3 Types of Rock Faces for Climbing

Slab, Vertical, and Overhanging Faces

Mia Axon uses power and technique to climb an overhanging route at China Cave in Logan Canyon in northern Utah. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Climbers find three basic types of rock faces and terrain when they are climbing--slabs, vertical faces, and overhanging walls. The different kinds of rock terrain are formed from various types of rocks, including volcanic rocks like basalt; metamorphic rocks like quartzite; sedimentary rocks like sandstone, conglomerate, and limestone; and igneous rocks like granite and quartz monzonite.

Rock Type Determines Climbing Terrain

Each kind of rock type erodes in a distinctive pattern and allows for different climbing techniques.

  • Igneous rock, the bedrock of the earth's crust, usually forms and erodes into slabs and vertical faces like those at Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite Valley, and the South Platte area. It rarely forms overhanging faces and it usually has less hold when it does.
  • Limestone, a rock deposited at the bottom of seas, tends to form vertical and overhanging walls and caves like those at Rifle Mountain Park, Shelf Road, and Jacks Canyon. 
  • Metamorphic rock, a type created by an alteration of existing rock by heat and pressure, often forms slabs and vertical walls, although it may erode into slightly overhanging faces. 
  • Volcanic rock, which is a type of igneous rock, forms on the earth's surface, sometimes in lava flows. It usually forms vertical faces with occasional overhanging sections. It rarely forms into slabs.

Slabs are Angled Less than 90 Degrees

Slabs are rock faces that are angled at less than 90 degrees or less than vertical. Climbing a slab requires a good sense of your feet and how to use them as well as balance and rock shoes with lots of friction. When you climb a slab, the general rule is that you keep your weight on your feet. This foot technique is called smearing and the holds you use are usually called friction holds or smears. You usually smear your feet on tiny holds on the rock or simply rely on the shoe rubber to hold against a smooth rock. Typically, your hands and arms are used for balance rather than pulling because it’s your feet that keep you on the rock and moving upward.

America’s Best Slab Climbing Areas

Here are some of the best slab climbing areas and cliffs in the United States:

Vertical Faces Are 90 Degrees

Vertical faces are exactly that--rock faces angled at 90 degrees, which is more or less straight up. Usually, climbers will consider faces that are slightly less than 90 degrees to be vertical since they are climbed by the same techniques. Like climbing slabs, footwork is very important when you climb vertical cliffs. You keep your weight over your feet as much as possible, which avoids taxing your arms too much and getting pumped and falling off. Foot techniques include inside edging, outside edging, and smearing. You also need to find your center of gravity and sense of equilibrium, keep an upright body position, and use your hands and arms for pulling.

America’s Best Vertical Climbing Areas

Here are some of the many excellent American climbing areas that offer vertical climbing:

  • Shelf Road, Colorado
  • Smith Rock, Oregon
  • Red River Gorge, Kentucky
  • New River Gorge, West Virginia
  • Shawngunks, New York

Overhanging Faces Are More Than 90 Degrees

Overhanging faces are those rock faces that are overhung or angled more than 90 degrees. Climbing overhanging faces requires, of course, lots of upper body strength, an apelike attitude, and excellent climbing technique. If you don’t have a combination of these three factors, you might get off the ground but you’re not going to climb too high. Surprisingly, climbing overhanging faces also requires exacting footwork where the climber uses his feet in specialized techniques like heel hooks and toe cams, which help take the climber’s weight off his arms. Another important skill for overhanging climbing is being able to find and use rests.

America’s Best Overhanging Climbing Areas

Lots of great American climbing areas offer overhanging climbing:

  • Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado
  • American Fork Canyon, Utah
  • Red River Gorge, Kentucky
  • Kaymoor at New River Gorge, West Virginia
  • Rumney, New Hampshire