3.12.2012

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.

Huzzah.

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