Goal-Setting for Climbing (Part I)

Goal-setting has been an essential tool in all athletic pursuits for decades. You could make the argument that it is an essential tool in all human endeavors. Even chipmunks set out every Fall with the intention of gathering enough acorns to make it through the winter. Goal-setting is just as important in climbing. Goals create focus, steer the training plan, and provide motivation when the going gets tough.

On the summit of Denali

Summit of Denali, 2001

Achieving the goal turned out to be the easy part

Our climbing roots in the world of mountaineering provide a great metaphor. Ultimately the goal is to get to the summit (and back home), but on the big peaks this is usually accomplished through intermediate steps. For example, this may be a typical goal-oriented strategy for climbing Denali:

Main Goal: Summit Denali via West Buttress & return home safely

Intermediate goals:1: Climb from Kahiltna Landing strip to 10K
2: Haul load to 12K, return to 10K camp, establish camp
3: Move camp from 10k to 14k, establish base camp in Genet Basin at 14k
4: Back-haul cache from 12k to 14k
5: Acclimatize with day trip to 17k, return to Base Camp
6: Establish High camp at 17k
7: Climb from 17k to Summit & return
8: Break down high camp and return to Base Camp
9: Retreat from Base Camp to Kahiltna strip, bottoms up!

In the above example, there is a main goal, and a set of intermediate goals that lay the foundation for achieving the main goal. However in this example, the entire process is completed in a few weeks. Most goals are not so quickly realized, and in truth the above goals would not suffice. If you’re sitting at home and thinking you’d like to climb Denali, setting the above set of goals will leave you overwhelmed and a bit lost in terms of how to proceed with achieving the main goal. I climbed Denali via the Cassin Ridge in 2001. In actuality the goal was set several years before I ever set foot in Alaska, and I laid out a multi-year plan to achieve the goal.

The first step is to identify the objective. That’s the easy part, though it presents some pitfalls as well (see Part II). The next step is the most critical and perhaps the most difficult: identify the gaps between the desired end-state (the goal) and your present state. In other words, my goal was to climb the Cassin Ridge. At the time I set the goal, I had never traversed a glacier, summited a peak higher than 12,000 feet, climbed ice of any kind, spent more than one night camping in the snow, experienced temperatures below 0 degrees, planned or executed an expedition, bivied over 8,000 feet… I could go on and on about my lack of credentials for such an activity.

So I developed a list of intermediate goals, each of which would help provide skills and experience that would be necessary on Denali:

Step 1: Climb Mt Rainier. This provided some more alititude exposure, several nights spent on a “high” mountain, and glacier travel experience

Step 2: Climb Mooses Tooth. This provided experience in the Alaska Range, more days (~7 days) spent on an expedition and living on a glacier, more serious glacier travel experience and more challenging alpine climbing experience

Step 3: Climb El Pico de Orizaba. This provided significantly more high-altitude experienace, with a summit over 18,000 feet, and more experience with logistical planning

Step 4: Climb Mt Waddington. This was a much more technically demanding climb than the Cassin, but at a lower altitude with less harsh weather conditions. The climb helped to improve technical skills and provide confidence, plus required 7 days on a remote glacier.

Step 5: Climb Grade 5 Ice: Knowing the Cassin would likely have nothing harder than AI4 (in reality was more like AI2 or 3), this provided more confidence in ice climbing skills and some margin for error.

High Camp on Moose's Tooth, with Denali behind

While striving towards intermediate goals,

it helps to keep the big picture in sight

It took roughly three years just to complete the intermediate goals, but once completed, I knew I was ready to give the Cassin a decent shot. In the end, the Cassin was relatively easy by comparison, which made the route that much more enjoyable.

This approach can and should be applied to all types of climbing. If you’re stuck at 5.11 and you want to climb 5.13, establish some benchmarks and a rough timeframe of when you plan to accomplish them. The benchmarks should not be arbitrary numbers. Rather, they should help you develop a specific skill or confidence that will help you achieve the main goal. Part II will go into more detail about how to select specific goals for rock climbing.

Three Reasons to Train for Climbing

Many people are stoked to go to the crag week in, week out, and climb the same routes year after year.  For some folks climbing is just recreation, not sport.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  I don’t consider watching TV a sport.  I don’t seek methods for improving my TV watching (although I did get a Tivo a few years back, and that pretty much revolutionized my TV watching career), I watch TV for the pure fun of it.  I’m happy for those who approach climbing with that attitude, I wish them all the best, and thank them for leaving the hard routes that much less crowded 🙂  Other people would prefer to see some form of steady improvement over the years (and perhaps a large percentage of the first group are truly part of the second, but they’ve become frustrated after spending years stuck at a plateau, and simply accepted that its not their destiny to climb beyond the level they’re currently at).  If you’re like me, and you want to improve, its just a matter of deciding how to go about doing it and following through with conviction.

Take it from someone who spent a long time climbing 5.10, routes just get better as they get harder

Now, there are many paths to climbing improvement, and they are not all the same.  If you’re a hard worker and you have your head on straight, I think its quite possible to experience slow and steady improvement by simply going to the gym or crag on a regular basis.  If you’re willing to put the time in, its probably not necessary to follow a structured training regimen.  On the other hand, I believe there are some significant advantages to following a designed program.

In my experience, there are basically three primary reasons to “train” for climbing.  First and foremost, because it works, in the sense that most of the time, if done properly, training produces steady improvement over time, which is pretty sweet.  In some cases, it will produce radical improvement in a pretty short period of time.  Check out What I Know About Training for some evidence to back up that claim.

Second, training reduces the risk of injury.  Training prepares your muscles and connective tissue for the stress they will be exposed to once you get out on the rock.  If done wisely, this preparation is controlled and quantified to maximize the amount of stress your body can withstand without doing harm.  In the process, training teaches you to get a feel for exactly how much stress those structures can handle before you need to back off.   Not only does training reduce the risk of injury, but it provides a framework and methodology for recovering from existing injuries.  Once you convert to the mindset of an athlete in training, although you’re still likely to suffer injuries from time to time, they will rarely hold you back for long, because you will become an expert in listening to your body, identifying weakness, stressing weak tissue to stimulate growth, and managing rest periods to maximize recovery.  “Training” and “Rehabilitation” are really just different words for the same thing, and you will become an expert in both.

Third, training saves time.  In fact it saves lots of time.  Nothing is more inefficient, in terms of time, than going to the crag and climbing random routes in an effort to stimulate tissue growth.  With a good training regimen, you can identify precisely which areas you want to stimulate, and apply stress exactly where you want with no wasted effort.  With the proper equipment and a well-conceived program you can work every grip position to failure in less than 90 minutes. Good luck doing that at the crag!  Plus it can be done without a partner, at the gym or in your basement, any time of the day, any day of the year, regardless of weather, work schedules, etc.

What I Know About Training

When I started climbing, I was pretty much a regular bumbly.  I went through season after season of little to no improvement, without really understanding why.  Every time I flirted with a breakthrough I wound up injured and right back where I started.  I assumed that all those people climbing 5.12 or harder were simply genetically gifted, born with elite finger strength.  I was a pretty decent athlete.  I wrestled in high school, and made it to the Quarterfinals of the State Tournament my senior year, so I had a decent amount of upper body strength, good body control and balance.  I ran cross country and track in college.  I knew how to work hard, and how to follow a training program.  Yet when it came to climbing, my ceiling appeared to be mid-5.11.

Me as a bumbly, c. 1996

When I graduated from college I moved to Albuquerque, NM, and finally got my first climbing gym membership.  When I first entered the gym I struggled to climb V1 boulder problems, but after a few weeks I was shooting up the grade scale.  I remember how proud I was to climb my first V4, then a V6, then POP!  There went the A2 Pulley in my left ring finger.  Hmm, a minor setback, but I was young and my body healed quickly.  Three months later I was back at it, another V6 in the bag.  One day I went to repeat the problem just for fun.  POP!  There went the A2 Pulley in my right ring finger.  Bummer.  That summer, the same story again.  I worked my butt off to get back to where I was, and then seemingly without warning I re-injured my left ring finger. 

Finger strength is less of an issue now:

Enough was enough.  I had never been so frustrated.  Three consecutive seasons ending in serious injury.  On the advice of my brother Mike, I picked up a copy of Dale Goddard & Udo Neumann’s “Performance Rock Climbing”.  I read it cover to cover in no time flat.  The metaphors in the book spoke perfectly to me.  This is what I was searching for.  Long story short, in the ten years since I first began following the concepts in that book I’ve gone from a limit of 5.12a to 5.14c.  From three pulley tears in a little over one year to zero in over ten years of doing moves much harder than those that previously resulted in injury.

That’s not to say I haven’t had setbacks; I’ve had plenty, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the process.  But the point is, I’m not a genetic freak.  I didn’t climb 5.13 when I was nine years old or go from zero to 5.14 in less than a year.  I have a good work ethic, but basically I was a pretty average climber for a long time.  Then I started training.  I didn’t become an expert overnight, but with a lot of trial and error, a lot of research and networking, I’ve learned a tremendous amount, and the results of these efforts have far exceeded my wildest expectations.  Many others have had similar results.  I personally know three other climbers that have elevated their game from Gumby-hood to 5.14 following the same basic program that I follow, and many, many others that have made it to 5.13.  It takes some time, some hard work, and perhaps some sacrifice, but I believe firmly that any climber willing to put forth the effort can see huge improvements with the proper guidance.  I hope to share some of that insight here, and if you’re willing to give it a shot, I think you will be happy with the results.

Welcome to my Blog!

I avoided the siren’s call to create a blog for many years, but now that blogging is passe, it seems like the appropriate moment for me to jump on the bandwagon.  Hopefully the climbing community will find this page useful. 

About My Blog

My intention is to cover three main topics: 1) Strategies and methods for training to maximize climbing performance, 2) My random thoughts about any and all things climbing related, be it “style”, “ethics”, what’s hot, what’s not, cool new crags, products etc., and 3) Obligatory spray (bragging about my personal climbing accomplishments).  If I’m lucky, I will accomplish these three goals and provide the reader with the occasional laugh at the same time. 

The Lazy H Barn

Why “Lazy H Climbing Club”? I’m fortunate to live in an amazing little spot in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, just west of Denver, Colorado.  We have a 2.5 acre lot that came with a small, delapidated barn.  The barn had the name “Lazy H” scrawled across the top in wooden cut-out letters.  My first order of business when we moved in was to convert the Lazy H into a miniature climbing gym. Hence the name.

Inside the renovated Lazy H

About  Me

For those that don’t know me, I’ve been a climber for about 20 years or so.  I enjoy all forms of climbing, and I’ve been pretty successful at every type of climbing I’ve pursued.  As an alpinist I’ve climbed Denali’s Cassin Ridge, Devil’s Thumb, and the Greenwood-Locke on Mt. Temple’s North Face.  In the realm of Trad climbing I’ve freed Yosemite’s El Capitan, and climbed numerous 5.13s.  As a sport climber I’ve redpointed 5.14c and on-sighted 5.13b. 

My 15 minutes of fame, after completing the First Free Ascent of Zion’s Spaceshot (IV, 5.13a) with my brother Mike.

 Despite these statistics, I’m pretty much a “regular Joe”.  I have a beautiful wife (Kate), a 14-month-old son (Logan), a mortgage and a 40-hour-a-week desk job.  I love climbing, but I also love having the things that most “normal” folks enjoy.  I love the NFL (Go Bears!), I watch network sitcoms, and I destroyed the competition in the College Football pick ’em contest at work.  I’m an avid cyclist, having ridden the entire Oregon Coast and, my proudest cycling feat, pedaled from my house to the summit of Mt Evans (14K+’ of climbing, 90 miles, round trip).  How have I managed to balance my personal life with my climbing career?  Hopefully this blog will help shed some light on that subject.  If you have any specific questions regarding training or tactics, please don’t hesitate to ask.  It always helps to get some feedback on what your audience is looking for.

Happy reading!

Mark Anderson

At Shelf Road with Logan.