Posting Suspended Until Spring

Posted: January 12, 2013 in Administration

I hate to do this again so soon, but I have to suspend posting, due to a heavy crunch at work.

Don’t worry, this is only temporary.  I hope to start posting again in the spring.

I have several ideas for post topics once I have time to post again, but if you’d like to help:

  • Start taking videos of your own climbing, especially when you’re getting stuck.  Please consider Submitting A Crux.  If I’m lucky, I may even find the time to post a response before commencing regular posting again.
  • If you have a request or suggestion for a post you’d like to see, please submit Feedback.  I can always use good suggestions for post topics!


Thanks for your patience,

– Static Climber

Advanced Flagging

Posted: January 7, 2013 in Static Technique

Happy new year!  For the first post of 2013, I’d like to cover a fun topic that I’ve been looking forward to for months: Advanced Flagging.  In a previous post, we discussed the basics of flagging, but now I’d like to cover more advanced usage of flagging.  Specifically, we’ll cover flagging for the purpose of manipulating your center of mass, rather than smearing or providing a tool for alignment in turning.

Let’s take a look at some data about body weight distribution: Body Segment Data (from, references included at the bottom of their page).

To summarize, each leg contains roughly 17% to 20% of one’s total body weight on average.  Note that the subjects of this study were young men and women (average ages 23.8 and 19 respectively), also averaging nearly ideal body weights for their height (averaging just over 173 cm, or 5’8″ tall).  With so much mass in each leg, shifting either leg represents a significant change to your center of mass, especially because legs are long which allows the shift of mass to move even further.

The goal behind Advanced Flagging is to reposition a leg in order to move your center of mass to a more desirable location.  The relocation is a transition move used to place your center of mass under one point of contact, or closer to the line between two points of contact, such that releasing a hand will allow you to remain static rather than causing an uncontrollable swing.  Advanced flagging is particularly useful when your remaining points of contact are difficult to reposition, your available footing is limited, or both. When repositioning is particularly difficult, it may be helpful to flag deep behind and past your leg that has a point of contact.

Let’s examine a few cases from videos.

Video: Green V6, from May 12th 2011, originally posted as part of Heel Hook

Time: 37 sec

Advanced Flagging Video 1 - 37 sec

Comments: At this point in the climb, the critical problem is the ability to let go with the left hand. Prior to the Advanced Flaging of the left leg, the center of mass was too far in toward the wall. Releasing the left hand would result in swinging out away from the wall and slipping off all remaining points of contact. Repositioning the left leg out away from the wall leaves the center of mass directly in line between the right hand and right foot. As such, there is no swinging when the left hand releases.

Video: Black V7, from April 8th 2010, originally posted as part of Smearing: Basics

Time: 43 sec

Advanced Flagging Video 2 - 43 sec

Comments: Prior to the Advanced Flagging of the left leg, the center of mass was too far off to the left. Releasing with the left hand would result in a Barn Door style swing off to the right, pulling the climber off the wall when the body shifts too far to the right. All points of contact are thin, and repositioning is difficult, so Advanced Flagging deep behind and past the right leg pulls the center of mass below the right hand. Once the left hand is repositioned, the center of mass can shift back to the left, due to the new point of contact with the left hand, allowing the climb to progress.

Video: Orange V6+, from May 12th 2011

Time: 29 sec

Advanced Flagging Video 3 - 29 sec

Comments: This is not actually a case of Advanced Flagging. While the left leg may be detached from the wall, it’s not serving to reposition the climber’s center of mass. The center of mass is already well positioned directly in line between the left hand and right leg. The left leg merely needs to avoid shifting the center of mass to an undesirable location.

Time: 33 sec

Advanced Flagging Video 3 - 33 sec

Comments: Once again, the left leg is in an Advanced Flag behind the right leg in an effort to shift the climber’s center of mass below the right hand. As before, this shift allows the left hand to release while keeping the climber static and avoiding an uncontrollable swing.

Climbing Clothing

Posted: November 25, 2012 in General Climbing, Safety

Having previously discussed climbing shoes, this week’s topic is about climbing clothing more generally.  The purpose of this discussion is to consider utility and protection, not style.  I’ll leave the topic of climbing harnesses for another post.

Pants:  My most common concern with climbing pants is an unrestricted range of motion.  I find jeans to be particularly bad, as even moderately loose jeans can make it difficult to lift your knees above your hips or higher.  In warmer weather, shorts provide little if any restriction to your range of motion, but beware of scraping up your legs while they are unprotected.  For cooler weather, running pants or other athletic pants are very effective.  Personally, I’m fond of cargo pants, though it’s also best to avoid wearing pants or other clothing that is baggy enough to provide a risk of snagging.  For outdoor climbing, make sure that your legs are protected for the approach.  If you’ll be  hiking through thorny brambles, make sure that your pants will keep you from scraping up your legs.  As one last piece of advice, recall that others will be watching you from below as you climb, so you probably want to avoid skirts and kilts.

Shirts:  Shirts are much less likely to restrict your range of motion than pants.  Athletic shirts work well, but pretty much anything light, comfortable, and not baggy will do.  Some guys, including myself, choose to climb without shirts.  The disadvantage to climbing shirtless is that even a thin shirt provides minimal protection against bumps and scrapes.  With many years of static climbing practice, I still sometimes get a bit scraped up from climbing, even at the gym and without falling.

Helmets:  For outdoor climbing, helmets are a safety necessity.  Even in areas that aren’t prone to falling rocks, one stray rock to the head can cause serious injury or unconsciousness.  An unconscious climber or especially an unconscious belayer can result in the climber’s death.  When climbing outdoors, always wear a helmet.  When climbing in a gym, helmets are often advised, but rarely used.  Other headwear such a hat is inadvisable.  It may restrict your field of vision, and it’s likely to fall off if you’re climbing overhangs, ceilings, or arches.

Glasses:  If you wear glasses for vision correction or sunglasses, be aware that they can fall off, particularly if you’re not using a glasses safety strap.  Whether you normally wear glasses or not, if you find yourself straining your neck by looking  up while belaying, consider getting a pair of belay glasses or belay specs.

Jewelry:  I’d recommend against wearing most jewelry while climbing.  Earrings pose a risk of snagging during a climb unless they’re very small.  I’d recommend limiting earrings to studs if possible.  Rings are likely to get scuffed while climbing.  They may also get caught and make your finger stuck, risking hand injury.  If you have a wedding ring or other ring that you don’t want to leave behind, I’d recommend keeping it on a short necklace.  Necklaces are best kept short, to avoid risking snags.  Watches should be removed unless you don’t mind them getting scratched up while climbing.

Phones and Wallets:  Be aware that anything in your pockets can inadvertently fall out while climbing.  However, modern cell phones and wallets don’t inherently impact your climbing, unless your pockets are so tight that a wallet or phone impacts the range of motion for your hips, which is rare.

Toe Hook

Posted: November 18, 2012 in Static Technique

Toe hooking is an intermediate to advanced technique where a climber uses the front top part of their climbing shoe, directly above the toes, pulling against a feature or hold with the toe of the shoe. Like a heel hook, a toe hook provides stability and control by shifting your center of mass closer to your toe, and tension can prevent your center of mass from moving farther away.

Unlike a heel hook, which works best from the side to the top of a hold, a toe hook works best from the side to the bottom of a hold. Also, compared to heel hooking, a toe hook is less effective on slopers and more effective on thinner flakes, side pulls, and sometimes even crimps.

In general, I find that toe hooking is rarely the tool I’m looking for to solve a problem, however it is invaluable when a toe hook is the right tool for the job.  It is more commonly useful below steep overhangs and ceilings, which are common when leading an arch, or bouldering under an aggressive formation.  Particularly in nearly or completely horizontal positions, toe hooking is especially effective in combination with one or both hands pulling toward your core.  When your hand and toe both pull, the tension of opposed pulls may be enough to keep you on the wall in positions where no other purchase is available.

Both of this week’s videos feature a toe hook that’s a bit unusual.  Let’s take a closer look at them.

First Video, Time 0:42 through 0:45

Comments: It’s unusual for a toe hook to cross behind another another leg, but the small holds also being slight on purchase complicates the sequence.  Neither hands nor feet are well positioned to match and switch.  Furthermore, the sequence requires a left hand crossing over past the right.  The body is inclined to rest further down and to the left with just the left hand and right foot alone, leaving the target handhold out of reach.  The right toe hook pulls the center of mass far enough to the right to allow the left hand to statically reach its target.

Second Video, Time 0:50 through 0:54

Comments: This is another situation where the available holds are very thin.  The left toe hook below, along with the hand, serves to keep the body pulled in closer to the wall, and providing stability for the right hand’s reach.  The toe hook also provided stability for the previous move with the left hand reaching up.  In both cases, the body will swing out from the wall a bit, enough to compromise the right foot.  While the right foot’s hold is large, it’s purchase is minuscule.


Posted: November 11, 2012 in Safety

Spotting in climbing is when someone manually assists in the safety of a climber who is not protected by a roped belay.  Spotting is an important safety tool for bouldering and lead climbing prior to the first clip, even indoors where there is a lot of padding.  However, many climbers have bad spotting form, including many veteran climbers.

Before we get to good and bad spotting form, let’s consider just how dangerous bad spotting is.  To do so, let’s look at the physics behind falling bodies.  In case you don’t have your equations for falling bodies and objects falling from rest handy, but you want to double check my math or run your own scenarios, I’m using the following:

J = (1/2) * M * V^2
J = (1/2) * M * (2 * 9.8 * H)

Where J is Joules of energy, M is mass in kilograms (kg), V is velocity in meters per second, H is the height of fall in meters.  The ^ symbol is the power function, so V^2 is velocity squared.  I’ve substituted 9.8 meters per second squared for acceleration, since I’m primarily concerned with climbing under Earth’s gravity.

Using the above equations, I get the following results:

  • A teenager or small adult weighing 55.4 kg (120 lbs) dropping from a height of 2 meters (just shy of 6 feet) has equivalent energy to a 5.4 kg (12 lbs) bowling ball traveling at 19.87 m/s (44.4 mph, or 71.5 km/hr).  Both have 1066 J of energy.
  • The same person 55.4 kg (120 lbs) dropping from a height of 3 meters (just shy of 9 feet) has equivalent energy to the 5.4 kg (12 lbs) bowling ball traveling at 23.4 m/s (54.4 mph, or 87.5 km/hr).  Both have 1599 J of energy.

As a reminder, conventional wisdom suggests that bouldering above about 10 feet is too dangerous, and that’s under ideal conditions with proper padding and spotting.  Gyms often restrict climbers from bouldering above the point where your feet would pass your standing shoulder height (about 4 feet to 5.5 feet for most adults), except in the specified bouldering areas, where extra padding is available and highly encouraged.

Spotting is not a matter of catching or deflecting the climber.  You certainly wouldn’t consider catching or deflecting a bowling ball flying at highway speeds, and that’s a fairly modest example of the energy involved in a fall.  Another thing to consider is that even a small fraction of the energy of a modest fall is enough to break any bone in your body.  A strike of as little as 15 joules can fracture an adult femur (see Skeletal Tissue Mechanics by Martin, Burr, and Sharkey.  Just search for “joules”).

A climber taking a proper fall withstands the force of the fall by distributing it widely across the body, and increasing the time through which the energy is dispersed (landing on lots of padding).  You have no such luxury if you try to get between your climber and their drop zone.  In fact, you’re more likely to injure both of you in any attempt to catch or break their fall.  Similarly, your hands and arms have very little protection from the force of a climber’s fall.

To recap, here are the 3 important lessons from the physics of falling as they relate to spotting:

  1. Do not try to stop, catch, deflect, or guide the climber’s fall.
  2. Be very careful with your hands when spotting, especially your fingers.  Use the palms of your hands to reorient a falling climber, not your fingers or thumbs.
  3. Stay out of the climber’s drop zone.  If you are repositioning a mat for a climber who is on the wall, make sure you stay clear of where they could land, no matter when they might fall.

The most common injury from bouldering is a twisted ankle, due to an improper fall.  As a spotter, you can’t do anything meaningful to reorient a climber to prevent ankle injury, that’s the climber’s responsibility.

A spotter’s responsibility to a climber is to orient the climber in the event of a fall to prevent head injury.  This takes the form of a modest but firm nudge to the upper back, only if needed to rotate the climber away from a head injury.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some examples:

What’s wrong with this picture?

Answer:  Fingers are pointed forward, likely to get crushed in any attempt to reorient the climber to prevent head injury.

Comments:  This is a surprisingly common mistake, especially among veteran lead climbers.  Often, the lead rope is held across the thumbs in order to “control” it quickly after the climber makes the first clip.  However, correcting a fall from this position can easily crush your fingers, fracturing them so badly that you may never climb again.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Answer:  Thumbs separated, and likely to be the primary contact with the climber.

Comments:  Trying to orient the climber this way during a fall has a high risk of breaking one or both thumbs.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Answer:  Elbows and shoulders are locked.

Comments:  Any force received from orienting the climber’s fall will be transferred directly through the elbows and shoulders.  The compression from keeping them locked has a high risk of injury. Such a position is often symptomatic of trying to catch or deflect a fall, which is even more dangerous.

A better way:

Comments:  Fingers and thumbs kept together and oriented away from the climber, elbows and shoulders bent a bit.  This position is much better prepared to use the palms to reorient the climber in the event of a fall.  In retrospect, I’d prefer to cup my hands less when spotting, to make finger injury even less likely.

Spotting Target:

Comments:  When reorienting a falling climber, your goal is to prevent head injury, in case they are rotating backwards as they fall.  In such a fall, provide a nudge with your palms to their upper back, either to counteract or reverse backwards rotation.

Center Of Mass: Basics

Posted: November 4, 2012 in General Climbing

The location of someone’s center of mass varies by body composition, distribution, and position.  In a neutral and relaxed standing position, your center of mass should be somewhere between the lower part of your sternum and an inch or two above your navel, depending on how you’re built.  Your center of mass will shift as your body changes, such as youth growing taller, elderly growing a bit shorter, gaining or losing muscle mass, gaining or losing other weight, or other physical changes.

As a statistical average, men’s center of mass is about an inch higher than women’s.  This is largely due to men on average having wider chests and broader shoulders, while women on average have wider hips.  This small difference in center of mass is the basis of the chair challenge.  There are different variations on the challenge, some working better than others, and the chair you use does make a difference, but it’s an amusing way to demonstrate differences in center of mass.

As a climber, your center of mass is very important for maintaining balance, stability, and control, whether you interact with your center of mass intuitively or analytically.  The essence behind climbing with straight arms efficiently is allowing your center of mass to rest naturally while supported by your arms.  Your center of mass will tend to rest roughly half way between your arms, though down a couple feet.  The goal is to allow your center of mass to rest there, rather than wasting energy fighting it.

Similarly, your center of mass will often rest about half way between your feet (anatomy), though up by a few feet (distance).  When possible, it’s very efficient to climb by alternating support for your center of mass with two arms (straight!) and one leg while moving the other leg, and two legs and one arm (straight!) while moving the other arm.  Let your center of mass rest naturally while climbing, unless you have a specific need to fight it’s resting position.  On more challenging climbs, these positions may provide brief rests, ease transitions, and conserve energy for when it’s really needed.

Just about anything you do will shift your center of mass.  Some climbing technique is built to work differently with your center of mass.  For example, turning and flagging can be used to support your center of mass while it is horizontally off to the side of all your points of contact.  Other techniques, such as heel hooking, are built to provide a point of contact which will allow your center of mass to rest in a more advantageous position.

For beginner and early intermediate climbing, try to develop your awareness of your center of mass, and how it changes as you move.  In later intermediate and advanced climbing, you will often need to manipulate your center of mass to your advantage.

Bouldering Competitions

Posted: October 29, 2012 in General Climbing

Having just participated in the Boneyard Bouldering Bash, hosted by Vertical Rock in Manassas VA, part of USA Climbing‘s ABS (American Bouldering Series) #14, discussing bouldering competitions seems appropriate.

While I consider climbing to be a social sport, well meaning and good natured competition can be invigorating.  You may not hear beta discussed as frequently during a competition as it is with normal gym climbing, but it is still discussed openly and freely.  From my experience, climbers at competitions cheer each other on, congratulate victories, and genuinely want to see each other succeed.

The exact mechanics of bouldering competitions can vary some from one to the next, but generally work as follows:

  • Each problem available as part of the competition will have a point value, roughly equal to it’s Hueco difficulty multiplied by 100.  For example, a hard V2 could be given a value of 275 points.
  • Each climber carries a score sheet with them.  When they complete a climb, it is marked on their score sheet, along with the total number of falls from prior attempts (if any).  Each fall will cost a small quantity of points for that climb’s value (often just 1 point per fall), generally intended to break ties.
  • A climber’s score will be the sum of the several highest scores (typically 5, but sometimes as few as 3) marked on their sheet at the end of the competition.  For example, if a tournament takes the top 5 scores, and you succeeded at climbs worth 100, 200, 250, 275, 300, and 350 without falls, your score would be 1375 (200 + 250 + 275 + 300 + 350).  This means that even after succeeding at the requisite number of climbs, you can improve your score by replacing your lowest value climbs with higher values.
  • Climbs are typically verified either by judges or peer review.  With judges, climbers hand their score card to a judge who observes the climb, verifies that it was completed cleanly, and signs for the climb.  Judges can result in significant backlogs of climbers waiting to be judged.  With peer review, once you succeed at a climb, you mark it down and get witnesses (typically two) to sign or initial the entry on your score sheet.  Peer review is more error prone, and may require wrangling witnesses prior to attempting a climb.
  • Women’s and Men’s finals are typically among the 5 highest scores among female and male climbers respectively.  Finals are usually held 2 or 3 hours after scorecards are handed in.  A section of wall is removed of climbing holds and replaced with 1 to 3 pre-planned final routes.  Finalists are kept in isolation so they can’t receive beta by watching each other’s attempts.  They proceed in reverse order (lowest score first) with a fixed time to assess and attempt the climb as much as they desire.  Points are awarded based on the farthest move the climber achieved, and the quantity of attempts required to reach that move.