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Since the Antonio Burns series of crime novels takes place
in the vertical world, which might be unfamiliar to some,
Clinton has provided a few definitions and
snapshots to make reading more enjoyable.

Anchor: At the top of each pitch, you set 2 or 3 pieces of pro(tection) close together and equalize them with a long cord. Then you tie yourself into it, call down "Off Belay!" to your belayer, put her on, and then it's her turn to climb.

Belay: Where the second holds the rope through a locking device attached to her harness in case the leader falls. She pays out the rope as the leader climbs, always watching for a fall.

Belay Slave: Someone (usually a spouse or significant other) who is not as fond of climbing as you are, and whom you drag along against his/her will.

Bolt and Bolted Route: A climb that's protected by pre-placed bolts rather than protection you place yourself. You clip the rope to the bolts as you climb past them.

Boots: Super-tight slippers that are soled with sticky rubber. If they aren't smaller than your feet, they're too big.

Bouldering: Training by climbing short, hard "problems" without a rope. A spotter or something soft to land on may be the only protection.

Cam or Friend: Type of protection. It's a mechanical device that you slide into a crack while pulling a trigger, thus retracting the cams. When the trigger is released, it fits snuggly into the crack.

Carabiner: A palm-sized aluminum loop with a gate that opens and shuts. These are the most basic climbing devices, used for connecting the rope to the various pieces of protection you place.

Chimney: A vertical crack you can fit your whole body into. In a wide chimney, you scoot up with your feet on one wall and your butt on the other. In a squeeze chimney, you just kind of wriggle upwards and inhale if you start to slip.

Chute skiing: Steep, off-piste skiing in a rock-lined couloir. You have to hike or climb to the top. Usually steeper than 40 - far steeper than a double-black diamond at a ski area.

Aided climbing - Climbing where you directly use the rope and gear to make upward progress. It's considered cheating if your intention is to climb free - but it's sometimes the only way to climb a rock with few natural features (like cracks or edges) to pull on.
Chimneying - Climbing a fissure using back and foot techniques against opposite walls.
Free climbing - Climbing just using your mind and body and the natural features of the rock. The rope and gear are only used to back you up in case of a fall.
Sport climbing is done on routes where bolts have been pre-placed to provide protection.
Traditional climbing is where you place your own pro in cracks.
Free soloing - Climbing without a rope and not using any protection at all. A fall when free soloing in the coffin zone will be fatal. People like Dean Potter will solo all the way up the 3,000' vertical-to-overhanging face of El Capitan.
Ice climbing - Climbing on alpine or waterfall ice. You wear crampons on your boots and carry ice tools in your hands. Protection for the rope is done by screwing 3" to 5" ice screws into the ice.
Leading: Climbing first on the rope, placing the protection and then setting an anchor at the top of the pitch. The leader then belays the second up.
Mixed climbing - Where you climb a mix of rock and ice. You have to scratch your way up the rock sections with your crampons and tools.
Rope soloing - Climbing alone, but with a rope to back you up if you fall. You sort of belay yourself with either a soloing device or knots. It's time-consuming because you have to climb each pitch twice, rappelling to collect the gear (protection) you placed on the way up, then re-ascend the rope, then lead the next pitch.
Stemming - What you do in a very large chimney. It's a little like doing the splits.

Coffin Zone: Climbing above 20' or so off the deck, where an unroped fall stands a good chance of being fatal.

Couloir: Steep, snow-choked chute on a mountainside.

Crack: A fissure in the rock that you jam your limbs into and where protection can be placed.

Crampons: Sharp metal spikes you attach to heavy mountain boots. The front-points are used to climb vertical ice, the bottom spikes are used on steep snow.

Crevasse: Huge split in a glacier, often hidden by snow cover.

Cwm: Steep hollow up against the side of a mountain.

Fading to the Belay: What you do mid-way up a pitch when you're too gripped by panic to bother placing protection. Involves heavy breathing, sewing machine leg and much frantic prayer. The lead becomes a desperate solo to the next ledge.

Feeding the Rat: Feeding the need for an adrenaline rush through climbing. Can become addictive.

Ground Fall: When you fall all the way to the deck, pulling out all your protection as you go. What follows is called a dirt nap.

Hangdog: Someone who either falls or just rests, hanging on the rope which the belayer has locked off. Too much of this will result in first insults, and then penalty slack. See Penalty Slack.

Hex: A large piece of passive protection that's shaped like a hexagon and tied to a short piece of cord.

Ice screw: A 3" to 5" screw with teeth that bite into ice. This is what you use for protection on ice.

Jamming: Crack climbing, where you stick whatever parts of your body you can into the crack, flex them, and hope the expanded muscles will lock said body parts in. It's amazingly secure once you get the hang of it.
Body jam - Fitting your whole body into a chimney or a squeeze chimney.
Finger jam - Stuffing your fingers, thumbs-down, into a tight crack and then torquing your wrist so as to lock them in there. Painful.
Fist jam - Inserting your fist and flexing it until its secure.
Foot jam - Fitting your whole foot into a crack and twisting it.
Hand jam
- Slipping in your open hand then expanding the meaty muscles around your palm by folding your thumb across your palm.
Helmet jam - In a squeeze chimney, sometimes your helmet can provide a little lift.
Knee jam - Flexing your knee in a crack. Painful.
Off-width jam - Stuffing your bent elbow into a crack too wide for hands, fists, or even stacked hands.
Stacked hands jam - Two fists jammed together, or a fist and an open hand.
Toe jam - Torqueing your toes into a thin crack.

A passive chock to clip as protection. Some are as thin as a dime, larger nuts are an inch thick.

Offwidths: Cracks wider than a fist, yet narrower than body width. You climb them sideways by stuffing in a flexed elbow and knee.

Penalty Slack: An intentionally loose (sometimes very loose) belay. What the belayer gives the leader a penalty for hangdogging, abject cowardice, or not having done the dishes the previous night.

Pitch: Section of rock, snow or ice which is climbed between major belay points. Often pitch stops at suitable stance or anchor point.

Metal blade with a loop on one end to clip to the rope. You bash the blade into a seam in the rock with a hammer or ice axe for protection.

Pro / Protection:
Nuts and cams (both alone and placed) you stick in the rock and then connect to the rope to catch a potential fall.

Quickdraw: A short link of cord with a carabiner on each end. You clip one end to the pro you've placed, and the other to the rope. Hopefully the slack provided by a quickdraw will keep the rope from pulling out the pro as you climb higher.

Rappel: Descend a rope safely in a controlled fashion, the speed being controlled by friction of rope around the body.

Rolling Down the Windows: When falling, you find yourself involuntarily and frantically waving or flapping your arms in a circular motion.

Screamer: A big fall. Often pulling out several pieces of pro (Ping! Ping! Ping!) as you fly by them. Maybe (Please, God!) the next one will hold.

Setting a Course: Picking out a line or a crack to climb.

Sewing Machine Leg: Generally the first outward sign of fear. Your calves start pumping up and down like an old Singer.

Slippers: Same as Boots.

Spotter: When bouldering on low rocks without a rope, or making low, unprotected moves, the one who stands beneath you with upraised arms to catch your head and shoulders if you fall.

Squeeze Chimney: Fissure in the rock that's wide enough to fit your body into. A squeeze chimney is climbed by wriggling in an upright manner.

Taping Up: Wrapping your hands (or other body parts) in athletic tape to keep them from getting torn up by jamming on rough rock.

Want Clinton to explain other terms?
E-mail your questions, and he'll modify the glossary.


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Click for Enlargement


belay 3 pitches off deck
boot / slipper

cam & carabiner

catching air

canyon climbing

wall / face climbing

rope soloing



fat crack

crampon & rope
ice ax

finger jam

fist jam

hand jam

toe jam


free rappel

spotter dog
taping up

transporting spotter

backpack & gear

Diamond on Longs Peak


back home

Point of Law.........Edge of Justice.........Trial by Ice and Fire.........Crossing the Line.........Badwater


Website Updated May 2007
Website © Clinton McKinzie 2002-2007