I have an obsession with slab climbing. There, I’ve said it. This will provoke a knowing nod and smile from my fellow slab fanatics but a raised eyebrow from most other climbers. Slabs are uncool and out of fashion, they are the exact opposite of the steep, powerful and dynamic routes/problems sought after by most modern climbers. Go into most climbing walls and the slab routes will be outnumbered by roofs and overhangs. If you want to emulate the Ondras and Shiraishis of this world it’s go steep, or go home. I don’t think our less vertically inclined (gedit gedit?!) routes deserve this reputation, so in this ode to slab climbing I’m going to try and convert a few non- believers into the delights of walking up slopes.
Slabs are a great leveller. It doesn’t matter if you can’t do a pull up or are a campus beast who can crank ten one-armers, without a good sense of balance and position you won’t get far on a slab. Slab climbing is all about intuition and practice, how to gently place the tip of a toe on the most useful part of a crystal, or finding the flow and using momentum to move between a string mantles. These subtle and elusive goals of balance and poise require not only an awareness of the finger tips and toes but of the whole body. No part of your body is ever doing nothing: an arm without a handhold can help shift weight to the left or right, a small tilt of the torso turns a frustrating pinch into a secure sidepull. No amount of power can compensate for poor technique in the world of slab climbing.
When you’re on a slab you are not only aware of your body but also of the rock underneath it. Tiny holds require a great degree of precision and a familiarity with the medium, whether that’s granite or grit, limestone or sandstone. A tiny pebble needs care in selecting the best direction to pinch it, even choosing a slightly rougher patch for a foot can be the difference between a solid smear and a long slide. Being able to trust a foothold requires a confidence not only in your placement but also in the friction of the rock itself. Spend some time on a slab and you’ll soon have a more in depth understanding of the rock and the landscape it fits into.
Aside from a need for balance and precision, slabs are also famous for their boldness and lack of gear. Whilst there are well protected slabs about (Sacre Coeur on Blackchurch Rock being a classic example) it’s fair to say run outs aren’t uncommon. Personally I think climbing very rarely gets more exciting than being perched on a slab high above gear, depending only upon friction to keep you pasted to the rock. The conflict between the human instinct to find something secure to cling on to and the lack of any such rescue creates a tension that anyone who climbs run out slabs must learn to control. If the climber does loose the battle for control and tense up, progress becomes impossible. Slabs require a relaxed fluidity to climb, as soon as holds are over-gripped fingers slip and the pebbles and crystals disappear as if they have been withdrawn back into the surface of the rock. At this moment a fall is surely imminent.
I hope this article has been a brief glimpse into the thoughts of a slab-obsessed climber. I’m sure fellow slab fanatics will have recognised many of the moments and feelings I have described above. Who knows? I may have even coaxed one or two more climbers into finding a slab and getting a taste for the delights of climbing’s hardest walk.
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