This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of our print edition.
With a right foot pushing into one wall and a left foot pushing into another, stemming is one of the most natural ways to climb. You can more or less stand straight up on your legs instead of hanging on your arms. It’s most common in dihedrals and chimneys, anywhere you find a corner that’s narrow enough to bridge the gap with your lower body. Stemming can get you past completely blank sections of rock and provide a much-needed rest in a spot where there are no jugs. You might be fingerlocking in a crack in the corner, palming the walls to push your way up, or crimping tiny face holds on the outside, but the key to good stemming technique is all in the feet. It might feel less secure than standard face and crack climbing because you’re relying heavily on friction, but follow this guidance to float even the cleanest corners.
No amount of mono pull-ups or finger strength will help you up a holdless corner. Stemming is all about oppositional force. Both arms and legs should be pressing outward on opposing faces to support your weight. If using face holds or a crack with your hands, maintain three points of contact, using your hands only to hold your body in place while you move your feet up. If you’re palming the wall with your hands, point fingers down or backward, away from the corner. Push hard and shift your weight between your arms to move each foot up. Focus your force into three limbs until you can unweight a hand or foot, raise it up, then repeat. Upward progress will come from your feet, since you are essentially standing on the wall. Concentrate on moving feet first, and only use your arms for balance.
Depending on the shape of the corner, the traditional stemming position (pictured above, facing the corner, with both arms and legs out like an X) may not be the optimal approach. Experiment to find the best body position. Hands can jam a crack, layback a seam, grab a face hold—whatever you can do to stay solid and walk your way up the wall. Sometimes back-stepping on one side to push your hip into the wall will be ideal. In a narrower corner, you may be better off chimneying: pressing your back into one wall with your feet against the other. Between wide walls you might have to employ a bridge technique by placing both hands on one wall and both feet on the other, putting your body almost horizontal across the gap. These sections frequently lack good protection and require a strong head; success depends on maintaining confidence.
Stemming relies on pushing muscles rarely engaged by climbers, specifically the triceps, glutes, calves, and small outer hip muscles. The core is also really important for performing the balance-intensive weight-shifting and high-stepping moves; you need to be able to stay tight from your hand all the way down through your opposing foot. Consider adding some weightlifting exercises that focus on these muscles: dips, pushups, planks, side planks, calf raises, overhead shoulder press. When doing these exercises, concentrate on achieving the slow burn that closely resembles the endurance required for doing these moves for a longer period. Choose a moderate weight and go for high reps or time.
While singular stemming moves might not feel taxing, maintaining oppositional force for a whole pitch will sap your strength fast. Take every opportunity to shake out an arm or a leg. Unlike with face climbing, your forearms won’t limit you in a corner; the pump clock will be counting down on your calves as you smear. Keep your heels as low as possible to maximize friction and minimize calf fatigue. Many positions can be turned into a rest, allowing you to shake out one limb. Any time you find a foot chip or ledge, stand straight down on it to relax your other leg. Even just a second of this will get some much-needed blood flow into your large leg muscles. In some circumstances you may be able to lean a shoulder into the wall, or even your back, for a more secure and less exerting breather. If you find any down-pulling jugs, consider hanging completely on your arms to shake your legs out.
Stylistic Stemming With Jesse Huey
Stemming isn’t about strong biceps, forearms, and fingers of steel; it’s about balance and hip flexibility. I’d argue that stretching or yoga are just as valuable as hangboarding. I was always fairly flexible, but practicing yoga led to huge leaps in my stemming ability.
A hard stemming corner won’t have footholds, so think about where you need one to stay in balance. It’s all about pressure and friction, so ask yourself, “Where do I need to place my foot to stay in balance?” Usually it’s much higher and wider than you want.
Rock always has divots or imperfections. The Teflon Corner on El Cap has a stemming sequence that looks blank. But when you feel the wall, your palms fit into undulations and little imperfections. I spot any divots from below and put chalk on them—and I chalk my palms A LOT!
Resting relies on relaxation and creativity. Fighting my way up a corner seems impossible compared to when I relax and let my body do what it wants to do. Often it takes one attempt to loosen up and find that balance where you are never pushing too hard but trusting the friction. When I’m redlining in my legs, opposing palm holds allow for a millisecond to shake them out.
As a corner gets wider, you need more than a blank wall: a tiny crack or crimp—something! When I freed Moonlight Buttress, I stemmed the crux pitch where most people layback. It drastically took the weight off my fingers and put it on my legs. A narrower corner has more options, like chimneying (with your back against one side). Many stemming corners can be overcome with creative chimneying.
Jesse Huey has been stemming blank corners for 16 years, including freeing El Cap in a day and numerous first ascents all over the world.