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


Beating the Heat – Tips on TrainingThrough Summer Temps

Almost like clockwork, every year I find myself struggling to hangboard through the month of August, seemingly the hottest month of the year.  In order to be fit in time for prime Fall sending conditions, most of us will need to do some form of training in late summer, when conditions are far from ideal. 

Some might wonder, why does it matter how warm it is, after all, its only training.  The primary reason is that training in warm environs can trash your skin.  Nobody wants to start a climbing season with a skin deficit, and in-attention to skin whilst training is a sure way to do just that.  Another good reason is that a quality training cycle boosts your confidence and can help inspire a successful climbing season.  For those that train in a methodical, controlled manner, its hard not to notice how much less resistance you can handle in bad conditions.  Its nearly impossible to quantify the effect of the heat and humidity, so poor conditions can lead to a spiral of waning confidence and unispired training efforts.

Fortunately there are some low-budget steps we can take to improve our training conditions:

1. Prepare your Skin.  Take some time on each rest day to tend to your skin.  Assemble a Skin Care Kit, including tape, tweezers, cuticle cutters (ask your lady, or find them in the makeup department), nail clipper and a sanding block (hardware store).  Cut away any loose bits of skin with the cuticle cutters, and sand down any remaining rough edges.  Sand every finger pad each rest day to stimulate new skin growth.  Don’t sand too much; 15-30 seconds per pad should do it depending on your choice of sand paper.

If training early in the morning (see Item #3), try to keep your hands above the covers while sleeping.  Wash and then thoroughly dry your hands, then begin chalking  15 minutes or more before you begin your warmup so the skin can dry and toughen up completely.  If you use Antihydral or similar drying agents for climbing, consider using them during hot periods of your training cycle.  Chalk frequently and thoroughly througout the workout.

2. Prepare Your Training Environment.  Ideally you are doing some form of hangboard training, and ideally you are doing it at home, where you can control your environment.  If you hangboard/training area is located in a large or public area of your home, consider moving it to another location where you can better control the training environment. In many houses, the temperature and humidity varies quite a bit from room to room. The lowest floor of the house is usually the coolest, but some basements have high humidity.  Generally rooms on the north side of the house will be cooler (or any room with minimal sun exposure).  If possible, select a training room that is cool, dry, and small (making it easy to manipulate the temperature and humidity).

Prepare your environment by making it as cold and/or dry as possible before you begin your workout. First, eliminate any heat sources to your training area (for example, turn off the baseboard heater, etc, in the room where you are training). Cover any windows that receive sun exposure the day before your workout.  The simplest way to do this is to draw the blinds, but if you want to go overboard, get some “Rigid Insulation” from your hardware store and cut it to the size/shape of your window.


A piece of Rigid Insulation cut to the size and shape of my east-facing window to block the sun. I’ve covered the edges with duct tape to keep things clean.

If you have Air Conditioning or Evaporative Cooling, experiment with running this system in your training area all through the night before your training session.  Some AC systems will ice up when the temperature drops below 60 degrees F or so, but 60 is much better than 75! 

If, like me, you don’t have a mechanical cooling system, the best way to cool your training session is to open all the windows the evening before and run a strong fan  all night long to circulate outside air into the training area.  Wake up around sunrise, turn off the fan and seal and cover all the windows.  This trick works so well that I stopped using my window-mounted AC unit. I can routinely get my training room down to the low 50’s (F) despite day-time highs in the 90s!  Granted, I live at 7400 feet, where we have drastic temperature swings, but it will work to a lesser extent at any altitude.  Once the room is cool, avoid adding heat to the room.  Keep lights or any other appliances off, and stay out of the room (until its time to start your training session).

A box fan in the same window.  I open all the windows and run this fan overnight, then turn off the fan, close the windows and cover them with insulation when I get up in the morning.  I usually train within an hour or two of waking up, so I leave everything sealed throughout the workout.

A box fan in the same window. I open all the windows and run this fan overnight, then turn off the fan, close the windows and cover them with insulation when I get up in the morning. I usually train within an hour or two of waking up, so I leave everything sealed throughout the workout.  On the rare occasion that its colder outside than inside (while I’m training), I will leave the window open and fan on.

3. Start Early.  The break of dawn is almost always the coldest time of day.  In some areas humidity is lower in the afternoon, so if you live in a humid area, note the humidity and temperature changes to find the ideal training time.  Most of us need an hour or two to hydrate and get our whits together before beginning a difficult training routine. If you are such a person, get in the habit of waking up a bit earlier in the summer months so you can get your workout in as soon as possible.  This time of year I like to start my Hangboard workouts no later than 8:30am, but earlier is much better.  At my house the outside temperature jumps about 20 degrees between 7 and 9am. Even those training at a public gym may be able to take advantage of this tip.  Plan to arrive at the gym as soon as they open.  If your gym is closed in the morning, train as late at night as possible.

4. Use a Fan.  Thermodynamics tells us that adding a fan to a closed room will raise the room’s temperature.  However, this effect is easily offset by the evaporative propoerties of circulating air (in my experience), and most training sessions are over before the air temperature has increased more than 5 or so degrees. If you have prepared your training area properly, the outside air will be much warmer than the air in your training room, so keep the windows closed, and just circulate the air within the room. 

Note how close the fan is positioned to the hangboard.  This model fan can be bolted directly to your mounting board.  Another good option is a "Clip fan" that you can quickly move around to target different grips, but they generally won't generate as much air flow as a fan like this.

Note how close the fan is positioned to the hangboard. This model fan can be bolted directly to your mounting board. Another good option is a “Clip fan” that you can quickly move around to target different grips, but they generally won’t generate as much air flow as a fan like this.

The size and number of fans required may vary depending on the type of training.  For Bouldering or Power Endurance training in my barn, I use a large box fan to circulate air over a large climbing surface.  Hangboarding only requires a small fan (this $16, 8″ fan is sufficient), assuming it is positioned effectively. I use two small fans since my hangboard apparatus is so large.  The Honeywell fan is screwed to my hangboard mounting board and supplies plenty of airflow.  The clip fan can be used to direct air into my pocket grips.

5. Clothing Optional.  Normally I like to wear a shirt while training, but when its really hot the shirt comes off and I wear thin nylon shorts with no pockets.  The higher your core body temperature the more likely you are to sweat, so do whatever you can to keep yourbody cool.  Try to get your torso in the airflow during rest periods. Consider using a secondary fan while hangboarding for this purpose.

6. Don’t Breath on Your Holds!  This may sound silly, but most of the water our bodies lose during day to day activity is lost through exhaling!  When huffing and puffing during hangboard sets, use your lips and mouth to direct your exhaust away from your hangboard.  I’ve considered wearing a snorkel but I haven’t gotten quite that extreme yet 🙂

If you have any other heat-beating tips please post them in a comment!

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.

Flight of the Phoenix

In late 2009, my friend Ben Schmitt bolted a typical-looking Shelf Road face climb at Cactus Cliff.  The line climbs a beautiful white wall of limestone, featuring a brutally hard 5-or-so-move crux right in the middle of the wall.  When Ben put the hardware in, I was just finishing off the last of Shelf’s (existing) hardest routes.  I wasn’t really much into establishing routes at that time, and besides that, I didn’t really see any potential.  About a year earlier there was a thread on Mountain Project titled “No Hard Climbing at Shelf Road”, and (ironically) I actually defended that position, noting that (at that time) there were only 9 routes at Shelf harder than 5.13a.  The truth was, the visionaries who kept Shelf relevant through the 80’s and early 90’s had all moved on to greener pastures, and with the discovery of Rifle, few arrived to take their place, so development stalled for 15 years or so, until Ben arrived.

Carnage, my first Shelf Road First Ascent.

Carnage, my first Shelf Road First Ascent.

Ben is probably the most magnanimous and genuine climber I’ve ever met.  He showed me that the question of new-route-potential was simply a matter of perception.  I had to learn to look at these cliffs a little differently.  The following spring I worked and sent what was to become “Carnage”, at the time Shelf’s hardest free route, and the next route right of Ben’s line.  We spent a lot of time hanging out during this process, and he taught me to see Shelf in a new light. 

Ben’s route is a bit of an outlier for hard Shelf lines, in that its not tweaky, thin, or sharp, and doesn’t require especially skilled footwork.  This thing is burly and in your face.  Its something you would expect to find at Rifle’s Winchester Cave, not at Cactus Cliff.  

Ben put in a valiant effort to send the line, but eventually became burnt out by the low-percentage crux, and graciously encouraged me to try it.  I first tried it in 2010 with Ben, but I had other things on my plate, so I didn’t give it a serious effort.  I tried it again at the end of 2011 with my friend Sheldon, but I decided it was too late in the season for such a powerful climb, so I decided to come back early the following season.   In 2012, fresh off 3 weeks of good campusing, I spent three days on it, and made really good progress.  On the third day I tweaked my left ring A2 pulley while warming up on a nearby climb (never crimp a 2-finger pocket!).  The injury didn’t seem like much at the time, and I climbed through it that day, and for another few weeks before I realized I had a major problem on my hands (pun intended!).  I spent the rest of the Spring season, and the entire summer season, rehabbing this injury.


The line begins up the obvious crack, but then moves slightly right before heading straight up the bulge along the subtle, slightly right-angling seam.

With winter (and therefore, crisp temps at Shelf) rolling around once again, I decided in November to plan my following season around a few leftover projects at Shelf.  Eventually I got back to Cactus in late January.  Honestly, I was quite hesitant to try it, because I was never really sure which route was the primary cause of my finger injury, and I didn’t want to aggravate it.  But its hard for me to resist facing a climb that has shut me down.  All the climbs I’ve failed to master keep me up at night.  I knew I wouldn’t ever be satisfied until I proved to myself that I could climb this route.

The crux bulge is about 15 feet above a sit-down ledge, so there is no pump element to deal with.  The business boils down to executing a huge dyno after completing a succession of committing moves (at least, that’s how my sequence went).  Just by itself, the final dyno is a very low percentage move, but with just enough fatigue to get my hips sagging and sap what little contact strength I have, the move was downright frustrating.  After a few days of work I got to a point where I could hit the dyno 75% of the time off the dog, but climbing into it was another story.  The target hold is actually pretty good; a 2″ deep flat ledge.  But the holds setting up for the dyno are terrible and the feet are basically non-existant.  A quarter inch horizontal foothold anywhere on the wall would make the move trivial, but your feet are right in the bulge where everything is sloping down and into the wall, making it very difficult to generate any momentum from the legs.  Ultimately its a balancing act; trying to push just hard enough with the feet (and in the right direction–into the wall) that they don’t pop off before they’ve generated sufficient velocity.  I probably fell on this move alone a good 40 times off the dog and on redpoint.

Friday was forecast to be 42degF and mostly sunny in Canon City.  Pretty much ideal in my book, as long as we could get there through the snow in Denver.  Perhaps the best part of this process was re-visiting many of the great 5.11 and .12 lines at Cactus.  I got to polish off a number of awesome face climbs I had missed out on the first few times around, especially 14 Carats at The Vault, which climbs an amazing wall with continuous cruxy moves.  With the chilly morning temps, we headed to the far east end of Cactus to warmup and I did a rad little 11a on flawless stone, then Cro-Magnum, a brilliant prow of sinker pockets with a stopper dyno near the top.

Mid-flight on the crux dyno.

Mid-flight on the crux dyno.

Honestly I felt kinda flat, but I’ve noticed through the years that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the way I “feel” during the warmup and how I perform on my project.  Many times I’ve felt awful or bumbled sequences only to end up sending a long-term project.  For example, the day I sent Scarface I fell on (Lower) Heinous Cling, a 5.12a that I had competely dialed and had sent probably 15 times before (Palo knows what I’m talking about; he was belaying IIRC).  My point being, you should always try, because you never know what might happen.  If you don’t try, you will definitely not succeed.

But I wasn’t very optimistic.  I climbed easily up to the crux, but fell on the second dyno, a short slap to a slippery, sloping sidepull.  Not real inspiring.  I hadn’t fallen that low on the route in my last 8 or so attempts.  For various reasons, this season had stretched out longer than I wanted, and it was starting to seem like my improving familiarity with the route was barely keeping pace with my fading fitness.  After a brief moment of self-pity, I pulled back on and sent through the crux.  Aha!  That was the most linkage I had ever had through the crux boulder problem.  Now I had something I could really believe in.  I brushed the key holds and lowered.  The burn only took about 10 minutes, so I just popped the heels off my shoes and maintained my concentration.  After a relatively short 10 minutes, I headed back up.

Sometimes when you send, everything just flows, and the route suddenly feels easy.  I knew that wouldn’t be the case on this route, ever.  This would be a struggle, no matter how many times I tried it.  The difference would have to be effort and perseverence despite the struggle.  Nothing felt different this time around.  The only difference was that when I arrived below the pivotal move I really believed for the first time that it was possible to stick on redpoint.  Rather than a split-second thought of “prepare to fall”, my mind said “this is possible”.  I wasn’t any less pumped, but when I hit the ledge I refused to let go.  The move is almost a double dyno; the trailing hand is on a miserable sloper, so you have to match very quickly to control the swing.  As I threw my low hand up to match, my right foot popped off, but I was able to get my right hand up before I came off. 

Sticking the crux dyno.

Sticking the crux dyno.

There is one more really iffy move just above the ledge, so I didn’t do any celebrating.  I had never had a chance to really climb into this, so I expected it would feel much harder with a pump.  Surprisingly, I wasn’t pumped at all, so after a brief shake I rocked up onto the ledge a breathed a huge sigh of relief.  20-more feet of relatively trivial face climbing brought me to the chains and the first free ascent of Flight of the Phoenix.  Flight for the big dyno (and my countless wingers there), and Phoenix for my recovery from injury.  Sending this route is like coming full-circle.  The finger is now stronger than it was before the injury, and there is one less route out there to interrupt my sleep!

Now to everyone’s favorite topic: the grade.  This is hands-down the hardest route at Shelf for me, but I really suck at this type of climbing, so I don’t have much confidence in my ability to grade such a route.  Compared to other short 5.14ish climbs I’ve done (like Busload of Faith, Come Home Curly, or Smoke Shapes, all at Sinks), this is much harder.  But those climbs all suit my physical strengths, length notwithstanding (and I think they’re all on the easy side of ‘a).  I’ve heard others suggest the crux of Flight might be V11, but again, I’m really not qualified to grade a boulder problem of this style.  With that in mind, I prefer to be conservative.  I’m certainly open to the opinions of past and future suitors.  It would be awesome to have a harder-than-14a route at Shelf to attract some of Boulder’s superstars down to our humble little limestone cliffs, but I’m certain that will happen eventually regardless.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ben for bolting and invisioning the route, and for showing me what Shelf still has left to offer.  I also want to give a shout out to the various partners that have held the other end of the rope at one time or another on this campaign: Ben, Sheldon, Wes, Logan, Nate and of course Kate, who put up with 30-degree temps and intermittent snow flurries over the last few weeks.  Thanks to all of you!

Passing the Time

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of climbing, traveling, and more climbing.  I apologize for neglecting my blog, but now you will be rewarded with a barage of tails of my exciting adventures 😉

I spent the latter half of October working a route in Clear Creek Canyon called “Primetime to Shine”.  This is a linkup of two popular Peter Beal 14a’s, “Primeval” and “Shine”.  I’m usually not a big fan of linkups but this one is a rare example of a linkup that actually improves on the piece parts.  The Primo Wall is fairly short (maybe 35 feet tall?) and the geometry is such that the ‘straight up’ lines are really only continuous for a little over half the height of the wall.  The ‘Primetime’ linkup traverses left and up through the middle of a steep shield of stone, keeping the line hard for a good 30 or so hand moves.  The result is one of the most continuous hard lines on the Front Range. 

Most of “Primetime to Shine”  Photo: Jay Samuelson

The route is basically a classic power endurance sprint, so it made for a good objective to focus the efforts of my Power Endurance phase.  Lately I’ve been experimenting with different types of Interval training, besides the classic “4×4” method that I have extensive experience with.  I used a 32-move “route” for my intervals.  I did about one workout a week, which consisted of at least 4 laps (but as many as I could do without failing), starting with 4 minutes rest for the first workout.  A lap would take a little bit less than 2 minutes to climb, so the work to rest ratio started at about 1:2, with the goal of getting it down to 1:1 by reducing the rest interval by 30 seconds to a minute for each subsequent workout.  When I first set this route in the summer of 2010, I couldn’t send it once with several sessions of work.  Its very motivating to now see myself sending 5 or 6 times in a 20 minute period!

The Green Traverse, 5.13+?

The rock on the Primo Wall is nearly flawless Gneiss, and the route climbs a variety of interesting features, starting with wicked hard crimping up a steepening prow to a series of desparate moves to reach a big sloping ledge.  At this point the climbing transitions from frantic crimping to desparate sloper moves as the line veers left, away form the Primeval finish.  Gymnastic slaps and heel hooks lead straight into the ‘Shine’ crux, which involves a combination of slopers and crimps to reach an odd pegmatite scoop that is best compared to a 2-finger pocket.  If you latch this hold you’re most likely going to send (eventually), but there are still another 10 or so pumpy sloper moves that dashed my redpoint effort more than once.

The campaign was a rollercoaster ride with a lot of ups and downs, and a good lesson in the perils of over-confidence.  The wall is tricky to hit in good conditions in the fall; ideally you would climb here in the dead of winter when cold temps would be guaranteed.  The wall is in the shade until around 10am or so, then bakes in the sun until 4pm.  We bounced back and forth between morning and evening climbing sessions which made it hard to find a good rhythm.   The evening sessions were agonizing because I had to sit around the house all day trying to “save” myself for the evening climbing.  The morning sessions were a complete waste; either the rock was bitterly cold and I would numb out, or I would fail to get a sufficient warmup and get shutdown on the powerful starting moves. 

I one-hanged the route pretty early on, which lead to the ill-advised “next try” mentallity.  Thinking I would surely send “next try”, I put less and less time into each burn, in order to “save” my skin/strength/etc for the next try.  In my experience this is the ticket to a long, protracted and frustrating series of fruitless burns.  The silly part was that I was well aware of what I was doing, but still so confident that I figured it was worth the gamble.  It wasn’t! 

But some lessons are so helpful they’re worth learning several times.  Near the end of October we got the first real snow storm on the Front Range, which brought nice cold temps along with 6″ or so of snow.  The conditions made it possible to climb mid-day which was just what I needed.  For some reason trekking to the crag through snow drifts seems to bring out the best in me.  Perhaps its the solitude that comes with such situations, but I think its simply the cold stone.

Icicles over Primeval. The wet pinch appears to be about a foot directly below the lowest quickdraw.

When we arrived I was disheartened to see big icicles coming off the top of Primeval.  The wall is so steep it hadn’t really occured to me that seapage might be a problem.  The route looked pretty much dry, except for a right hand pinch that sets up the dyno to the big sloping ledge at the end of the Primeval crux, and the last 2 or 3 holds below the chains.  I always figure when redpointing its worth a try no matter the conditions, but I had pretty low expectations.  The dyno had shut me down on a number of attempts so I couldn’t really see sticking it with a wet hand. 

The rock was crisp but not overly-frigid.  I flowed through the opening sequence with relative ease.  After a risky and strenuous clip the right hand moves to an awkward spike, then a big high step and left hand to a small, sharp crimp.  Perch on the righ foot, suck in the hips and then slap the right to the wet pinch.  I could feel the water but my hand stuck.  Fortunately I’ve dialed this dyno to the point that its virtually static; the key is to keep the feet from cutting loose in order to control the swing…stuck.  Dry my hand and shake.  Wetness is no longer  an issue but the hand is much colder than usual from the water.  This is one of those rests that isn’t really that restful, and you wonder if you would be better off sprinting.  At only around 10 moves in, you aren’t pumped, just numb.  I stay long enough to get most of the feeling back in my hands and press on linking intermittent rails. 

De-booting post-send with the upper route behind.

A newly discovered foothold makes a once-desparate slap trivial, and on to the Shine crux.  This part always feels desparate but if you just keep motoring and ignore the insecurity you won’t fall.  Match the sloper rail, left foot way high, rock up and reach high to the pocket.  Gaston with the right, then dyno for the “jug”.  This time I’m not pumped.  Clip the bolt, chalk up, and finally appreciate how peaceful this canyon can be on a secluded snowy day.  The second-to-last hold is wet but incut, leading to a blind slap to a jug over the lip; probably wet–hopefully not filled with snow or worse, ice.  I consider clipping from the lower crimp, but after a slight hesitation I go for the jug.  I’ve never been so relieved to find a hold full of water!

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.

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.