Face Value
© by Russ Walling

Note: This is a short piece I wrote for inclusion into John Longs book on face climbing published by Chockstone Press

     Overhanging face climbing is the overlooked little sister of crack 
climbing.  Once the seventies guys had mopped up all the striking crack 
lines, there was nowhere else to go but out onto the "holdless" areas 
between the cracks.
     Paddling around on low angle slabs is fun for you and your date, but the steep
stuff is where it all happens.  When the angle of the rock and the severity of
the grade increase, certain facts will become shamefully apparent.  Fitness is
needed here more than in any other form of climbing.  Visualize a person who
can hang onto a hold barely an eighth of an inch wide, foot epoxied to an atom
sized nubbin, on a 120 degree wall, all this while trying to clip a bolt.  Good
sense will tell you this is no slouch up there, but rather a highly specialized
athlete--probably weighing in at 123 pounds dripping wet and possessing hands
like vice locks.  Fact number two will find most climbers as soon as they leave
the deck and venture out toward the first crux--lack of technique.  World class
strength is a good friend to have, but flawless technique has landed countless
more climbers onto the top of big number testpieces than strength alone.
     Experience on steep ground is often times hard to get except for actually
being on some desperate route.  You should build up your library of moves on
the ultimate training ground for overhanging face routes--the boulders.  Every
hold you grab can teach you something about balance, personal limits, and
methods of use.  Try to think out a series of moves before trying a problem
then lace up your boots and go at it.  If you squint a little it's just like
being up on a route and the problems you find on the boulders will directly
carry over to the real routes. Remember, rock is rock, and some great routes
are just boulder problems found in the middle of a pitch rather than on the
     Every hold has a best way to grasp it.  If you do it wrong, you fall off.If
you do it right you are rewarded with another hold just as demanding.  If you
link this series of holds just right, you might find yourself on the summit.
The key is to find what feels most positive and then forget about it as you
begin to pull.  More energy is wasted fretting over a hand hold, working every
inch of it like mad, then with failing strength, trying to pull on something
that feels crappy.  Pop--you're gone.  If you happened to just grab the hold,
check for the best part, then pull through, chances are you would be on your
way tho the top rather than hanging in your harness bitching about how greasy
the hold was.
     When you are satisfied that your hand has found the ideal place to crimp the
handhold, the pulling part begins.  Usually pulling on a given hold will be
fairly straight forward--pull downward and lock it off somewhere around your
pec muscle--then seek out the next hold and repeat the process.  During the
pull it is important to not change the angle of your hand on the hold.  If it
feels good with the wrist low and near the rock, keep it like that.  When your
hand angle relative to the rock changes so does the forces on various parts of
your fingers--commonly making the hold less positive.  Each pull with your arms
should be complemented by upward thrust from your feet.  Push with your feet
while pulling with your arms--lock off, look around and plan your next
move--then repeat the process.  If you are pulling up, locking off, then trying
to land your feet somewhere, your wasting energy.  Careful use of upward
movement through the combined use of feet and arms will keep enough gas in your
tank to let you get a peek at the summit.
     On overhanging rock footwork has been taken to a fine art.  Every boot
manufacturer offers some sort of precision fit, helium weight, toe down, atomic
ballerina, Ginsu sole, big name climber Signature Model climbing shoe.  All
this hype must add up to something, and it does.  Footwork is the name of the
game.  The whimsical climbers among us will say, "face climbing is like dancing
on rock."  I hate to admit it but there not far off.  Proper footwork employs
more than just standing on a hold and slapping for the next hand hold.  Each
foot hold has a best place on which to stand.  Sometimes you will find this
place with your toe, an instep, the outside edge or even your heel.  Again, the
key is to find it, set it and forget it.  If it sticks, hey, you're a hero, but
if you fret over it and paw endlessly at the face you're through.  Another
overlooked point is just because it is a foot hold doesn't mean it will be
found near your feet.  If you visit Hueco Tanks in Texas, chances are a heel
hook over your head will be your savior.  Think of it as hanging on a pull-up
bar for an extended period time over a pool of hungry gators.  Which would you
sooner have, greasy palms and them gators nipping at your heels or a leg up
over the bar as you taunt them with a free hand.  Anytime you can take weight
off your hands and arms, do it.
     When face climbing moved from the slabs onto the steeper realm it ushered in a
completely new set of rules and terms.  Getting to the top was still the main
objective, but now there were entirely different methods being employed
compared to the past.  The best style is still to walk up to a route you have
never seen before, put on the rack and lead to the top placing all the gear and
resorting to no shenanigans.  This is called an On Sight Flash or " A Vue".
     The "Beta Flash"  is next in line for style points and allows somebody to tell
you about certain sequences and holds on the route even during your ascent.
Close to the Beta Flash would be the "Deja Vue", wherein you have tried the
route before, but can't remember much about it.
     A "Redpoint" ascent allows you prior and intimate knowledge of the route, yet
for that attempt, you place all the gear while leading to the top, no gimmicks.
It doesn't seem to matter if you have worked on the route from every angle as
long as on your Redpoint you place the gear bottom to top and lead all the way
     Next down the style ladder would be the "Pinkpoint" ascent.  This means all
the gear is in place when you begin your lead, ready to be clipped as you go
by.  The gear can be placed by you or a partner, and previewing the holds is
regarded as good form.  If you fall off you should be lowered to the
ground--after practising the crux a dozen or so times--then pull the rope and
try it again.
     Way down on the style ladder is the "Brownpoint".  In the Brownpoint arena
anything goes.  The Brownpoint ascent usually has a noble beginning.  A chosen
hardman will start up a route fully intending on bagging an "On Sight Flash"
for himself.  Things begin to go bad in a hurry and the hardman is now hanging
on the rope.  Things get real bad as he starts to stand on bolts hoping to gain
some altitude.  The frustrated hardman quickly resorts to a rope from above to
pull through a crux or two and then lowers back down to try a few moves.  A
side rope, one etrier and a tight belay make him feel like he has the strength
of ten men as he works out on the crux moves.  Within hours he stands on the
summit semi-victorious and gets ready to rap down and place his gear for a
"Pinkpoint" ascent later that week.
     The extreme difficulty found on overhanging rock also made "Hangdogging" a
standard practice.  In its purest form you basically fall off on your lead
attempt, shake out while hanging on the rope and then continue with your ascent
fully refreshed.  Even the most simple of events soon get rules and tags
attached to them.  If you start at the top of the route and lower down just to
work the crux section--figuring the rest of the route shouldn't give you any
trouble--then try to Red or Pink point it, that's called "Greyhounding or Speed
Dogging".  If you don't want to actually go up on a route and work the moves
out for yourself, a sub-man can be employed to do the dirty work--while you
watch.  This nameless sub-man is doing what is known as "Seeing Eye Dogging"
for the other fellah--who then might try a Beta Flash or something on the route.
Routes that feature the first bolt quite a distance up from the ground may
require another type of Dogging--"Coon Dogging".  A person who is Coon Dogging
will fire up to the first bolt and clip it for a fretful leader fearing the
groundfall.  The Coon Dog will usually have the first moves previously wired
and render his services for no fee, save for a few accolades.  From this point
the Coon Dog will lower down and turn over the blunted sharp end to a relieved
leader, now ready to siege the route in relative safety.