I’m actually not a rock climber.
I know, it seems impossible to believe. All this time spent living among you. Going to your gyms. Using your ropes. Listening to your beta. But the fact is, we are from very different worlds. You might rock climb, but as a 6’2″ man with a positive ape index, I engage in Sport Reaching: the art of reaching really high to grab onto stuff.
Sometimes when I’m out for a weekend of reaching, I’ll be reaching my way up some pitch when suddenly I realize with a shock there’s nothing left for me to reach. Where a rock climber might carefully assess their options and maybe move their feet around or some bullshit, I have only one way out. I have to dig real deep, summon all my willpower, and reach just a little higher. Then at the end of the day it’s back to camp with Juan for the evening reacharound.
All joking aside, I think a lot of my early climbing gains were made at least in part due to my height, and done in spite of bad footwork. Footwork is something I’ve tried to focus on strongly this past season at Smith. Whatever progress I’ve made recently, I’m willing to bet most of it is thanks to improvements in this area. I think gym training is a great way to work on both body position and upper body strength, but I definitely feel that footwork is best trained outdoors–and it’s the foundation for all rock climbing technique.
So here are a few thoughts on footwork from this last season, presented in no particular order.
Footwork is as much mental as it is technical. Even on routes I’ve got dialed, if I’m having a mentally off day, the feet seem smaller, greasier, and less trustworthy. As a consequence I’ll tend to bear down on them with less force, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of skating feet, banged knees, and sadness =(.
I think I’ve made my best improvements to my footwork on routes that were well-protected, had great handholds, or were just plain a little easy for me. If the stress is low, it’s easy to focus on the footwork.
Similarly, improving my mental toughness and willingness to take falls has improved my footwork by reducing the frequency at which I experience INSANE GUT-WRENCHING FEAR while on route.
“Climb like you’re short.” This is a mental cue I’ve turned into a mantra–even when I’m able to make big high steps, there are almost always intermediate options, and they often provide an easier or lower energy way to move up. This is easy to do when all the feet seem about the same, but hard when there are a smattering of bomber footholds spread out from one another. Don’t give into the temptation to constantly high step between all the best holds!
Decide where you want your feet, then what you want them on. One of my worst habits is fixating first on a great foothold (“I want to use that.”) and then trying to make my body position conform to that foot (“How can I use that?”). This is wasteful as hell, because when I start looking for a foot, my body position is already set by my hands and other foot, and that posture dictates where my next foot needs to be. If nothing is there, then I should consider using other footholds, but not before. Oftentimes I’m better served by using a marginal foothold in the right place than I would be by a bomber foothold in a really awkward spot.
One exercise I’ve done to try and improve this is carefully observing my gaze as I climb. When I first look down to move one of my feet, typically the first thing I look at is the area where I’d like my foot to be. My view is then drawn to whatever rock features stand out the most, even if they’re a ways off. By forcing myself to consider whether feet in the original area are “good enough” I often make my life much easier.