5 Basic Skills for Friction Climbing

In part 2 of a 3 part blog series, learn the 5 slab climbing techniques and how you can combine balance and footwork to get to the top.
Cebe Wallace Cebe Wallace
Climb Leader & Friction Enthusiast
September 18, 2017

Friction climbing is a type of rock climbing where the rock face is angled to less than vertical, offering little in the way of traditional hand and foot holds. Instead, friction climbing requires movements that allow you to ascend steep slabs using nothing but rubber on rock and careful, deliberate movements. In this blog, I’ll define slab climbing techniques and how you can combine balance and footwork to get to the top.

This blog is part 2 of a friction climbing tutorial. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to read part 1: What is Friction Climbing?

At the end of the previous blog, I gave you an assignment: “Consider the penguin. How does a penguin walk? How is a human stride different? A penguin lives on ice; how does its peculiar side-to-side gait help it stay upright and not slip?”

RULE #1 - EYES ON YOUR FEET

Footwork is the most important part of all rock climbing, but in friction climbing it’s especially so. You are naturally drawn to look up when climbing. However, a brief glance up tells you most of what you need to know about your route.

When making a delicate move, keep your eyes on your feet. That’s where it’s all happening. Concentrate on your feet (I’ve been known to talk to mine when making an anxious move) to keep from making nervous or sloppy moves that can easily lead to a slip. Slips result in falls. Mastering Rule #1 will give you an extra boost when it comes to Rules 2-5.

RULE #2 - HEELS DOWN

Stand up and walk across the room right now. Analyze your movement. Think about how your body feels as you are getting from point A to point B.

As normal bipeds who want to move efficiently, our natural forward gait is to push off on the toe of one foot as we swing the other leg forward. You’ll recognize this is how you walk. This is all well and good on flat surfaces or easy gradients, but if you try to push off with your toe while on steep slab, you put a backward sliding force on the foot, and as you roll up onto your toe, you reduce the amount of foot surface – or boot sole – contacting the rock. Those two actions - pushing backward and reducing rubber-on-rock – can cause a slip.

When climbing high angle rock, keep your heel down for maximum contact. Carefully place the forward foot just where you want it, smoothly but decisively shifting your weight onto that foot. Lift the previously weighted foot gently up, without pushing backward. This will propel you upward in a smooth and deliberate manner and prevent you from making lunging and jerky movements, which will result in a slip

RULE #3 - WEIGHT STACKED ON ONE FOOT

Stand up and pretend you are walking on a sheet of smooth glare ice. Without even thinking, you’re taking small, controlled steps. You’re making sure your weight is directly over each foot; one at a time. You do this because any lunge or rapid movement will cause a slip. And you do it without thinking because you know instinctively that your footing is precarious. You see? You already knew how to do it.

As the penguin waddles, moving from side to side, it is placing all its body weight completely on one foot or the other, ensuring that its body weight is straight over the weighted foot. Your weight should be on either one foot or the other, specifically on the BALL of the foot. This is the most stable placement.   

Practice: Stand with most of your weight on one foot. Lean your body slightly back and feel the weight come onto your heel. Now lean slightly forward and feel the weight shift to the arch…then the ball…then the toes. Teach yourself to pay attention to that feeling when climbing and you’ll be able to keep your weight on the optimum part of the foot: the BALL. The nerves in your foot know where your weight is. Learn to “listen” to them. This is how climbers progress over difficult terrain.

Train yourself to put your entire body weight directly over the ball of a single foot. This will press the soft rubber of your boot more firmly into the rock. The rubber actually fills in around the little bumps, points, and crystals of the surface, creating the maximum hold.

RULE #4 – GET UPRIGHT

Standing on a slanted rock face, you’ll need to fight your natural (in fact, powerful) temptation to lean into the rock.

Stand as upright as possible, with your “stacked” weight pressing straight down onto the ball of your foot. Extend your arms, with only finger tips on the rock, and push away. This keeps your weight balanced over the foot. Bending your arms and leaning in toward the rock moves your weight forward, imparting a backward force to the foot, and inviting a slip.

RULE #5: MOVE WITH INTENT

Climbing is done in three discrete parts:

  1. Move your foot to the new placement
  2. Carefully roll your weight to shift your balance
  3. Stand straight up on the new foot

If you are climbing in a continuous flow, as in normal walking, you’re probably not doing it right. For challenging moves, get in the habit of doing each of the three parts separately, with a full stop at each.   

Practice: Place a chair in front of you. Stand on one leg, concentrating your weight on the ball of your foot. Now close your eyes. Try to keep your balance. Feel the sensation of feeling unbalanced and recognize the type of control it would take to step up on to the chair with your eyes closed. Try taking the step with your eyes open. Now, with your eyes closed. This sense of deliberate movement and control might come close to what you would feel while climbing a slab.

When you move deliberately, you will feel much more comfortable and in control – you might even have fun!

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Scenario: Your weight is stacked directly over and entirely on one foot. To move up, first find your next placement. Read the rock with your eyes and fingers, selecting a “target” spot for the advancing foot. Step the foot up, placing minimal weight. Remember, maximum weight over the other foot is what is creating the friction holding you in place. When you’re satisfied with the new placement, move slowly and deliberately up, moving first your head, then shoulders, then hips over the new upper foot. Move smoothly, without lunging. Move decisively, consciously shifting weight from one foot to the other. Be like the penguin.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll discuss where you can go to practice your newfound friction climbing techniques.

Learn More

Our friction climbing committee leads evening seminars on to teach the fundamentals of friction climbing. Find these seminars, as well as climbing courses offered by all of our branches, here.