Rock Climbing Basics for Beginners–And Those Simply in Awe of it

El Capitan
El Capitan

The National Geographic film Free Solo is getting people excited. The film is a visual documentation of rock climber Alex Honnold’s ascent of the famous El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and the person behind the incredible climber. Thirty-three year old Alex Honnold is known for his daring sans-rope ascents. Recently, he climbed the seven hundred foot building the Urby in New Jersey. You might never aspire to those physical heights, but knowing the basics can enrich your experience–whether you are partaking or spectating.

No matter how hard it looks to climb to such heights, the goal of climbing isn’t to work hard–it’s to work efficiently. In order to do that, proper technique is essential. And proper climbing technique starts from the ground up.

Many new climbers approach the wall with a desire to get to the top by any means possible. They rely on their arms as the main source of their strength, using their feet primarily for stability. While it’s true that climbing depends on hand strength, good climbing also comes from good footwork. The lower part of the body is inherently stronger than the upper body. Our legs have bigger muscles than our arms, and the core generates more power from this area.

Good Feet spoke to Andrew, a Portland, Oregon based climbing instructor who helps his new students with a simple tip: He asks them to try to place a specific part of their foot on a specific part of the hold (the shaped grip on climbing walls). He says that “placing as concentrated amount of force as you can helps build footwork skills and strength.”

Climbers learn two essential footwork techniques that serve as the foundation for many other movements, which climbers facing every wall from the gym to El Capitan must execute: edging and smearing. Edging refers to the action of standing on the edge of a rock using the tip and inside edge of the big toe. Edging is particularly important because much footwork depends on the big toe. It is easier to pivot on a toe than on the ball of the foot, which takes up more space and lacks flexibility. Smearing means to put the foot flat against the rock or wall and pressing into it, relying on the friction of the rubber sole of the shoe to stick.

Climbing shoes are another part of the footwork equation. It’s recommended that beginners wear looser, stiffer shoes as they get a feel for the wall. As skill increases, shoe tightness does, too. Experienced climbers may wear climbing shoes that are much smaller than their regular shoes. These shoes will bend the foot and create a downturn, which helps them stand on tiny edges the width of a coin. The climbing shoes that Alex Honnold wore during Free Solo had to be comfortable enough to wear for the entire day but also tight enough to make it possible to balance on the tiny edges of El Capitan.

If you’re looking to take the skyward plunge into rock climbing, head to your local gym for some hands-on instruction and the opportunity to experience a little slice of ascension. Having an experienced coach is invaluable–until you’re at Alex Honnold’s level, of course. Then it’s a different story. And maybe a movie. Climb on!

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