Tech Tips: Technique - The Heel-Toe Cam

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Illustration by Jamie Givens

Illustration by Jamie Givens

You've dogged your last project for the last three weeks. You’ve got the moves, but each time you get into the steep finale, the pump forces you to succumb, and you whip. One member of the peanut gallery below has stated that your Tourette’s cursing is “harshing his mellow,” and your long-suffering belay slave is threatening to bail. Now what?

Now, my friend, is the time to heel-toe cam. “Do what?” you ask. Look for spots where you can weight your heel and cam your toe against the rock. Thus anchored, you can lever your hips toward the wall and reduce the weight on your arms.

I first witnessed the full potential of heel-toe camming in the early 2000s while bouldering on mondo overhangs with my southern brethren. I watched in awe as they used their feet to hook, cam, torque, and rest on the steeps. But they also showed me how to use the technique on gentler angles, and in many situations other than monster rails, horizontal cracks, and 90-degree roofs.

Still skeptical? Take it from the footwork master Alex Honnold: “When you heel hook, you can only push down with your heel, but when you heel-toe cam, you can also pull with it, or use it to pull your body into the wall.”

The Basic Heel-Toe This is your building block. To initiate, first jab a heel onto a likely hold, ideally one of at least heel width. The hold needn’t be a bucket or otherwise incut — it can be vertical, horizontal, or slanted, if there’s a feature nearby for the toe cam. Heel now seated, cam your toe in opposition — placing it under a small roof or lip, or smearing against the wall — and arch the foot upward. A weight-shift can often help the heel-toe cam; try flagging and friction-scumming your other foot below, wherever it might land. If done properly, your hips will lock over your heel, bringing upper-body weight onto your foot. Cams help you stabilize and let movement originate from your core.

“Heel-toe cams are the key when climbing slopey or crimpy overhanging terrain,” says southern bouldering powerhouse Anthony Love. They let you “pull harder on terrible holds by pulling your center of gravity farther underneath you.” Honnold agrees. “I turn any heel hook into a heel-toe cam just by fl exing my foot against the wall as hard as I can while heel hooking,” he says. “It‘s all about just flexing your foot hard and hoping that it helps.”

Reverse Heel-Toe A common variation involves stepping the inside leg through and onto a hold, and then squeezing out a reverse heel-toe cam — your pinky toe, rather than your big toe, flush against the wall in opposition to the heel. These cams work great for checking barndoors on traverses or the swing generated by releasing a heel hook with your other leg.

Standing Isn’t Resting If the wall is steep, a big foot ledge does not guarantee a rest. Find a heel-toe cam rather than merely standing. To ingrain this, practice in the gym, in a zone with closely spaced holds: heel-toe cam from the first hold all the way to the last. Using too many heel-toe cams will help you see their value while also teaching the happy medium of most efficient use.

Maintain Opposition The well-executed heel-toe cam can be felt in two ways: (a) your big (or pinky) toe and forefoot are pressing against the wall, and (b) your heel bone is simultaneously pressing down into the rock. The key is to maintain these pressure points for the duration. Sloppage = slippage = pumpage = falling.

Get Moving To move off a heel-toe cam on gently overhanging terrain, simply lever down on the cammed foot and stand, engaging the quad muscles hard. Simultaneously pull out on the handholds, transferring your legs’ push into upward movement toward your target. Tap your non-cammed foot up the wall to add momentum. When I execute this maneuver properly, it scorches my quads, but my arms feel relaxed.

Climbing Contributor Chris Van Leuven was for three years on the dirtbag recovery-wagon (read: he had a full-time job). He’s grateful that the dismal economy threw him off the wagon, allowing him to climb full time again.

THE BETA

Shoes Be Nimble, Limbs Be Quick To get the most from your heel-toe cam, you’ll also want the perfect tools and better body mechanics.

SHOES: I find stiff shoes work best for getting the most leverage out of your fulcrum point. Softer shoes tend to fold, and (especially with slippers) the heel can actually rip off the foot. STRETCHING: Because heel-toe cams elongate your body like The Incredibles’ Elastigirl, stretch the lower back, hips, and calves before going big. TRY THESE:

  • Frog Stretch: Stand on the balls of your feet with a stance slightly wider than shoulder width and squat, keeping your torso upright and rigid.

  • Plié Squat Calf Raises: Use a stationary object to brace. Stand with your toes turned out as far as comfortable. While keeping the heels lifted, do squats.

  • Lower-Back “Roadkill” Stretch: Lying on your back, bring your right leg to a 90-degree angle to the floor in a bent position; now place your left hand on the outer right thigh and pull down left across your trunk. Repeat with the other side.