By Joe Kinder, professional climber, proud New Englander, and Eastern Mountain Sports sponsored athlete.
After dabbling at the climbing gym or on some boulders, you’ll quickly learn how many different ways there are to use your feet while climbing. Edging and smearing are the two most common ways to use your feet while free climbing. Whereas edging is used on small footholds, there comes a point on just about every route where there are no obvious footholds at all. When this happens, it’s time to do some smearing.
What Is Smearing?
Smearing is the act of pressing the sole of your climbing shoe directly to the rock or slab and using friction to gain vertical ground. Sometimes smearing can be terrifying, as it seems impossible that your feet won’t slip as you grind them into the rock like you’re squashing a bug. Other times it’s as simple and intuitive as walking up the stairs. In my home state of New Hampshire, cliffs like Whitehorse and Cannon are notorious for their long slab routes, which require the climber to smear on polished granite for the majority of the routes.
How Do You Smear?
Smearing is more of a technical challenge in climbing as opposed to physical one. If you’re flexible and have a natural sense of balance, you’ll be able to advance quickly with this technique no matter how strong you are. It’s also a mental challenge, as you have to trust your shoes as well as your body to propel yourself upward with your foot holding onto nothing.
The steeper the terrain, the more pressure you’ll need to apply to your toes. This often means pushing your body and waist out from the wall in order to direct your weight to your feet. Because it requires more creativity and technique, smearing is one of the best ways for beginner climbers to learn balance and develop good footwork technique.
What Kind of Climbing Shoes Work Best for Smearing?
A flat shoe is best for smearing, as you want your toes to be fairly flattened as opposed to being in a hammered position, like in a downturned shoe. The more rubber contacting the surface of the rock, the better friction you’ll have and less chance of slipping.
Smearing is one of the most traditional and important techniques in climbing and can never really be practiced enough. In many ways, it’s where the magic happens in climbing as you move along surfaces that look impossible to climb. Climbing shoes are a very important part of smearing and it’s always best to try many types before you decide what works best for you.
Once you have the right climbing shoes, be sure to wash the soles with soap and water on a regular basis to maintain the stickiness you need for smearing. Finally, if you ever find yourself in North Conway, NH, and you want to put your smearing skills to the test, be sure to hit the Standard Route on Whitehorse, which is a CLASSIC 5.9 smear attack!
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