Did you really on-sight that route, or was it a flash? Does it matter, do you really care? And who came up with the word ‘Flash’, like something reserved for a comic book hero. What even is a ‘flash’? What is an 'on-sight'?


At least ‘on-sight’ is slightly self-explanatory, but should not be confused with ‘on-site’, which actually tells us something was done somewhere, i.e. at a site; similar to building something on a building site. Although of course an ‘on-sight’ will always be done ‘on-site’.

You might have managed an ‘on-sight flash’ some time ago, where two completely contradicting terms were combined to have one meaning that could be interpreted in various different ways. First go up the route without falling off was about it, with various historic ‘on-sight flashes’ performed with beta shouted from below. But it was fair enough back then, just as yonks ago saying “I climbed that route” was enough, and covered everything from an on-sight solo to pulling on various bits of gear and resting on the rope. Definitions have always been grey; black and white too hard to separate.

But eventually people wanted to show off and get one over on their mates, climbing a route was fair enough, but we needed a way to explain why our ascent was better than someone else’s. The exact history of the definitions is as follows: The flash was invented for those who would let their mate go first on a route that was a touch too hard. Then, after their mate fell off, hung around on the gear and worked it all out, the next climber could blast up first go without falling and claim a far superior ascent with which to boast about and clearly define who was top dog. Occasionally though the hard-done-to mate sent to figure it all out would fluke their way up the route first go with no knowledge, and so they invented ‘on-sight’, which was one up on their mate because they’d not known anything about it, except maybe for any information that could be gathered without top dog knowing. These definitions were then universally adopted by the official world climbing authority who jigged them around a bit and laid down the very strict rules by which everyone has to follow.

With a new system of black and white and red (point) everyone knew exactly what was going on and each ascent could be categorised and thus an exact ranking of climbers drawn up. It was scientifically proven to show who was the best. But some people started bending the rules! On-sights were claimed after a guidebook description was read, which according to some, was far too much knowledge, even if they read it by accident while wasting time in the climbing shop. And top-level flashers weren’t happy about their status relative to their pals, because they’d all managed a climb with different amounts of ‘knowledge’. Redpointers seemed to be fairly happy, with the basic description of a ‘redpoint’ being ‘to climb a route clean after some level of practice’. But even so for the redpointers, it had to be made clear it was ‘second go’, or ‘first go, second day’, to ensure they didn’t actually find it that hard, and extra points were scored for announcing a route was ‘soft’ or even ‘piss for the grade’. So black, white and red all got mixed up and we came out with a nice colour of grey which has become the new universally adopted system. This seems to fit in far better when explaining why you are better than your mates. On-sight, flash and redpoint can be moved around accordingly to ensure top placement at all times with complete justification. Just in case though, we brought back ‘ground-up’ which was something we did long ago before we suddenly realised that a quick look on a top-rope or by abseil was far more sensible than falling off the same move for weeks missing the hidden jug. Basically, climbing something ‘ground-up’ means you’ve already fallen off, and have to lower straight back down within a strict time frame of between 0 and 60 seconds. But ‘ground-up’ was needed to get one up on the flashers, with repeated gnarly falls apparently better than someone letting you know about the easy way that everyone else does.

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Neil Mawson in flash mode on an 8b. Having fallen off the crux, he then worked out all the knee-pad beta no one else spotted and then cruised it on redpoint at 8a+. Interestingly, it would still be 8b if he'd not tried it (or climbed it without finding the beta).

On-sight should be the most easy to define. In the Oxford English Dictionary (of climbing) it is defined as ‘climbing a route without falling with no prior knowledge’. Unfortunately ‘no prior knowledge’ does not seem to have a definition, despite it seemingly rather obvious. ‘No prior knowledge’ can in fact, in some peoples definition, apparently stretch from ‘no knowledge at all’, like just walking up to the cliff and saying ‘I like the look of that line, lets climb it’, to knowing a few bits from the guidebook, to having chalk all over the holds, even tick-marks placed by friends, threads in situ, looking over from neighbouring routes and observing pictures in the mags. A video might seem pushing it a bit, but then were you actually watching, or was it just on in the background? Clearly some of this could be defined as ‘knowledge’. I remember going for the on-sight of a rain-washed tufa in Spain, totally devoid of chalk and quickdraws. It was F8c and I failed. The next climber, a rather famous one, had me tick-mark and chalk all the holds, place the draws and brush off any dust and place a fixed rope for the camera man. Famous climber then promptly on-sighted it, and was clearly top dog. Of course this was a totally valid ‘on-sight’, and I sloped off with my tail between my legs. My favourite quote was from a bloke I know who said, “Having watched people fall off that route for years, I was really pleased to get the on-sight!”

‘Knowledge’ has a loose definition when it comes to the border between on-sight and flash. It could be argued that chalked holds are the biggest source of information and make the biggest difference to ultimately how hard a route will feel. A chalkless route will probably feel considerably harder to onsight than one recently climbed with all the holds covered in white patches! However, despite the blatant differences, and all-round acceptance that a chalkless route is harder to onsight, you’ll rarely get any extra brownie points for waiting until the rain has washed all the chalk away. Climbing a well chalked route definitely squeezes into the grey end of on-sight, but consider an un-chalked route, which is then carefully chalked and ticked on abseil by your mate while you pulled your hat over your eyes. He knows your height, strengths, weaknesses and shoe size. Is this information? Was your mate just chalking up the route as a public service and just by chance you happened to be there? In some cases an on-sight might be easier than a flash, and there are times where, having forgotten all the moves on something, an on-sight may be easier than a redpoint!

If you have forgotten everything, and getting on a bit towards old, then you can of course claim the ‘Age-related recall slowdown extra flash’ (ARSE flash), which basically means climbing a route that you have been on before, or even done before, where the experience was too long ago for you to remember. The valid time period for claiming such a flash after your last go on the route, which you’ve forgotten, is dependent on age and, very strictly is determined by the following:-

T (years) =  [( 100 / Age ) x 2 ] - 3

From this formulae you can see that if you are 66 years old the time period becomes zero, which is fair enough really as if you are that old you’ll have forgotten the moves even before reaching the top, and thus you can go for the onsight again straight away after lowering down. Flash style is particularly hard work though if your only knowledge is that you previously succeeded, because if you don’t now succeed, not only is your memory crap, but also you have got weaker! The best flash is actually with no recollection at all, termed ‘on-doublesighted’, where you get to have twice the fun without even realising it, but can go pear shaped when you tell your mates, or worse, the entire world on Instagram, how cool you are for onsighting X, only to be reminded of how you spent 10 days on it 20 years ago.

Clearly the description of styles is broad. A ‘flash’ can be described as ‘climbing a route first go with some knowledge of that route’. Basically, and pushing the edges as far as they can go, a flash can range from knowing there is a hidden pocket somewhere hidden, to getting your best mate to abseil down brushing the holds, looking at them with a magnifying glass, colouring them in and numbering if required, and working the route to death in front of your face and describing in exact detail how you will do every move and place every bit of gear. In honesty I’ll own up and say I have the odd F8a in my (own secret little) book that I’ve put down as on-sight even though it strictly should have been a flash, because someone shouted up ‘grab the huge really obvious hold covered in chalk in front of your nose’. We probably need more terms to describe the greyness of the flash. We have the ‘beta-flash’, which means you had some ‘beta’, i.e. some info, shouted at you while you were actually climbing. But how much? We need the ‘gold-flash’, which would be with next to no info, the ‘white-flash’ for a few bits of useful beta, and a ‘grey-flash’ for the opposite! And since we like to both moan and show who is best, we need the ‘injury-flash’ to highlight we did it injured, and thus the route was actually fairly easy and thus a better flash than just a flash. Also, there is the ‘hang-over flash’, ‘illness-flash’ and ‘wrong pants flash’ as well as the ‘piss-flash’ which can be used if you didn’t even break into a sweat. Most importantly is the ‘as good as on-sight’ flash, which means, in your opinion, the info provided was duff, and you are going to claim an on-sight anyway! This is sometimes called the ‘beta-sandbag-flash’ and is perhaps the most difficult style of climbing, where your mate, who already fell off, does their best to make you fall off too! 

Then there could be the 'abseil inspection flash', also termed more simply 'climbed after abseil inspection', though the definition of abseil inspection varies from looking over whilst being speedily lowered off a neighboring route, to swinging over and pre-placing a few draws and glancing at the holds, to actually deliberately lowering down it and looking at every hold, possibly with a magnifying glass, taking photos of them and writing the sequences in a note-book. Clearly there are some differences, that may, or may not be mentioned when mentioning a ‘quick look on abseil’. Many folk think abseil inspection is just that, and not a flash, but apparently some folk think it’s OK, so I guess it fits into the grey end. The difference in inspection is huge, with a detailed hour long 'checking' leading to an ascent that feels more like a redpoint than a flash, and a quick zip down with a cursory glance feeling exactly like an onsight. But is there even a line to the definition of flash, does anyone even know? What about touching all the holds on abseil? Or pulling on them? And what defines ‘pulling’, perhaps a strain gauge that shows less than 5N of force is needed. Personally, I go with ‘no touching’, since when is a 'touch' actually a 'pull'. Though if you have your trainers on, that surely makes it OK to pull a bit, especially if no one is watching anyway. But then it seems for boulderers touching is fine before a flash, and that seems to make sense, though they don’t usually abseil in first. Or maybe they do? Is a ladder allowed? I don’t even know. Luckily I’m not a boulderer!

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Keith Sharples in Sweeden, onsighting the hard slab invisible from the ground, though having watched his mate on the easy bottom bit, he could only take the flash!

Life gets even more complicated when on-sighting a route where you have done a bit of it before, like an extension past a first belay point. This is pretty common on long Spanish sport routes, less common on Peak sport routes that are only 20ft long and only have two bolts anyway. Standard practice would be to spy out the F7a with a F8a extension; warm up on the F7a a few times, get the draws in, then bang out the top bit after wasting no energy on the start. Is that allowed? At what grade would it make no difference? Generally, if someone can on-sight F8a then the style of the F7a bit probably made no difference. Web Site masters 8a.nu proposed a traffic light system stating the difference had to be three letter grades (we’re talking French sport here) which is probably about right (like a F7a leading into a F8a). But actually, every route is different, and a 7a into an 8a could be a critical part of the route, or there could be a lie-down rest in between. And what if you did the 7a last year and have nearly forgotten it anyway?

Rules tends to get people’s backs up, after all, climbing is good because of its lack of rules. In the olden days if you on-sighted a route after you’d watched your mate it was an on-sight, so long as you thought it was and your belayer agreed, because only you and your belayer ever knew about it. But now it’s different, and many climbers need rules so they can fill in their score-card correctly, and if you are gonna tell the entire world what you did and rank yourself against everyone else then there needs to be rules. However, for most of us, our sport is totally built on honesty, that’s perhaps its beauty. Our definitions don’t have officials drawing boundaries in the rule book, they are allowed to be that little bit vague, it adds a bit of colour! We need the ‘on-esty sight’, though I think most people are climbing in this style already. Ultimately we usually know what we did, and if there is a voice saying 'I don't think that was actually onsight', then it probably wasn't. And these days, if you've strayed a little to much into the grey area, you can be sure that there will be plenty of folk out there who will remind you!

flash table