There is no two ways about it, many people find slab climbing to be one of the most challenging and frustrating forms of climbing. It challenges you in ways many other forms don’t and requires skills that aren’t used elsewhere in rock climbing.
One of the newer forms of climbing, slab climbing also has benefits that are widespread and will help you improve all aspects of your climbing.
To start this article we’ll define slab climbing and why it’s so hard. After that we will dive into tips to improve your climbing on slabs and the benefits of doing so!
What is Slab Climbing?
Slab climbing, or friction climbing, refers to climbing done on surfaces less than 90 degrees and void of cracks. This type of climbing is characterized by moves that require perfect balance and creating friction between you and the rock.
Footing techniques like smearing and edging are vitally important while climbing slabs. Balance and the ability to be comfortable with the smallest handholds is also vital.
Slab climbing really has gained popularity since 1980 when shoe manufacturer Boreal designed the first “sticky rubber” shoe, making friction climbing much more feasible.
Why is Slab Climbing so Hard?
Unlike many forms of climbing, where grip strength and stamina play key roles, slab climbing demands balance, footing, patience and complete concentration. Rather than relying on strong holds and flexibility, you are relying on foot placement, friction, and tiny handholds to keep from slipping.
While overhang and vertical routes often demand dynamic climbing and powerful movement, slab climbing more resembles gliding up a rockface with small, controlled movements.
Slab climbing also tends to be slightly scarier and riskier than many other forms. When you are lead climbing on a slab route you are often far above your protection, making potential falls longer and more risky than traditional sport routes.
Tips for Improving on Slabs
Because slab climbing is fairly unique it presents challenges that are not necessarily things you can practice, or even want to practice, in other styles of climbing. Here are five things to think about when you are approaching your next slab route!
1. Smearing is Vital
Footing is more important that hand placement in slab climbing, and nothing is more important with your footing than good smears. This technique requires you to smear the edge of your foot against the surface of the rock for friction. I like to think of “heels down” when I smear, keeping the weight higher on my foot.
A good smear will allow you to put your weight on the sole of your foot and be anchored there so you can adjust your hand placements or other foot. You rarely have traditional footholds on slabs, so comfort smearing is vital.
2. Maintain Your Center of Gravity
Unlike many types of climbing where you’ll want to keep your hips and butt near the wall, slabs require you to keep your center of gravity over your feet to maintain the pressure that creates friction.
You can think of “hips out” while you are moving up a slab to keep this in mind. I also like to think of leaning into the wall with my chest, which creates the same butt back angle to my body.
3. Thumbs Up
Often, your hands and arms are used more for balance than on actually holds while smearing. In these cases think about keeping your elbows soft, fingers to the sides and thumbs up. Use the tips of your fingers to press into the rock and soft elbows to maintain the perfect balance.
4. Move Confidently
When you smear onto a new foothold move confidently and commit to shifting your balance to that foot. Trust your smear and your balance and go. Often the hardest part of slab climbing is when you stop moving, the longer you stay in one position the less confident you’ll be to shift your weight and start going again.
5. Wear Good Shoes
I have a pair of TC Pros that I use exclusively for slab climbing. They are stiffer than anything else I wear climbing and help ease the pain and discomfort that often comes from standing on small edges for extended periods of time.
If you are new to slab climbing, quit while you are ahead your first few times. Your feet and calves will likely take a beating and be very sore until you get used to the unique style and techniques of friction climbing.
Benefits of Slab Climbing
While slab climbing is undeniably difficult, there are some benefits that come from it as well. Instead of avoiding the challenges of slab climbing, embrace the benefits you’ll get from it? What benefits? Glad you asked!
When slab climbing you simply MUST focus on technique, balance and footwork. In many forms of climbing you can muscle your way through a difficult spot or use power or some dynamic move to get to the next hold.
The static style of climbing that friction walls force on you make you focus more on how you are moving. Every hand and foot placement must be precise and planned out before starting to move.
While this concentration doesn’t always need to be applied to other types of climbing, the ability and comfort doing it will make you a better overall climber.
Move Outside Your Comfort Zone
If you don’t like slab climbing you probably avoid it. As humans we are programmed to stick to things we are good at, those are the things we like. Most of us got into climbing because we enjoy the challenge and being pushed. Why would we then only stick to the forms of climbing that suit us?
Challenging yourself to improve slab climbing (or really any form of climbing you’re not good at) pushes your comfort zone and makes you a better climber. Heck, it makes you a better person.
When I started climbing I pretty much avoided slabs. I got stuck at a 5.9 and just couldn’t get past it. Out of frustration for the sticking point I had found I started doing some “easy” slab climbs with friends.
Not only did I see the beginner gains we all love when trying a new skill, I started to see the improvement in my bouldering and big wall climbs as well. Soon 5.9’s were a thing of the past!
The Last Pitch
Slab climbing is a unique type of climbing that requires technique, balance and footwork. Although the grade may seem modest, it’s all in the details. In order to excel at slab climbing you need to focus on technique, balance and footwork.
The concentration that comes from using friction walls forces you into a unique physical movement where hand and foot placements must be exact and planned out before moving onto the next foothold. With practice comes improvement, which eventually helps with other forms of climbing as well!
Growing up in Fresno, CA, Yosemite has always called to Robert. From camping trips as a kid, he quickly became a regular to the parks granite walls.
His favorite, and most difficult climb to date is Serenity Crack at the Royal Arches in Yosemite, rated a 5.10d. Robby spends most of his time bouldering these days, and loves the Camp 4 Boulder area.