Difficulty of Slab Climbs


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Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 10, 2006 - 07:34pm PT
Slab climbing is getting to be something of a lost art. It just isn't trendy. Historically, some of the greatest and most challenging climbs have been on slabs - e.g. in Yosemite, Tuolumne, Tahquitz/Suicide, and Squamish. (Mostly granitic rock.) A proving ground for precise footwork and balance, and often for boldness, given that on-sight slab climbs are often not well protected by modern standards.

I was wondering why this was the case. We used to slab climb a lot at Squamish, and there are many hard routes, up to 'easy' 5.12 anyway. Often quite bold, but not always. We learned a lot by climbing such routes. Usually established in the days of EBs, 1/4" Rawl compression bolts, and bathooks. Even with sticky rubber, and most bolts replaced with 3/8" stainless expansion, slab routes over about 5.11 are rarely climbed. The more moderate but runout ones likewise.

To my mind, a slab is something between perhaps 30 and 70 degrees, where the main tactics are friction, balance, and mental resiliency. Of course, it blurs a bit at the upper end - when does a slab become a face?

A few modern climbers sneer at anything less than vertical as being a 'slab', but one wonders how many have ever slab climbed. I've always thought that rock climbers should be well-rounded. If you can climb 5.14a face climbs, 5.12 thin cracks, 5.6 offwidths, and no slabs at all, you're missing a lot. Likewise if you only do bolted climbs, although many of the 'sportiest' slabs have only bolts.

Anyway, it is interesting that the hardest true slabs seem to be in the 5.12 range, and many such routes were established 20 years ago or more. Is it possible for there to be harder slab climbs, or is 5.12 the limit? And why don't people climb hard slabs much any more? Is it just because they're too scary, or not trendy?


Trad climber
Jul 10, 2006 - 07:48pm PT
Good question. I think maybe it has to do with the routes typically being more run out. Or maybe some people have had bad or scary experiences by underestimating the insecurity of slab climbing (no big jug to shoot for most of the time). I agree that it seems to be a lost art. Personally I enjoy the mental challenge, but have to admit it is not my strongest climbing style.

I've never climbed any harder than 5.11 so I don't know if they could be harder than 5.12 or not, but I would think it is definitely possible, although hard for me to comprehend:]

the flatness
Jul 10, 2006 - 07:53pm PT
This seems to have a lot to do with the rise of bouldering as the style of choice for the strongest young American climbers, and that same powerful style and love of the overhung being applied to sport climbing.

Viva la Slab! nothing else like it for climbing off the couch with nothing but technique on your side

Social climber
Davis, CA
Jul 10, 2006 - 07:58pm PT
Yeah. Slab climbing doesn't reward fitness as much as steep rocks.

Hell, you actually have to know how to climb, to climb slab. WHich is why I steer clear of 'em.

Boulder climber
Portland, OR
Jul 10, 2006 - 08:02pm PT
It's because of us slackers who are too cheap to re-sole our shoes. You ever tried to climb a slab with your big toe sticking out?

I think Johnny Dawes has some wicked 5.14 slabs over in England somewhere. I remember seeing pictures of them in an old issue of Climbing that made my head spin...

Trad climber
California somewhere
Jul 10, 2006 - 08:25pm PT
"it is interesting that the hardest true slabs seem to be in the 5.12 range, and many such routes were established 20 years ago or more."

True slab climbs to be put up in good style require scary runout climbing, maybe standing there on some questionable edge/stance on a hook and a ladder while you take the time to hand drill a bolt. Heady, but unfortunately something not many climbers today would find fun by any means (which yay, more slab for those of us who want to go get scared and explore).

I have tremendous respect for people like Dan Dingle. He put up Crest Jewel (& CJ Direct) all on lead, all bolts hand drilled. He found gorgeous slab lines and made them work. Table of Contents on Stately Pleasure Dome is also one of his works of art. And also put up in that same proud style. TofC is one of my favorite slab lines in TM.


Trad climber
Gunks end of country
Jul 10, 2006 - 08:36pm PT
I really enjoy it. But have much less experience than I would like. And no leads worth mentioning in this august company.

I once tried a 5.10 slab problem in WV. A few bolts on a 50 foot sandstone slab. I was nowhere near good enough to send it then - feed were sliding inside shoes! Shoes would not stick. Not even a decent fingernail nub.

Stayed around to watch the next party try. One guy got about 5 feet higher by trying to work right from the first bolt. Pendulum run and rope jump. Yahoo!

That problem is now closed and bolts chopped, since the rock is poised to drop a few hundred feet into the Cheat River. And I wonder if I am good enough now :(

Social climber
santa cruz
Jul 10, 2006 - 09:03pm PT
Many answers to your questions, but points well taken. I am often dissed for gravitating toward slabs.

But to the point: "And why don't people climb hard slabs much any more? Is it just because they're too scary, or not trendy? "

I suspect that like many climbs in the valley (and elsewhere), years of rubber have polished the slabs so that what was once an intimidating climb now may seem unapproachable. For example, perhaps those of you that have been around can answer whether Energizer has always been so slick, or has it become more polished over the years?
Karl Baba

Trad climber
Yosemite, Ca
Jul 10, 2006 - 09:53pm PT
I love slab climbing. Makes you think hard, and in the moment like Tai Chi, but you're not getting wickedly pumped ever moment (unless you count burning calves)

(although at it's limit, it's pretty stressful as you never know when you're going to slip off and falls can be long)

Yeah, I enjoy those Dingle routes are great.

But where's our own notorious Bruce Morris. He's a slab god didn't you know?

I used to enjoy the first 7 pitches of Hall of Mirrors. Now I'm too sane to brave the big falls on old bolts on that thing. You'd have to make hard 5.10 moves, one after another, 15 feet led out. If you started to fall, you'd sigh and think "Oh God, I have to climb that whole nightmare all over again"


Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Jul 11, 2006 - 12:51am PT
from the '87 Meyers & Reid Yosemite Climbs climbing history section:

"As the free-climbing revolution developed in the 70ís, it became clearer that the potential for difficult new routes was not limited to crack climbs. With some minor exceptions (the Snake Dike and Peanut, among others), face and slab climbing had traditionally been the domain of Glacier Point Apron, where since the 1960ís bolts had been placed to protect the wandering slab climbing. The 70ís saw incredible development on the Apron, in large part due to the advent of friction shoes. The main participants in the early 70ís included Mike Breidenbach, Vern Cleavenger, Tom Harrison, and Rik Reider (who with Rabb Carrington produced in 1972 the most difficult and serious face route for the next seven or eight years Ė A Motherís Lament). By the late 70ís, Bruce Morris and Chris Cantwell were attacking the right side of the Apron, producing many short but worthwhile routes. Unfortunately, many of the leading aficionados of Apron climbing have elected a boldless use of the bolt. In search of another route to the top of Glacier Point, in 1980 Cantwell, Morris, Scott Burke and Dave Austin completed work on a line that accomplished just that. Called the Hall of Mirrors, it involved several bolt ladders that have doubtfully been as free as reported. The 1980ís have seen further route development, but with the introduction of the new high-friction shoes, any routes of significance in the future must show far greater boldness."

Social climber
The West
Jul 11, 2006 - 01:35am PT
Those routes depended on footwork, a lost art in the wake of sticky rubber.

Sport climber
Buzzard Point, TN
Jul 11, 2006 - 02:31am PT
Gene Drake always told me he thought that old rubber worked better for thin dimes, esp in TM. Said a pair of EBs didn't roll off like all this 'new fangled' stuff. He was probably talking Fires....


Social climber
Jul 11, 2006 - 06:45am PT
There are a couple of V15 ish boulder problems by Tokio Muroi which are slabs.

Jul 11, 2006 - 09:15am PT
I agree, TOC is a wonderful slab route Ė thanks to Dingle for that one. Although Iíve taken huge whippers on the first pitch between the second an third bolts, Iíd say the three bolted third pitch is the most exciting and obviously rarely done considering the rusted ľĒ bolts in place (so far Iíve only seconded that pitch).

I agree with the OP that slab climbing is a lost art. Most neophytes started in the gym which does not really develop the slab style of climbing. Too bad, too, because I probably owe any meager footwork skill I may have to the slab climbing I have done.

As far as difficulty is concerned, maybe the relatively low angle nature of slab (compared to steeper face or overhanging climbing) that does not permit difficulties above the 5.12 range (but who am I to judge since I do not climb at that level, just postulating), with only a more vertical wall providing the level of difficulty necessary for a 5.14 grading.

Mountain climber
Jul 11, 2006 - 09:42am PT
At least among the Yosemite crowd I think that the rock fall risk of climbing on Glacier Point Apron has dampened the whole field. At least for myself GPA used to be my favorite area in the valley, particularly on semi rest days. Long runouts maybe, but slow falls. But I rarely go over there now. Seen pictures of the rock falls. Scary stuff. By the way, right side a Goodrich is a blast. Worth the risk evey now and then. :]

Social climber
Jul 11, 2006 - 10:08am PT
Warren Harding demonstrates smearing technique. Yosemite. 1976.

Table of Contents. Tuolumne.

Foot Note.

You got to stick your butt out.

Deucey on Sweet Nothings.

Al Dude is one of the few, still keeping the craft alive.

First ascent of The Arena. Tahoe.
He's got a stance and goes for the hammer.

Hand drilling from stance on the first ascent of Fight Fire With Fire. Echo Lakes.

First ascent of New Blood 5.12. Pieshop, Tahoe. Hand drilled from stance on lead.

Joshua Tree has slabs everywhere.

Tucker Tech. Slab climbing near Saddle Rocks.


Trad climber
Jul 11, 2006 - 10:19am PT
Sweet Photo's!!

I think slab climbing is still very much alive.....climb it all the time....Especially in TM.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Jul 11, 2006 - 10:22am PT
awesome pictures Blitzo!

the difference between slab and face sort a blurr at some angle, but Royal Arches slab/face area is a nice one too... I've surprised myself over there occasionally (not being able to read the fine print helps, can't tell the difference between .10a and .10b). Delicate feet, smearing leading to smedging leading to edging... just don't worry about what keeps you levitated too much.

Of course, there are a lot of Ed Leeper's old hangers up above the first pitches... but also some very very long routes.

And then there is Tuolumne!
August West

Trad climber
Where the wind blows strange
Jul 11, 2006 - 11:27am PT
Back in the day of "the leader must not fall," slabs were just one more style.

In the day of "push until you come off and then try again," slabs (like squeeze chimneys) aren't very inviting.

I've enjoyed climbing slabs, but I wish there were a few more on the apron and up in Toulumne that were less runout--took one long skid on a slab (wore a hole in the bottom of my shoe that I could stick a finger through) and have no desire to do that again.

Social climber
flagstaff arizona
Jul 11, 2006 - 11:30am PT
i'm going to have to humbly disagree with you guys. i know many, many new-age boulderers who focus a great deal of their energy on standard-issue modern-day super-steep boulder problems, but who are also extraordinary skilled slab climbers. they seek out and send the most outrageously thin dime routes. little cottonwood canyon, in particular, may very well host the largest selection of the hardest slab climbs in america. mike beck, mike call, boone speed, steven jeffrey, lance bateman, sam tingey, and a host of others are doing unreal slab climbs -- super highball, V10 - V11 type stuff. routes like the "O face", "lance's scary slab," "big", the left side of the eastgate slab -- these are less-than-verticle slabs that involve classic roubidoux focus: extreme smearing, crimping down on holds so small they can hardly be seen -- beleive me, slab climbing is not a lost art, in fact i think these guys have advanced the art in the last few years -- but these guys also pretty much deliberately avoid the limelight and climb for the approval of their peers, not their "sponsors" -- they don't have any -- and so their accomplishments on the slabs are flying beneath the radar. there are lots of folks keeping the flame alive, but if you're not out there everyday in the trenches with them, you'd never know they existed.

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