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.

Population Growth

This past weekend I made it out to Moab for the first time in several years.  Based on the rate of expansion the last time I visited I expected to see skycrapers and three international airports when I arrived.  The town had certainly been through some changes, but once we got out into the backcountry I was pleasantly surprised to see things really hadn’t changed that much.

Extreme Diaper Change, Moab, UT

There is no doubt the sport of climbing has exploded in popularity.  With no indication that this growth is going to slow down any time soon its pretty common to hear climbers lament how crowded the crags have become, and how they long for the good ol’ days when it was common to have an entire cliff to yourself.

Based on my experience over the last few months, I’m fairly confident this “overcrowding” hysteria is highly exagerated.  I don’t deny there are more climbers than ever.  And if you choose to go to Cactus Cliff or Supercrack Buttress on a sunny spring Saturday you will surely witness this firsthand.  But these crags are only the tip of the iceberg.  For every Cactus Cliff there are 10 other cliffs, just as good, that are totally deserted.  That’s not to say you won’t have to do a little extra work.  You may have to drive a little further, walk a little further, walk through some brush, clean some routes, maybe sink in some steel, but the rock is there waiting.

Ancient Art

Less than an hour till sunset and they’re still queued up

We hiked the Fisher Towers trail on Friday evening, and I counted 6 parties of climbers…all on Ancient Art.  So if your concept of the Fisher Towers is limited to the one route in the CitiBank commercial, ya, the Fisher Towers are unbelievably crowded.  Ancient Art is a fine route with a unique summit, and I’m happy to have done it.  But there are HUNDREDS of other routes, many that will blow your mind, a stones throw away that go years without ascents. 



The rest of the Fisher Towers

Often the cliffs and routes that we think of as “classic” are really just old and convenient.  They were developed first because they were the most obvious, not necessarily because they were the best.  The routes at these crags have developed a mystique due to their place in history, and the long list of folks that have tried them.  The routes seem a bit easier because they’re heavily chalked, all the footholds have black rubber spots, and you can probably find the beta on Youtube.  But the holds are polished, footholds have crumbled, and a few handholds are probably lying in dust on the ground.  These routes aren’t really easier and they aren’t really any better.                                                                   

That’s not to say the classics should be avoided.  I love climbing classic routes, and a look at my tick list will immediately betray my preference for such routes.  But there are other great routes out there just waiting to be climbed.  You may have to wade through some crowds now and then if you want to feel that special connection to your heroes that comes from repeating one of their legendary lines.  Or you can call in sick and show up at the crag on Tuesday.  Even Smith Rock’s Dihedrals are completely deserted on Monday.  Another option is to watch the weather forecast and show up during the off season.  If you want the Motherlode to yourself the solution is simple.  Wake up at 7am and you’ll have a few hours of solitude before the hoards arrive.

The best sport crag in the Rocky Mountains, totally deserted…

If all else fails, get yourself a used Hilti on e-Bay, walk that distant cliffline you’ve been eyeing for years, and build your own personal paradise.  Once you’re lonely, longing for the cameraderie of fellow climbers, post the beta on the web and watch your creations become the classic lines of the next generation.