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.

On A Mission

I’m heading out to Smith Rock in a few days for a two-week trip. The climbing at Smith is extremely thin and technical — and difficult to prepare for. I believe strongly in taining and I generally feel that using indoor tools is superior to “just climbing” outside (for building strength, power, and endurance). That said, indoor training is far from ideal for developing or polishing technique. For highly technique-dependent climbing, like that at Smith, some amount of outdoor skill practice is essential. Outdoor training can also help prepare your finger skin if its done wisely (in moderation).

To Bolt or Not To Be, 5.14a, Smith Rock

To Bolt or Not To Be, 5.14a, Smith Rock

In 2008 I spent two weeks at Smith working and sending To Bolt or Not To Be, perhaps the most technical single-pitch climb in America. My training strategy for that season was pretty unusual, but very effective. I lengthened my Base-Fitness Phase by adding more ARC workouts, and I ordered a bunch of really tiny crimps to add to the Lazy H. I did a standard Strength Phase (but I added a thin, closed-crimp grip to my hangboard routine). After 8 hangboard workouts I immediately transitioned to outdoor climbing 2 days per week (normally I would have a 2-4 week transition period of bouldering and/or campusing). I climbed in the Lazy H a third day each week, doing thin, power-endurance linked bouldering circuits.

The key to this approach was selecting an appropriate “training route”. That season I worked Third Millenium at the Monastery, a barely overhanging, thin, technical, and sustained 5.13d. Ironically I didn’t send Third Millenium in 8 days of work (though I went on to send it later), but then went on to send To Bolt in just 7 days (you do the math on that!). Third Millenium was the perfect route; it got my footwork dialed, my lead head in order, and trained power-endurance on the right types of holds. The point being, if you want to utilize outdoor training to prepare for a goal route, the most effective way to do so is:

Third Millenium, 5.13d, The Monastery

Third Millenium, 5.13d, The Monastery

1. Pick the right training routes, those that are as-similar-as-possible to the route you are training for, in terms of steepness, hold type, continuity, commitment, and length.

2. Accept that the purpose of each day’s cragging is to train for your goal, not to send! This may mean cutting sessions short to avoid trashing your finger skin, to avoid too much fatigue, or to squeeze in a bit of indoor training at the end of each crag day.

In the pre-parenthood era of 2008 I had a lot more options, whereas now there are significant advantages to staying close to home. I decided the ideal training route this time around would be “Mission Overdirve”, a linkup of “Mission Impossible” and “Interstellar Overdrive” in Clear Creek Canyon. Mission Impossible was bolted by Jay Samuelson and immediately offered to the community as an open project. Dan Woods eventually came away with the FA, calling the line 5.14d and the hardest route he had ever climbed, even hard than Jaws II (5.15a at Rumney), opening with a V12 boulder, followed by pumpy climbing to a V11 finish.

Entering the hardest bit of the low crux.

Entering the hardest bit of the low crux.

Jonathan Siegrist actually tried the line first, but didn’t have time to commit to the full route. He established the Mission Overdrive link-up before heading overseas, calling the line 14a/b. This linkup climbs the opening “V12” boulder of MI before joining Interstellar (5.13d) for its notorious “V8” crux. The entire line is about 70 feet long and overhangs 10 feet. The first half is basically dead vertical, with super thin, slopey edges and invisible footholds. The climbing is super insecure and there are about 10 moves in a row where you can pop off at any point. The Interstellar crux is steeper, with very tiny crimps that are fortunately incut-enough to pull out on. The pivotal move is a huge lock-off from a half-pad crimp to reach a slopey finger slot. The route is perfect for me and a great training route for Smith.

I first tried the route last Saturday. I was able to do all the moves on the lower crux but I couldn’t see how I was going to link all those moves, or even let go to clip. By the time I reached the top I was too worked to make any progress on the Interstellar crux. Then on the second go I shocked myself by climbing most of the way through the low crux, ultimately stymied by a precarious clip. At that point I knew the line was do-able and I was committed. I spent some more time on the upper crux, then headed home for a campus session.

Nearing the end of the first crux.

Nearing the end of the first crux.

My next outdoor day was supposed to be the following Friday, but I couldn’t wait that long so I arranged for a short outdoor session on Monday evening followed by an indoor Power-Endurance session on Tuesday. Normally I would never climb two days in a row like that, so the key was to keep Monday’s effort short and minimize any wear on my skin. I did two 30-minute burns, with the goal of working out a viable clipping strategy for the low crux, and dialing the low-percentage upper crux, which comes with a substantial pump. I was able to achieve both goals, but at the end of the day there was still a 10-foot transition section that I hadn’t really worked out. The climbing is ~5.11+, easy enough to figure out on the fly, but just hard enough to get you pumped before the final boulder problem., so I wanted to have an efficient sequence worked out.

Friday was a dedicated outdoor day, so I took my time with a thorough warmup. I climbed a rad .12b face climb at the Monkey House called The Reward. This is a brilliant thin edging climb with a committing crux. If only it were twice as long! My first burn on Mission Overdive, I sent most of the way through the low crux, but botched a foot sequence and pumped off. I took the opportunity to work out the 11+ transition section, but then I was unable to do the Interstellar crux. The move is very precise and requires the perferct coordination of all four limbs. You need to move just high enough to reach the hold; any higher and your low hand will pop off. The high hand has to slide perfectly into a narrow slot, requiring a precise deadpoint. Both “footholds” are miniscule, and must be weighted just enough to complete the move but not so much that your feet slide off. After a few tries I was able to find the right timing.

Preparing to turn the roof.

Preparing to turn the roof.

I took a 45-minute break, and then tried again. This time I recalled my sequence for the first crux perfectly. There are many subtle foot shifts, so that was not a trivial feat. I was pumped, but not overwhelmingly so. The low crux ends at a decent left handhold, allowing a clip and a brief shake. Next the route tackles an intimidating roof with a really cool highstep and dyno to reach an awesome rest. I was able to recover completely at this rest, then I cruised up the 5.11+ section. At the high crux I was notably pumped, but there is a so-so shake just below, and I took my time here and got back what I could. My forearms felt powered-down, but I reckoned I could still bear down for a few moves, so I went for it. When you hit each move just right, this crux almost feels easy, and you can understand how this could be called V8. I got the finger slot, then a few more slopey pods to reach damp jugs and the anchor.

Overall the line is fantastic, hands-down my favorite route in Clear Creek Canyon. I’m really stoked to try the full Mission Impossible, but I think that will have to wait until I return from Smith. I’m not too sure about the grade; this is the fastest I’ve sent a 5.14, so based on that logic it seems unlikely that its 14b. On the other hand, I’m in great shape on paper, so who knows? I highly doubt the low crux is V12; I’ve never even tried an established V12, so I really have no clue, but I assume V12 is harder than that! I would say more like hard V10 or easy 11; and a realistic V9 for the Interstellar crux. The real challenge of the route is keeping it together over a large number of difficult sequences.

The end of the Interstellar crux.

The end of the Interstellar crux.

I think it goes to show how strengths and weaknesses can affect grades. Ideally these factors should be accounted for when assigning a grade but its not simple to extrapolate and so these factors often have a big effect. There is a tendency to assume that certain climbers have an absolute understanding of the grade scale (Adam Ondra, for example) but it really doesn’t work that way. The style of route and the climber’s tastes are critical to their perception of a route’s difficulty. The bottom line is, any time you find a sequence that is hard for you, take it as an opportunity to improve, regardless of the grade.  If you find something feels easy, enjoy it!  The pendulum will swing back the other way soon enough.

I’m off to Smith on Thursday, with pretty thick skin, decent footwork, and high confidence. I’ll be teaching a footwork clinic (8:30am at Redpoint Climber’s Supply) and giving a slideshow (8:30pm), both on Saturday April 20th. Come out and say hi if you’re in the area.

Climb Talk Radio AM1190 Friday Night!

I just learned that I will be “appearing” on Climb Talk Radio tomorrow night (Friday, March 8)!  If you are in the Boulder area you can tune in to AM1190 to hear it.  You can also listen on line at:

http://www.radio1190.org/media-2/

The show is scheduled to start 9pm Mountain Time, but we are following a live broadcast of a basketball game, so we could get pushed back a bit if the game goes long.  We will be talking MountainProject, Shelf Road, First Ascents and Training.  There may be a few curveballs as well. 

I hope you can listen in!

Raise the Roof

Yesterday afternoon I set a new personal best on the Lazy H campus board.  I did a max ladder of 1-8-15 (metolius spacing; 4″ o.c.). 

I realize this is not a super amazing feat, and has been bettered by countless climbers, but its a landmark for me because my board (and therefore my imagination) only has 15 rungs.  When I built the Lazy H in 2008 I scarcely dreamed I would ever need to increase the height of my board; that first season the best I managed was 1-6-11.  The only reason I went as high as 15 was because rungs are sold in packs of five.  The upper few rungs were more of a pipe dream than anything else. 

I bring this up to emphasize two training-related points (besides to spray and post a video of myself with my shirt off): the power of goals and the value of quantfying and tracking the results of your training.  Almost as soon as the dust of construction had settled, that 15th rung became a goal (albeit an unlikely one).  Furthermore, because it was visible and tangible during each campus session, it gave me continuous motivation to get the most out of my training.  Every time I went to the campus board I could see my goal sitting there, gathering dust, waiting for me to get better.  The opportunity to achieve a victory each and every session, even a “plastic” victory, pushes me to put in that extra bit of effort, get enough sleep, eat properly, and focus during the workout.

Quantifying my performance on the campus board, and comparing my progress from season to season has paid huge dividends.  Each season we all strive to be a little bit better than the previous season, but without a yard stick, its really difficult to know what that means.  How good was I last season?  I sent some routes and failed on others.  Were the routes I sent soft?  Were the ones I failed on stiff?  There’s a lot of subjectivty (and therefore ambiguity) on the performance end of our sport.   

This is another area where training (and more specifically, quantifying & documenting our training) can lend a hand.  I know how good I was last season, because I have an emperical record of each hangboard workout, campus session, and power endurance interval I completed.  I can compare that data to this season and its plainly obvious, regardless of how my outdoor projects work out, that I am tangibly stronger than I was last season.  That information alone is extremely motivating; it confirms I’m on the right path (or one of the right paths, anyway) regardless of whether the plethora of circumstances affecting outdoor performance (weather, partners, route selection…) go in my favor.

Now I have a new problem, I need to figure out how to raise the roof of the Lazy H so I can add  the next 5 rungs to my campus board, although that should be trivial compared to the task of expanding my imagination to accomodate those rungs.

Smarter, Not Harder

Tom brought up a couple of questions in response to the Climber’s Fest post which I will start to address here:

tom on July 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm said:
“you brought up two very interesting areas i hope you will discuss in detail:

a) being aggressive in climbing – what’s the mindset, how do you turn it on? how do you get it back when you get out psyched by the rock?

b) trying hard – sometimes it frickin hurts, and you need to try harder to get through. but sometimes trying too hard leads to flailing around….

looking forward to a deeper discussion!”

These are really two different questions, so I’ll address them under separate posts.  Let’s look at “trying hard” first since I have better anecdotes for that topic.  Generally speaking, its a good idea to try hard, but what does that really mean?  Many years ago my brother Mike had a chance to spend some time with Tommy Caldwell, so Mike asked him what he does to train for climbing, in hopes that they would discuss proper set lengths, number of repetitions, etc.  Tommy’s response was, “just try really hard, all the time”.  End of discussion.  I’ve always thought this was interesting advice to give to a total stranger and it brings to mind a classic legend.  An aspiring climber hired a local wunderkind to “coach” him.  The coaching session consisted of aforementioned wunderkind yelling “pull harder” throughout the session, right up to the point of catastrophic tendon rupture in the client. 

‘What do you mean you don’t track your hangboard workouts in an Excel spreadsheet?!’

These stories remind me of a concept discussed extensively in “The Self-Coached Climber”, that is, often people who are really good at stuff don’t really understand what makes them good.  For example, Usain Bolt is the best at running 100m fast, but that does not necessarily mean he would make the best coach for another aspiring sprinter.  Admittedly, this is a somewhat condescending attitude.  Tommy is clearly an extremely intelligent and thoughtful person, so I don’t suggest this theory in anyway as an insult to him.  However, I think it indicates that those standing on the top of the tower, looking down on the huddled masses often under-estimate the amount of drive, focus and effort that even “regular joes” put into climbing.  There is a great line in the excellent running moving “Without Limits”, in which the Bill Bowerman character is lecturing the late great Steve Prefontaine:

The incomparable Pre

“Your insistance that you have no talent is the ultimate vanity.  If you have no talent, you have no limits, its all an act of will…I’ve got news for you.  All the will and hard work in the world isn’t going to get one person in a million to run a 3:54 mile.  That takes talent.  And talent in a runner is tied to very specific physical attributes.  Your heart can probably pump more blood than amyone else’s on this planet, and that’s the fuel for your talent. Your bones in your feet – it’d take a sledgehammer to hurt them. And that’s the foundation of your talent. So your talent, Pre, is not some disembodied act of will, it’s literally in your bones…”

I think that many aspects of climbing (like finger strength) come naturally to some elite climbers (not that they didn’t have to work hard to get strong, but they didn’t have to put a lot of thought into it), so all that remains is to try really hard at the moment of truth.  They see someone struggling on 5.11, and they think that person just isn’t trying hard.  ‘If only they tried a little harder, they could climb 5.15 too!’ 

Sometimes trying hard can have negative consequences. This flapper took my entire finger pad off after an ill-advised dyno.

I’ve climbed all over with all kinds of different people, and I’ve observed a lot of people trying very hard at the crag, at all different grades.  In my expereince, lack of effort is rarely the limiting factor in those who are well motivated (and there are plenty such climbers).  In fact, I’ve observed many climbers trying too hard on occasion.  That is, beating their heads against a brick wall with no potential positive outcome.  Climbing until their fingers are bleeding, thus forcing additional rest days that otherwise wouldn’t have been necessary.  Taking huge whippers or dynoing repeatedly for blind holds, risking severe injury or bloody flappers, either of which could be avoided by simply hauling up a stick clip.  Or simply “flailing around” as Tom suggested.

One of my favorite expressions is “smarter, not harder”.  One thing I like about this philosophy is that it emphasizes the long view over that which is obvious and immediate.  Performance rock climbing is all about finding the easiest way to do that which is inherently difficult.  Advice to the effect of “Try Hard” is often misinterpreted to mean, ‘squeeze as hard as possible or dyno wildly as you scream like Sharma WHILE YOU ARE CLIMBING’.  However, most of the time, it turns out that squeezing harder is not the answer.  Rather, discovering a new body position, distributing weight perfectly between fingers and toes, rehearsing the accuracy and timing of dynamic movements, pacing the effort correctly–these are generally the keys to overcoming a challenging route.  Rather than trying hard to do a move that requires 100% of your crimping power, try hard to find a body position that allows you to do the same move with 80% exertion!

Furthermore, those that try hard only when they’re literally on the rock are missing out on countless opportunities to improve their climbing.  Try hard to schedule adequate rest, stick to a healthy diet, get enough quality sleep.  Try hard to wake up on time so that you can get to your project when the conditions are ideal.  Even in the unlikely event it does come down to a simple matter of brawn, try hard to use your brain to develop an effective training strategy to develop the needed horsepower, as opposed to simply squeezing until your knuckles explode.

The decision to use your brain is not an exemption from giving 110% come gametime.  Trying really hard on Tommy’s masterpiece, ‘Grand Ol’ Opry’.                      Photo Matthew Oscadal.

Rather than simply, “try really hard, all the time”, how about, “try the appropriate amount, all the time” (really rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it?).  Sometimes, maximum force is required to get the job done, the gear is good, and your body is prepared to handle the stress that maximum force will produce.  In that case, by all means, go for it!  On the other hand, often caution is the better part of valor.  Many times it makes sense to take it easy, save some energy (and some skin) for the next burn, or next climbing day. 

So how do you know when its time to give it one last all out effort, and when its time to throw in the towel?  Experience, which of course, comes from bad judgement, or by observing and listening to others.  Dose your efforts with a preference for quality over quantity.  Listen to your body; if you’re too tired to give a quality effort, save whatever you have left for tomorrow.  Don’t climb frustrated, which is a sure path to regret.  When you find yourself facing a tweaky crux move that presents the risk of several months of injury, consider whether it really makes sense to “try really hard”.  Maybe there is another route just as challenging but not so tweaky (or, if you have your heart set on it, hit the hangboard for a few seasons and come back when you are truly ready, or limit yourself to a pre-determined number of tries per day on the tweaky move).  Say “take” during a too-hard warmup to avoid a flash pump that might ruin the entire climbing day.  Take a break to tape up before hucking for that jug yet again, thus avoiding a handful of bloody flappers.  Rest when rest is called for.  Take a moment to consider new beta before trying the same move the same way for the tenth straight time.  Don’t feel compelled to perform for the gallery.

When you are on redpoint (or onsight), on a meaningful climb, that is the time to go for it.  If you’re already in dogging mode, don’t be a hero.  Use that seemingly useless blob of ballast above your shoulders to do what makes sense in the long run.

Q&A #3: When Should I Start Training for Climbing?

This question comes up quite a bit, along with the more specific, ‘when should I start hangboarding?’  Obviously this is a personal decision, and for many climbers (perhaps the vast majority) the answer is ‘never’.  For that reason it makes sense to start with the question, why train at all?  A few reasons can be found here.  I’m going to assume that if you are reading this blog you have at least some interest in training (or you are cyber-stalking me, in which case I live in Iowa with my many shotguns and doberman pinschers).

Gratuitous climbing shot: Kate cruising Edge of Time with The Diamond looming behind.

I used to always tell people that a reasonably fit person ought to be able to work up to redpointing 5.12a sport routes just by focusing on movement skills and climbing regularly (2-3 times per week), and therefore, that was about the point one might consider following a structured training program.  In retrospect, I think I said that simply because that is what I did.  With hindsight, I think I would have been better off as a performance rock climber had I started training earlier.  The two years or so I spent getting from 5.11- to 5.12- included three major finger injuries and lots of frustration.  I’m confident I could have avoided those injuries, and likely progressed further, faster, had I followed a structured training program.

Considering the above, why not start training immediately?  There are at least three standard reasons often cited:

1) Developing proper movement skills is the top priority for beginners, and time/energy spent training will take away from movement training. 

2) If you get too strong, too early, you will develop bad movement habits that will plague your entire career (i.e. you will campus every move, never use your feet; Chris Sharma has this “problem”).

3) The delicate connective tissues in your hands and lower arms will not be able to handle the stress of training, thus resulting in injury.

Hopefully by this point I’ve been on my soapbox long enough that we can just eliminate #3 with minimal discussion.  Training stress is simply a function of volume (itself a function of intensity and duration) and recovery time, both of which are FAR easier to control in a structured training program than in random climbing activities.  When done properly training reduces injury risk.  That said, it would be wise for children & adolescents to use caution until we learn more about how their fingers respond to such activities.

Its never too early…Logan records his performance between campus sets.

Number 2 is a simple matter of self-discipline.  Anyone Jedi-enough to follow a structured training program ought to be able to focus their attention on acquiring and practicing movement skills with sufficient frequency to keep pace with the relatively slow rate at which muscles and connective tissue adapt to training stress.  Its simply a matter of paying attention and continuing to work on it.  A good training program will incorporate specific phases and activities focused on movement training, resulting in far more time spent on such activities compared to the typical ‘random climbing activity’ control group.  Developing finger strength is a life-long pursuit.  Even the best finger-strength program on the planet will not have you ripping holds off the wall overnight.  You will have several years (perhaps decades) to perfect your outside flag before you will surpass Chris Sharma’s crimping power.

If you get too strong, too fast, you might end up like this guy…wouldn’t want that.

Number one is probably the most valid, but as I suggest above, there is more than enough time to do both, in my opinion.  You can only spend so much time practicing drop knees and back steps before your mind goes numb.  Most movement training is not especially strenuous by design, leaving some gas left in the tank for other training activities.  If a typical beginner were to climb every third day in a climbing gym, they could spend the first 30-60 minutes doing movement drills, which double as a warmup, and the next 30-60 minutes on sport-specific training.  That is plenty of time to acquire new skills and new strength, endurance and power in significantly less time than it takes for a single day of unfocused cragging.

And that leads right into the best reason to delay training, and that is that most of the time, climbing is a lot more fun than training.  As my brother Mike once said to an enthusiastic begginer:

‘Why don’t you just enjoy climbing for another couple years. You have your whole life to systematically, slowly, and painfully, but certainly suck out every golden drop of innocent joy that the sport ever offered you….Get back to me when you find yourself camped out at the base of some shitty road-cut chosspile throwing F-bomb infused woblers every time your foot pops off that polished, over-chalked smear at the crux of your super-sick new linkup/eliminate of “Warmup Problem” and “Center Problem Direct” (the good crimper is off) with a downclimb of “Middle-Left-Right-Left-Down Problem”.’*

[*In fairness, I should probably point out that Mike was recovering from a potentially career-ending injury when he wrote this, so he was in a bit of a dark place at the time–he’s feeling much better now ;)]

Which brings me to the bottom line.  If you can maintain a relaxed attitude, have fun with your ropemates and continue to progress steadily through the grades, why not just keep at it?  This is a completely valid approach and it works to some extent for many climbers.  Once you get to the point that you have stopped progressing at a rate that satisfies you,  start training.  This is why I describe the decision as personal.  Each person needs to decide how to weigh the fun & casual aspects of climbing against the performance aspects.  What rate of progression is satifying to you?  Looking back at my own experience, its easy to say that I regret not taking things more seriously when I was younger.  But at the same time I had some of the most rewarding experiences of my career during those chaotic years.  I would like to think its possible to have balance between the two but to be honest, that is something I really struggle to maintain.

In conclusion, from a purely physical perspective, I don’t buy into any of the standard reasons given to delay training.  If you’re psyched to start a structured training program, including hangboarding or other sport-specific finger strength training, I don’t see any reason to wait.

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