You’ve probably heard it more than once – “It’s not a redpoint if the draws are already up.” With the exception of which grades are assigned to popular routes, there are few topics that are as likely to incite a fierce debate among climbers as the difference between an onsight, redpoint, and pinkpoint. Nobody likes to have their achievement downgraded, but it’s also important to agree on certain definitions so that we understand each other when someone says “I flashed X”. Wanting to clear up the confusion around different styles of ascent once and for all, this author went looking for consensus (because that’s all that defines our rules) and came to the conclusion that it’s probably best to stick to the definitions established by pioneering climbers.
An onsight is the most difficult, ‘purest’, and brag-worthy of all sends. It means sending a route – leading it from top to bottom without falling or resting on the gear – on your first attempt and while placing the protection. And you have to do this without any prior knowledge of the route. That means no watching other climbers on the route, no help from buddies who might have some beta for the crux sequence, no written guidebook description, and no tick marks on the rock itself – because that can also give the game away. Also, that guy who’s just spraying away (dispensing beta even when it hasn’t been asked for) – you want to tell him to shut up.
Some climbers take onsight rules to the extreme and will argue that even a line of bolts tells a climber too much about a route by showing him where it goes. Following that logic, you would then also have to rule out topos for trad routes. But then where does that leave us? How do you even try to onsight a route if you don’t know where it goes? A climber might end up on the wrong line altogether even while aiming for the specific high point or finishing hold. At the very least, climbers need to know roughly where the route goes. Otherwise an onsight becomes impossible, and we have no use for the word.
A flash is almost as impressive as an onsight. You still have to send the route on your first attempt, but in this case you have prior knowledge of the route. Again, that can mean having watched someone climb the route or being given a description of moves, sequences, or holds. Because it’s possible to see most holds on a boulder problem from the ground, it’s considered impossible to actually onsight a problem - you will always have knowledge of what the climb entails just by looking at the boulder. That’s why boulderers always talk about flashing a problem when referring to a first-attempt ascent.
The same goes for gym routes – both lead and boulder. It’s just too easy to read a line when it’s laid out in coloured holds, some of which you already know the shape of. So we don’t even talk about onsights in the context of gym climbing. The best that you can do is flash a route. Yes, it’s still a flash if the quickdraws are already up. Some climbers have suggested that gym flashes be called ‘glashes’, but that’s a horrible sounding word, one that I hope never gains any kind of popularity.
Redpointing a route involves sending it after you have tried it at least once. It doesn’t matter if you send on your 2nd attempt or 200th attempt. Both are redpoints as long as they meet the second crucial condition for a redpoint – the climber must have placed the protection during the send. If the gear was already on the route, it’s not a redpoint; it’s a pinkpoint. This distinction has become a source of contention, but more about that in a minute. For now it’s enough to know that redpointing allows a climber to rehearse a route repeatedly – figuring out sequences and dialling in movement – until he can climb it with enough efficiency to send.
This strategy is not a new one. In fact, it is almost as old as free climbing itself. The German term ‘rot punkt’ was originally used by Kurt Albert in the 1970's to describe a route that he had free climbed in a single push while placing the gear. When this was achieved Albert and his crew would paint a red dot (or rot punkt) at the base of the route. This then served as a signal to other climbers that the route had been climbed in this style. This style of ascent remains the main objective in hard trad climbing when routes are too difficult to onsight.
Some hard trad routes are deemed too sketchy to tackle with traditional redpoint tactics. On such routes even just a single fall could result in serious injury or death. In these instances it’s common to rehearse the route on top-rope, which allows the climber to rehearse the route and get everything dialled in without the risk of a dangerous fall. When the climber does eventually take up the sharp end and send the route, it’s still considered a redpoint, although the climber might be said to have done it in a headpoint style.
The decision to headpoint a climb is a personal one. Everyone’s appetite for risk is different, and while one climber might choose to work a bold route on lead, another might opt for a headpoint approach and the safety of a top rope. Some will even work a route while top-rope soloing – another headpoint tactic. But if you ever hear the term ‘ground-up approach’, know that this means that the route was established on lead and not a top rope.
A pinkpoint is almost the same as a redpoint, but with one crucial difference. Whereas a redpoint requires a climber to place the protection during the send, a pinkpoint can be claimed if the gear was already up when the climber started their send attempt. This is obviously easier than a redpoint since a climber doesn’t have to expend the energy it would usually take to clip quickdraws to bolts or to place a pieces of trad gear. Some people will now say “But I thought that was a redpoint.”
It’s true that some climbers have started to use the term ‘redpoint’ to refer to what was traditionally called a ‘pinkpoint’. Does that matter? I believe it does, for two reasons. Firstly,
if we were to now start using ‘redpoint’ to describe what is actually a pinkpoint, we would undermine the significance of real redpoints, including some historic achievements. And secondly, it would lead to an inconsistency in how these terms are used. Having a use for both terms, trad climbers will continue to use ‘pinkpoint’ and ‘redpoint’ according to their original definitions. It then only makes sense that the same rules should apply to sport climbing as well.
A send is still a send
Some might say that the use of permadraws on many popular sport routes makes it impossible to redpoint those routes. And they’d be right. But then what’s wrong with calling a pinkpoint a pinkpoint and being happy with it? You still get to claim the send, and it’s not like you’re going to be expected to go for the redpoint. Unless you’re trad climbing, few others will. I, for one, am unlikely to attempt anything more than a pinkpoint on sport routes that feel hard for me. Besides enjoying being able to climb routes that are at my absolute limit, I prefer the greater sense of flow that comes from climbing routes that have already been equipped with draws. It’s pinkies all the way for this climber.