Super Sonic Slab Climbing
I love slab climbing. I feel like I’m in an anonymous group, and that I should have said that in a hushed voice. But, it’s true. I’m one of the few people left in this world who actually loves slab climbing. With the onslaught of huge climbing gyms, massive sport crags, and desperate boulder problems, it seems that slab climbing has become something of the past.
I grew up in a climbing gym with 90% vertical or less than vertical terrain. It was one of the first gyms in the country, and also in an era where most of the climbing in the country barely went past vertical. By default, I learned to stand on my feet well before I learned to climb a roof, and it’s arguable that I still don’t even know how to do that.
I constantly read about the latest V15 or 5.15, and am left speechless and impressed beyond belief. People are pushing the boundaries sooner and further than I ever expected. With fingers of steel and arm power to burn, people are climbing up improbable routes. Unfortunately, it’s rare to hear of the latest and greatest being on a slab. It seems that feet have merely become third and fourth hands clenching on to steep terrain.
I’ve been climbing in Yosemite quite a bit in between my travels this spring, and I always come back to my slab circuits as some of my favorite climbing days. A few days ago I returned with a friend to do a big 30 boulder problem slab circuit (“big” is relative when Alex and Tommy just did the Triple link up). My triceps are still sore, but my smile hasn’t faded. Most of the terrain we covered was moderate, leaving much of the climbing time available for chatter and laughter. But, there are numerous slabs around the Valley that can challenge even the best technical masters.
I got my first dose of difficult Yosemite Slab climbing on Lurking Fear (5.13). I was barely out of high school and climbing El Cap was the only thing on my mind. Knowing I was several years away from attempting to free climb the Nose, I teamed up with Tommy Caldwell to try and free climb the slabilicious route on the left side of El Cap. Steve Schneider had freed all but a pitch or two of Lurking Fear a few years before, leading the way for us psyched kids to get lucky and free climb a new route. Tommy is the modern technical master of Yosemite granite. From offwidths to finger cracks to slabs, if it is possible to free climb, he’ll find a way. Lurking Fear’s cruxes are slabby, edging nightmares. Dime sized finger nail crimps spatter the wall, leaving a head scratching puzzle to solve. I watched Tommy delicately balance from crimp to crimp, his body pressed so close to the wall that his cheeks became pink from grazing the granite. I watched and learned how to trust my feet on improbable edges and conserve as much skin and energy on the barely visible hand holds. Eventually after a month of work, our slab climbing technique became refined enough and we free climbed a new route on El Cap.
Ever since Lurking Fear, I’ve gravitated towards routes with slabs, and shied away from offwidths or overhanging routes. Throughout Yosemite, there are reminders of pioneers that came before the current generation. The legendary Ron Kauk established many of the hardest technical masterpieces throughout the Valley. Last fall I was fortunate enough to be able to repeat the Kauk Slab in Camp 4. You can read a little about my ascent on my blog and watch the video.
If you love slab climbing, or even have the slightest interest in slab climbing, I encourage you to go out and give it a try. There’s something to be said for the intricate nature of the climbing. Subtle movement, finding balance over the footholds, and working your way delicately up a face. Here are some tips to help you stay psyched on slab climbing and some reasons to love slab climbing!
- Practice just standing on two footholds on a slab. Find the balance between the two holds. Rock back and forth on your feet, transferring your weight from one foot to the other. This will teach you where to aim with each foot movement.
- Keep your hips away from the wall. You want to put as much downward pressure on your feet as possible, keeping your balance over the powerpoint of your toes.
- Use your hands as balance points, don’t try and “pull down” on the slab. If you try and pull from hold to hold, it will impact the balance you have found on your feet, that’s where you want to stay.
Reasons to love slab climbing:
- You can slab climb when your tips are trashed from the “real” climbing you’ve done the day before
- If you want to climb anything in Yosemite, chances are there is going to be some slab climbing involved.
- You can carry on a conversation with your friends while slab climbing! No ab muscles required (unlike that silly roof climbing), so you can laugh and climb at the same time!
- You can cover tons of terrain without wearing out your arms: peaks, domes, and walls!