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Climbing Fundamentals

A variety of refined techniques are used to climb different types of rock formations. The foundation for all of these styles is the art of climbing. Climbing technique stresses climbing with the weight centered over the feet, using the hands primarily for balance. It can be thought of as a combination of the balanced movement required to walk a tightrope and the technique used to ascend a ladder. No mountaineering equipment is required; however, the climbing technique is also used in roped climbing.

Route Selection

The experienced climber has learned to climb with the "eyes." Even before getting on the rock, the climber studies all possible routes, or "lines," to the top looking for cracks, ledges, nubbins, and other irregularities in the rock that will be used for footholds and handholds, taking note of any larger ledges or benches for resting places. When picking the line, he mentally climbs the route, rehearsing the step-by-step sequence of movements that will be required to do the climb, ensuring himself that the route has an adequate number of holds and the difficulty of the climb will be well within the limit of his ability.

Terrain Selection for Training

Route selection for military climbing involves picking the easiest and quickest possible line for all personnel to follow. However, climbing skill and experience can only be developed by increasing the length and difficulty of routes as training progresses. In the training environment, beginning lessons in climbing should be performed CLOSE to the ground on lower-angled rock with plenty of holds for the hands and feet. Personnel not climbing can act as "otters" for those climbing. In later lessons, a "top-rope" belay can be used for safety, allowing e individual to increase the length and difficulty of the climb under the protection of the climbing rope.


In preparation for climbing, the boot soles should be dry and clean. A small stick can be used to clean out dirt and small rocks that might be caught between the lugs of the boot sole. If the soles are wet or damp, dry them off by stomping and rubbing the soles on clean, dry rock. All jewelry should be removed from the fingers. Watches and bracelets can interfere with hand placements and may become damaged if worn while climbing. Helmets should be worn to protect the head from injury if an object, such as a rock or climbing gear, falls from climbers above. Most climbing helmets are not designed to provide protection from impact to the head if the wearer falls, but will provide a minimal amount of protection if a climber comes in contact with the rock during climbing.


Rings can become caught on rock facial features and or lodged into cracks, which could cause injuries during a slip or fall.


Spotting is a technique used to add a level of safety to climbing without a rope. A second man stands below and just outside of the climbers fall path and helps (spots) the climber to land safely if he should fall. Spotting is only applicable if the climber is not going above the spotters head on the rock. Beyond that height a roped climbing should be conducted. If an individual climbs beyond the effective range of the spotter(s), he has climbed TOO HIGH for his own safety. The duties of the spotter are to help prevent the falling climber from impacting the head and or spine, help the climber land feet first, and reduce the impact of a fall.


The spotter should not catch the climber against the rock because additional injuries could result. If the spotter pushes the falling climber into the rock, deep abrasions of the skin or knee may occur. Ankle joints could be twisted by the fall if the climber's foot remained high on the rock. The spotter might be required to fully support the weight of the climber causing injury to the spotter.

Climbing Technique

Climbing involves linking together a series of movements based on foot and hand placement, weight shift, and movement. When this series of movements is combined correctly, a smooth climbing technique results. This technique reduces excess force on the limbs, helping to minimize fatigue. The basic principle is based on the five body parts described here.

a. Five Body Parts. The five body parts used for climbing are the right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot, and body (trunk). The basic principle to achieve smooth climbing is to move only one of the five body parts at a time. The trunk is not moved in conjunction with a foot or in conjunction with a hand, a hand is not moved in conjunction with a foot, and so on. Following this simple technique forces both legs to do all the lifting simultaneously.

b. Stance or Body Position. Body position is probably the single most important element to good technique. A relaxed, comfortable stance is essential. (Figure 6-1 shows a correct climbing stance, and Figure 6-2 shows an incorrect stance.) The body should be in a near vertical or erect stance with the weight centered over the feet. Leaning in towards the rock will cause the feet to push outward, away from the rock, resulting in a loss of friction between the boot sole and rock surface. The legs are straight and the heels are kept low to reduce fatigue. Bent legs and tense muscles tire quickly. If strained for too long, tense muscles may vibrate uncontrollably. This vibration, known as "Elvis-ing" or "sewing-machine leg" can be cured by straightening the leg, lowering the heel, or moving on to a more restful position. The hands are used to maintain balance. Keeping the hands between waist and shoulder level will reduce arm fatigue.

Figure 6-1. Correct climbing stance-balanced over both feet.

Figure 6-1. Correct climbing stance-balanced over both feet.

Figure 6-2. Incorrect stance-stretched out.

Figure 6-2. Incorrect stance-stretched out.

(1) Whenever possible, three points of contact are maintained with the rock. Proper positioning of the hips and shoulders is critical. When using two footholds and one handhold, the hips and shoulders should be centered over both feet. In most cases, as the climbing progresses, the body is resting on one foot with two handholds for balance. The hips and shoulders must be centered over the support foot to maintain balance, allowing the "free" foot to maneuver.

(2) The angle or steepness of the rock also determines how far away from the rock the hips and shoulders should be. On low-angle slopes, the hips are moved out away from the rock to keep the body in balance with the weight over the feet. The shoulders can be moved closer to the rock to reach handholds. On steep rock, the hips are pushed closer to the rock. The shoulders are moved away from the rock by arching the back. The body is still in balance over the feet and the eyes can see where the hands need to go. Sometimes, when footholds are small, the hips are moved back to increase friction between the foot and the rock. This is normally done on quick, intermediate holds. It should be avoided in the rest position as it places more weight on the arms and hands. When weight must be placed on handholds, the arms should be kept straight to reduce fatigue. Again, flexed muscles tire quickly.

c. Climbing Sequence. The steps defined below provide a complete sequence of events to move the entire body on the rock. These are the basic steps to follow for a smooth climbing technique. Performing these steps in this exact order will not always be necessary because the nature of the route will dictate the availability of hand and foot placements. The basic steps are weight, shift, and movement (movement being either the foot, hand, or body). (A typical climbing sequence is shown in Figure 6-3.)


Shift the weight from both feet to one foot. This will allow lifting of one foot with no effect on the stance.


Lift the unweighted foot and place it in a new location, within one to two feet of the starting position, with no effect on body position or balance (higher placement will result in a potentially higher lift for the legs to make, creating more stress, and is called a high step) The trunk does not move during foot movement.


Shift the weight onto both feet. (Repeat steps 1 through 3 for remaining foot.)


Lift the body into a new stance with both legs.


Move one hand to a new position between waist and head height. During this movement, the trunk should be completely balanced in position and the removed hand should have no effect on stability.


Move the remaining hand as in Step 5.

Now the entire body is in a new position and ready to start the process again. Following these steps will prevent lifting with the hands and arms, which are used to maintain stance and balance. If both legs are bent, leg extension can be performed as soon as one foot has been moved. Hand movements can be delayed until numerous foot movements have been made, which not only creates shorter lifts with the legs, but may allow a better choice for the next hand movements because the reach will have increased.

Figure 6-3. Typical climbing sequence.

Figure 6-3. Typical climbing sequence.

Figure 6-3. Typical climbing sequence (continued).

Figure 6-3. Typical climbing sequence (continued).

Figure 6-3. Typical climbing sequence (continued).

Figure 6-3. Typical climbing sequence (continued).

(1) Many climbers will move more than one body part at a time, usually resulting in lifting the body with one leg or one leg and both arms. This type of lifting is inefficient, requiring one leg to perform the work of two or using the arms to lift the body. Proper climbing technique is lifting the body with the legs, not the arms, because the legs are much stronger.

(2) When the angle of the rock increases, these movements become more critical. Holding or pulling the body into the rock with the arms and hands may be necessary as the angle increases (this is still not lifting with the arms). Many climbing routes have angles greater than ninety degrees (overhanging) and the arms are used to support partial body weight. The same technique applies even at those angles.

(3) The climber should avoid moving on the knees and elbows. Other than being uncomfortable, even painful, to rest on, these bony portions of the limbs offer little friction and "feel" on the rock.

Safety Precautions

The following safety precautions should be observed when rock climbing.

a. While ascending a seldom or never traveled route, you may encounter precariously perched rocks. If the rock will endanger your second, it may be possible to remove it from the route and trundle it, tossing it down. This is extremely dangerous to climbers below and should not be attempted unless you are absolutely sure no men are below. If you are not sure that the flight path is clear, do not do it. Never dislodge loose rocks carelessly. Should a rock become loose accidentally, immediately shout the warning "ROCK" to alert climbers below. Upon hearing the warning, personnel should seek immediate cover behind any rock bulges or overhangs available, or flatten themselves against the rock to minimize exposure.

b. Should a climber fall, he should do his utmost to maintain control and not panic. If on a low-angle climb, he may be able to arrest his own fall by staying in contact with the rock, grasping for any possible hold available. He should shout the warning "FALLING" to alert personnel below.


Grasping at the rock in a fall can result in serious injuries to the upper body. If conducting a roped climb, let the rope provide protection.

c. When climbing close to the ground and without a rope, a spotter can be used for safety. The duties of the spotter are to ensure the falling climber does not impact the head or spine, and to reduce the impact of a fall.

d. Avoid climbing directly above or below other climbers (with the exception of spotters). When personnel must climb at the same time, following the same line, a fixed rope should be installed.

e. Avoid climbing with gloves on because of the decreased "feel" for the rock. The use of gloves in the training environment is especially discouraged, while their use in the mountains is often mandatory when it is cold. A thin polypropylene or wool glove is best for rock climbing, although heavier cotton or leather work gloves are often used for belaying.

f. Be extremely careful when climbing on wet or moss-covered rock; friction on holds is greatly reduced.

g. Avoid grasping small vegetation for handholds; the root systems can be shallow and will usually not support much weight.

Margin of Safety

Besides observing the standard safety precautions, the climber can avoid catastrophe by climbing with a wide margin of safety. The margin of safety is a protective buffer the climber places between himself and potential climbing hazards. Both subjective (personnel-related) and objective (environmental) hazards must be considered when applying the margin of safety. The leader must apply the margin of safety taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of the entire team or unit.

a. When climbing, the climber increases his margin of safety by selecting routes that are well within the limit of his ability. When leading a group of climbers, he selects a route well within the ability of the weakest member.

b. When the rock is wet, or when climbing in other adverse weather conditions, the climber's ability is reduced and routes are selected accordingly. When the climbing becomes difficult or exposed, the climber knows to use the protection of the climbing rope and belays. A lead climber increases his margin of safety by placing protection along the route to limit the length of a potential fall.

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