You’ve crimped, dynoed, sidepulled, and gastoned your way to the top of your boulder project, only to be shut down by the topout moves on a slopey, no-hold overhang. There’s nothing more frustrating than that. Topping out can be the most difficult part of bouldering, especially if you’re used to the gym, where you jump or downclimb from the top, or they set massive jugs to make it easy to haul your butt up and over. With most outdoor problems, it isn’t considered finished until you’re standing on top. At that point, you’re often pumped and high off the ground, so it isn’t the ideal time to experiment with the finer points of technique. Learn how to do these maneuvers in a safe and easy environment so you can nail them on harder terrain.
Certain rock types, such as sandstone, gritstone, and granite, tend to form rounded and featureless boulders that are notorious for their nasty topouts. If your technique is rusty, even relatively easy finishes can feel strenuous, insecure, and scary on these blocks. Manteling is the most commonly used topout technique, but if the top is really rounded and lacks good holds, you may need to rock over onto your heel. If nothing else works, the very last resort is to do a “beached whale,” which involves flopping over the top onto your stomach, kicking your feet, and wriggling your body until you can stand up. It isn’t an elegant technique, but it’s nearly guaranteed to entertain onlookers, terrify your spotters, and get you to the top when nothing else will.
Manteling is the method of going from hanging from a feature to standing on it, without help from any higher holds. Mantels rely mostly on the arms, whereas rockovers use the big muscles in the legs to generate upward movement. Manteling can also be handy on longer routes when you encounter large ledges or big, flat holds. The more area you have to mantel, the easier it will be; if there is rock directly above the large ledge, you might not have enough room to really lean in and transfer your weight onto your palms.
Once you reach the lip, decide which hand you are going to use palm-down first. If one side of the lip is higher or more positive, choose that hand; otherwise, use your preferred hand. Place one foot on a hold high enough that your waist will be level with your hands when you stand up on it.
Simultaneously pull your shoulders toward the lip and stand up on the high foothold. As your shoulders rise above the lip, rotate your chosen hand so its fingers face the other hand and your palm is flat on the rock. At this point your arms should be sharply bent with your elbows pointing up in the air.
Straighten your arms and quickly rotate your other hand so the fingers of each hand face each other. Keep pressing until both arms are straight.
If possible, combine steps 2 and 3 into one smooth motion.
Bring a foot onto the lip and lean forward to shift weight onto it. Move up the hand that’s close to that foot, and bring the other foot up.
This move is when you place a foot on a high foothold and stand up on it by pressing hard with the legs while your arms keep you balanced. Rockovers require powerful leg muscles (strengthen them with squats or pistols, which are one-legged squats where the non-squatting leg is straight in front of you), balance, and coordination. They aren’t used exclusively for topouts and are very common on vertical and slabby ground. Frequently on low-angled problems, rockovers must be done very slowly, pressing inch by inch. Conversely, on steep ground, rockovers are often more dynamic, relying on momentum to reach the target hold.
Place your foot, usually the toe but sometimes the heel, on the high foothold. Get your hands as high as possible.
Pull yourself up past the handholds, and with stabilizing help from your arms, transfer your weight onto the higher foothold.
Smoothly press with your leg and push down on the handholds; usually the hardest part is getting the movement started. Your lower foot will leave its hold, and in some situations (especially slow, grinding rockovers), it can be helpful to drag it against the rock as a sort of ratchet to ensure you don’t lose any ground.
Blank, rounded, or undercut topouts are best tackled with an approach that combines elements of rocking over and manteling. These features aren’t too bad if tackled decisively with good technique, but if you lose your nerve midway, things can get messy. As the angle of the rock flattens at the top, it becomes harder to see. It may be worth inspecting the top from above and noting useful holds. You can tick hard-to-see holds with a little dot of chalk, but make sure you brush it off when you’re finished.
Start with your feet high—level with your waist if possible. Pull yourself high enough to get a heel hook on the lower side of the lip.
Pull hard with your arms and heel while straightening your lower leg. Once your waist is close to the lip, turn your inside hand (the one on the same side as your heel hook) so its fingers face your other hand and your palm is flat on the rock.
Press down with your palm. As your waist rises above the lip, lean forward to transfer more weight onto your palm. Roll your heel-hooking foot forward so the sole of the foot is flat on the rock.
Straighten both of your arms, move your foot closer to your body, and bring your other foot onto the lip. This position is quite precarious, so pay close attention to your balance.
Steps 2, 3, and 4 should be done in one smooth motion.
Training for topouts
- If your local gym doesn’t have any sections where it’s possible to practice topping out, focus on climbs that require mantels mid-problem.
- Pushups and dips strengthen the pushing muscles that are critical for topping out, such as the deltoids and triceps.
- A day spent out on the boulders doing as many topouts as possible (practice at least two to three grades below your redpoint limit) will do more for your climbing than a session on the campus board. Seek out low problems with good landings, and experiment with the various topping-out techniques. Gradually increase the difficulty.
- If you really want to excel on topouts, you need to figure out if you have a “side.” Do you favor pushing down with one arm, or high-stepping with one foot? The rock will dictate how you must climb, and it doesn’t care about your preferences, so spend time improving your weaker side and you may find yourself doing a lot fewer beached whales.
This is an excerpt from Bouldering Essentials: The Complete Guide to Bouldering, by David Flanagan, available now on Eric Hörst’s website, trainingforclimbing.com. The book is packed with clear, practical advice for everyone interested in bouldering, whether you’re a beginner or an expert.