Whispers of Wisdom
Nothing is more frustrating than falling because your foot slipped. It’s not frustrating because you passed the crux, were still fresh, or had just one move to finish your project. No, it’s frustrating because it’s preventable.
I started climbing in 1998 and, before long, climbed five days a week. My first coach was Andrew Wallach, a local strongman and the head routesetter at Vertex Climbing Center, in Santa Rosa, California. Whether Wallach’s Silent Feet drill was simply a new way to torture “Team Vertex” is debatable. What’s not, however, were the results. As a young competition climber, I learned to pare away slop and inefficiency.
Wallach’s exercise was simple: if your foot squeaked or smedged audibly when you placed it, punishment ensued — for me, this was a 200-foot gym traverse. Choose your own torture, but the key is to have someone nearby call you out. (Thanks to hollow indoor-climbing surfaces, making this call should be easy. And if you’re climbing outside and clomping like Lord of the Dance, this drill is for you.)
As your main points of weighted contact, your feet matter. Placing them silently forces you to be deliberate and aware with your choice, placement, and movement onto and off each foothold. Here’s how:
First, let this key principle marinate: climbing shoes are designed to focus power into your big toe, making it the main fulcrum around which your body rotates. The strongest part of your forefoot, your big toe sticks out the farthest (usually), forcing the other piggies to follow its lead: whether smearing, edging, or bearing down on an overhang, it’s the action point for translating tension through your core. Thus, if you don’t stand (and rotate) over your big toe, your shoe will either pivot you off like a dreidel spun on its side or force you to reset your foot, increasing fatigue while you dither.
This is the simplest, most stable position. Point your foot into the wall and place your big toe directly on the hold (left foot in photo below), resulting in a squared-off stance. You can also use a frontstep in conjunction with a backstep to increase stability, also pictured below.
The instep uses your shoe’s inside edge, still standing directly on your big toe. The resulting position — if instepping with both feet — is the “frogleg”; it’s crucial to highstepping, as with this slab move on the Bishop highball Footprints (right).
Learning to backstep (drop-knee) is quite possibly the most important technique for overhanging rock. Like a row of dominoes, it creates a “wave of extension” that lengthens your body: the pivoting of your toe into a backstep drops your knee, which in turn elevates your hips, driving movement upward. The backstep, or outside edge of the shoe, is also often used when stepping through. This move on Bishop’s Secrets of the Beehive (right) requires a classic backstep.
Learning to use and place your big toe effectively and precisely is the goal. Here, three Silent Feet drills to hone your skills:
- Team up. If your feet make a sound, you must repeat the boulder problem or route. Don’t move on (or let your buddy move on) until you feel you’ve climbed as cleanly as possible. Never settle for slop.
- Extend a strip of electrical or painter’s tape laterally across the bottom of your shoe, from just under your big toe to the pinky toe. If you step anywhere other than your big toe, you’ll quickly feel a difference in friction and have to make the necessary adjustment.
- Do different moves — such as reversible drop-knees during a traverse — off the same set/s of footholds. This will test your foot placements as you pivot between body positions. If you’re using your big toes correctly, you should have no problem keeping your feet on.