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3 Types of Rock Faces for Climbing

Slab, Vertical, and Overhanging Faces


Brian Shelton works up a slab at Hornet's Nest Wall in Colorado's South Platte climbing area.

Keeping your weight over your feet is important when you're slab climbing.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

You will find three basic types of rock faces when you’re climbing:

  • Slab
  • Vertical
  • Overhanging

    Slabs are Less than 90 Degrees

    Slabs are rock faces that are angled at less than 90 degrees or less than vertical. Climbing a slab requires a good sense of your feet and how to use them as well as balance and rock shoes with lots of friction. When you climb a slab, the general rule is that you keep your weight on your feet. You usually smear your feet on tiny holds on the rock or simply rely on the shoe rubber to hold against smooth rock. This foot technique is called smearing and the holds you use are usually called friction holds or smears. Usually your hands and arms are used for balance rather than pulling because it’s your feet that keep you on the rock and moving upward.

    America’s Best Slab Climbing Areas

    Here are some of the best slab climbing areas and cliffs in the United States:

    • Tuolumne Meadows, California
    • Joshua Tree National Park, California
    • South Platte Area, Colorado
    • Whitehorse Ledge, New Hampshire
    • Looking Glass Mountain, North Carolina

    Vertical Faces are 90 Degrees

    Vertical faces are exactly that—rock faces that are angled at 90 degrees, which is more or less straight up. Usually climbers will consider faces that are slightly less than 90 degrees to be vertical since they are climbed by the same techniques. Like climbing slabs, footwork is very important when you climb vertical cliffs. You keep your weight over your feet as much as possible, which avoids taxing your arms too much, and getting pumped and falling off. Foot techniques include inside edging, outside edging, and smearing. You also need to find your center of gravity and sense of equilibrium, keep an upright body position, and use your hands and arms for pulling.

    America’s Best Vertical Climbing Areas

    Here are some of the many excellent climbing areas that offer vertical climbing:

    • Shelf Road, Colorado
    • Smith Rock, Oregon
    • Red River Gorge, Kentucky
    • New River Gorge, West Virginia
    • Shawngunks, New York

    Overhanging Faces are More than 90 Degrees

    Overhanging faces are those rock faces that are overhung or angled more than 90 degrees. Climbing overhanging faces requires, of course, lots of upper body strength, an apelike attitude, and excellent technique. If you don’t have a combination of these three factors, you might get off the ground but you’re not going to climb too high. Surprisingly, climbing overhanging faces also requires exacting footwork where the climber uses his feet in specialized techniques like heel hooks and toe cams, which help take the climber’s weight off his arms.

    America’s Best Overhanging Climbing Areas

    Lots of great American climbing areas offer overhanging climbing:

    • Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado
    • American Fork, Utah
    • Red River Gorge, Kentucky
    • Kaymoor at New River Gorge, West Virginia
    • Rumney, New Hampshire
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