You’re new to climbing and you’ve finally overcome the daunting step of going to the rock climbing gym for the first time.
You try to keep a straight face and act ¨cool¨ as you work your way up some of the entry level climbing problems.
You’re struggling, falling, sweating, and your forearms throb with pump.
Just as you’re hoping nobody sees you like this, a friendly climber walks up and says:
¨Do you want the Beta?¨
¨The Beta?¨ What on earth is that? You think to yourself.
Enter the wonderful world of climbing lingo, where nobody thinks you’re weird when you’re talking about putting a ball nut in a crack.
In this article, you’ll learn exactly what the definition is of a beta in climbing. We’ll also talk about the interesting history of the term, and how the beta relates to the grade of a climbing problem.
Definition of beta in rock climbing
So, what is ¨the beta¨ in climbing exactly?
Probably the most used word in climbing lingo, the ¨beta¨ is any set of information about a particular climbing route or problem, that helps a climber complete the climb. The information about the climb may range from very detailed to just a minor hint and will be considered a beta regardless. Some climbers prefer not to be given the beta unasked for, as it negates the opportunity to onsight a route.
In rock climbing and bouldering, the beta may include information about:
- The length of the route
- Where to rest and where to clip
- Equipment needed
- What the crux is
- What type of holds you’ll encounter and where
- The sequence of grips
- The crux
- Difficulty or grade
- Texture of the rock
And whether parts of it should be climbed in a dynamic or static style.
In mountaineering, due to the longer time it takes to complete a route, the definition of the beta may in addition to above information also include information about:
- The approach
- Where to set up camp
- Where water can be found
- Areas of heightened landslide / avalanche risks
- And the best descension / rappelling locations.
Can a route have more than one Beta?
A climbing problem certainly can have more than one beta, if there is more than one way to climb the route from start to finish.
However, when climbers talk about THE beta, they usually mean the BEST way to complete a climbing problem.
So how exactly do people determine what this ¨best¨ way is to complete a problem is?
The answer will include factors such as:
- The most energy efficient way to climb a route
- The quickest way to complete it
- Or what’s simply the most elegant solution to the problem
To all gamers out there, the ¨beta¨ in climbing, is basically the same as the ¨meta¨ in gaming:
It basically refers to the set of conventions that naturally arise from a) the circumstances and b) the knowledge the agents have about navigating those circumstances.
In gaming, these circumstances may be the current update of the game, or what weapon is currently ¨overpowered; in climbing, those circumstances refer to the rock climbing problem itself, and what set of movements a climber should perform to complete it as efficiently as possible.
Thus, it is possible that what used to be the ¨beta¨ becomes outdated, as climbers learn more about the wall, handholds and footholds. For example, when a new hold is discovered, this may entirely change what is the easiest way to complete a climbing problem, and thus a new beta springs into existence.
This brings us to the next point: the relation between the beta and the grade of the problem.
How the beta influences the climbing grade
There are a lot of climbing routes that have risen to legendary status in rock climbing history.
Think about the Dawn Wall, which once seemed impossible until Tommy Caldwell discovered a way to navigate it all the way from the bottom to the top after years of inspecting the rock hanging from a rope attached to the top.
And so there are many climbing routes that climbers have climbed in different ways overtime.
Usually, a change in the beta is because a new hold is discovered, or because a creative climber uses a hold in a completely different way than all his predecessors have ever thought of climbing it.
These breakthroughs, can have a real repercussion on the difficulty of a route.
It goes without saying, that when a kneebar opportunity is suddenly discovered right before the crux, at a point the climber would have experienced maximum pump, this will influence the overall difficulty of a climb immensely.
And thus, it has happens quite often that a route is downgraded.
This, of course, much to the disgruntlement of the climbers that gave it their all to triumph over it and were part of the select group to have ever completed the climb.
Why is it called the beta? History / etymology of the term
So where did the term beta actually come from?
There’s two main theories about the origin of the word beta, as it is used in climbing.
Of course, beta comes from the greek letter, but this has nothing to do with what beta means in climbing, at least not directly.
Theory 1: Betamax
The first hypothesis on the origin of the term beta is that the word is an abbreviation of Betamax.
Betamax probably won’t ring a bell if you’re younger, because it is a video format that was launched in 1975 and is no longer in use.
The story goes that climber Jack Mileski videotaped himself while climbing routes, and of course these video’s were formatted using Betamax technology.
When somebody wanted information about the route he climbed, he would gladly send them the ¨Betamax¨, which was soon abbreviated to ¨The Beta¨.
According to some, Milenski also liked to make the play of words, ¨Do you want the beta, Max?¨
It is unclear who this Max was, however.
Writing at the end of 2019, It’s hard to verify if Jack Mileski used to say that. Still, it is clear he did like to play with language, as a climber on a forum mentioned, Milenski had a colourful vocabulary, as illustrated by this quote that has been attributed to him: ¨scum your shoulder into the groove, throw to the mammary and air the sack¨.
So it’s not a far stretch that Milenski would say ¨Do you want the beta, Max?¨.
Theory 2: English with an accent
Since the beta is all about trying to find the best way to climb a route, it’s understandable that some postulate the word ¨beta¨ actually originates from the word ¨better¨.
As most of us know who are slightly familiar with the different accents of Great Britain, there’s multivarious ways natives pronounce the words of the English language.
In the Pateley Bridge accent, people would pronounce the word ¨better¨ as ¨betta¨.
And as people asked for the ¨better way of climbing a route¨, this would be pronounced as ¨the betta way to climbing the route¨, only to quickly evolve to just asking for the ¨betta¨, or ¨beta¨.
Is this story believable?
Certainly, Pateley Bridge is located just a couple of kilometers away from the beautiful boulders of National Trust Birmingham Rocks, which is makes it completely within the realm of the feasible that a vibrant climbing community in Pateley Bridge would have developed their own rock climbing slang.
But let’s see how likely it is whether this is really the origin of the term beta.
Consensus on the origin of ¨beta¨
Despite the two mutually exclusive theories on the origin of the climbing term beta, the consensus is that it was in fact Jack Mileski that coined the term, and not the climbing community of Pateley Bridge.
The detailedness of the accounts about Jack Mileski, the number of sources that subscribe to him coining the term, and the logical coherence of the story makes it most likely that the consensus is correct: Jack Milenski coined the phrase.
Of course, it is perfectly possible that the term was invented in two locations at the same time, as has happened at various intervals in history.
Think for example about who invented calculus, was it Newton or was it Leibniz?
If two minds can simutaneously come up with something as complex as calculus, then it should not be a far stretch that two communities start using the same word for the same thing.
Anyway, I digress.
The important thing is not to get caught up in chauvinism, and appreciate the fact that both in America and in the UK vibrant rock climbing communities started to pop up, and both contributed to the rich history of rock climbing as we know it today.
So there you have it! You now know exactly what the definition of the beta is, how it relates to the grade of a climbing problem, and you’re even well versed in the debate surrounding the history of the term.
So the next time you’re struggling with a climbing problem and a friendly climber asks you if you want the beta, you could say:
¨Do I look like a Max to you? Thought not. I prefer to onsight it, so it’s betta if I find the beta myself! Thanks though!¨ 😉
Lastly, here’s a couple of quick answers to some of the most common questions people have in relation to what the beta is in rock climbing:
Are small tips or hints already considered a “beta”?
Yes, any information that helps a climber complete a rock climbing on bouldering route is considered a beta. The beta may not be complete, but it is a beta nonetheless.
Can a route get downgraded when a new beta is discovered?
Yes, the climbing problem can get downgraded as an easier beta is discovered. Technically, climbing the route using the old beta is still just as difficult as it was before. Climbing the route in the style of the old beta can therefore still be considered a harder grade, but the route overall is downgraded.
Can you onsight a route after receiving the beta?
No, any information that you receive prior to a climb will invalidate your first attempt as an onsight, except for the information that you derive yourself as you stand on the ground below the climbing route. You can however still flash, pinkpoint or redpoint the route even after you’ve been told the beta.