Respect the toes, an essential climbing skill

Toes just don’t get the recognition that they deserve.  On the very end of your body, they are the last to get blood flow and so also the last to warm up on these recent sub-zero mornings. Toes spend most their lives hidden in foot wear or terribly embarrassing stockings, get bumped and bruised daily, and generally have the fragrance of a rotting trout.  Even for those who are lucky enough to receive the occasional pedicure, it is with the understanding not so much of creating beauty, but of diminishing ugliness. 

But don’t let their lack of sex-appeal lure you into a complacent feel as to their importance.

I remember once when my children were very young, chasing my toddler daughter around our living room when suddenly she stopped dead in her tracks and my bare-feet slammed into her tennis shoe.  Lying on our living room floor writhing in pain, my little piggies, especially the middle one that was clearly broken, gained immediate significance!

Talk to any climber who has establish even a moderate level of expertise though, and she will tell you, the toes are not only significant, but vital to almost all movement.

This is an area where we frequently see beginners, and even intermediate climbers, missing a simple opportunity to improve their climbing. 

The first step is to have a well fitted pair of quality climbing shoes.  They don’t need to be the top of the line, $200 pair of latest and greatest that some 5.15 climber wore on his last FA, but on the other hand, a cheap, low end shoe, is not going to provide a lot of confidence building as well. The shoe should also fit well; and by well, I mean snug.  It doesn’t have to be painful, but you want the toes touching the end of the toe box and slightly crunched together.  This helps to prevent the shoe from hyperextending over the front of your toes (and hence losing traction).

Next look at the shoe.  That small rubber toe cap that covers from about the middle side of the great toe to the 4th toe is where you want 90 percent of your contact with the foot hold to be.  Practice this even on big jug holds that easily accommodate the entire foot and avoid the habit of using the ball of your foot. 

At first, this will seem very difficult, because unless you are a ballet dancer (and honestly, I really don’t even know if ballet dancers have strong toes, I just assume they must), more than likely your toes aren’t accustomed to supporting your weight. Don’t worry, they will get stronger with time.  A simple trick to work these muscles out when not at the gym is to stand on the edge of a step with just your toes touching, bare feet, and do little toe pull ups, raising your foot and heel (hold onto the hand rail for stability).

Now that you have a good shoe on and know what part of the foot to use, watch your toe placement with every move.  Don’t just slap your foot to the next hold.  Laser focus your vision until the toe is placed directly in the place that you want. 

Finally, use that toe like a finger: pulling you into the wall, initiating movement up, or rotating your body for the next move.

Then, after sending your nemesis route, take your shoes off, air out those lower digits, give them a smile, and simply say: respect.

And then maybe go get that pedicure.

Follow your toes . . . er . . . bliss,


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