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Using Pocket Handholds for Face Climbing

Learn How to Face Climb

By

Ian Green climbs

Ian grabs pockets on an arete climb on volcanic rock in New Mexico.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green
A two-finger pocket makes a great handhold at Shelf Road in Colorado.

Use your middle and ring fingers in a two-finger pocket for maximum pulling power. Tape on your fingers helps protect them from injury.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green
Nine-year-old Cam Horst climbing a 5.13a route at Shelf Road in Colorado.

It's easier to pull on little pockets if you're a lightweight kid like 9-year-old Cam Horst.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Pockets are various-sized holes in the surface of a rock face, which a climber uses as a handhold by putting a finger or fingers inside the hole. Pockets come in all shapes and sizes from ovals to oblongs and in various depths from a shallow fingertip dimple to a full-hand jug pocket. Pockets are found on many routes, particularly on limestone cliffs like those at Shelf Road in Colorado and Ceuse in France. Pockets also occur on volcanic rock such as that at Smith Rock in Oregon and at White Rock in New Mexico.

Types of Pockets

Climbers refer to pockets by the number of fingers required to use them. The sweetest and best pockets are two-finger pockets and three-finger pockets. Usually you can get good pulling leverage with these pockets. Pockets that accommodate all four fingers are sometimes called slots or letterboxes; these big pockets offer fun climbing moves. The hardest and most strenuous pockets are one-finger or mono-doight pockets. For these pockets, you plug your middle finger into the hole and crank, hoping that you don't strain or tear a tendon.

How to Find the Right Pocket

If you are climbing a cliff covered with pockets like those at Buoux, a pocket-riddled cliff in southern France, it can be difficult to find the right pocket. As you look up to find the next pocket hold, it's best to first scan the rock. Your body usually knows where you need to grab to stay in balance, but often the best pocket is not there. It's best to feel around quickly and stick your fingers in several pockets until you find the right one for the move.

Chalked Pockets Might be Decoys

Don't just grab a chalked pocket. Whoever grabbed it last might be leading you astray and you might be missing the best pocket for the move. The key is to find which pocket feels the most positive and then move up. Don't spend a lot of energy worrying about finding the best pocket. Look, evaluate, test, grab, and go. If you get pumped, usually you'll find a big pocket somewhere higher where you can get a rest.

Figure Out the Best Way to Grab It

When you find a pocket on a route, first inspect it visually. Look for the best direction to grab it. Next grab the pocket but feel around inside the pocket to discover the best grip to use-usually an open hand grip or a half crimp grip. Also feel around to make sure there are no sharp edges that can cut you. Limestone pockets often have painful bumps and thorns inside that can be very painful when you fully weight you hand on them.

The Best Finger Combinations

Next figure out what is the best finger combination to use to make the pocket an effective handhold.

  • For one-finger pockets, use your middle finger, the strongest finger.
  • For two-finger pockets, use your middle and ring fingers for the strongest combination or use the index and middle finger, but be sure to stack your middle finger on top of the index finger to increase your pulling power.
  • For full-hand slots, it goes without saying that you use all your fingers! Sometimes, however, the bottom of a big pocket may be flat or dirty. In that case, feel the edges of the pocket and you will often find a sidepull or pinch.

How to Grab a Pocket

Every pocket has an ideal way to grab it. A lot of pocket pulling is intuitive. You grab the pocket and go, but with some pockets, if you grab them wrong then you really have to crank hard or you fall off. When you reach into a pocket, move your fingers around and find the best way to use it. Sometimes you might find a small lip inside the bottom where you fingers can find purchase or sometimes you might need to grab the pocket's side as a layback or a gaston move. Look too for thumb catches on the rock outside the pocket so you can use it as a pinch hold. As you move above a pocket, don't forget that you can often use it as an undercling.

Pockets Can Injure Fingers

Since pocket pulling is mandatory on many sport climbs, how to effectively use pockets is an essential skill learned by every serious rock climber. Along with learning how to use a pocket as a handhold, however, the climber must also be aware of the dangers of pocket climbing and how to avoid finger injuries. Because of the extreme torque exerted on a climber's fingers, pocket pulling can easily cause finger pulls, commonly injuring the tendons, which take a long time to heal. When you're learning to climb pockets, go slow and build finger strength and learn to use pockets before getting on a hard route with small pockets. It's usually best to avoid small finger pockets in your indoor gym since they are a recipe for tweaking your fingers.

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