By Jim Zitting
It brings me so much joy to imagine your beaming faces as you read this. I miss all of you intensely.
Today we reach the crescendo of this work. The most important part of slab theory: the smear. To smear your feet is to use downward pressure and grippy climbing rubber on a smooth face to produce enough friction to stand on.
This requires both comfort with the feel of the smear and good slab form. Without that foundation, smearing will be terrifying and ineffective. Let’s focus here on a good smear. In the above picture, I'm standing on granite. First, notice the dropped heel. This serves our previous mandate to maximize surface area on the rock and let the rubber do the work. I kicked my off-foot back for this photo in order to better center my weight over the smear. Balance is everything on a smooth surface.
“But wait!” you might say. “ My ankles don’t bend that far!” That’s ok. This flexibility can be built with exercises like downward dog and runner’s lunge. It will also occur naturally as a result of climbing slab. Don’t let your Achilles Tendon be your Achilles Heel! (Guffaw.)
Let’s switch our view back to me demonstrating bad form. We can see here that I've started to lift my heels out of the smear. This may be to reach forward to a hand hold, or might be due to lack of slab competence/ confidence. We can see in these pictures that the granite isn’t completely flat. It has texture, albeit sloped texture.
Imagine good form for slopey hands. You’re maximizing surface area and you’re pulling straight down. Any texture you find on that sloper is only positive relative to your downward force.
The same applies here. In the first pictures, I am really mushing my shoe rubber down onto the texture. In the second pictures, I'm starting to push back as well as down. As I reach forward and focuses on his hands, the rock under my feet becomes slopier. This does not bode well for the continued separation between my knees and the rock.
In the zoomed out photo, you can see how a general lack of form and a failing smear can form a feedback loop. As a smear slips, I become alarmed and reach for hands. In reaching forward, the smear becomes further compromised, leading to panic. I find myself prostrate on a slick surface. I'm actively burning my hands instead of passively sitting back on my feet. This is not good. Do not do this.
To get an intuitive feel for smears and how they interact with different rock, there are a couple exercises you can do.
Set a top rope then climb the route in approach shoes. This will force you to smear, as your shoes won’t be rigid enough to edge with.
Another excellent practice is to stress your smears until they fail. Practice leaning too far forward, or bring your heel off of the rock to the point that it slips out. This will help you understand the difference between a good smear and a bad one. Both will still feel super sketchy.
We arrive at the most difficult aspect of smears: they will always feel sketchy until you weight them. Without your weight biting your shoe rubber onto the rock, the smear won’t feel solid. In other forms of climbing, there are solid sets of feedback data that allow us to gauge the amount and direction of force a hold will allow. We can use this data to fine tune our connection to a hold before we commit our weight.
With a smear, the amount of feedback data pre-bodyweight is limited and less useful. Previous knowledge of the rock’s properties and of the mechanics of a smear are required to be able to guess the integrity of the move. For a beginner, the smear is unpredictable. It’s gonna feel rough and you’re going to blow smears often. That’s what makes slab so hated.
Spending a summer climbing 7’s and 8’s on Garden slab in approach shoes killed most of my smear jitters. When you’re guiding new climbers, your first priority is safety, but a close second is appearance of ease. If I can look good on slab, my clients will feel much more comfortable climbing it themselves. This forced me to trust my smears and move through them without hesitation. (I was in it for the money.)
I don’t think any of us climb strictly for physical exercise. Running or swimming would be more effective for that goal. We climb because it’s emotionally difficult and emotionally rewarding. Once top rope becomes comfortable, we start leading. Once sport climbing becomes comfortable, some of us start climbing trad. Climbers are a self-selecting group. Some of us are thrill seekers, but in my opinion, most of us wish to build mastery over ourselves. Physical and emotional self-mastery is my Holy Grail. This is something climbing is extremely effective at training, and slab is the best form of climbing for that purpose.
It’s scary, and that’s the point. It’s also the most common form of climbing in the Springs area. It’s the best way to build confidence in outdoor footwork and in general. It forces consciousness of your center of gravity and of your emotional response to changes in that center. It is an exquisite form of meditation.
I love and miss all of you. I know your worlds have dimmed without my beaming face at the front desk. Be strong, family. We got this. Maintain your center and your calm. The mud in the water will settle, and soon enough we can all resume our journeys. Please feel to reach out to me through CityROCK with any questions or additions to the art of Slabbery.
Until next time, you wondrous marmots.