When I began rock climbing in the early 1970s, the infamous “Stonemasters” ruled the Southern California crag scene. At that time, American and British climbers were setting the standards, and the Stonemasters were doing some of the hardest rock climbs in the world. Entrance to their elite clique was direct: You had to flash Valhalla, a three-pitch route at Suicide Rock, perhaps the first 5.11 edging climb in America. Back then, the best shoes were hard-rubber PAs and RDs, both totally unsuitable for difficult edging and smearing routes like Valhalla. Not until EBs came along did the ranks of the Stonemasters grow, although only slightly.
Everything changed when sticky rubber shoes arrived. Precise edging was out, and smearing was in—pasting the ball of the foot directly onto the rock, letting the edge, crystal, or merest rugosity “bite” into the boot sole. Some climbers referred to this new technique as “smedging.” Around 1980 the Boreal Fire (pronounced “FEE-ray”) arrived, with a dramatically stickier rubber, and a slab renaissance ensued. Some of the old test pieces seemed a full grade easier in the new boots, and by 1985 almost every serious Suicide climber was a Stonemaster. I remember a slab boulder problem at the Camp 4 boulders in Yosemite that I had tried in vain hundreds of times but was able to do first try with my brand-new pair of Fires. Such is the part technology has played in slab climbing.
Extreme onsight slab climbing requires quick thinking to unravel puzzling move combinations. Exacting footwork is essential, as is balance and relaxation under duress. Even the slightest quaking will send the boot skating away.
I like to work in two sets: handhold and footholds. First I scan the rock for the two best handholds. On edges I prefer the “crimp” grip (placing the thumb over the forefinger) for optimal power, digging the finger pads straight down onto the holds for the most positive purchase. On difficult slab routes, the edges will generally be tiny—as thin as razor blades and one or two finger pads wide.
When no obvious edges are apparent, simply digging the finger pads into the most roughly textured area will help. Any downward pressure on the fingers is taking weight off the feet, making it easier for them to stick on sketchy holds. This is the key to hard slab climbing: maintaining points of contact and letting go with the fingers of one hand only to quickly latch the next edge.
Many of the most extreme slab cruxes consist of sidepull combinations, pulling sideways on vertical edges with arms extended in an iron-cross position. On low-angle slabs, palming is often the key and helps keep the center of gravity over the feet. The idea is “nose over toes.”
In my experience as a climbing instructor at Joshua Tree, a common client profile for guided climbing is a client with at least some gym experience but little or no outdoor experience on real rock. For this situation I typically start clients off on a slab, for several reasons. One is to get them used to “reading” the rock, looking for the subtleties and nuances of face holds, which can be tough for someone used to seeing colored holds on a gym wall. Another reason is that it begins the learning curve of valuable lessons on smearing: what will stick and what won’t. Each move is a lesson and a positive building of trust and confidence in the ability of the shoe’s rubber to adhere to the rock. On a slab bereft of any obvious hand- and footholds, the client is forced to trust the friction of the boots while learning the subtleties of body position and center of gravity. Since footwork is the key to all climbing technique, even crack climbing, this builds a foundation that carries over to all other climbing techniques.
Watch a world-class climber and the first thing you’ll notice is his or her fluid, ultraprecise footwork. Clients often ask me, “How can I have smooth footwork?” What I tell them is this: The first thing to do is mentally focus on it from the second you step off the ground. The goal is “quiet feet.” If you’re tapping or dragging your foot up the rock, you’ll hear it. Climb with your eyes. Never take your eyes off the hold until your foot is set precisely on the hold, and consciously think about the best positioning of your foot on the hold. Never look for another handhold until both feet are set. Slowing down your movement will help you focus on precision.
Edges, sharp crystals, and protruding rugosities are the most obvious smearing targets. On lowangle blank slabs, often what you’re looking for is simply a ripple or dimple that’s slightly less steep. There are many friction climbs at Joshua Tree that are completely devoid of edges, climbed via a series of smears that resemble a miniature version of moguls on a ski run.
When things get steeper and the route has more defined edges, remember that you can use both the inside and outside edge of the shoe. The basic edging technique is for the level of the heel to be slightly higher than the toe.
To rest, if you’re on a tiny stance big enough for only one foot, use your heel to stand on it, resting your toes, while you shake out the other foot. Then switch feet and do the same. Another resting technique on a two-foot stance is to bend your knees and balance against the wall with your knees.
On traverses, crossing inside with the opposite foot works best, using the outside edge portion of the shoe that’s crossing through to smear with. Ankle flexion helps maintain maximum surface contact between the rubber and the rock. Always focus on shifting the center of gravity to directly over the foothold you’re stepping up on. A slightly dynamic technique with the lower leg will help you shift your center of gravity most effectively: Once the upper foot is set, bend the knee of the lower leg slightly and push off the lower hold as you shift your center of gravity to the upper foothold. This won’t work for super high steps where you’re most extended, but it will work most all the time and is a key fundamental that makes slab moves far less tiring on the legs.
On extremes slabs (5.12 and harder), where only the tiniest of edges, slightest ripples, or merest dimples mar the slab plane, frontpointing on microsmears is called for. Here, just the very front tip of the shoe is smeared, with the heel held relatively high. Contrary to popular belief, the best shoe for hard slab climbing is actually one with a stiffer sole, not a soft slipper-like one. A stiffer shoe will allow you to edge better, frontpoint, and smear better on miniscule holds without tiring your feet as much as a softer boot will.
For optimal performance of climbing sole rubber, temperature is key. This is especially true for hard friction climbs. Modern climbing rubber smears best at between 45°F and 55°F, so take on that slab test piece in the cool shade. Any dirt on your boot sole will be extremely detrimental, so meticulously clean your shoe soles before attempting that hard slab pitch. Rub off any dirt or grime, and clean the soles if necessary with a little water and a toothbrush. When properly cleaned, your soles should make a squeaking sound when you rub them hard with the palm of your hand.
Once shod, never walk around in the dirt. Dirt-impregnated soles are never the same. And never put chalk on your shoes—it greatly reduces your traction. Climbers discovered this fact in the ’70s while working on a route called Hall of Mirrors on Glacier Point Apron in Yosemite. Many of the cruxes were as smooth as glass, and the first ascensionists discovered that any chalk dust on the footholds made it impossible for the feet to stick. By not using chalk, and subsequently not getting any chalk dust on the holds, they found that the smears worked.
Some of the most challenging slabs are difficult because they are sustained; meaning there are many difficult moves in a row without a big enough foothold to stop and rest. The key is to stay relaxed and focus on your breathing; steady, deep breaths will help you stay calm. When you get to a foothold where you feel comfortable, take advantage of it; shake out each leg, one at a time. On difficult routes I give myself a one-word mantra: “Relax.” After each move I’ll say it to myself: “Relax,” mentally monitoring what muscles I’m firing the most and not tensing up more than I need to. After each move I’ll think “relax”; do another move, “relax”; another move, “relax.” Before I know it, I’m through the crux.
Today, with so many climbers learning technique in a vertical-walled gym environment, slab climbing has become somewhat of a lost art. But footwork is the foundation of all technique, and confidence in smearing establishes your connectivity to the rock, even on steeper routes.
Any aspiring trad climber can benefit greatly from a long apprenticeship on the slabs. The subtle tricks of balance and footwork, well learned from trial and error and time on the rock, can be applied later to steeper test pieces, where footwork still is the key to success.
In addition to mental poise and steady resolve, extreme slab climbing requires a quick mind to read the rock and decipher sequences, plus the exacting footwork and balance of a dancer. Successfully climbing what looks impossibly blank might be the sweetest victory of all.
Perhaps Royal Robbins summed it up best in his book Basic Rockcraft: “Slab climbing is a special art different from face climbing and crack climbing. Strength is less important, although strong fingers and sturdy foot muscles help. The expert slab climber is distinguished by grace and a cool mind. He keeps his weight over his feet and moves calmly and deliberately, as if he were only a foot off the ground. He does not rush. He looks ahead, carefully calculating his tactics, and acts with resolution. His footwork is neat and deft, for he realizes the importance of precise use of holds. And he concentrates totally on the problem in front of him.”
Excerpted with permission from Toproping: Rock Climbing for the Outdoor Beginner by Bob Gaines (Falcon Guides, October 2020).
Toproping: Rock Climbing for the Outdoor Beginner is available now!
And be sure to keep an eye out for The Art of Safe Ascent, by John Long and Bob Gaines, coming May 2021!