Los Hermanos de la Penitente

Last weekend Kate, Logan & I headed down to the beautiful San Luis Valley to participate in the inaugural Penitente Canyon Anchor Replacement & Trail Repair weekend.  The weekend was a huge success.  Despite a questionable weather forecast, over 40 climbers made the trek, some from as far as Albuquerque, NM and Boulder, CO.  The BLM was there to organize the trail and campground maintenance, and the legendary Bob D’Antonio directed all of the anchor replacement.

The legendary Bob D, rallying the troops.

For those who don’t know, Bob was one of the key protagonists of Sport Climbing in the US, and is certainly the leading figure in the history of sport climbing in Colorado, having established hundreds, if not thousands of routes over the last 30 years.  If you’ve been sport climbing in Colorado or New Mexico, there’s a very good chance you’ve clipped one of Bob D’s bolts.  Like most of Sport Climbing’s founders, Bob was quite an accomplished trad climber, establishing numerous first ascents and early repeats of significant testpieces in Eldo, The Gunks and elsewhere, but unlike many of his peers, Bob had the vision to see the potential in the faces, and the courage to break from the herd.  Well into his 50’s, Bob’s still climbing within a few letter grades of his personal best, and has plans to climb 5.13 again this summer.  Guys like Bob are an inspiration to the rest of us!

Kate enjoying some classic slabbin on “What The Hey”

Anyway, we showed up Friday morning to do some laid back climbing.  Penitente is one of the most beautiful sport crags in the country, with amazing volcanic rock that forms striking features.  Its always a pleasure to climb in the canyon, though at just over 3 hours form Denver, we don’t make it down there too often.  Friday night was our first night in a tent with Logan.  It actually turned out pretty well.  He woke up about 5 times, but we all managed to get just barely enough sleep to make it through the next day.

Resurfacing the entrance area

Saturday began with several hours of trail work and campground/picnic are improvement to help out the BLM.  Its always nice to be able to demonstrate to land managers that climbers are a positive influence on the areas they frequent, and nothing says it better than showing up to offer some free, enthusiastic labor (and two kegs of beer!).  The BLM guys were great, had a good sense of humor about their relationship with the user community, and were extremely grateful for our help.  We spread several tons of gravel around the Gazebo area and the bathrooms, planted new shrubs in several restoration areas, repaired the washed-out trail from the upper campground to the Gazebo, pruned some of the overgrown trails in the canyon, and resurfaced many of the tent pads at the campgrounds. 

After a hearty lunch of free brats, Bob and fellow Mountain Project Administrator Mike Howard gave a quick tutorial on bolt replacement.  About five of us had bolting experience (and drills), so we rounded up groups of novices for some hands-on learning.  Everyone was eager to get involved and learn what goes into properly bolting a route.  I took a great group out (Mike, Adam & Jen), under specific orders from Bob to retrofit Sheer Strength & Sheer Lunacy.  Unfortunately everywhere I turned I saw hardware that needed replacing, so we got a quite distracted.  Thank goodness Kate was willing to watch Logan by herself so I could get as much work done as possible.  We replaced the anchor bolts of The Serpent, then replaced every bolt on Persophone, right niext door.  As we were packing up to head to the Sheer Wall, a pair of climbers asked for help repairing Bucket Slave, so we moved over there to help out.  They already had a rope up, and the route only needed new hangers, so I gave them some hardware and a quick run-dopwn on what to do. 

Sketchy hardware on Sheer Lunacy

We finally made it to the sheer wall, and I decided since we were doing two routes it would be quicker just to come in from the top on rappel.  I’m glad I did.  Sheer Strength was the first, and that was a piece of cake.  We removed several feet of unsightly chain and replaced it with a nice cammo’d ring anchor, and replaced all of the lead bolts.  Last but not least was Sheer Lunacy, and we were appaled by what we found.  I brought Mike up with me so I could show him up close how to replace a bolt.  Mike began unscrewing the first bolt and it came out after only a few turns.  Mike called up that he had broken the bolt off, so we had Adam send up the drill to put in a new hole.  While I was drilling Mike broke the second bolt too, in the same place.  ‘That’s odd’ I thought.  After closer inspection, neither bolt was broken, that was the entire bolt, 3/4″ long!  And easily 1/4″ of that was taken up by the bolt hanger, so less than half an inch of shaft was in the rock!  This thing was a ticking time bomb, just waiting for an unlucky soul to fall at the wrong place.  I was totally shocked.  I’ve never seen such sketchy bolting in my entire career.  But, that’s what this weekend was all about, and I hope that in addition to scoring some free beer and SWAG, we were able to prevent a few accidents.

Sheer Lunacy with fresh hardware in place

It started to drizzle just as we were placing the last bolts, so we headed back to the parking lot.  The party had already started, and we were all psyched to indulge in some great free beer from San Luis Brewery and 3 Barrel Brewery.  There was a pretty good, local Bluegrass Band (complete with Jug Bass), great food, and of course, a SWAG raffle.

Logan getting his groove on at the after-party

The raffle is always the highlight, but this one of the best I’ve every been to.  Trango, Black Diamond, Petzl, OP, Arc Teryx, Wolverine, R&I and Falcon went all out.  Everyone who attented one at least one prize, and many folks got two.  There were free shirts for everyone, courtesy of the AAC, and everyone got a free copy of Rock & Ice, and plenty of stickers courtesy of Trango, BD & Petzl. 

Thanks to everyone who showed up, and here’s hoping this becomes an annual event!

Logan enjoying a sweet stick he found at the campground

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Goal Setting for Climbing Follow-Up

I received some great questions on my “Goal Setting for Climbing” posts, so I will attempt to answer some of them here.  Look for another post in the near future that will address technique drills & other ways to train technique in the gym.

A Virgin No More, Penitente Canyon, CO

Q: I have set a “big hairy goal” this year (Virgin No More, Penitente Canyon), but wasn’t sure about how to incorporate this goal into my training beyond fingerboarding on really small holds.

A: Setting up intermediate goals is a great way to work your way towards a “big hairy goal”.   The great thing about having the big goal in mind, is that it can help determine what those intermediate goals should be.  In this case, I would recommend selecting some project routes that you can use as stepping stones.  Ideally these routes would be at the same crag as your big hairy goal, and of similar style (steepness, hold type, length, continuity).  If geography prevents you from establishing intermediate goal routes at the same crag, try to find some routes nearby that are of similar style.  Some examples of crags with similar climbing to Penitente are Cochita Mesa, NM, Smith Rock, OR, and Shelf Road, CO.  How far you are from achieving your big hairy goal will determine how many intermediate goals are required.  I would recommend trying at least one route at each letter grade between where you are now and where you are going.

When you can’t get regular access to your project, it may be possible to find a similar route to train on closer to home. Mike crushing “Handsome Parish Lady” in Eagle Canyon, NM.

From a training perspective, it can be extremely helpful to identify the characteristics of your goal route and train specifically for them.  The route may have a stopper crux or unusual grip that might be worth incorporating into your hangboard routine (such as a mono move, difficult pinch, or split-finger grip).  Perhaps the route has a shouldery crux, continuous lockoffs, or sustained underclinging, requiring some specific strength training beyond the hangboard. 

Many redpoint attempts end at dynos, so if your project has any, it can be helpful to practice the movements invovled.  Pocket routes may require abnormal precision while dynoing, and often present mental obstacles associated with dynoing (fear of injury or lack of confidence in your precision), so practicing dynoing into pockets in a controlled environment like the gym might be helpful (but be mindful not to over do it!).  Dynoing into or out of unusual position can present similar problems, such as dynoing into an undercling.  Practicing the basic movement in the gym can make things progress more quickly once you get to the real thing.

Understanding the endurance requirements of your project can make the difference between success and failure on a short trip.  Ideally you would know the number of moves, and how long it takes to climb the sustained portions of the route (once you have them sussed).  With this information, you can set up a 4×4, bouldering traverse, or other training circuit that mimics the length (both in terms of # of moves and time), steepness, difficulty and hold type of your project.

Q: What types of technique drills would you do to improve for a thin project?  …How do you approach training in the gym…most gym routes seem to have huge feet and promote more “thuggish” style climbing?

A: I will address this more broadly in a following post, but here’s a preview.  Those who know me well know that the enormous-footholds-in-the-gym-thing is a HUGE pet peeve of mine.  How hard  is it to screw a few jibs on the wall?  Even if your gym is anti-screw-in (as many are, due to the increasingly elaborate wall coatings gyms are using these days), there are many bolt-on footholds on the market that require some thought and technique to use effectively.  So to the gym-managers out there: you have no excuse–throw us a bone already! 

Anyway, if you’re lucky, you can build your own gym like me, and set things up to maximize your improvement, rather than to maximize the fun-quotient of transient birthday children.  But most folks are stuck dealing with unrealistically large footholds.  In this case you have a few options. First, don’t be afraid to approach your gym staff and ask nicely for them to add some realistic footholds.  Maybe if enough people ask, they will get the message.  After all, the small holds are actually cheaper than the big ones!  Failing that, you might ask for permision to install some of your own.  Once you’ve exhausted these options, beg your wife for permission to build your own wall.  When that fails, note that many of the gigantic footholds in your gym have smaller “sub-features” that can be used for feet.  Practice using these.  If you gym has one of those fancy plaster coatings mentioned earlier, look for irregularites, pits, cracks, divots, etc, that you can practice smearing or edging on.  Stand in bolt holes, are even on protruding bolt-heads.  Even if you don’t have route-setting privileges at your gym, be creative, look for feautures that fit your needs (perhaps the footholds for the V4 sloper/pinch boulder problem can be used as crimps) and make your own problems.

Another gym issue is that almost all plastic holds can be pinched, making it easier to pull out on holds (versus simply pulling down).  This is much less common outside, so if you find yourself pinching all the small crimps, stop.  You will find big reach moves and long lock-offs are much more difficult.

Finally, in my experience the biggest challenge with thin face routes is psychological.  We are so accustomed to big, incut holds, and overhanging walls that when we get on small, slopey, insecure holds, we tend to freak out a little bit.  This leads to shaky legs, overgripping, and poor-technique.  So get as much mileage as possible on similar terrain.  Once these situations become old-hat you will notice the movement flows naturally.

Q: If you are going to spend a limited amount of time at the crag where your project is([such that] simply flogging the route every weekend is not an option) how would you stillwork your project without constant access to it?

Scottish honemaster Malcolm Smith, crushing Dreamtime.

A: As discussed above, find some routes or boulder problems near your home that are of similar style.  This will help with the mileage aspect, getting you accustomed to the style of climbing required.  If you have a home wall, or route-setting privileges at your public gym, build boulder problems (or complete routes) that precisely mimic your project or its crux sequences.  If you’re OCD like me you can take a tape measure to the crag and map out the distance between holds, and create a full on replica to train on.  This method was the secret to Malcolm Smith’s success when he famously came out of nowhere to nab the second ascent of Hubble, one of the hardest routes in the world at the time at 8c+. 

Another afterthought that is sure to come to the forefront at the worst possible time is skin care.  Thin routes are particularly hard on the skin, concentrating lots of wear and tire on a very small area.  Again, expect a more generalized post in the future, but to summarize, as with most things in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Begin taking care of your skin well in advance of your trips.  Get in the habit of sanding your pads when you start your hangboarding cylce so your skin is nice and thick and ready go once its time to transition to real rock.

Finally, following a periodized training schedule can help you ensure that you are peaking at the right time–when you are on the rock–thereby maximizing your likelihood of success on the few days you get to try your project.

Hangboarding FAQ #2: Should I use big holds with lots of added weight, or small holds with lots of weight removed?

I’m a strong proponent of hangboarding for increasing finger strength for rock climbing.  I’ve tried many different methods, and IME, hangboarding is the most effective.  For basic instructions on how to go about hangboarding, check out “The Making of a Rockprodigy”, a training plan my brother Mike & I developed many years ago.  I get a lot of questions about the specifics of hangboarding, and it seems like many of the same questions come up over and over, so here is a series of Frequently Asked Questions about the subject, in no particular order.

First, review Hangboarding FAQ #1, as these topics are related.  Next, consider the concept of “Specificity”.  This is a fundamental concept of all forms of training, and it basically means your training should be as similar as possible to what you are training for.  In the context of this question, that means you need to determine the type & size of holds you will be climbing on when you are at your limit.  If you primarily climb at a single crag, this should be fairly simple, as hold types and sizes tend to be fairly consistent at a single crag, with difficulty varying with other factors such as length, steepness, or hold orientation & spacing.   

Pinch Fest, 5.12b, Rifle, CO: Overhanging with jugs, deep pockets, and thin pinches.

If you travel a lot, and visit many different types of crags, this can be difficult to nail down.  The typical hold on a 5.12 at Rifle is much different than a 5.12 at Smith Rock.  Everybody needs to train edges, but maybe you are particularly keen on pocket routes or big slopers.  Pinches are very common at overseas limestone crags but not so common in the US.  In this case, consider which types of routes really inspire you, or are more important to you, or represent a more limiting weakness for you.  Perhaps you have a “big hairy goal” route in mind.  What are the holds like on this route?  Even for those who travel extensively, you probably have a favorite crag or type of route, the type of route that you typically select when you’re looking for a next-level project.  Use that type of route as your guide.

Watts Totts, 5.12b, Smith Rock, OR: Vertical, with tiny edges and knobs

To maintain specificity, select hangboard grips that best replicate the size & shape of these “limit holds”.  Ideally these holds should be a bit of a stretch for you when you’re starting out.  If you typically climb 5.12, I recommend hold sizes more typical of the 5.13s at your favorite crag, since you will be progressing quickly through the grades now that you’re training.  If you’re an enduro jug-haul fiend, its likely your holds will be relatively large, so expect to add lots of weight while hangboarding, or use one-arm hangs.  In my experience it gets pretty dicey once you’re adding 75lbs. or more.  If you are set on this type of climbing, you may consider doing more than the standard number of reps and/or sets as another way to increase resistance without adding dangerous amounts of weight.

Use two pulleys, two or more eyebolts, a harness and length of cord to “remove” weight while hangboarding.

For thin face climging afficianados, the selected holds will probably make it necessary to remove weight.  This is easier than it sounds, but be sure to use a repeatable, quantifiable method for doing so.  Popular methods include hanging from elastic bands, putting your feet on a chair, or getting a power spot from a partner.  These methods all suck, so top using them!  Instead, install a simple pulley system, like the one sold here.  Install two (or more) eye bolts below your hangboard, attach the pulleys to the bolts and run a cord through the pulleys.  Clip one end of the rope to your harness and the other end to however-much weight you want to remove, and voila! you just lost 40 lbs as far as your fingers are concerned.

Once you’ve identified the right type & size of holds, plan to stick with them for several seasons (so you can gauge your progress from season to season), but also be prepared to down-size as you improve.  If all goes well, eventually you will find yourself crushing grips that once seemed unreasonably small, so be on the lookout for the appropriate-sized holds once you attain that next level.

Hangboarding FAQ #1: How Do I Progress on the Hangboard?

I’m a strong proponent of hangboarding for increasing finger strength for rock climbing.  I’ve tried many different methods, and IME, hangboarding is the most effective.  For basic instructions on how to go about hangboarding, check out “The Making of a Rockprodigy”, a training plan my brother Mike & I developed many years ago.  I get a lot of questions about the specifics of hangboarding, and it seems like many of the same questions come up over and over, so here is the first in a series of Frequently Asked Questions about the subject, in no particular order.

Hangboarding has a number of benefits, and we can debate the terminology until we’re blue in the face, but the primary goal is to increase finger strength.  Performance athletes have known for decades that in order to force muscular adaptation to increase strength, training must be “progressive”.  This means the resistance on the forearm structures must increase over the course of the training phase in order to stimulate strength gains.  On the hangboard, there are three basic ways to increase resistance: increase the duration of the hang, reduce the size of the hold you are hanging from, or increase the weight.  Like most things in life, there is no clear answer, and its not black and white.  The solution is most likely some combination of the three, but first, let’s consider each method individually.

Results of progressive strength training.

Increasing hang duration seems to be the most obvious and the most popular.  For one thing, its probably the easiest, since it requires little equipment.  Most of the bozos greasing up the board at your local gym are using this method, informally, when they feel compelled to hang from the jugs to impress their girlfriend.  They basically hang, swing their legs around a bit, until it becomes uncomfortable, then they move along to grease up the systems board on their way to the gymnastic rings.  Believe it or not, this method was really popular in the Golden Age of sport climbing.  Jerry Moffat, Wolfgang Gullich, Ben Moon and many others made a point to dead hang one-handed from a 1-cm flat edge for as long as possible.  Moffat got his time up to over a minute. An impressive feat for sure, but what is the climbing application? When do you really need to dead hang a 1cm edge with one had for more than a minute?  If you look at video of a polished climber on a rehearsed route, you will note that generally during crux sequences, a single hand is rarely loaded for more than 3 seconds.  Often its more like 1 second.  It may seem minor, but these things make a big difference.  It takes an Olympic runner ~9.8 seconds to run 100m, and and ~45 seconds to run 400m.  No human will ever win both events, because the types of physiology required are too different.  The same must be true for climbers, even if we haven’t gotten near enough to our genetic potential to prove it yet.

My advice is to select a hang duration that is “specific” to the type of climbing you do, and stick with that duration for several seasons or years, until you have a good reason to change it.  In my opinion, it should be no more than 10 seconds for a single repetition.  As you become more in-tune with your strengths & weaknesses over the years, you may decide to change the duration.  I started out about ten years ago doing 10 second hangs followed by 5 seconds rest.  After a few seasons of this, I noticed I never failed to send a project if I could do all the moves (meaning my endurance was superior to my power), so I decided to reduce my hang duration to 7 second hangs with 3 second rest.  This seemed to even things out a bit more for me, but I still climb better on routes than boulder problems, so I plan to experiment with 5 second hangs followed by 5 second rest to see what happens.

The next option is to reduce the size of the hold.  This is not a bad idea, but creates obvious practical problems, because you would need many hangboards with many different, slight increments of hold size for each grip you train (Spaniard Eva Lopez has created a hangboard for this exact purpose) or some other apparatus designed to gradually reduce hold size.  Remember we need to have the option  to increase resistance between every workout, assuming our fingers keep up.  We also need to be able to quantify the resistance with respect to past seasons, so that we can predict a reasonable resistance for future workouts.  Not an easy thing to do while constantly changing hold sizes.  Before we start building a better mousetrap, first lets review the primary argument in favor of this type of progression. 

Big reaches force the lagging arm into less favorable angles for pulling, thus increasing the load on the fingers

Consider how routes change as the grades go up.  Basically, the holds get smaller, the holds get less positive, the walls gets steeper, the holds get further apart, oriented more poorly, or some combination of these.   For the first two, the most specific way to adress the physical affect on your fingers is by progressively changing hold size on the hangboard (making the holds smaller &/or less positive).  What is the affect of the latter three?  These all put more load (weight) on the fingers, without changing hold size at all.  As a wall gets steeper, less of your body weight rests on your feet, so your fingers have to take more of the weight.  As holds get more distant, it becomes necessary to lock off holds lower and lower to make big reaches, thus forcing you to pull more outward on the hold (rather than straight down).  As the direction of pull changes, your fingers must generate more force to maintain the same normal force on the hold.  Holds oriented in less favorable directions create the same affect, making it necessary to generate more force on the hold than simple body weight.  In three of the five examples, adding weight to force progression appears to be more specific than reducing hold size.

You could make the argument that, in terms of specificity, its about a wash between reduing hold size and adding weight, though I would lean toward the latter .  There is no doubt adding weight is much more practical, easier to quantify, easier to vary and easier to fine tune with readily accessible materials. 

In conclusion, I recommend you select a reasonable hang duration, and plan to stick with it for several years.  Pick a specific hold size and plan to stick with that for several seasons.  Figure out (through trial and error) the right amount of weight to add (or subtract), and plan to change that resistance almost every workout, but generally in a progressive manner (meaning, gradually increasing the weight on your fingers).  At the end of the last set for a given grip, if you still have some gas in the tank, do an extra rep or two until you reach failure.

The next obvious question is, if I need a fixed hold size, what size should it be?  See Hangboarding FAQ#2 for an answer.