How to Climb Aretes

Climbing Aretes Requires Strength and Technique

Ian Spencer-Green climbs at the Old New Place at White Rock climbing area in New Mexico.
Perfect arete climbs like "Wailing Banchees" in New Mexico are hard to find but super fun to climb!. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Aretes, simply vertical sharp edges that jut out from a cliff face, are not only beautiful rock features but also make stellar climbs that are usually exposed and technical. Most aretes are bolted sport climbs because they do not usually have features for gear placements. Most arêtes also require solid climbing technique as well as strength to successfully climb. Most arête routes have few distinct handholds and footholds, instead offering off-balance moves with smears and small edges for footholds and tiny layback holds, pinches, and friction slopers for the hands.

Study the Arete before Climbing

Arête climbing, because there is usually an absence of good holds, is strenuous and pumpy. It is best to eyeball the route from the ground before you start climbing. Figure out where you will place your hands on the arête. Look for footholds on the face. Remember too that an arête has two sides so you can sometimes switch from one face to the other if the holds allow that. Try to figure out which plane of the arête you will be mostly climbing.

Look for Rests and Clipping Stances

Arete climbing is usually devious and deceptive with technical and improbable sequences so unless you're super strong, you can easily fall off. Look for possible rests, like a jug handhold or a good foothold off to the side. That rest can make all the difference between clipping the chains or taking flight. Also study what your body position will be when you clip the bolts. You will often climb an arête on one side or the other and you will only have one hand to be able to clip a quickdraw into a bolt and the rope.

Make sure you rack your quickdraws on the correct side so you can easily get them off your harness with one hand.

Laybacking is Usual Arete Technique

Laybacking, that is using holds on the same rock feature with both your hands and feet, is the most common technique used to climb arêtes, particularly on sharp features that have few nearby holds to keep you in balance.

Laybacking up an arête usually requires a lot of balance, composure, and technique since your body positions often have to counter barndooring, which is the tendency to swing toward your hands and feet like the hinge on a barn door. When a climber barndoors on an arête, the outward momentum usually causes a loss of his hand grip, his feet skate off, and he falls.

Pay Attention to Hand and Foot Placements

You need to pay attention to handholds and foot placements while laybacking an arête to be successful. Try to place your feet close to the arête's edge on positive features like edges or smears. Feel along the arête for the best holds for your hands. Sometimes you can find small indentations on the opposite side of the edge which allows you to layback against them. Also look for places where you can pinch the arête; a thumb catch hold works great for arête pinches. Pay attention to your hips and try to keep them close to the wall surface to counter the barndoor effect.

Find Face Holds to Counter Barndooring

Many arêtes do not require extreme laybacking with both hands and feet. Instead the climber uses one hand and foot on the arête and places the other hand and foot on face holds to the side of the arête.

Using those holds away from the arete keeps the climber in balance and counters the barndooring effect since those holds act as anchors against that swinging sensation.

Heel, Toe, and Calf Hooks are Essential

Heel, toe, and calf hooks, specialized foot and leg climbing techniques, are also important for mastering hard arete climbs. In fact, many aretes are impossible to climb without using heel and toe hooks. Hooking your foot and leg around the edge of an arête helps counter the barndoor hinge effect and also allows you to unweight your arms and hands so you can move them to higher holds, sometimes using a deadpoint or dyno move. A heel hook, even a slight one with the heel of your rock shoe pressed in a dimple smear on the opposite side of an arete, can often allow you to snatch a quick shake-out rest for your arms.