Where There’s A Will, There’s a Way to Weigh Less

Performance rock climbing is all about strength-to-weight ratio.  We tend to fixate on the “strength” side while ignoring the “weight”.  Perhaps because the strength side of the equation seems actionable, and the weight side is all about restraint.  The reality is that losing weight is probably the easiest thing a climber can do to improve.  Unlike strength and technique, body weight can be improved substantially in a matter of weeks.  However, many people just feel powerless to affect their body type.  There is also now a bizzare element of social pressure to discourage any form of dieting, or even any interest in healthy eating.

There’s a story circulating right now about former NFL Offensive Lineman Matt Birk.  Birk recently retired from football and sought a lifestyle change for the sake of his health.  He dropped 75 pounds over the course of eight months.  I found the before and after photos pretty inspiring; he looks like a totally different person:

Matt Birk, before and after.

Matt Birk, before and after.

I didn’t start paying attention to my weight until 2011, and that is probably the single biggest training mistake I’ve made in my career.  I would weigh myself before hangboard workouts, but that was just to better understand my training intensity for that day’s workout.  I never weighed myself during my performance phase.  And I used to eat garbage, mostly.  When I first got out of college, I would routinely consume an entire 12-pack of Dr. Pepper cans over the course of 2-day weekend trip to the Utah dessert.  My staples were pizza (usually frozen/cardboard) and spaghetti.  At the time I felt I was pretty fit and healthy (amazingly), because I excercised all the time.  While exercise certainly can help, its very easy to wipe out hours of exercise in a few minutes of over-eating.  Furthermore, often excercise increases your appetite, making dieting much more difficult (these days, when I’m trying to get lean, I limit my exercise to a few brisk walks throughout the day.  I save the intense cardio work for the months when I’m not concerned about my weight). 

This picture was taken around 1999.  I'm on the left.  Definitely not lean and mean.  When I look at pictures of myself from this period its easy to see why I was struggling to climb 5.11

This picture was taken around 1999. I’m on the left. Definitely not lean and mean. When I look at pictures of myself from this period its easy to see why I was struggling to climb 5.11

Any serious climber should have good muscle definition throughout their body.  If you don’t, you could probably stand to lose some weight, and the amount may surprise you.  For me, the difference between my mom thinking I’m skinny and actually being skinny is about 10 pounds.  Anyone with hangboard experience knows that’s a huge amount of weight to your fingers, and so, a tremendous variable in climbing performance (obviously the amount will vary from climber to climber).

If you’re already lean, you may be able to trim a significant number of pounds by shedding un-needed mass in your lower body.  If that sounds like you, see this post.

The rest of us just need to go on a diet! It’s easy to adopt a fatalistic attitude, but the fact is we have a great deal of control over our destiny.  The human body is amazingly “plastic”, meaning it can adapt and change to suit different needs.  Even for those at the advanced age of 37, like Matt Birk ;). 

There are many healthy and reliable ways to lose weight, but I think the biggest barrier facing most climbers is simply that they don’t believe its possible, or important. A lot of people think that weight loss can only be accomplished through copious amounts of suffering and self-denial, but making a few simple substitutions in your diet can go a long way. Our upcoming book has an extensive and thoroughly researched chapter on Weight Management, so I won’t go into too much detail, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Get a scale and use it daily; it can be very motivating
  • Eat lots of veggies, and most fruits are ok too
  • Protein and Fiber are your friends; eat a reasonable amount of LEAN protein each day (not a full rack of pork ribs), and eat as much fiber as you can stand
  • Avoid eating foods high in carbohydrates (basically anything that tastes good when you’re already full)
  • Don’t drink anything but water

For example, instead of whatever you normally eat for lunch, try a salad of spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and tuna, dressed in a modest amount of balsamic vinagrette.  You could eat these foods until your stomach is on the verge of exploding and still loose weight.  For dinner, eat a lean piece of grilled chicken breast or grilled fish, with sides of steamed vegetables (like brocolli or sparagus).  Skip the rice, potatoes, bread, etc.  If you crave lots of sweets like me, load up on fruits (watermelon is king, but canteloupe, grapes, apples and pears are good options too).

If you choose to go on a diet, remember there is a point of diminishing returns.  Your body needs energy to perform well, and constantly starving yourself will inhibit your performance more than an extra pound of lost weight will help. Experiment with different healthy weights until you find that “sweet spot” where you perform at your best.  For me, I’ve gotten down to 139 pounds in recent years, but I find I perform the best around 143-145 lb.  At that weight I’m more energetic, I have a better attitude, and I’m still resistant to illness and injury.

A leaner me, in 2013, age 35.

A leaner me, in 2013, age 35.

Excessive, persistent dieting can lead to injury and illness.  Most serious athletes will “cycle” their weight management on and off, as with physical training.  That’s great news for people like me who love food!  That means you can have periods of enjoying life’s many treats, and periods where you buckle down and send (that said, “yo-yo dieting” can wreak havoc on your metabolism, making weight loss extremely difficult, so keep your variations within reason). 

When I’m ARCing and hangboarding, I eat pretty much whatever I want within reason (although I have a fairly healthy diet now, even when I’m not on a diet).  I aim to stay within 10 lbs of my goal weight, but otherwise I will eat (and drink) whatever I please. During my power phase I begin adjusting my eating habits, with the goal of reaching my ideal sending weight near the end of my performance phase.

Weight is a tremendous factor in performance–as important as strength.  Fortunately its actually pretty easy to manage once you learn how.  If you have any other tips for healthy weight loss, please post them in a comment below.

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Shelf Road Slideshow and Anchor Replacement, November 9-10, 2013

I’ll be at Shelf Road the weekend of November 9-10 to help organize Bob D’Antonio’s Shelf Road Anchor Replacement Weekend.  I helped out with last year’s event at Penitente Canyon and it was a lot of fun.  The Penitente Event was very productive, but Shelf needs this much more badly in my opinion, so I was really excited when Bob contacted me.  There are a lot of really sketchy old bolts at Shelf and the crag gets tremendous amounts of traffic.  The objective will be to identify and replace any home-made bolts, damaged or excessively worn/lose bolts, and sketchy lowering anchors.  This is a great opportunity to learn the basics of bolting and bolt replacement.

Shelf Anchor Replacement Flyer

The event should be a lot of fun as well.  Bob’s pulled together free food and beer for the masses, there will be a gear giveaway, with lots of different companies throwing in gear, and I’m planning to give a slideshow on Saturday night.  The slideshow will be about my new route development at Shelf over the last few years, how I became interested in pushing the standards at Shelf and what the future holds.

You don’t need to be a bolting master to participate.  If you can turn a wrench you can help out, and even if you can’t do that, we can find something helpful for you to do.  If nothing else, drop by to say, score some free beer and enjoy a free slideshow.  Hope to see you there!

Sport Alpine Climbing and Siege Sport Climbing

I’m currently reading Greg Crouch’s fascinating book “Enduring Patagonia”. I’ve always had this thought in the back of my mind that when the kids are grown up I’ll go climb Cerro Torre for “fun”.  After reading Crouch’s book I now realize the folly of that idea.  Crouch spent 68 days trying and failing to climb Cerro Torre’s infamous Compressor Route before he eventually succeeded.  Over the course of those 68 days he attempted the route 14 times!  I’ve pondered that number quite a bit and I’m having trouble truly comprehending it. It’s a credit to Crouch’s determination and perseverance. During my currently-hybernating alpine career, I’ve never tried a route more than twice, and even that was extremely rare.  On Devil’s Thumb we were within a few hundred vertical feet of the summit on our first attempt before the weather completely shut us down, so we bailed and returned to base camp and finished the climb a few days later.  Even considering my time as a sport climber, I can only come up with seven routes that I’ve tried 14 or more times. 

Marc Spriner (R) and I climbing into marginal weather on Devil's Thumb, Alaska.

Marc Springer (bottom right) and I climbing into marginal weather on Devil’s Thumb, Alaska.  Photo Mike Anderson. 

Yet siege-style sport climbing is hardly rare. I know plenty of sport climbers who have spent 100 or more days working a single project.  I have a special admiration for people who can stay devoted to a single pitch of rock for that amount of time.  I don’t think I have the perseverance to do that; I lack the attention span, plus I prefer to bounce around between various crags. But mostly, I prefer to avoid siege-projecting because I believe it’s not an optimal way to improve at climbing.  There’s no doubt that putting in countless days can yield impressive results, far beyond what one might normally achieve, but there is often a significant difference between achievement and improvement.  Mega-projecting can be a great tool to accomplish a goal when used sparingly, like a .13c-or-so climber going all out to climb one 5.14 before he retires. However, if the goal is improvement over the long run, I think a superior use of one’s climbing time is to climb many different routes, on different types of rock.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t reach for the stars.  I do that plenty, but my approach is to try such routes until I reach the point of diminishing returns.  On any project you will eventually reach that point where you know all the moves, you’re falling in the same spot(s) over and over, and you’re just hoping for a miraculous star-alignment to occur to facilitate a send.  At that point you are unlikely to improve much as a climber by continuing on the route.  You may get better at climbing that particular route, but not much better at climbing in general.  On the other hand, if you move on to another route, you will be exposed to an entire pitch of new moves and sequences.  If the new route is at another crag, you may also be exposed to a new type of rock, new warmups, etc.  Focusing on routes that you can send in 5 or less days will get you up 20 times more routes as the guy spending 100 days on the same 80-foot climb.

A good exception to this policy is the climber with a mental block that is preventing physical progression.  If you’re someone who constantly gets close to sending but never quite pulls it off, putting in the time to break through that barrier may pay dividends on future climbs.  For example, if you’ve been stuck at the same grade for many seasons, and you are sending routes of that grade quicker and quicker, but you just can’t manage the next grade, it may be that your mind hasn’t quite accepted the idea that you are capable of climbing harder.  Proving it just once (even through a protracted siege), can allow your head to embrace your new level, and you may find that subsequent projects at the higher grade progress much more quickly.

Grand Ol' Opry turned out to be a protracted-for-me campaign of ~14 total days spread over two seasons.  It took longer than I wanted, but it helped me overcome my mental resistance to climbing harder than 5.14a.

Grand Ol’ Opry turned out to be a protracted-for-me campaign of ~13 total days spread over two seasons. It took longer than I wanted, but it helped me overcome my mental resistance to climbing harder than 5.14a.  Photo Ken Klein.

Generally, if I’m not on the verge of sending a project after 5 days or so, I select another, shorter-term objective, then when the season has run its course I retreat to the gym for more training.  When I feel I’ve improved enough that the objective is within my 5-or-so-day target window, I plan for a block of time to try it again.  Part of this is simply personal preference; I prefer not to spend an entire season at the same crag, doing the same warmups over and over, etc.  But I also think it’s a better approach for improving.  It allows me to keep the ‘send train’ rolling even if my eyes are too big for my stomach, it keeps me moving over more terrain, and it makes my training cycles laser-focused on tangible, motivating goals.  The initial reconnaissance of the route provides extremely valuable information that I can use to tailor the next season’s training to the route.  With these details about the route, I can determine which grip positions to emphasize, particular movement sequences that need practice (which I can incorporate into my bouldering sessions), and how to design a power endurance circuit to suit the route.

The process of redpointing Scarface, my first 5.14, involved three separate campaigns of 4 or 5 days, spread out over two years. Twice I retreated to the gym for more training, and each time I returned I had improved substantially. I eventually sent after 4 days of work in March 2007.

The process of redpointing Scarface, my first 5.14, involved three separate campaigns of 4 or 5 days, spread out over two years. Twice I retreated to the gym for more training, and each time I returned I had improved substantially. I eventually sent after 4 days of work in March 2007. The process never got stale, and by the end of the journey, I had transformed myself into a climber capable of climbing many 5.14s, not just that one 5.14.

Ideally, nearly every day I’m on a project I’m learning new sequences, trying unusual moves, and making steady progress (reducing the number of hang points, or moving my highpoint steadily up the route).  From an improvement perspective, this is the most productive way to project routes.  So how do you know when to go big and when to go home? There is no precise number of days; its a matter of identifying the point of stagnation and making a decision at that time.  With anything in climbing, it gets easier to make that decision with practice.  Generally, you should be able to do all the moves within the first two days (unless a particular move is right off the ground or comes after a great rest, and you have good reason to believe the move will go with another day or two of work).  Once you know all the moves, focus on reducing the number of hangs it takes to get up the route.  Ideally that number will go down by one or more on each subsequent attempt at the route (from 4 hangs to three hangs, and so on), but at the very least try to improve your hang number at least once each climbing day.  If you find yourself repeating the same number of hangs on subsequent days, its time to make a decision.  If you’re falling in the same spots each time, it might make sense to move on to greener pastures.  If you’re falling in different spots, particularly if you’re pushing those points higher and higher up the wall, it might make sense to stick with your project.

This approach should not be allowed to undermine your commitment to your goals.  The idea is not to quit, but rather to re-group, reconsider your approach, and then return when better equipped to succeed.  This cycle of effort only works if you remain committed to the goal during the interim period between attempts. Often you will experience a feeling of loss when you retreat from such a route.  To minimize any “wasted” effort, document your attempts at the route to the extent possible.  Shoot video of the sequences you’ve worked out, create a “beta map”, and take detailed notes on your efforts. Note what worked and what didn’t, what time of year or time of day would be ideal for the next attempt, and how you would train differently in the future to better prepare for the route.  This information, combined with a sound training approach, will optimally prepare you to complete the project in a subsequent season, and there will always be plenty of other routes to send in the mean time.

I first tried Busload of Faith in 2010.  I spent 4 days working the route, before bad weather and waning fitness shut down my climbing season.  At the time, I felt like I was close to sending and I was disappointed that those 4 days had been "wasted" on a route I didn't send.  When I returned in 2011, I sent the route on my second try of that season!  Clearly the time I invested in 2010 was not wasted.  In reality, its likely I would have needed more that two additional attempts to send the route in 2010.  The time away from the route allowed me to improve significantly, and facilitated a faster send once I was able to get on the route again.

I first tried Busload of Faith in 2010. I spent 4 days working the route, before bad weather and waning fitness shut down my climbing season. At the time, I felt like I was close to sending and I was disappointed that those 4 days had been “wasted” on a route I didn’t send. When I returned in 2011, I sent the route on my second try of that season! Clearly the time I invested in 2010 was not wasted. In reality, its likely I would have needed more that two additional attempts to send the route in 2010. The time away from the route allowed me to improve significantly, and facilitated a faster send once I was able to get on the route again.

Roped Bouldering in Cowboy Country

Logan enjoying the Fall foliage along the Loop Road

Logan enjoying the Fall foliage along the Loop Road

We recently spent a few days in Wyoming to take advantage of the last week of Kate’s maternity leave. Sinks and Wild Iris are among our favorite crags.  I can’t ever recall having a bad day at Wild Iris.  Even when I get bouted by a project there (which happens often enough), the warmup climbs are so fun and the setting so magnificent its hard to leave the crag without a smile.

The weather on our trip turned out to be a bit schizophrenic, varying from highs in the 80’s to snow and a high of 40 only a few days later.  This kept us bouncing from crag to crag in search of bearable conditions, but we were able to spend a gorgeous day at Wild Iris and a few at Sinks Canyon. This was our first serious climbing trip with two kids, so we weren’t sure how things would go.

Sending The Urchin, 5.13a

Sending The Urchin, 5.13a

We started at the Killer Cave, and I managed to climb a number of great routes, including a pair of classic 5.13s.  I attempted an onsight of The Urchin, a short, gymnastic roof climb right at the top of the approach trail.  I fumbled the roof sequence, which was probably a blessing because I doubt I could have kept it together on the tricky finishing slab.  I also sent Virga, a super fun, super reachy .13c or d (d in my experience, at 5’7″).  Quite a fine effort back in the day by the frequently underestimated Paul Piana.  Virga climbs some of the best limestone I’ve seen in America, but it only lasts for about 20 feet, and the winch start is literally as long as the route itself.  Still, the climbing is super fun and definitely worth doing if you like dynamic pulls between sinker two-finger pockets. Pretty much every move on the route is burly, but the moves are so big that its over in a flash. 

One of the big moves on Virga, locking-off a sidepull almost to my knee!
One of the big moves on Virga, locking-off a sidepull nearly to my knee!

After a couple of days dragging 60 pounds of Logan-plus-climbing-gear up the steep slog to the Killer Cave, I wanted convenience.  I’ve climbed quite a bit at Wild Iris, but I had never been to the OK Corral, which is located almost on top of the car-camping area.  The cliff is about 100-feet from the road, making it the perfect choice for weary parents. 

I had heard that the rock at the OK Corral wasn’t as good as that at the rest of the Iris.  I couldn’t tell; it was way better than any other limestone I’ve climbed in the last year! I set out with two goals for the day, first to tick ten routes, a major challenge with kids in tow, and second, to try to send the elusive “White Buffalo”, an enourmous boulder with a 3-bolt mini-route on its Southeast face.  The route is given 5.13d/V11, which is a good indication of the way things are graded at Wild Iris.  At any given grade you should expect to have to crank much harder moves than you usually would.  This is presumably because the routes are often quite short, but I think it’s as much an indication of the quality of climbers that have graced the Lander community through the years. 

The Rock-over move

The Rock-over move

Based on the forecast it seemed unlikely I would get another day at Wild Iris, so I would have to give it my best shot to send the line that day.  I took my time getting warmed up, climbing a number of really fun but never trivial warmups.  White Buffalo gets sun most of the day, so I kept running between the main wall and the boulder to check the shade status.  It seemed like the sun was hardly moving at all, so I kept dragging out my warmup waiting for shade.  My final warmup climb was a brilliant “12a” buttress called “Give My Love to Rose”.  It had quite a burly mono crank on it, and to be honest it felt like about a 12c effort to get up the thing onsight…so its probably soft by Wild Iris standards!

At the slopy 1-pad edge

At the slopy 1-pad edge

Around 4pm White Buffalo finally went into the shade, so I jumped on it.  The route overhangs maybe 5 or 10 degrees, and follows tiny imperfections up an otherwise impeccable wall.  The stone is so smooth it looks more like the polished quartzite of Arapiles than Bighorn Dolomite.  The route starts out easily, but quickly gets down to business with a huge rock-over move to a diagonal, left-hand 1/4″ crimp. The crux is standing up with this left hand and moving to a pad-and-a-half-deep four-finger pocket. Its possible to reach this pocket with either hand, either with a huge windmill move with the right hand, or by using a half-pad mono sidepull for the right hand and then bumping the left hand to the pocket.  I experimented with both options for a while but couldn’t manage either.  After 15 minutes or so I moved on to the upper panel.  Relative to the crux, the finish is not too bad, but none of the holds are positive and the feet are small, so each move feels desparate and inscure.  From the 4-finger pocket, a slopy, 1-pad edge allows a clip, then a a pair of 3 finger pockets and a big high-step lead to a committing huck to the lip of the boulder.

Gunning for the lip of the boulder
Gunning for the lip of the boulder

I was a bit demoralized, having failed to do the crux move at all on my first go, but with the sun beginning to set conditions were improving rapidly.  I rested for 45-minutes, trying to cool off my skin, and debating which hand sequence I should use at the crux. Heading up a route without a clear plan leads to hesitation, and on routes like this, hesitation almost always results in failure. Certain routes, like White Buffalo, are best climbed with momentum, barreling onward, leaving the climber no time to contemplate his unlikely position, clinging spider-like to a sheet of glass. The windmill beta was less tenuous, but low percentage.  I commited to trying the mono beta and tied on for my second go.  The natives were getting restless for dinner, so it was doubtful I would get a third try.

I climbed smoothly up to the rock-over move, and latched the left-hand crimp. The rock was much cooler and the tiny edge now felt much better. I carefully stood up, shifted my hips slightly to the left, and delicately placed my finger into the mono sidepull. I popped my left hand to the four-finger pocket and exhaled. After a quick dab of chalk, I reached the sloping edge, clipped, and clawed my way to the high pockets.  I brought up my feet, gunned for the lip, and mantled over the top of the boulder.

Anderson Climbing Team Version 3.0, in the Tetons

Rest Day in the Tetons with Anderson Climbing Team Version 3.0

Get ’em While They’re Hot!

The Rock Prodigy Training Center is now available for purchase from Trango’s website!  The initial manufacturing run produced a modest number of units, so order right away if you want to be the first climber on your block to have one.

Packaged RPTCs ready to ship to YOUR front door!

Packaged RPTCs ready to ship to YOUR front door!

This ground-breaking hangboard was designed by me, with help from my brother Mike and Lamont Smith.  In my humble opinion, this is the best hangboard on the market, and is a big leap forward in hangboard design.  This board will help beginners unlock the amazing power of hangboard training, by eliminating the top barriers to hangboarding and starting them on the fast-track to finger strength.  In my experience, these barriers are pain and risk of injury.  This board is exceedingly comfortable, and was built with ergonomics in mind first and foremost. 

Two-Piece desing -- your joints will thank you.

Two-Piece design — your joints will thank you.

The most obvious innovation in ergonomics and injury prevention is the two-piece design.  I really don’t understand why nobody has created a two-piece board already (though production cost may be one reason).  Two independent pieces are absolutely fundamental and essential to safe hangboarding.  First, they allow each climber to adjust the hold-spacing to their own shoulder-width, so Jane doesn’t have to do an Iron Cross on Bruce’s board, and Bruno doesn’t have to press his elbows to his ears to use Julie’s board.  Second, they allow the two halves to be rotated independently, so the holds on the board can be properly aligned with the climber’s fingers, accounting for variations in finger lengths, and eliminating unsafe strain on the climber’s wrist. Also, nearly every one piece board has a bunch of holds in the center that are useless (for two-arm hangs).  This board eliminates that wasted plastic and distributes it where it can be used safely.

Skin friendly, large-radius lips on all holds.

Skin friendly, large-radius lips on all holds.

All the holds on the board have large-radius, skin-friendly lips to maximize comfort. The board has three textures (completely smooth, medium texture, and rough texture) to give a secure feel on positive surfaces without wrecking your skin. The board includes multiple size options (usually three sizes or more) for all of the most important grip positions, ensuring that climbers of all abilities will find Goldilocks Holds-those that are just right for maximizing your finger strength.  Furthermore, the size options provide a built-in ladder of progression that will make the RPTC a valuable training investment for years to come.

While I’m certain the above features will help beginners break into hangboarding, this board was wihtout-a-doubt designed with hardcore training fiends in mind.  I’ve been hangboarding seriously for nearly twelve years.  By that I mean, three or more seasons per year, with 8-12, 90-minute hangboard sessions per season.  That’s literally 100’s of hours spent hanging from all manner of hangboards.  Mike has another 15 years of his own experience that went into this design.  We wanted to develop a board that would help extremely experienced hangboarders push to the next level, by minimizing all the little annoyances that inhibit your hangboard training sessions (like skin irritation, joint pain, features that encourage cheating, unrealistic shapes and impractical hold sizes). Even if you aren’t a hangboard connoisseur, you will benefit from the thought and attention to detail that went into the design, and you won’t outgrow this board once you become fanatical about training.

Finally, I was determined to develop a practical yet functional means of progressing to smaller grips, without the need to constantly buy more and more hangboards as the climber improves.  Often once your hangboard does its job – making you stronger – there is nowhere to go except to a new, expensive hangboard. I’ve gone through five different hangboards over the years, not counting a hodge-podge collection of bolt-on holds I’ve used to supplement my insufficient hangboards.  No more! This vicious circle had to stop. The Variable Depth Edge Rails on this board provide an almost limitless ladder of progressively shallower edges to train from.  These features, along with the “Position Index Bumps”, allow tremendous variation in hold size without taking up too much space on the board (or resulting in a fragile design).  Each climber will be able to find a spot on the Edge Rail that is perfect for their finger size and ability, and then as their fingers strengthen, they can incrementally progress to smaller holds by shifting their hands outward, using the Position Index Bumps as a reference point for repeatable training.

Variable Depth Edge Rails, and Position Index Bumps provide incrementally progression in a practical, compact design.

Variable Depth Edge Rails, and Position Index Bumps provide incrementally progression in a practical, compact design. (right half shown)

Slide your hand outward, using the Position Index Bump as a reference point, to incrementally increase difficulty.

Slide your hand outward, using the Position Index Bump as a reference point, to incrementally increase difficulty. (Left half shown)

For moving pictures that further describe the features of the RPTC, please check out the “Using the Rock Prodigy Training Center Video” below.