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Laybacks combine difficult aspects of several climbing styles into a challenging mélange of movement. Technically, laybacks are a type of crack climbing, but they also include the smeary feet of a slab route, the pump factor of an overhanging sport climb, the oppositional pull and push forces of a techy face section, and the finicky gear placements of an R-rated trad line. This tricky hybrid is most useful on flakes and in corners where straight-in jamming isn’t an option, but newbie crack climbers have also been known to employ it on cracks before they’ve mastered the elusive foot- and hand-jamming skills. We’ve gathered experience-driven tips and tricks to create a foolproof recipe for success on pumpy layback pitches.
Corners and flakes are the features on which laybacking most often comes in handy. The former, dihedrals with a crack in the middle, where the angle or crack size prohibits straight-in jamming. The latter is a large feature that overlaps a face, leaving space to fit your fingers between the flake and the wall. Laybacks work because of the opposition of push and pull forces: Smear your feet against the face to push your body out, while pulling with your hands in the crack to keep your body in.
Place your hands in the crack in a sidepull position (usually top hand thumb-down, bottom hand thumb-up), keeping them at a comfortable height to maximize pulling force. This will usually be from about chest height to slightly above your head. Walk your feet up so that you can push your butt out, and in turn, pull against the rock with your hands. Move both hands up by shuffling them (keep the same one on top, don’t alternate the high hand), and then walk both feet up. Some sections might warrant hand-foot, hand-foot, but the hand-hand, foot-foot method is more secure and efficient.
You’re relying on your forearms and biceps. Even if you can straighten your arms to utilize your skeleton, you still need some finger strength to grip the rock like a sidepull. Keep your arms and hands as relaxed as possible, taking care not to over-grip the rock. Training on long, pumpy sport climbs at the gym provides good conditioning for laybacks.
The scrunched position engages your core, legs, and arms, so look for rests before and after the layback section. Conserve energy before, move consistently through the layback, and then get a rest when it’s over. Constantly scan for footholds on both faces so you can pull into a stemming position and stand purely on your feet to get a good break. One good foot on the face and a foot jam in the crack could be just enough. If it’s a corner with a large crack, try wedging your whole body into the crack.
Your head is being pushed away from the crack, so it’s difficult to see the crack, choose the correct piece, and place it. Talk to locals, read guidebooks and Mountain Project, and eye the line at the base to get a good idea of what sizes will fit best. There will be a side of your body that scums against the rock; position your gear on the other side. This will make the climb more comfortable and keep gear accessible.
Higher-Level Laybacks: Tips From Cheyne Lempe
Find fingerlocks or hand jams in the layback position. These allow you to actively pull outward on the crack and to passively use your skeleton to hang on your arms.
Don’t get your feet too close to your hands; this creates maximum horizontal force and wastes energy. On the other hand, if your feet are too low, the opposing forces won’t create enough friction. Find the sweet spot based on the angle and your height. Find footholds to push up (or rest) on and put more weight on your legs.
Getting into and out of a layback is hard, so try to find a bomber lock or jam in the crack. This lets you transition from pulling down to out, and vice versa. It also helps to start the transition moves with high feet.
If the crack begins to steepen or angle sideways, the position of your hands will change. Instead of a sidepull, switch to underclings with both palms facing upward. At this point, it’s important to find small footholds so you can put more weight on your feet.
A recent rescue involved a laybacking climber who was blindly placing gear. He slipped, his pro blew, and he hit the ground. Find a rest stance before placing gear, and always look to make sure it’s solid. Otherwise, estimate the size of the crack with your hands and from scoping it out previously. Pull in on both arms, lock off with the arm that has the best grip, place gear, and check to make sure it’s bomber.