Mountaineering Vocab

Lingo to get you moving in the mountains.

Okay, so you have just started going out into the mountains, climbing at your local crag, or climbing in a new area with people who are using unfamiliar terms. There is already a lot to learn regarding mountain travel, and suddenly you have to learn a whole new vocabulary just to read your guidebook! It can be a little overwhelming, but I want to help ease your life by clearing up some of those bizarre words.

Why bother using climbing/mountaineering vocab? 

When you start going into the mountains, you can often make do with using generic words like edge, ridge, etc. But as your level progresses and you start climbing more complicated routes, being able to read topos and understand the beta your friend is yelling at you can make the difference between getting the send or not.

To note: I am from New Zealand, and we get most of our vocab from America or the UK. I have lived in the Alps for the last three years, where I learned some new phrases. While different regions have their local slang, I would say most of these words are universal. I have included the other options for the same word. 

Getting to the mountain:

reading maps, topos, etc.

  • Approach – the access to a mountain or climb
  • Alpine start – starting early in the morning often to avoid the heat of the day and the risks involved.
  • Mountaineering – usually refers to the simple act of going into the mountains and climbing peaks without extreme difficulty.
  • Alpine climbing – is similar to mountaineering, except it involves significant climbing.
  • Classic – famous (or infamous!), a good climb, popular
  • Bivouac, refuge – Bivouac in the alps means a small unmanned shelter. In other places, Bivouac implies sleeping on the mountain without a tent.
  • Hut – a shelter in the mountains for sleeping. Can it be staffed or not.
  • Winteroom – a room kept open in a staffed hut outside of the hut seasons (typically winter months)
  • Bivvy – short for Bivouac
  • Route – a specific way up a mountain or wall. i.e., the north face route or the Colin McIntyre route.
  • Bolts, heads (BH) – preplaced steel bolts used for protection.
  • Anchor – a protected or protectable belay or rappel stance.
  • Stance – same as an anchor but usually specific to climbing and not rappeling
  • Bail – to retreat off a climb
  • Acclimatize – the act of the body adapting to higher altitudes
A traditional bivouac.

Navigating the mountain:

different features of a mountain.

  • Buttress – a steep and often protruding section in the wall or mountain
  • Cornice – an overhanging and unsupported lip of snow on a ridge that is formed by wind and often hard to spot. We don’t like cornices…
  • Spur – an undefined ridge
  • Face – usually a side of the mountain. I.e., the North-East face. It is also used to describe a wall.
  • Choss – loose rock
  • Pass – can be a saddle or a specific place to cross a ridge.
  • Serac – a wall or tower of glacier or firn snow that is prone to collapse
  • Arete – a steep ridge on a mountain or on a wall is a rock edge that points out from the wall and defined by the joining of two walls of rock
  • Moraine – the debris (rock) left from a receding glacier. High and defined moraine ridges are often caused by an advance in a glacier as it pushes the debris into a high pile.
  • Crevasse – a hole or crack in a glacier
  • Permafrost – Permafrost is technically ground that has been frozen for more than two years. It is the essential glue that holds a mountain together (higher temperatures=less permafrost=more rockfall)
  • Fixed ropes – ropes permanent or fixed to a mountain.
  • Gullies – couloirs or runnels in a mountains
  • Ridge – the edge of a mountain face
  • Col or saddle– the flat section of mountain in between ridges
  • Couloir – a steep runnel in a mountain
  • Gendarme – a steep or protruding piece of rock, often found on ridges. The word comes from the French word for constable or police.
  • Bergshrund (schrund) – a gap that occurs at the base of a snowy mountain as the rock is warmer than the snow, so it melts the snow and forms a hole.
  • Dihedral, corner – the inward corner of a wall (I’m always getting corner and arete confused!)
  • Overhang – a rock or wall with a steepness greater than 90 degrees
  • Roof – a severe overhang where the wall is almost horizontal
  • Scree – a field of small loose rocks
Matterhorn Topo


climbing and mountain travel.

  • Scrambling – inbetween walking uphill and climbing. Relative to what is considered climbing!
  • Bouldering – difficult (relative) unroped climbing on short routes or blocks.
  • Beta – information
  • Belay – the act of paying the climber rope while they climb. It can also be the name of an anchor.
  • Siddle – to traverse a mountainside without gaining or losing height.
  • Traverse – a straight or flat passage (same as sidle). Also, to traverse a mountain or range is to go up one way and down another.
  • Exposed – mainly used to describe how high or exciting a position feels. Also used to describe risk (exposed to rockfall or exposed to seracs etc.)
  • Alpine style – using small teams and fast ethics to climb and descent a mountain efficiently.
  • Sending – completing a climb ”How did you and Brendan go on Denali last week?” ”there was a lot of wind, but we got the send!”
  • Slab – a blank section of rock, usually friction-based climbing.
  • Loose – choss. loose rocks
  • Abseil, rappel, rap – to descend a rope
  • Chimney – a larger crack that you can fit your body inside.
  • Crux – the hardest or a particularly hard section of climbing
  • Step – a short or intermediate steep section.
  • Sketchy or sketch – dangerous
  • Mixed – rock climbing: bolts and trad protected. Mountaineering: climbing ice/snow and rock simultaneously.
  • Lead and second – to ‘lead’ a pitch is to move up with the rope and place protection as you go. The seconder is the one who has belayed the leader and then follows the pitch (also called follower/belayer)
  • Pitch – a rope length or a section of climbing. Normally between two anchors.
  • Aid (A0, A1, french free) – aid climbing is using either fixed gear (bolts, pitons) or a variety of gear (trad, skyhooks) to move your body up a wall.
  • French free – pulling on a quickdraw to get past a hard move. Not quite aid climbing, but also not free climbing…
  • Free climbing – moving up the wall using nothing but your own strength and will, but using a rope and placing protection to protect a fall.
  • Free solo – free climbing without a rope or protection.
  • Rope soloing – climbing a wall by yourself using a rope and some kind of self-belay for protection.
  • Runout – a significant distance between protection points.
  • Simul climbing – when two or three people are moving together on a rope with protection in between.
  • Undercling – A hand hold on rock that depends on upward pressure on a downward hold.
  • Sport climbing – bolted single pitch climbing.
  • Lieback (layback) – A technique where the climber’s hands pull one way and the feet push the opposite way.
  • Multi-pitch climbing – a climb that is two or more pitches
  • Technical – technical climbing is delicate and often involves tricky footwork and precise move sequences. ‘I had to concentrate on that last pitch; it was pretty technical.’
  • Bouldery – a section of hard climbing without much rest. Often big moves. Much like a boulder problem but on a wall instead.
  • Whipper – a significant fall
  • Pumped – the build-up of lactic acid in your forearms while climbing
  • Flake out the rope/stack the rope – when a rope is stored or put in a coil, it can get tangled quite easily while belaying. To flake a rope is to start stacking the rope into a neat pile to ensure a smooth belay.
Monserrat climbing in an open dihedral in Chamonix.


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Photo: Chris Holter


things you need along the way.

  • ATC – the most common belay device
  • Trad gear – traditional protection, i.e cams, nuts
  • Cams – camping devices placed in cracks for protection
  • Nuts – soft metal wedges placed inside V-shaped cracks for protection
  • V-thread, Abolokov – two holes made with an ice screw that connects at the bottom. Cord is threaded through the two holes and can be made to use an anchor. The name Abolokov comes from Soviet climber Vitaly Abalakov who invented the technique.
  • Rack – a collection of climbing protection and draws
  • Pro/protection/gear – a variety of equipment that attaches the rock to the rope (protection against a fall).
  • Draws – short for quickdraw or Express. A sling connecting two carabiners. Used to connect a rope to protection.
  • Crampons – a set of spikey devices you attach to your boots to get traction in ice or hard snow.
  • Ice axe – An axe for traveling on snow or ice.
  • Portaledge – a platform used for sleeping on a wall.
  • Half ropes, double ropes – a style of rope that involves using two separate ropes to clip into protection. Handy on multi-pitch routes where you need an extra rope for the rappel or trad routes to reduce rope drag.
  • Ice screw – a screw to be used in the ice as protection.
  • Chalk, Kalk, magnesium – white chalk for hands and fingers to keep dry and increase friction on the rock.
  • Grigri – a camming device used to belay.
  • Topo – a detailed description of a climbing route
Mountaineering Equipment.

And there it is; my rough guide to navigating the ocean of slang and the colorful phrases that we use in the mountains. 

Did I miss your favorite piece of climbing speak? Comment it below!

About Ryan

Growing up on the rugged west coast of New Zealand, Ryan’s passion for the outdoors started at a young age. That has since grown into a love for mountains and he has been fortunate enough to base his life around climbing. He is most inspired by long routes on wild walls, but is no stranger to a sit-start either!

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