The Figure Four

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1999

The Figure Four

The Diving Dig | The Cartwheel | The Figure Four | Take the Stairs | The Crossover Dribble | The Righteous Gitis | The Rock-a-Copter | Hang Ten | The Twisting Somersault | The Wheelie

Faced with a smooth and featureless span of wall, some climbers would see just one available course of action: Panic, scream "Falling!" and let go, making their belay partner lower them down. Not you. You're going to make it to that handhold four or five feet overhead, even if you have to contort yourself into a pretzel. Of course, you'll first need to master this, one of the trickiest of climbing tricks. "You've got a huge hold with one hand, and then you turn yourself inside out to make this incredibly long reach with the other hand," explains Todd Skinner, the 40-year-old free-ascent pioneer of some of the world's toughest rock faces, including the East Face of Trango Tower and the Salathé Wall on El Cap. "It looks pretty strange, but sometimes it comes down to this one move."

The basic scenario for the figure four has you perched on the wall with your legs fully extended below you and your hands at shoulder level. The key is having one very secure handhold—a "bucket," in the parlance of climbers. If that hold is on the right side, firm up your grip and your right foothold, and then make like Houdini: Quickly draw your left knee up between your chest and the wall, and hook your leg over your rock-solid right arm. By trying to straighten that leg you can lever your entire body upward and hopefully reach another secure hold with your free left hand. From there, it's onward and upward. Not surprisingly, Skinner suggests practicing in the relative safety of the gym. "The application of the move may be done outdoors," he says, "but the acquisition of the skill is best done in the laboratory."


Hand strength rather than brute strength. Make sure your hold is up to the task.

PHOTOS: Beth Wald

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