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Friday, August 5, 2011


The awesome power of Silent Feet

Nothing is more frustrating than falling because your foot slipped. It’s not frustrating because you passed the crux, were still fresh, or had just one move to finish your project. No, it’s frustrating because it’s preventable.

I started climbing in 1998 and, before long, climbed five days a week. My first coach was Andrew Wallach, a local strongman and the head routesetter at Vertex Climbing Center, in Santa Rosa, California. Whether Wallach’s Silent Feet drill was simply a new way to torture “Team Vertex” is debatable. What’s not, however, were the results. As a young competition climber, I learned to pare away slop and inefficiency.

Wallach’s exercise was simple: if your foot squeaked or smedged audibly when you placed it, punishment ensued — for me, this was a 200-foot gym traverse. Choose your own torture, but the key is to have someone nearby call you out. (Thanks to hollow indoor-climbing surfaces, making this call should be easy. And if you’re climbing outside and clomping like Lord of the Dance, this drill is for you.)

As your main points of weighted contact, your feet matter. Placing them silently forces you to be deliberate and aware with your choice, placement, and movement onto and off each foothold. Here’s how:

Shoe Design
First, let this key principle marinate: climbing shoes are designed to focus power into your big toe, making it the main fulcrum around which your body rotates. The strongest part of your forefoot, your big toe sticks out the farthest (usually), forcing the other piggies to follow its lead: whether smearing, edging, or bearing down on an overhang, it’s the action point for translating tension through your core. Thus, if you don’t stand (and rotate) over your big toe, your shoe will either pivot you off like a dreidel spun on its side or force you to reset your foot, increasing fatigue while you dither.

The Only Foot Placements You’ll Ever Need

1. Frontstep 

This is the simplest, most stable position. Point your foot into the wall and place your big toe directly on the hold (left foot in photo below), resulting in a squared-off stance. You can also use a frontstep in conjunction with a backstep to increase stability, also pictured below.

•Silent Feet Frontstep Method: First, straighten your arms, hanging in a rest position on your skeleton to survey your foothold options. The key to Silent Feet is slowly and simultaneously to contact the wall’s vertical plane and the foothold’s horizontal aspect — so visually track the movement. Imagine the rock has wet paint on it — will your foot leave lines or dots? You want to leave the smallest imprint possible: a microdot.

2. Instep 
The instep uses your shoe’s inside edge, still standing directly on your big toe. The resulting position — if instepping with both feet — is the “frogleg”; it’s crucial to highstepping, as with this slab move on the Bishop highball Footprints (right).
•Silent Feet Instep Method: Lean out from the wall and spot your foothold. The key is to weight your attached foot, giving you the freedom slowly and precisely to place the hovering foot. Externally rotate your hip, allowing you to use your big toe’s inside edge. As you make contact, relax your foot, allowing it to absorb weight. Noisy, sloppy footwork stems in part from a rigid ankle joint.

3. Backstep 
climbLearning to backstep (drop-knee) is quite possibly the most important technique for overhanging rock. Like a row of dominoes, it creates a “wave of extension” that lengthens your body: the pivoting of your toe into a backstep drops your knee, which in turn elevates your hips, driving movement upward. The backstep, or outside edge of the shoe, is also often used when stepping through. This move on Bishop’s Secrets of the Beehive (right) requires a classic backstep.

•Silent Feet Backstep Method: Set up as if initiating a frontstep or instep: arms straight, weight primarily on your attached leg. This time, internally rotate your hip, exposing your shoe’s outside edge to the hold. As your foot makes slow, deliberate contact, point your toe down, raising your ankle and driving the movement upward from the power point of your big toe.

Kevin Jorgeson still uses Silent Feet, ensuring precision footwork when it counts . . . like 40 feet off the ground on the FA of Ambrosia (5.14 X).

The Real Secret to Effective Power Training

Hanging Up

You can train long or you can train hard, but not both — which is probably why so many of us train power so wrongly. (By “power,” we mean the product of strength and speed, i.e., the explosive force recruited any time you use momentum, or “go for it.”) Properly training power allows you to get stronger — to muckle through otherwise impossible cruxes. Thus, step one with power training is to realize you’re training, not just exercising. I.e., if you’re still firing out a steep wall on small holds three hours into a session, the problem’s nowhere near your maximum ability and you’re not really training power.

Because our local crags around Lander, Wyoming, feature short climbs with few holds, our training centers on power, but in a true-tolife way: using angles, holds, and movements found on rock. From what I’ve seen training climbers the past 20 years, the guy who uses his whole body to create power is better off than any “campus master.” So read on for big-picture ideas about training power the natural way.

Keep It Short
True power training is very intense — only 45 to 60 minutes. Add in 15 to 30 minutes of warm-up and cool-down, and you’re still done in subtwo hours. By keeping these sessions short (fatigue creates endurance, not power), you can do more per week — if you’re in shape, up to two or three hard power sessions, totaling close to three hours of quality work.

A typical power phase lasts four to six weeks and will often consist of mostly gym sessions. If you climb outside, only boulder or try short, difficult climbs — you’ll have little time (or energy) for other climbing. After this phase, you can cycle back into “normal” mode and put your power to the test. In a given year, you could fruitfully advance through three or four power phases. (Intersperse these, however, with a minimum of four to six weeks of less-intense training or climbing.)

Recovery Time Is Key
We don’t leave the gym with more power — it’s recovery that promotes improvement. In general, it should take 36 to 72 hours to bounce back from a proper power session. After this time, it’s critical that you again hit the system with another stimulus, or the first session’s value declines. (If you climb only once weekly, you’ll see no improvement.) On the flip side, rest too little or train too long (e.g., those fun four hours of nonstop gym routes with your buddies), and you fail to improve.

The more your training resembles your goal routes or problems, the better. That is, developing climbing power is about training the muscles of the back and the hip girdle. Sure, our arms get tired first, but it’s these “big” muscles that generate the most force and help us integrate our feet/legs. Climbers usually train power in several ways: power-focussed bouldering (discussed in this tip), random bouldering, system training, campus training, body-weight resistance training, and weight training. These latter five modes are fine, but should supplement, not replace, power problems (see “Perfect Power” sidebar).

Don’t Get Worked
At first, you might feel you aren’t properly “worked.” Perfect — this lets you come back hard in a couple days. Improvement is why you’re training. Be patient, be disciplined, and you’ll see gains as quickly as three weeks.

Speed It Up
Another good way to increase power is to increase speed. But because climbing is so technical, speed often decreases fine motor skill, hence hold-grabbing/stabbing accuracy. I’d recommend only going a wee bit faster — say five percent — to prevent your form from going to hell.

As an exercise, time yourself on some 10-to-12-move problems; then speed them up by no more than a second or two. Work on efficiency — if you get sloppy, slow down and re-evaluate. A few tricks: memorize the sequence from the ground, and climb from memory, not reaction;? move consistently upward — don’t fall into start-stop movement; and focus on your feet — your legs drive most movement, so make sure they’re not just dragging while you speed-lunge.

Steve Bechtel, a climber of 20 years, has pioneered 250-plus routes on six continents. He works as a performance coach for climbers and other athletes, owns Elemental Training Center ( in Lander, Wyoming, and holds a degree in exercise physiology.

Perfect Power: a Workout Routine

This four-step workout looks simple on paper, but it works. Give yourself three or four weeks, and then test gains on personal benchmark problems.

Step 1: 15 to 30 minutes of warm-up, with resistance exercises (pull-ups and bodyweight squats) and some easier, yet increasingly intense, climbing. Cardiovascular exercise — say, a few minutes on the treadmill or stationary bike — is fine early in the warm-up, too.
Step 2: four to five tries on a hard problem (four to 10 moves), just above your onsight level, that requires explosive movement. Use holds big enough to train power, rather than failing because of finger strength. Think slopers, flat jugs, and big edges. If you don’t quite top out, that’s fine. Better to fail than to under-stimulate your system.
Step 3: six to eight tries on one or two max-effort problems requiring explosiveness, with two to three minutes of rest between each burn. Again, if you complete more than half the problem, it’s an attempt; though if you fall low, jump right back on. Remember, you are not going for a pump. If you feel fatigue, increase rest time. End this step when power declines even slightly.
Step 4: cool down on easy ground, with stretching or exercises that recruit the antagonist muscles. Push-ups, bench dips, and some planks/bridges seem to work — two to three sets of each, not quite to failure.

Big Wall Tactics

Eight pitches the 1988 first ascent of Waterfall Wall—a dry-season-only Grade VI A4+ that follows the line of Upper Yosemite Falls—Rick Sylvester and I were eager to get to the first good crack of any length we had seen in four pitches.

A slanting dihedral began about 15 feet to right, but a pendulum would leave us too low. There were no features for bashies, horizontal edges for hooks, nor angled edges for opposing hooks on the steep, blank wall.

I did find vertical edges, however, and eventually devised a plan to hook across using tension from the rope: a hooksion traverse. I placed the first hook, attached an aider, then had Rick lock off the belay as I leaned right against the rope. Then, very gingerly, I placed my left foot into the aider and pressed it straight out to the left. Holding my body nearly horizontal against the rope’s tension, I reached out right to hook another edge. As I pressed my right foot into an aider clipped to this second hook, Rick slowly let out some rope. It took several more placements to gain the crack in the dihedral—about as much as I could handle of the incredibly strenuous horizontal position needed to keep the hooks in place on vertical edges—but I managed to reach the next crack without drilling.

Helmet Standar Climbing Equipment

The climbing instructor should verify that the proper equipment is available for the size and ability level of participants. Helmets, rope, and climbing hardware must be approved by the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme) and/or CEN (European Community Norm). All equipment must be acquired new or furnished by the instructor.
Safety Helmet
Records must be kept on the use and stresses (the number of hard falls) on each item of equipment, which must be specifically designed for climbing and rappelling. Outside providers should be asked if they are aware of any stresses that have been put on their equipment. Any rope or webbing that has been subjected to more than three hard falls or that is four years old (whatever its use) must not be used. Refer to Topping Out concerning records that must be kept.

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