The Old is New Again

If the apparent optimism of the title seems incongruous with the general tone of my blog, fear not and read on. Part of what I'm referring to is a familiar injury that seems to haunt my climbing like a shadow, waiting patiently for each tweaky move and each incidence of overuse to make its move. Ligament sprains have become de rigeur for me these past four years and now I find myself being force fed another installment of this hackneyed story. Oddly enough, this time it is not the finger on my left hand that I badly hurt years ago that required at least eight months before I could really climb again. Rather, it is the same finger on my right hand. Weird.

The set up was a classic case of too much too fast. After a couple of months training in the gym this winter I started to feel the old fitness coming back. A friend of mine provided an unexpected chance to go on the road for a month and I took it. First stop: Red Rocks, where I had really only spent a couple of quick days in the past picking off one great longer route (Cloud Tower; highly recommend) as well as some rather uninspiring sport climbs at the Gallery. Upon arriving here this time I cast away my prejudices against this place and was extremely excited. The 30-60 foot sandstone sport routes looked really fun and the whole environment seemed great: beautiful scenery in the Red Rocks loop, interesting sandstone climbing features and the existence of hundreds of routes and plenty of variety amongst them. On day one, 95% recovered from a ghastly stomach flu, I got excited. Ultimately I fixated on one harder route and decided to attempt it. A twenty foot V7 runout to the first bolt necessitated a stick clip: we fashioned one from two sticks lashed together with bandannas and I stood on a teetering four foot pile of sandstone blocks whilst being spotted in case they fell. Problem solved. Subsequently, I nailed the route on what was essentially my first try. Full of heedless joy, I decided I needed one more challenge for the day and went to check out another 5.13-type thing elsewhere. I didn't really think about my multiple attempts to figure out a tweaky finger jam/pocket move until the next day, when I woke up with a sore finger that, over the course of a further half dozen routes, swelled up and became a much more convincing problem.

This is what a 5.13 route looks like at Red Rocks. I sat in the hueco in the middle for ten minutes, which invalidates my ascent.

Fast forward almost ten days. I am injured. It took me at least three days to stop denying it. I brooded, sulked and fumed against myself for allowing this to happen again. I was quite pleasant company for those unfortunate enough to be around me (really just one lucky person). I willed time to roll itself back to an appropriate moment before the injury. Predictably, it did not comply. I wandered through the desert in full breakdown crisis mode, watching as all my excitement and potential climbing plans for the spring became locked within a single tiny ligament tear. Memories of my past experiences with this injury flooded unbidden into the forefront of my consciousness. I remembered the intense frustration and lack of acceptance, the use of copious amounts of beer as an attempted distraction and cure, the unconvincing OT visits and the annoying finger brace that seemed a dubious solution at best. I wanted to end the trip ASAP and fly back to Seattle immediately to do...nothing.

Because there isn't anything to do. This lesson is a branding iron that has repeatedly seared a stubborn, leathered hide that feels nothing and learns nothing from the mark. Climbing, the positive force, the force for change, the amazing thing that I have excelled at so much in the last twelve years, has become my identity. The temporary loss of climbing is akin to losing myself and therefore I have been lost. For days. Then at some point I realized that I can't keep doing the same damn thing and expecting different results, the gold standard for irrationality and insanity. I have been chastened numerous times for my endorsement of rock climbing as a validation for my life. I've been told succinctly that I'm essentially full of shit (although I admit is was slightly more tactful than that) for holding to this belief. I've subsequently heaped the same shaky basket full of eggs and dropped the damn thing again, at least two or three times. My whole game is still inextricably entwined with climbing as though my very existence depended on it.

This time, however, the ineluctable terror at being denied this ever-important thing has begun to wake the rational in me. The wound torn by this current personal maelstrom is much larger and far less easily obfuscated than ever before. Maybe it's because I've realized I can no longer constantly rely on the future to bring reason to my path: it doesn't exist yet and if the present follows suit, there is only the spilt milk and egg yolks on the ground to follow breadcrumb-like back to the house in the woods. Ahem. Anyway, today I swam laps with old people in a YMCA pool and tried repeatedly to throw a ball through a hoop like people do when they play that one popular game everyone watches. I was so winded from even my best imitations of swimming that the lifeguard came over to check on me. It was fun. It wasn't rock climbing.

Now I'm on vacation. I'm trying to allow the laser focus of the erstwhile climbing trip to blur into an actual view of the world. Some of the things coming to light are not pretty, but the most honest forms of introspection rarely are. Paradoxically, egoism and self-effacement twine together. The meticulously poured foundations of self-confidence are revealed to rest on sand. Meaning is transubstantiated into base approximations with sinister consequences. I've always loved the desert because everything seems stripped away, raw and real. These Ozymandias-like obelisks of personal failure are naught but sand in the wind out here. I recall numerous instances over the years of myself standing in the wind, temporarily scoured clean. Sandstone hills might loom on the horizon, bewildering in their kaleidoscopic impermanence. Or it might be snow-covered plains, bleak but astoundingly beautiful in their starkness. It might be the granite and Joshua Trees of the Mojave, a veritable Dr. Seussian ode to joy in landscape form. I am here or there in snippets of memories and my eyes are always open. Old injuries are yet new chances for insight, at least for this old hand. To actually be at a point to be able to say that speaks volumes around and through my sarcasm and bilious ranting. And climbing? It will be there when I get back.


Gentleman's Climbing

Last time I promised to talk about how retro-cool accoutrements and moderate substance abuse could enhance one's ability to climb slabs. Also known as 'gentleman's climbing', this style requires little of the one-arm lock-off power, extreme contact strength or even fitness needed to conquer the steeps; rather, it requires poise, balance, period correct footwear (board-lasted shoes) and nerves of steel (nerves that are numbed in some fashion are an appropriate substitute). Slab climbing is at its root a pure mental game, where bolts are often between 15 and 50 feet apart and where positive handholds that can be vice-gripped for psychological relief are rare or nonexistent. The old adage of the mountaineer, that 'the leader must never fall', often becomes truth when one is relying on pure frictional force for purchase, strung out 25 feet above a bolt placed in the 1970's by someone who was likely higher than a cheerleader at the homecoming game...or something. Needless to say, a 70-foot fall on a less-than-vertical meat-grinding section of rock, not to mention the dubious structural integrity of the 1/4" x 1 1/4" piece of oxidized steel 'holding' the fall, are reasons enough to warrant some sort of special preparations. For some, these may involve certain substances of dubious legality. For others (including me, of course), it's all about the kit and there really is a simple logic that governs this whole situation:

People who look like this...

...who wear shoes that look like this...

...climb slabs. They just do. They might also climb roof cracks, wrestle ten foot pebbles and prance around on steep sport climbs but rest assured: they will eventually return to their roots, kick the angle down to a steady 65-75 degrees and pad away into the runout unknown. Occasionally, they might enjoy a fermented beverage, in moderation of course...

This is the only beer-related photo I could find on the interweb; also, the beer is non-alcoholic

Which brings me seamlessly to another topic! Slab climbing used to be the absolute zenith of badassery. Just look at the brave Yosemite pioneer who would cast off on unknown expanses of granite with nothing but a swami-belt harness, a joint, a hand drill, and a fucking WILL OF IRON. Fame, fortune and female companionship are mere suggestions of the bounteous rewards showered upon the conquerors of the anti-steeps at a time when the world understood the true value of their deeds. How times change. Now a small number of us must thanklessly and inadequately carry their torch into the cold, dark reality of today, when, as in so many other realms, a former counter-culture has been transmuted to pop-culture, becoming ever more marketable. Trade the headbands for 59/50 caps and the Kaukulators for...well...something else...and bring on the hype!

These are 59/50 caps that are actually cool because they are all, like, retrogaming and stuff

The true rewards of slab climbing are made of decidedly less material stuff. The wind in your hair, the pain in your toes, the tunnel vision brought on by staring intently at any ripple that might be a foothold, the weightlessness and calm of being poised on the brink of annihilation continuously for hours on end: all speak to a greater purpose, a higher learning found only in a forgotten pursuit, riddled with mystery and requiring the most esoteric techniques imaginable. The era of mustaches, pipes and hemp ropes is just a costume store away. Nose over toes!

I couldn't find a picture of old school slab climbing so here is this picture of a knit smore that I stole from someone else's blog


Upsighting and the Elusive Drewpoint

Upsighting (v): The act of sequencing a climb from the ground to the best of one's abilities and then not actually climbing it.

Drewpoint (n): When I almost climb a rock climb, missing the top by one hold, dabbing a foot or failing to clip the anchors and I still 'call it good' and refuse to try the climb again.

But on a far more serious note:

I tried to write a post about onsight climbing yesterday but it was way too long and not nearly caustic enough to belong here. I also realized that most of the things I could say are probably redundant compared to just linking to this video. Oh wait: here's another one. Now of course, even though my best onsight is a FULL NUMBER GRADE (!!!) below Ondra's, I probably still have some insight to share about onsighting. Maybe.

If you are still reading words even after being crosslinked to more exciting things like videos, kudos to you. I'll try to make it worth your while by waxing annoyingly philosophical and talking a lot about myself and my own experiences.

Onsight climbing is my favorite variation of the 'game' we all love to play. The onsight is the pinnacle of achievement in climbing as it requires that one have no prior knowledge of a route before attempting it. The climbing media loves a good onsight to put in the mags because it is the litmus test of today's top sport climbers. To wit, quite a few people are climbing 5.14 these days but far fewer are onsighting it; I'm pretty sure only one person (Adam Ondra) has onsighted as hard as .14c (and now also flashed V14...!!!)[edit: Patxi Usobiaga was the first to onsght 8c+]. It stands to reason that an onsight requires heightened levels of intuition and skill in order for it to be successful. Especially as the grade becomes more difficult, the movements and hold types become so specialized that a first try send becomes a game that requires absolute perfection, perfect synergy between decision making and instinct and extraordinary fitness.

This level of perfection can effectively be adjusted depending on the ability of the climber, but harder grades will require much more complex movements and higher levels of focus. I have always been interested in onsighting at a level as near to my redpoint limit as I can manage. It is nonsensical to have them be the same; if they ever are, I'm not trying routes that are challenging enough. Logic concludes that it will always be possible to do harder moves if they are rehearsed than if they are being attempted without any prior information. The point here is that onsight climbing requires numerous strategic adjustments. Without muscle memory of the movements or a mental catalogue of the hold types involved, the climber has to race her fatigue to figure out hold sequences. She will almost certainly execute moves inefficiently and waste energy, forcing her to ad lib movements and find rests in less than optimal sections of the climb. She will be relying on her own experience and her ability to 'approximate' holds and movements, to group the unfamiliar with those of which she has actual knowledge.

What's so great about this is that it forces us to be at our best. Lack of focus, excess conscious thought, expectations, fear, doubt; during an onsight attempt these are complete anathema and will almost always result in failure or at least suboptimal performance. Intuition must mesh with logical thought in a sort of focused 'waking dream'. Technique is used subconsciously and without time to plan, movements must be almost instinctual. If we force this situation on ourselves, we can learn about our true capabilities, including weaknesses. If mental blocks such as fear, doubt or expectations are common causes of failure for a climber, an onsight attempt should bring them out in force. If lack of fitness is the culprit, it will certainly register here where we need every extra bit of holding power. Poor technique? Same result. Onsight climbing can clue us in to things we might otherwise just 'deal with' during redpointing since we inherently give ourselves more advantages in that situation.

Most importantly, onsighting is just plain fun. The lack of certainty about a route creates adventure and motivation to try harder. Ever on a relatively short boulder problem, the impetus to figure out complex movements quickly is incredibly rewarding. If you add the more cerebral challenge of gear placement on a traditional climb, you get a whole separate challenge on top of the climbing itself. Strategizing an onsight is actually similar between the three disciplines of rock climbing, despite the obvious differences. Here are a few ideas for better onsighting: Clearing the mind of expectation is important. I often fail to onsight climbs because I believe I 'should' be able to do them without fanfare. Instead, focus on the climbing itself. Visualize potential sequences before you leave the ground but be prepared for them to be wrong. Trust in your abilities and in the fact that intuition is a powerful tool. Don't pump out puzzling out sequences: try something, anything, even if it's crazy. With bouldering, the holds are likely more visible unless it is a tall problem. On sport routes, look for suspicious bulges that might indicate cruxes or features that might offer a rest. On traditional routes, try to get an idea of what gear you will need. On your onsight attempt of a difficult crack, you will almost certainly not be able to place the gear exactly where and how it needs to be placed; expect to run it out more than usual and be sure to make the pieces count when you place them. If there are consequences to a fall, as always weigh them against the likelihood of failure and the value of success. Once your feet have left the ground, any fear must be shelved until you there is actual danger. You are only as good as you are, so trust in your technical ability and fitness and don't obsess about your shortcomings. In this vein, don't try routes that are completely unreasonable for you if you want to onsight them: lower your expectations a little and be realistic (also known as being humble).

Over the years, these maxims have allowed me a modicum of success at onsighting sport climbs, traditional routes and boulder problems, at least at an intermediate ability level. My most memorable and personally important climbing experiences have largely involves onsighting because of the inherent challenge and greater reward/adventure quotient of climbing into the unknown with open eyes and an open mind. As a relative amateur enthusiast, it is impressive to see climbers like Paxti Usobiaga and Adam Ondra take this discipline into a stratospheric realm. Remember also that watching climbers that are far better than you can teach you amazing things about your own climbing. So can watching oneself climb, but few of us have the luxury (or curse?) of having every move we make recorded on film.

This article is still too long and features a disturbing lack of self-effacement and irreverence, but so it goes. Next time I will talk about how antique rock shoes, head bands, hippie lettuce and crag beers help you climb slabs.



Plateaus: Doldrums or Prevailing Winds?

Proportional to this wellspring of climbing psyche (AKA, existential crisis) I have been experiencing so far this year, I have opted to spam the living shit out of my blog in the hopes of having some record of this unique period of my life. Lately I have found some satisfaction in offering my thoughts on getting better at climbing. Even after twelve years of climbing, I still find that I have huge potential for 'getting better' at the sport. From this little kernel pops the topic of the third installment of my little training series. I will figure out what to call it after I write the article, or perhaps midway through.

Notice that I didn't claim to have huge potential for getting stronger at rock climbing? In an attempt at organizing and repacking the can of worms I just spilled with that statement, I will refer to an oft-mentioned phenomenon in one's personal climbing progression known as a "plateau". Imagine a graph of the exponential equation X^2 leveling off at one Y value after an exhilarating crescendo. For most of us who are mortal and possess somewhat 'average' genetics (if, during your first ever visit to a climbing gym, you walked over to the campus board and cranked out a one-arm on the mono-doigt, feel free to 'skim' this post) a mysterious and confounding blockade will intermittently be thrown in front of our progress as climbers. This blockade will manifest in a variety of ways: whether these be injury, staleness, regression (in terms of grades and/or enthusiasm), frustration or illness, all are part of the pinched nerve that a plateau represents for our enjoyment of the challenge of climbing.

It is important to take the meaning of progress at its most abstract, at least as it relates to rock climbing: it incorporates countless possibilities including but not limited to: strength, technical ability, mentality, intentions, personal well-being, experiential learning, fitness, pursuit of fame, glory and booty (both the 'filthy lucre' and the other variety). A plateau in our progression can be as much of a cacophony of these interlacing factors as we allow it to be; in parsing the plateau it becomes important to identify key issues, the 'limiting reagents' preventing the reaction from continuing forward. The best way for me to illuminate some of the possibilities is to draw from my own experiences. Opening closet and exhuming skeletons...now!

STRENGTH vs. TECHNIQUE: This strikes me as possibly the biggest factor in performance-related plateaus in climbing. In my own experience, I can clearly remember being a bumblefuck newbie, a total gumba who wanted nothing more than to claw my way up a V3 in the gym just to say I did. I gained a little muscle, pulled a few tendons and maybe climbed some harder grades? I do recall the first V7 I ever hossed my way up. It was extremely exciting for me. Really. Meanwhile, while I was exalting in chasing grades (IN THE GYM!) my footwork was an unmentionable atrocity; I had no clue what core strength was, much less balance; words like 'precision', 'flow' and 'grace' would have garnered little more than a vacant open-mouthed stare. Despite the lingering joint stiffness from that school of hard knocks, I did eventually make the connection. Technique could perhaps be called the coordinating force in climbing. By practicing good technique, many things are possible that would otherwise be forever out of reach. The economy of movement achieved by recruiting more muscle groups via improved coordination, for instance, is why we can use our feet on small holds while climbing overhangs; it is why we can initiate moves in our feet and legs and transfer the momentum to our arms via our cores; it is why we can cut our feet on steep routes and use momentum and timing to our advantage. The list could go on, but the main idea is that technique helps to create an economy of strength no matter what level of strength we possess. We can achieve new levels of actual strength and power output via use of specific training systems like system walls, campus boards and weighted pullups. With these methods, but perhaps especially with a more general 'brute force' approach to climbing, we quickly start to 'split the field' in terms of how fast different body tissues adapt to stress. For instance, tendon and ligament strength is easily outmatched by muscular development. Guess what happens next? POP! There go the next three months of climbing (and possibly a lot of other things; ever try to play guitar with a sprained 1st finger PIP joint?). The point here is this: you can only get stronger for so long before it outstrips your actual ability to climb (to coordinate movement, to economize on strength, to successfully execute different move sequences by reading hold patterns on routes, etc) which results in a plateau. The way through depends on the deficit. If your footwork is about as good as the guy next to you in the gym with socks under his size 14 rental shoes, then you know. If your ass sticks out while you climb steep routes because you think core strength is an engineering term, then you know. If you read routes about as well as George W. Bush would read children's picture books if he knew how to read, then you know. As technique is a mental pursuit, you apply the relevant ideas to your climbing through relevant skill-building exercises. For most people this is as simple as just trying new angles or different styles of climbs. There is hope for the bumbly and it is called technique! (and tighter shoes with no socks, not hanging chalkbags backwards from gear loops with oval carabiners, not wearing harnesses while bouldering in the gym or elsewhere, learning to use a GriGri while sport belaying, keeping your mouth closed while looking up at other climbers as they climb...)

FATNESS as opposed to FITNESS: Yes. As I sit here drinking cheap Trader Joe's beer and eating pretzels I will dwell on this topic for a few more sentences. I know that my posts lately have made me sound somewhat anorexic but fear not: I eat nearly 500 calories per day and wash it down with copious amounts of Bentonite clay suspended in apple cider vinegar. So there. But seriously: when I started climbing (four days a week, barefoot or in socks, at the UW rock in Seattle) I easily weighed 170 pounds. I am 5'6". I would love to think I was more...muscular...then. But let's face the facts: I weigh around a buck thirty right now. The missing poundage is probably more related to a drastic reduction in the amount of fast food consumed than anything else, but I digress: the importance of being fit cannot be overstated. Well, it can, but let's ignore that for now. A plateau could very well be related to baseline fitness as much as any climbing specific issue. An honest evaluation of one's general fitness can therefore be enlightening and humbling, yet extremely useful. Here are some simple questions. To borrow a term from internet personal ads, which I do not ever, ever use, are you HWP (height/weight proportional)? Are you at a moderate or better level of cardiovascular fitness (do you wheeze and reach for your cigarettes when you get to the top of a flight of stairs?)? Are your eating habits in line with your fitness goals? Do you often sit on the couch reading fantasy novels and crying while eating 6-month old Halloween candy and downing half-racks of Natty Ice? Does the acronym WoW mean anything to you? Some practical applications of developing more 'overall' fitness: the 5 mile hike to your 5.6 slab climb is no longer the crux of the day; you are no longer wearing a permanent weight belt while climbing (try climbing with 20 pounds hanging from your harness for reference); you no longer have to level-grind so you can spawn-camp the Striped Terrorsaurus of Fury for 24 hours at a time in order to obtain the Adamantine Scimitar of Prestidigitation (+5 dex, +2 str, +3 int, add +6 to your saving throw). Roll 1d20 to continue.

MENTAL HANGUPS: Admittedly, this category can really get as ugly as you want it to, but it's important to consider the possibility that your plateau is a direct result of you being a vainglorious, self-loathing egomaniac whose demented subconscious will stop at nothing to soil the purity of your lofty rock climbing goals. All joking aside: if your actions don't match your intentions, your training amounts to an almost absolute shit show. This issue is more cerebral than it is physical. If you don't know why you are attempting to push yourself forward in climbing, or worse still, if you are doing it for reasons incongruous with your true intentions, no matter how hard you are climbing you are setting yourself up for failure and disillusionment. Why do you like climbing? Why do you like getting better at climbing? Why do you make sacrifices to get better at climbing? Why does climbing occupy more of your mental run time than food, sex or sleep? What are your goals? There are many right answers; the main bugaboo here is honesty: do your answers reflect actual reality? For instance, if you are trying to use climbing as a means to attract mates and you can only grunt your way up a 5.10a, you need to reevaluate your goals: you must be able to climb 5.13c or harder (and/or the equivalent V-grade; bonus points for both) for climbing itself to make you more attractive to others. If you like climbing because it gives you a sense of personal wholeness and oneness with your surroundings, then guess again: climbing is about sending hard shit and being a fucking BAWSE. Dude. Oh: I almost forgot to add a personal vignette to color this section. I used to think that when I was climbing well, I was unstoppable in other spheres of my life. Then someone told me that I was 'cocky' as opposed to 'confident' and it pretty much crushed me for a little while. Now I realize that being cocky is just fine and serves numerous purposes, but that climbing has a bit less bearing on other parts of my life than I used to believe. This is unfortunate, because it's kind of one of the few things I'm good at at this point. And by good I kind of mean by 1990's standards. Oh well. Be as honest as you can be with yourself about your goals and act as congruently as possible with said goals. Be open to change even if it means taking three months off from climbing to play World of Warcraft. Well, maybe not that open to change. I dunno.

A summary might be helpful. I could easily continue with examples, but this topic has already run away from me a little as its potential scope is huge. The main idea behind overcoming plateaus is to be creative. Evaluate the situation and identify the most relevant limiting factors. Deal with these with a combination of applied training and introspection. As a sort of meta-exercise, try to figure out ways to avoid plateaus in the first place. There is a wealth of climbing training literature available now that should adequately cover many of these issues, but personal responsibility is required to apply the information. This responsibility is conceptually simple but operationally difficult to achieve: honesty and willingness to adapt imply maintaining a certain inward humility even if outwardly you are a total badass, bro. But really, no matter your personality, keeping an open mind and becoming better at recognizing your limitations will help you overcome those limitations, realize goals and learn an incredible amount about yourself in the process. In the end, the possibility that a plateau might completely reinvent climbing for you or I makes them absolute necessities in terms of our personal learning. It's really a trifecta of victory and you needed to schlep through at least 1000 words of my prose to learn about it. Thank you for reading and since I surely omitted important details, please feel free to add insight via the comments field. Just don't use more than 10% of your response for taunts or other assorted derision unless it's accurate.


Long and Short Term Goals in Climbing Training

In the second of a series of articles and insights into the unscientific training regime of an unprofessional rock climber (me!), I offer a few thoughts on goals and benchmarks and their value in maintaining motivation to train in time frames both short and long. The first article was about how starvation and guilt can enhance any training program and it obviously should not be missed.

It's important to have a variety of training goals in any sport to maintain a healthy level of fun and focus and climbing is really no exception. This Spring I am looking forward to tackling probably the biggest climbing goal I've ever conjured up. While the thrill of such 'long term' goals is enough both to make me reduce my weekly beer intake by several pints and to possibly add some structure to my training, maintaining a modicum of day to day psyche requires more appropriately targeted goals. For instance, while climbing a full YDS number grade harder might require months of invested time, an improvement of a letter grade or a V-grade might take a week or less and therefore is a more appropriate 'short term' goal. Not all goals need be as abstract as grade targets, although they can be just as good a motivating factor as a specific route just so long as they don't become psychological baggage. Realizing short term goals and benchmarks can be the absolute key to maintaining motivation as training can be painful and frustrating and at times seem pointless without a more consistent sense of achievement. Goals need not even be strictly climbing related and sometimes a little creativity in goal setting can be refreshing. To wit: in three hours of climbing gym sessioning this morning I was able to earn my goal of eating 1.5 Mighty-O donuts. This is a very favorable equation. Note that the donuts are not the reward/goal so much as the lack of guilt while eating them. Also, donut grease on my hands makes 5.14 feel almost like a piece of cake...so to speak. Also, I bought the donuts initially so this is an interesting psychology I've got going on here.

Needless to say, with my goal realized I now have the motivation to set another goal, possibly related to actually eating lunch. Carry on.