By Jim Zitting
Hello again, dear readers. Last time we talked about the emotional toil of slab. This time we’ll talk about general form and how a shift in this can reduce the pain slab climbing. Friends don't let friends climb slab...or do they?
Slab form is different the form you use to climb vertical and overhanging walls. Instead of reaching high, you usually find yourself palming the rock at waist or shoulder level. Instead of pulling your hips into the wall, you’re sticking that booty way out. Where you may commit 60% of your attention to your feet on vert and overhang, slab sends your attention to your feet to a 95% commitment (why look pay attention to your hands when there aren't any to use?).
The goal is to take advantage of the low angle rather than fight it. Slab feet will always feel less reliable than a good sharp edge, however the opposite is can be true if you know how to use your feet on slab. Low angles allow you to reliably smear on little or no texture. A route can be very sparsely populated with actual holds and still be very climbable. You have to let go of your intuitive feel of the security of a hold and just smear onward. This is the cost of entry to slab.
On slab, a climber should default to resting slightly ahead of their center of gravity. A slab climber should hold their legs vertical over their feet, bend slightly forward at the waist, and reach out to push against the rock with their hands.
Here I am demonstrating good form on slab. Notice that this position allows me to look down and focus on my feet. Feet are everything in climbing, but they’re truly everything when climbing slab. As I select places on the wall to step, my center of gravity stays over my feet. This keeps my rubber biting instead of sliding. My hands are not applying downforce to the wall, instead they are solely for balance.
When starting out on slab, a good exercise is to force yourself to only palm the wall with your hands. Later on you’ll use hand holds to supplement your smears, but in the beginning it’s best not to use them as a crutch.
In these pictures, I'm demonstrating bad slab form. I'm trying to stand on my toes as if I'm on a vertical wall, and to kick my hips in. On higher angle rock, this would serve to solidify my feet and allow me to rest my hands. On slab this only ruins smears and forces all the weight onto my hands, which feels pretty unstable.
As panic sets in, I lean further into the rock. My heels lift. Were I standing on a ledge, this would be no problem. But smears are a game of surface area, and pulling rubber off the rock is a cardinal sin. What rubber is left in contact isn’t even being pressed straight down. I am pushing back on my feet, not down. The angle of force has now become too shallow with respect to the angle of the wall. Friction increases as the force applied approaches perpendicular to the slab. It decreases as the angle approaches parallel.
This sounds obvious, but knowing something in theory and practicing it smoothly by habit are two different animals. As you spend more hours on slab, you’ll gain an intuitive understanding of friction and how to manage it through moves.
In the beginning the struggle will be keeping calm while you try to realistically judge how reliable each smear will be. My advice is to rig a top rope and start blowing smears intentionally. Find a foot placement that your intuition tells you is too steep, and smear it anyway. Get accustomed to the feeling of slipping out, or exclaim your jubilation when you find that the smear was feasible after all.
Smaller steps will serve you better, but sometimes you gotta make the big move. Your challenge with big moves is to manage the angle and force on each foot to sustain each smear.
Here’s something of a mantle. I find this move to be easier on slab as I can lean forward over the move. I made sure to move my center of gravity slowly from one foot to the other. In moving that far up in one move, I started to peel my right heel off of the rock. This makes timing important. If your move costs you a smear before it provides you with a replacement, it wasn’t a wise move.
As I committed to the mantle, I only needed my hands for balance. By trusting all of my weight to my left foot and leaning forward, I kept my center of gravity over my foot.
Another favorite move of mine on slab is the layback. When you do find a good jug or crack to lay back against, you can walk your feet up and bring your legs closer to perpendicular to the rock. This is maximum surface area and it brings your downforce closer to perpendicular as well. A good demo route for this move is "Rethinking the Ethics" in Red Rocks Open Space.
Next time we’ll discuss smears in more detail. With a good foundation of form, you’ll find slab smears to be much more useful than vertical smears ever were. Until then, beautiful readers, stay safe and stay healthy.