Dancing in the vertical, three points of contact, and breaking 5.8

Someone once called rock climbing ‘dancing in the vertical’. I like that. Successful climbing requires much the same as dancing. There is balance, rhythm, three-dimensional movement, grace and strength all combined. And both, when done well, appear almost effortless.

I think that is why I love to watch people climb. To me, it’s almost like looking at a piece of artwork or a well-planned choreographed routine. Often as I watch others, I see something that I could do better and it inspires me to improve my own dance in the vertical.

I also get to watch a lot of beginners climb. It’s inspiring to see their efforts to accomplish something that they previously thought was impossible. The smiles on their faces as they reach the final hold is much of what gives me a reason to come to work everyday.

However, another thing that I notice is that a significant number of beginners seem to get stuck at about the 5.7 range. And the reason is almost always the same: three points of contact.

Now three points of contact (two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot) is great if you’re climbing a ladder or some other structure from which you dare not fall (I was never more scared in my life than the time I was on a 30-foot extension ladder next to my chimney with the Kansas wind gusting up to 35 mph. Even three points lead to some serious sphincter tightening).

Modern rock climbing, however, expects you to fall. The whole point of all of our personal protective gear, from harnesses to carabineers to ropes, is in anticipation of those falls. As such, as route grades increase they frequently require movement that is not possible with the old three points of contact. And again, this seems to be what shuts down a lot of climbers early on.

This usually looks something like a solid right foot low and a slightly higher left foot. The right hand is also on a decent hold, but the next left hand is too high to reach while keeping both feet on the good holds. I’ve witnessed some truly epic attempts to some how make that left arm stretch or grow in order to reach the next hold when all they really needed to do was to step up on that left foot and let the right foot leave it’s place of safety (‘looky there Wilma, that fella only has two points of contact’ — heavy country accent). Then as your left foot propels you heavenward, suddenly that distant hold is easily in reach of the your left hand and, wah-lah, you’re back to your 3 points of contact!

The key to this is center of gravity (see my previous blog: ‘Defying gravity, centering your universe and maybe impressing Ima’) and momentum. While strength and lock-off are helpful (the ability to lock your arm in a bent position and hold your body there), much can be done even without that if we use the momentum of lightly hopping off our lower foot and rocking onto our higher foot as we move up to grab the next hold. And if it doesn’t work? Well, that IS what the rope is for.

So go ahead. Give it a try. Soon you will be dancing in the vertical.

Climb hard and Follow Your Bliss,


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