Learn to Master Roof Climbing

Mitigate fear and pull roofs like a pro

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Justin Venezia tests his roof skills on Elder Cleavage Direct (5.10b), Gunks. Photo: Chris Vultaggio

Horizontal roofs, super steeps, and overhangs are among the most intimidating features in climbing. A ticking pump clock, acrobatic moves, and increased exposure make this type of terrain feel imposing. Climbers either love or hate routes like Yosemite’s Separate Reality, Kachoong on Australia’s Mount Arapiles, the Zombie Roof in Squamish, and nearly anything in the Gunks. Prepare for horizontal movement with the following tips and advice gained from more than a decade of experience on Gunks roofs from 5.3 to 5.12.

Leaving the Ground

Before pulling onto the rock, have a plan established with your belayer in case communication becomes difficult. Ambient noise and fear can limit the follower’s hearing, and even in close proximity, the angle of rock can prevent any verbal contact whatsoever. A few things to discuss: soft catches, a belay-signal system (rope tugs, walkie talkies, etc.), where falls are likely to occur, and what to do if the second falls and can’t get back on (does he have the proper gear to ascend the rope?).

Arriving at the roof

Climb to the roof and arrive as fresh as possible. Scope the line for places to recover before the roof and milk rests along the way. Consider climbing up, placing gear in or near the roof, then downclimbing to a rest position so you can relax and plan your attack.

Take in as much as you can from below the feature. If possible, do some physical recon. Find the good holds, or look for clues like chalk and shoe rubber. Keep in mind that holds look different from below. Chalk-caked holds may be poor, and an unmarked crimp could be a better option. Underclings and pinches can be harder to see. Look for shelves or horizontal breaks that provide a heel hook, kneebar, or heel-toe cam. If the roof is a body length or longer, look for toeholds; a torqued foot can grab a jug rail, or a nub could be the key to pushing the body along.

Many climbers panic beneath roofs because the climbing above contains cryptic moves. Calm your mind and body with focused breathing. If you’ve found a good rest stance, take 10 solid breaths (aim for a 3–4 count on both the inhale and the exhale), and hold the last one for a few extra seconds. Exhale and fire.

Gearing up

Overhangs take special consideration in terms of falls and gear placements. When placing gear under a roof, extend your slings. This reduces rope drag, and using long runners limits outward-pull forces. Setting multi-directional pro (cams) below roofs, instead of pro that protects a single direction (nuts), also reduces the risk of zippering. Consider the landing zone and clip gear short if there are ledges/ramps/trees/crag dogs below. If hitting the roof lip is a possibility, remind the belayer to give a soft catch. Furthermore, consider what will happen if the leader falls and she needs to self-rescue (see following page for rope-ascending techniques).

Climbing through it

As the terrain turns horizontal, more of your weight falls on your arms, and the fight to hold on begins. Pure core strength helps, but finesse helps even more. Look for heel hooks, toe hooks, kneebars, and shoulder or hip scums—anything to get weight off your arms. Roll the hips from side to side to reset your feet, or crouch like a frog to keep your center of gravity close to your lower body.

Steeper terrain requires effort to keep the feet in place. Engage your core and hips. Imagine a button on the foothold and push it as hard as you can. Remember that when you lose a foot, the body will soon follow. While working the legs, contract the central muscles in the body: abdominals, obliques, and lower-back muscles. Strong muscle engagement means stability, which helps with movement. This takes conscious effort. Clench those abdominals and keep your back muscles and butt tight.

While the lower body focuses on stabilizing and advancing, the upper body keeps the torso afloat. Think of your core and legs as the engine and your arms as the steering wheel; the former should offer power and propulsion while the latter offers direction. If holds get bad (slopers, crimps, pinches), stop hanging on your arms and pull in tight for a lockoff while you reposition your feet. Having bent arms will engage your entire upper body, which will in turn make it easier to engage your core. Keep in mind, though, that this lockoff position will burn your forearms out quickly.

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Resting in the steep

This involves at least some muscle activation to keep you from oozing off the roof. One option is to trade legs for arms. Dig in hard with heel hooks and heel-toe cams, or press hard with a kneebar, sacrificing leg power to stabilize the body. While the legs work, let your arms sag. It’s better to go straight-armed off jugs, solid jams, and pockets, resting on your skeleton.

Bat hangs also offer solid passive rest, but require a large flat or incut hold on or in which to bury your toes. Once the toes are set, work into an upside-down hand-foot match, then unfold the core and spine. Flex the feet to keep them in place by activating the calf muscles and heel. Be aware of fall consequences since it would likely be a head-first whip. Don’t do this over large ledges or slabs. Practice this advanced technique (try it on monkeybars over sand or pads with a competent spotter) before trying it on your project.

Remember to control your breathing and keep the oxygen coming. Stay calm and focus on lowering your heart rate.

Turning the lip

You pull over the edge of the roof and latch a hold. Now what? The options depend on what the route gives you.

  1. Heel hook by cutting one leg and putting your heel above hip level, then using it to pull your body higher. Typically, the closer to your body you place the heel, the easier it’ll be to crank over it. Dig into the heel and engage the hip flexors, and focus on using it to pull yourself up.
  2. Cut both feet, hang from your arms, and campus, beasting through with just your upper body. As you pull between the holds with no feet, maximize reach by pulling and then pressing with your engaged hand.
  3. Pull your lower body over the lip with bent legs, lowering your center of gravity. This beached-whale approach, used more to pull on top of boulders or from under an overhang onto a low-angle slab, relies on purchase between your body and the rock.
  4. If you hit bomber holds above the roof, the quickest way may be to cut your feet loose and let gravity reposition your body. Then lock off and swing your feet onto the face, grabbing whatever you can to establish your position.
  5. If things are dire—think bad holds or decent holds at full extension—continue the finesse and gentle body English to stay on the wall. As you pull over, consider pressing your upper body into the wall to stay balanced and take weight off your strained hands. Good footwork is critical—now’s when you’ll need to use those feet you scoped earlier.
  6. Whatever your move, do it fast and with commitment. Even if you botch the sequence, stick with your plan of attack; reshuffling your body while dangling tends to be harder than pushing through once you’ve committed to moving. Chances are a rest is coming, so fight to hang on through the exposure.

Keeping the follower in check

Consider the second as you climb by placing a piece above the crux or just above the lip with a long runner to provide an emergency handhold. This will minimize self-rescue epics. The second can pull the gear as she climbs, leaving it clipped to the rope while cleaning, then reracking later to save energy. Have the second wait until the piece is near her waist to clean it. This will shorten any potential falls. The leader should place enough gear that if the second falls, she won’t be swinging in space, unable to reach the rock. If falling is imminent, have her grab a piece or quickdraw so you can take in slack. If she wants to rest, have her clip into the piece directly.

Another good tactic is to slingshot the belay so you are right at the lip when your second pulls over. In heady roof situations, build an anchor up high, then clip in direct with the lead line, leaving enough slack to lower yourself down to the roof. Before leaving the anchor, pull up the slack in the second’s end, and set it through the master point as a redirect. Once the redirect is set, tension down by using the second as a counterweight through the belay device. Now in position, build a small secondary anchor and go in direct to it, shortening your connection to the primary (upper) anchor with a clove hitch if needed. Chances are it will be a hanging belay. Keep the rope clear of your second as she makes her way up.

Finally, if the second falls and is unable to reach the wall, be prepared to rescue. Fix the lead end of the rope to the anchor and lower the remaining cord. If it’s long enough and your second has enough gas, she can pull up on the fixed rope, unweighting her end of the rope as you pull in the slack. Another option is boinking: Have the second grab the rope and do a quick pull-up while you take in slack quickly. Lastly, the follower can “walk the rope,” wherein she uses her feet and core strength to stand on the rope and reach up. (See a tutorial: Walking the Rope.) Both boinking and walking the rope are common practices in bolted sport climbing, but they can jostle gear placements, causing them to walk out. Prusiking tends to be the safest and most effective way to ascend out of trouble. Before leaving the belay, make sure the second has the ability to prusik. Lock off the rope as she ascends. An assisted-braking belay device will make this easier.

Chris Vultaggio is a Gunks-based professional photographer who delights in torturing his climbing partners with overhangs and full-value climbing.

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