How to Climb Chimneys When Rock Climbing

Chimneys Are Found on Big Climbing Routes

Chimney climbing
Photograph Copyright Stewart M. Green

Chimneys are cracks or fissures in cliffs that are wide enough for you to fit your body inside. Chimneys range in width from body-width chimneys, which are just wide enough for you to squeeze into, to wide gaping chimneys that you climb by bridging and stemming your arms and legs on opposite walls.

Two Basic Types of Chimneys

Chimneys are often the easiest cracks to climb on routes. You will encounter two basic chimneys—squeeze chimneys and full-body chimneys, ranging in width from two to six or more feet wide. How you climb a chimney depends on its width.

Learn to Climb Chimneys

Climbing a chimney usually requires a straight-forward technique, but it takes a lot of practice to develop the necessary skills to efficiently climb chimneys and to assess how best to climb the chimney above you. To become a well-rounded climber, you need to learn how to climb chimneys, because, like off-width cracks, most long routes in places like Yosemite Valley or the desert towers around Moab have chimneys that you have to climb to get up the route.

Use Opposing Pressure to Climb Chimneys

Chimneys are climbed by using opposing pressures with your hands, knees, feet, and back on the sidewalls of the chimney. Advance upward by pushing and pulling against the walls, moving in short spurts rather than big moves. Use both sides of the chimney to climb it and make progress by pushing and pulling against the opposing sidewalls. Chimney climbing is a game of inches, not feet. Make small movements, especially in squeeze chimneys, to conserve energy. Don’t make big moves upward unless your feet are planted on big holds.

How to Climb Squeeze Chimneys

Squeeze chimneys can be hard to climb, depending on the size of your body and the width of the chimney. Your body fits inside a squeeze chimney. If the chimney is a tight fit, then progress is made by inches. Wider squeeze chimneys allow you to slither upward inside it. The basic technique to climb a squeeze chimney is the secure heel-toe movement also used in off-width cracks. Put your heels on one wall and the toes of the rock shoes pointing down and against the opposite wall. Use foot pressure and sticky rubber to move upward. Stiff shoes work the best. Use your palms to press against the opposite wall as well as chicken wings with one arm and your hand pressing against the outer edge of the chimney.

How to Climb Back-and-Foot Chimneys

Wider back-and-foot chimneys are climbed by pushing your back against one wall and pressing your feet against the opposite wall. Climb it by putting one foot below your butt and leaving the other on the opposite wall. Press against the wall with your foot and straighten your leg, pushing your body up. Also, use your hands to push too. After moving up, change your leg positions. Look for face holds to put a foot on or to grab with a hand. On wider chimneys, keep both feet on the opposite wall and move by pushing against the wall behind your back with your hands.

Full-Body Chimneys

Ultra-wide full-body chimneys can be easy or hard to climb, depending on the width of the chimney and what face holds are inside it. The best way to climb a wide chimney is to stem up the chimney with one arm and leg on one wall and the other arm and leg on the other. Make progress by pressing against the walls and then scooting a foot​ and then a hand or both hands up. Avoid making big movements unless you’re stepping onto a face hold. For very wide chimneys, do a full-body stem with your hands on one wall and feet on the other wall. These chimneys are usually scary, strenuous, and rarely found on routes.

Places to Practice Chimney Climbing

It is difficult to find cliffs with enough different-sized chimneys to get lots of chimney-climbing practice. If you find a good chimney at your local cliff, use it to practice as many techniques as you can. Granite cliffs tend to have more chimneys than cliffs formed from other rock types, although chimneys are common on some sandstone cliffs like those in Utah. Some climbing areas with good chimney climbs include Lumpy Ridge and Turkey Rocks in Colorado; Little Cottonwood Canyon, Indian Creek Canyon, and cliffs around Moab, Utah; Yosemite Valley and Joshua Tree National Park in California; and the crags at Vedauwoo near Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Chimneys are Hard to Protect

Most chimneys are difficult to protect with gear. Look inside the chimney for smaller cracks that will take gear like nuts and cams. It can be scary to climb chimneys because there usually isn’t much gear but the good thing is that the lack of protection is often not a big deal because it can be hard to fall out of a chimney.