I'll just say it: The only way to improve at climbing is to hone your footwork. All the campusing, manual reading, dieting, periodization, system boarding, hangboarding, stretching, mental gymnastics, colonics, cross-training, yoga, animal sacrifice, visualization, endurance laps, juggling of flaming clubs, tea-leaf readings, Santeria, and so on will come to naught if you have crap footwork. If you can’t attach your feet to the rock and push off them to make the next reach, you will never, ever improve at rock climbing. Bottom line. Ask any A-lister or just watch them climb: Sure, they’re as strong as oxen, but the main piston driving their send Hemi is the feet, which inform the core, which informs technique. Boom: harder climbing in a nutshell. Thank you: That will be $500.
This is why I was so elated, while on a recent visit to the New Age mecca Sedona, Arizona, to encounter a “footwork guru”: one Dr. Sole, who’d opened a “footwork ashram and toe-focused energy retreat” in late 2004. As we sat on his sunny, tapestry-strewn floor, he related how he’d turned “wasted years of being that hyper-ripped specimen who, for no reason other than sloppy, inefficient footwork, can’t seem to progress beyond 5.10” into the cultivation of master-class toe dancing. Sole had had an epiphany in 2001 on a ball-bearing slab near town. As he slid down the red rock yet again, leaving dueling skid marks, a voice emerged from a celestial energy vortex: “Keep your feet on,” the voice commanded. “Keep your damn feet on, you idiot.”
Sole picks up the story: “As I hung there, studying the pocked, ragged concavities and delaminating rubber along my soles, having sewing-machined off yet again, a little lightbulb popped: Yes, why not keep my feet on? Instead of doing my standard pull-up-and-paddle-foot, why not point my big toe with stern, careful pressure and come into balance over my hips before making the next reach? The solution, perhaps, had been before me all along, but was such a thing—so perfect in its simplicity— actually possible?”
Shortly thereafter, with nary a word to partners or family, the climber traveled to India, returning a few years later with nimble, Nureyevian footwork, a blossoming 5.13 résumé, and a new nickname: Swami EdgeSmearHeelHookananda (American translation: “Dr. Sole”). Sole had gleaned the mystical secrets of the East and applied them to climbing. In the seminars and publications he soon initiated, he codified five principal tenets of good footwork. Below, he shares his teachings. May they likewise guide your quest. Namaste.
Dr. Sole’s Five Tenets of Good Footwork
1. Place your big toe with precision
It is a Hindu custom to bathe in the sacred Ganges, and also to meditate on the corpses brought to riverside cremation ghats to be blessed before immolation. This opens our eyes to mortality. One day at the Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi, I slipped on a staircase down to the waters. The mourners, distracted, laughed uproariously and hooted things like “leadfoot Western loser!” and, “Careful—you’ll fall into the river and die!” Then one kind, white-bearded sage came over to whisper, “All motion comes from the big toe.” There it was: the secret. Your big toe is your footwork anchor, the strongest cog in the forefoot machine, the point from which to initiate each foot placement. So, dear disciples, we must settle the big toe slowly, silently, deliberately, tweaking our ankle’s lateral angle for optimum purchase—it’s a big-toe asana. If you’re edging, turn your hip out and press toe meat flush to the wall; if you’re smearing, bend the Big Pig and press perpendicular to the rock—this telegraphs intent and “grab angle” to the subordinate piggie-schwanandas.
2. If you can see it, you can stand on it
If you have time to holler, “There’s no way I can use this foothold!” then you also have time to test its friction point. That is, if you can see a foot “hold” or even just “place,” then you can stand on it—and the sooner the better. Dithering only tires your toes—it’s the old “more than three shakes at the urinal” thing.
I learned this by watching the monkeys at Hampi. From afar, they seemed to be kicking into the varnished boulders like mountaineers into snow: an impossibility! But up close, I saw the method: These surefooted simians would spot some nipple or declivity and toe onto it posthaste, as if it were the comfiest foot ledge. On blank passages, they’d walk their feet up and smear, opposing their hands, until they found a better, higher foothold. Astral, man!
3. Use both feet... Always
One day, I meditated at an ashram in Goa, part of a yearlong retreat there under my guru, Swami KinestheticAwarenessWandananda. As I stood afterward to fetch master some chai, I took a step with my dominant, right leg (which had fallen asleep) and promptly collapsed. “Inept clod!” and “doddering fool!” chided my fellow students, momentarily interrupting their blissful non-thinking. “Clown!” “Stumblebum!” “Wanker!” I chuckled right with them (those comedians!) as I pushed up off the floor, but as my right leg remained half-asleep, I had to use my left leg like a rudder, posting it behind me to stand. Voila! A great truth revealed: Both feet should always do something, even if that means the “unengaged” foot just smears, posts up below you to extend your reach, or fl ags in the air to steady your balance point.
Think about it: You’ll always have an “active foot,” the one the bulk of your weight comes onto while you reach, and an “inactive foot,” which assumes secondary duties. But the inactive foot should be given equal, well, footing. Look down at it, consider where and how you’ll place it, and act accordingly. Don’t let it wither on the jub-jub vine.
4. Use your entire shoe
“Do not eat only the sweet inner flesh of the apple,” my guru once told me, slapping an apple out of my hands as I brought it to my mouth (what a crack-up!). “But also savor the skin, stem, and seeds.” So it should also be with your foot and the climbing shoe. Any part of your shoe—heel, top of the toe box, rands—can adhere to stone. Creative footwork (sneaky reverse heel-toes, upside-down toe scums, upper-rand smarms, you name it) is often rewarded in unexpected ways! And should your compatriots rib you for “jessery,” remember that style matters wayyy less than success.
5. Push with your feet as hard as you can
One night in Bengal, our Land Rover got stuck on a muddy jungle track en route to an abandoned temple. I jumped out to help Arun, our driver, as crashing noises came from the mangroves. We had to get going, and fast! “I only have one hand on the bumper!” I told Arun as he leapt back into the driver’s seat, preparing to accelerate. “I’m not sure I have the best purchase.”
“Moron-Sahib,” he said (always a kidder, that Arun!), “it doesn’t matter. Just push as hard as you can before the tigers kill us!” And so I did, and so it was that we were back on the road just as six pairs of yellow eyes emerged from the understory. Rowrrr! A final and most important lesson had been learned: Your leg muscles are your body’s strongest and most resistant to tiring. Thus, even if your foot is on a poor hold, press as firmly as possible—this takes the most weight off your arms, which are weak, spindly things by comparison. And, as in all things in life, if you have even modest purchase, push for all you are worth.
Top Five Signs of Crap Footwork
Every route you’ve climbed is permanently scored with ugly swaths of (your) sticky rubber.
You clomp so vigorously against the gym’s hollowbacked walls that it sets up a frequency vibration that ruptures other climbers’ eardrums. You’ll notice this by the egg-yellow fluid trickling from their ears.
Your local resoler locks the door and puts out the “Closed” sign when he sees you coming… for the fourth time that month, for the same pair of shoes.
A shoe company names a model for you—“The Stampede”—comprising Kevlar uppers, steel-shank midsoles, Teflon laces, chain-mail toe cap and heel cup, and 17mm soles. It comes up to mid-calf like a combat boot, for “all-day support.”
You climb just as hard in flip-flops as you do in rock shoes.
"Fat Cement” has the best footwork ever—it’s the only thing that gloms his thick, aging bulk to the wall.