Free climbing

The idea behind free climbing is a pure connection between human movement and unchanging terrain. In free climbing only natural terrain formations are used for upward progress; anchoring to terrain using technical devices to facilitate upward progress against gravity is not permitted. Only in snow, ice, and mixed climbing are ice axes and crampons acceptable. Otherwise, other technical devices placed in the terrain can be used only for protection against falls. Naturally, hands and feet are used the most for climbing. Places in the rock which offer support for the hands are called handholds, while those for the feet are called footholds. And yet we climb with our entire bodies, and for this reason the knees, elbows, torso, and the back in particular can be implemented in climbing in certain situations. In exceptionally desperate situations even the head, chin, and rear end can be applied as well, but if this is done often, it is presenting symptoms that something is not right; that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel, so to speak. Over the long term we can achieve nothing with this except an unfortunate demise. Handholds are formations in the rock which provide an underpinning for the hands. They can take the form of protrusions, depressions, or cracks. Footholds are formations for the foots.

Handholds

Footholds

Movements when free climbing a rock

There is a range of criteria by which handholds can be classified into several groups, either according to shape, size, or method of gripping. Here, however, we must emphasise one unusual criterion, which is whether the handhold “takes” or “doesn’t take”. This means whether it offers quality support for our intended progress in the terrain. Intuitively a person would expect that a large handhold would always be better than a smaller one. And yet this need not always be the case. One must not forget that the entire person is climbing, who at the moment of gripping a handhold is always in a particular position with a particular amount of gravitational force on her body, pulling her downward. The advantage of a handhold is therefore measured by how well it helps us pull ourselves upward and overcome our existing gravitational position. Finding a good handhold, one which “takes”, is not a matter only of the hands but of the entire body.

While climbing creates the impression that gripping with the hands is the most important, the opposite is actually the case. Footwork is the key to easy climbing. During normal, natural walking on the ground the burden of the body rests on the legs (which are therefore several times stronger than the hands). If we transfer this natural principle to rock climbing, we are on the path to success. We cannot, however, stand on the rock as we need to, and therefore we do not have unlimited level ground at our disposal. On the contrary, we are restricted to using isolated footholds. As the human legs are in essence an arch that bears the body, it is practical to create this arch when climbing as well.

Stemming the legs increases the stability of the position – incorrectly on the left, correctly on the right.

Stemming the legs increases the stability of the position – incorrectly on the left, correctly on the right.

There is a familiar mountaineering adage: “When in doubt, stem.” The legs are spread to the sides, and thereby create an arch out of the legs. It is necessary to assume this position in those footholds which best afford us an effect of the balancing stability we have in a normal standing position. Even if the position of the body when climbing is often a departure from its normal posture, it can still be governed by natural rules of movement.

Video: Primarily in inside corners and in depressions we can achieve wonders using stemming. Is the inside corner closed above us by an overhang? No problem. Using stemming we can bypass the overhang entirely, simply ignore it. At the same time, climbing is less demanding physically; most of the work falls to the legs, where we have stronger muscles, and the hands are not needlessly tired.

The proper climber climbs first with his eyes. That means that he first examines the rock above him thoroughly and contemplates his next progress. This places significant demands on the imagination, which is a characteristic that cannot go lacking from mountaineering.

When climbing we do not pointlessly press ourselves into the rock with a forward bend, nor is it wise to constantly hyperextend the arms when gripping holds. It is good to work at eye level with the hands, and to hold the torso and legs with a vertical side profile, such as to place the centre of balance above the legs and for footholds to be fully weighted.

Maintaining centre of balance when climbing - incorrectly on the left, correctly on the right.

Maintaining centre of balance when climbing – incorrectly on the left, correctly on the right.

Since a climber has four limbs, she can achieve greatest stability during the climb by keeping three limbs in contact with the rock while the fourth, free limb advances upward progress. This is called the “three points of contact rule”. Sometimes, however, the distribution of handholds and footholds on the rock is so unfavourable that we have to abandon certain points of contact with the rock and have only two firm points of contact, in extreme situations only one. If contact with the rock endangers our stable position, we refer to so-called static climbing. Its opposite is dynamic climbing, during which the climber executes a jump, an abrupt movement which is intended to carry her to the next handhold or foothold. In any case, if we wish to execute a dynamic movement, it must be performed from a static position in order for us to be at all capable of launching ourselves. While even in the course of a dynamic jump there can be a certain amount of contact with the rock, it is not contact which would hold us on the rock. In the event that a dynamic movement during climbing is not successful, a fall will immediately follow. For this reason dynamic climbing is primarily the domain of experienced climbers.

Cracks and chimneys

Crack climbing is very gruelling, and climbers who manage it justifiably win great respect. At the same time, crack climbers always tell us that there’s nothing hard about it. It only requires great strength, proper technique, and a disregard for pain. It is indeed no wonder that in these soft times there are not many crack climbers.

Narrow cracks and mostly narrow corner cracks can be climbed well using a technique called the “lieback” technique (in German this climbing technique is called the Piazgriff, after the Italia climber Tita Piaz, who in his time accomplished very complex ascents using the lieback technique). The essence of this technique is pulling with the hands while simultaneously standing in the opposite direction with the legs. If there are no available smearing footholds in the vicinity of a crack and we cannot execute a lieback, then we ca climb cracks by jamming fingers, our entire hands, and our feet into the cracks.

Lieback climbing – pulling with hands, pressing with feet.

Lieback climbing – pulling with hands, pressing with feet.

Once a crack is wide enough that the entire torso can be slid inside, then we have what is called a chimney. A chimney at chest width may not be very pleasant for climbing, recalling the movements of an inchworm, but it is relatively easy, because many muscles of the body can contribute to jamming and we are thereby climbing with counterforce. From here we get the saying: “You can’t fall out of a chimney.” Wider chimneys can be climbed in such a manner that the climber rests his back against one of the interior walls of the chimney and his soles against the opposite wall. Seldom is a chimney smooth and perfectly vertical, and for this reason we have to respond to the grade of the interior walls of the chimneys. Even so, a slightly overhanging or craggy wall can greatly complicate movement by causing you to lean back. An old bit of wisdom states that “you have to keep turning in a chimney”, and therefore if the slant of the wall obstructs a decent lean back, one possible solution is to turn using stemming and rest your back against the wall where you had previously rested your legs.

Climbing chimneys of various widths

Climbing chimneys of various widths

The widest chimneys still climbable with the stemming technique can be climbed using counterforce either between the right and left limbs or between the hands and the feet. In such situations searching for and taking advantage of handholds and footholds along the interior walls of the chimney can make climbing easier; in this way the creation of counterforce is easier.

Body position when climbing

Climbing is a very diverse moving activity, therefore there are an unlimited number of positions we can get into. Nonetheless, several of them have earned established names. The following figures depict some of these.

Drop knee – a position appropriate for resting, in principle it is the exertion of counterforce with a rotated torso.

Drop knee – a position appropriate for resting, in principle it is the exertion of counterforce with a rotated torso.

Frog position – this position improves the gripping of handholds which are not to far above the footholds.

Frog position – this position improves the gripping of handholds which are not to far above the footholds.

Figure four – equilibrium movement only for the skilled, most often carried out under overhangs, a solution for a missing foothold.

Figure four – equilibrium movement only for the skilled, most often carried out under overhangs, a solution for a missing foothold.

Straddle – suitable position for progress along the crest of a ridge.

Straddle – suitable position for progress along the crest of a ridge.

Nowadays the excess of material equipment creates the impression that it is an essential condition for the success of a mountaineering ascent. That is, of course, a mistake: it’s not the gear that climbs, it’s the climber. No gear will pull us anywhere. On the contrary, you have to haul the gear up. The most important thing is climbing movement. It can be seen in the example of the old-time mountaineers that gear is not decisive for upward progress. Even though they had plain equipment, they climbed audacious ascents. They did not need to have “bolt ladders” drilled into the rock. Their best protection was their skill.

Over-fall and over-jump

Special manoeuvres which are a part of climbing movements are the over-fall and the over-jump. They involve reaching places in cliff terrain that are beyond reach, and we must therefore literally fly through the air. In the case of over-fall only with hands, in the case of over-jump the entire body of the climber flies through the air.

Video: Over-fall from one cliff to another. Once again it is essential to prepare the necessary length of rope, which trails behind us. Before the over-fall and during movement, concentrate on the place where the hands will fall. After the fall is complete, do not perform any sudden movements, and do not forget about your legs. You will hold only in cooperation between your arms and legs; you must create an arch with your body, and hold here. Only once you settle down can you begin to climb as usual, i.e. finding handholds with your hands, and pulling your legs to the destination rock massif.

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Title Part 1Mountaineering Methodology – Part 1 – Basics

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MMPublishing, 2013

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Title Part 1 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 1 – Basics

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MMPublishing, 2013

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