Tips and techniques on how to climb chimneys

Doug Williams
angelfoodwall - Author: Drew Brayshaw - CC BY-NC 2.0

In the sport of climbing, chimneys are a type of crack within a cliff structure that is wide enough for your body to fit inside. There are different types of chimneys, varying in size, length, and width.

Some chimneys aren’t particularly wide, but you can still squeeze yourself in, while others are large, gaping or deep and have cracks that you can climb by stemming or bridging your arms and legs on opposing sides and then using slide and pressure techniques to pull yourself up.

Pic Saint Michel, Éperon SE – Author: Frédéric Bunoz – CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

Climbers consider chimneys to be the easier cracks to climb. There are two types of the chimney, squeeze chimneys and full chimneys, and they’re the only kind of chimney that you will ever encounter while climbing. These chimneys can range from two feet to six or seven feet in width. The width of a chimney is a significant factor, as the technique needed to climb up a chimney depends on how wide it is.

Learning to climb chimneys

Abseiling down Nicholson’s chimney, Sgurr nan Gillean, Skye – Author: Robbie Shade – CC BY 2.0

The techniques required to climb a chimney are pretty straight forward, however, a lot of practice and attention is needed in order to develop the necessary skills to become an efficient chimney climber. First and foremost is to make sure you take a moment to analyze the crack you are planning to climb. Any face holds or little pockets are going to be really helpful so keep an eye out for them.

Learning how to climb chimneys is a significant part of becoming a well-rounded or fully qualified climber. In some cases, you can only attempt to climb a route by starting off with a chimney; for example, in Yosemite Valley or some desert Towers near Moab have routes that start with chimney climbing.

Use of Opposing pressure

Krister in “The chimney” – Author: resa & krister – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Essentially, chimney climbing is all about finding the right rhythm and hitting the sweet spot while using opposing pressures exerted with your hands, feet, knees, and back on the sidewalls. Climbers advance upwards simply by pulling and pushing against the side. The key is to be patient and take short steps instead of big, fast moves. Both sides of a chimney are used to slide and exert pressure, while knees maintain and balance the flow of pressure and continuity of advancement. Small movements are also necessary as this will conserve your energy, where big movements upward will eventually wear you out and balance will be difficult to maintain.

Climbing Squeeze chimneys

Lyle Closs, Pulpit Chimney February 2010 – Author: Stefan Karpiniec – CC BY 2.0

Depending on the width of a squeeze chimney and dimensions of your body, climbing one can be challenging and strenuous. By definition, your body will only just about fit inside a squeeze chimney. If the chimney is a really tight fit, your only option is to be extremely patient and make progress inches at a time. The basic technique while climbing up a really tight squeeze chimney is to effectively deploy a heel-toe movement which is often used in off-width cracks as well. In this method, the heel is placed firmly on one side of the chimney while toe of the other foot is placed on the opposite wall with its front end pointing downwards. The combination of forces exerted by heel and toe on the opposing sides is then used to create slight lift allowing you to slide upwards.

Climbing Back-and-Foot chimneys

Chimney shimmy with dirtbag Santa Claus – Author: James – CC BY 2.0

It is much easier to climb wider chimneys, also known as back-and-foot chimneys, wherein a climber simply needs to push his back against the wall of the chimney while pressing with feet against the other. From there on, it is just a walking up kind of movement. The climber will put one foot after the other while using the pressure from the feet on his back which slides on the wall. The pressure is maintained and locked using bent knees. Hands are used on the side to support the back as it slides and also to help push the body upwards. After moving up one step the position of the leg is changed, and pressure is applied again to allow the other leg to release after the back has finished moving and space is opened for the other leg.

Full-Body chimneys

Mendelt Tillema returns to the Organ Pipes Mt Wellington – Author: Stefan Karpiniec – CC BY 2.0

These kinds of ultra-wide or full-body chimneys can prove to be a bit tricky to climb: some full-body chimneys are hard to climb while others aren’t really challenging. This entirely depends upon the makeup of the chimney; a chimney’s width and the presence of hand holds on its walls greatly affect its difficulty level. Stemming is often the best way to climb a wide chimney; simply use your one hand and a leg to maintain pressure on one wall while the other hand and leg to slide up the other wall.

Unless you find a large face hold to rest and then leap from, try avoiding big steps and work your way up with small slides, periodically giving your muscles a rest as you do so, ThoughtCo reported.

Protection against chimneys

Me climbing the second pitch – Author: Tristan Higbee – CC BY 2.0

There isn’t a whole lot of gear that can provide you with adequate protection while trying to attempt a climb in a chimney. Your best bet is to look inside the chimney and locate any small cracks where you can fit nuts and cams, or face holds that you can use to assist you on your way.

Climbing clips

However, lack of adequate protection is not usually such a big deal, since it’s really quite hard to fall from a chimney due to your back and legs being jammed between the two faces. If a climber loses balance, he can easily recover by quickly pushing against the wall with his legs and back. However, if he lets himself fall for a couple of feet, creating the push will be harder and even impossible at times.

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