Climbing technique : How to climb a roof

Horizontal roofs, super steeps, and overhangs are among the most intimidating features in climbing. A ticking pump clock, acrobatic moves, and increased exposure make this type of terrain feel imposing. Climbers either love or hate routes like Yosemite’s Separate Reality, Kachoong on Australia’s Mount Arapiles, the Zombie Roof in Squamish, and nearly anything in the Gunks. Prepare for horizontal movement with the following tips and advice gained from more than a decade of experience on Gunks roofs from 5.3 to 5.12.

Leaving the Ground

Before pulling onto the rock, have a plan established with your belayer in case communication becomes difficult. Ambient noise and fear can limit the follower’s hearing, and even in close proximity, the angle of rock can prevent any verbal contact whatsoever. A few things to discuss: soft catches, a belay-signal system (rope tugs, walkie talkies, etc.), where falls are likely to occur, and what to do if the second falls and can’t get back on (does he have the proper gear to ascend the rope?).

Arriving at the roof

Climb to the roof and arrive as fresh as possible. Scope the line for places to recover before the roof and milk rests along the way. Consider climbing up, placing gear in or near the roof, then downclimbing to a rest position so you can relax and plan your attack.


Take in as much as you can from below the feature. If possible, do some physical recon. Find the good holds, or look for clues like chalk and shoe rubber. Keep in mind that holds look different from below. Chalk-caked holds may be poor, and an unmarked crimp could be a better option. Underclings and pinches can be harder to see. Look for shelves or horizontal breaks that provide a heel hook, kneebar, or heel-toe cam. If the roof is a body length or longer, look for toeholds; a torqued foot can grab a jug rail, or a nub could be the key to pushing the body along.

Many climbers panic beneath roofs because the climbing above contains cryptic moves. Calm your mind and body with focused breathing. If you’ve found a good rest stance, take 10 solid breaths (aim for a 3–4 count on both the inhale and the exhale), and hold the last one for a few extra seconds. Exhale and fire.

Climbing through the roof

As the terrain turns horizontal, more of your weight falls on your arms, and the fight to hold on begins. Pure core strength helps, but finesse helps even more. Look for heel hooks, toe hooks, kneebars, and shoulder or hip scums—anything to get weight off your arms. Roll the hips from side to side to reset your feet, or crouch like a frog to keep your center of gravity close to your lower body.

Steeper terrain requires effort to keep the feet in place. Engage your core and hips. Imagine a button on the foothold and push it as hard as you can. Remember that when you lose a foot, the body will soon follow. While working the legs, contract the central muscles in the body: abdominals, obliques, and lower-back muscles. Strong muscle engagement means stability, which helps with movement. This takes conscious effort. Clench those abdominals and keep your back muscles and butt tight.

While the lower body focuses on stabilizing and advancing, the upper body keeps the torso afloat. Think of your core and legs as the engine and your arms as the steering wheel; the former should offer power and propulsion while the latter offers direction. If holds get bad (slopers, crimps, pinches), stop hanging on your arms and pull in tight for a lockoff while you reposition your feet. Having bent arms will engage your entire upper body, which will in turn make it easier to engage your core. Keep in mind, though, that this lockoff position will burn your forearms out quickly.

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