 7a or 5.11d redpoint but it increases to almost 4 grades for climbers with a maximum grade of 8a or 5.13b (and still widens further). Interestingly, the gap again seems to be a little lower for the few climbers who can climb 9b or 5.15b or higher.

We have not considered flash ascents in this post. The reason is that there is almost no difference between the maximum onsight and flash performance in the data. The highest flash grades are higher than the average onsight grades but the difference is very small (ca. ⅙ of the difference between one grade or between 7a and 7a+). Personally, we think this seems surprising since a good beta might indeed give you valuable information.


  1. Nice analysis, thanks! It would be interesting to see the variability of the onsight grades in your lower plot. This especially because I perceive taking (linear) means over the (non-linear) climbing grades as somewhat more problematic. And maybe you could increase the stability of the results by not only using the single max redpoint and onsight grades, but instead taking the grade a climber achieved at least (e.g.) 3 times.

    1. Hi Marcel, thanks for your remarks. All very good points. Firstly, I did the analyses already a while ago but I think I have looked not only at the maximums but also top3 or top5 but I will check again and let you know! Secondly, regarding the variability, this is indeed a very interesting to investigate if there are certain types of climbers being very close to the redpoint limit in onsight while others are rather far away. Let me think about it. Thirdly, concerning the non-linearity of the grading scheme: Why do you think that the grading is non-linear? I think there are certain grades more ambitious climbers desperately want to redpoint such as 8a in Europe or 5.13a in the US, and they put a lot of tries into it. But apart from that I imagine grades becoming almost linearly more difficult and fewer and fewer climbers can reach them (see also At least I cannot remember a grade where I would personally say that is really a big jump compared to the previous one. Would be interested to hear if you would disagree?

  2. The violin graphs are a great visualisation of the data. It is interesting to see ripples caused by the + grades. I guess there are fewer + graded routes than full letter grades leading to this effect. My personal climbing data supports this too, maxima at full letter, minima at +

    1. Thanks, I have to check that for me. I think it is at least partly psychological (as indicated in the comment above, better non-elite climbers want to climb 8a at least once and they are willing to put a lot of effort into it. As a consequence they rather try to go for an easy 8a than for normal 7c+). But perhaps they grades are in the end not as linear as I use to think (what Marcel points towards). What do you think? Do you think the difference between 7b and 7a+ is harder than between 7a+ and 7a (or whatever)?

    2. Grade differentials are odd, the difference between max grade and the next grade can feel huge but differences in lower grades broadly linear.

      To allow for this in my analysis of my own climbing, I apply 2 measures, then derive a 3rd. Linear, exponential and the ratio of exp/lin.

      When I began analysis, I assigned 2 points to my modal grade (6a at the time) and progressed this both linearly and exponentially. The points start to diverge at 6b+ and I then use the ratio as a measure of how hard I have been trying. 7a gives a ratio of 2:1 for example.

      To fit in with the wanky nomenclature currently fashionable in climbing, I named the ratio "the crush index". Rad sending on your Kalymnos trip dude, you got a crush index of 1.7 overall, awesome, allez, allezz, venga, venga, raus, raus.

  3. There are several elements that I think should be considered. One is that climbers who have a vested interest in their sport (ie, professionals or elite amateurs) understand what an onsight truly entails, that is, they stick to the rigors of the absolute boundaries of 'no beta' of any sort. Also, the fact that you found little statistical difference between onsights and flashes indicates from my experience, most climbers aren't onsighting but have had some knowledge, albiet unknowingly, because of their lack of stylistic rigor, and are, therefore, sight flashing. The fact that your X-Y graph shows a full number grade difference at the top end, also bears out my worry that those at lower grades don't understand the extent of the rigors for truly onsighting a climb. My personal experience, and those of my peers, has consistently shown a full number grade difference in performance, but for flashing more to 1 to 3 letter grade difference (yosemite scale). Since is user-based data, it's conceivable that as the grades go up, the understanding of the rigors of onsighting would increase too.

    The theory of grades, as I understand it, is based on a linear scale, whether or not climbers adhere to that. Since grades always feel the hardest at one's limit, its most likely there's more accuracy as one nears their capacity limit, but not at their capacity. When establishing FA's, in my experience, as the grades get further below my limit, I have more difficulty grading the line or problem. This is logical since my ability easily masks what then appears as nuances in difficulty difference (kind of like the effect of judging distance from the linear sight line of that distance instead of from the perpendicular axis... which is a form of removing emotional bias including adding weakness/strength awareness).

    At my limit, my input is subjective and oftentimes quite emotionally-based. To counteract this, my understanding was to use the term 'substantially harder' to limit over-grading. With strength/weakness awareness into one's understanding, subjectivity decreases to afford better consistent awareness over time.

    Thank you for your analysis.


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