Climbers typically fall into two camps when it comes to slabs. Some gag at the connotation of meat-grating, nipple-raking falls. But others say friction climbing is our most elegant discipline, a communion of mental grit and technical grace that rewards brains and finesse, not mindless brawn.
“I love, love, love slab climbing,” says Beth Rodden, whose slab sends include Yosemite’s Lurking Fear (VI 5.13c; FFA with Tommy Caldwell) and Squamish’s Grand Wall (IV 5.13). “Technical climbing is so engaging. You have to figure out ways to stand on your feet and move your body with more than just pure strength . . . maybe it’s also because my arms are so twiggy.”
Watching a skilled slab climber waltz up holdless granite is like watching a magic trick — you know a simple method unlocks what should be impossible, but it’s still daunting to dissect how this happens. These six tips, gleaned from the world’s best, will have you calmly padding upward. But first, put on a shirt — your nipples will thank you.
1. “Butt out. Heels down.” This mantra reminds you to “assume the position,” drawing your posterior away from the wall to align your centre of gravity over your feet. Thus aligned, slightly drop your heels, engaging the ball of your foot and maximizing the shoe-surface-to-rock ratio. Gravity and rubber will do the rest. Remember those protractors from eighth grade geometry? Well, neither do I, but think about it like this: your centre of gravity (core), which you control with your hips and rump, should align with gravity’s pull. Rock angle shifts a bit; gravity stays constant. So if a slab’s angle lessens, your butt should move away from the stone. If a slab becomes more vertical, you’d likewise pull in your hips. I know — mind-blowing. We just passed eighth-grade geometry.
2. Don’t Dither Mentally. “Finding a [mental] rhythm helps a ton,” says Rodden. Lurking Fear’s crux — 130 feet of sustained 5.13 slab divided by a sidewise dyno — necessitated steady, focussed, upward flow. “Rhythm not only helps with general movement, but with maintaining head space,” she adds. When holds begin to resemble potato chips or even disappear, our instinct is to get gripped — to tense our muscles, tighten our diaphragms, and slow to a crawl. “There is a huge anxiety associated with slab climbing,” says slab ace Justen Sjong. “It’s best to keep moving.” So save thoughts like ‘How am I attached?’ for the campfire, not the sharp end.
3. Don’t Dither Physically. We often divide pitches into sections, viewing rests as islands of safety. Drop this approach with slabs, where your only goal should be the belay. (Say you were in a hurry to get home from work. Sure, you’d pause at red lights, but would you linger at the greens?) Clip the bolt, place a piece, pause briefly to scan, but when you’ve finished your business, move steadily (don’t rush!) and breathe regularly, avoiding the dreaded sweaty palms or sewing-machine leg that comes with stalling. (As you ooze with nervous perspiration, your calves tire, fingers slide, and feet slosh, making that crux even more difficult.)
4. Your Hands = Your Feet. Think of your hands as suction cups on the smooth underbelly of fear. Sometimes you’re better off palming the rock than crimping down, which can pull your butt toward the wall. Stick to the mantra. The Scottish hardman Dave MacLeod, who last winter dispatched the 150-foot slab Walk of Life (5.13 or 5.14 R/X, depending on whom you ask), at North Devon, UK, suggests you use your thumbs — not palms — to press down on holds. MacLeod’s tip comes in handy when you’re forced to highstep or hand-foot match. Imagine cocking a revolver — your thumb becomes a hook that holds you in.
5. Don’t Overreach. As runouts grow, it can be tempting to stretch for handholds. Patience, young grasshopper. By overextending, you bring your centre of gravity closer to the wall, decreasing rubber-to-rock contact. Instead, resume “the position,” and then make small, calculated hand and foot movements. Also, avoid undue high stepping — bigger moves lead to herky-jerky movements that destabilize your core, precipitating foot slips. “It’s not like a boulder problem or physical route,” adds Rodden. “You can’t try so hard that you’re violent. Instead, be determined but calm,“ saving the dynamic climbing for boulderers.
6. Avoid the Pump . . . in Your Calves. Slab climbing can be a tiring, tedious affair. MacLeod seeks to rest his feet. “When you reach better [foot]holds, rest your feet by standing on your heels,” he says. Look for scoops or rails. If you find a single, big-enough-for-one foot foothold, you can methodically switch feet, stretching or even shaking out the unweighted appendage like it’s a forearm.