managing your expectations on a climbing trip (or how to cope with the fact that you’re not going to send the one climb that you were really psyched to try to send)

success and failure while on a climbing trip…the high point and the low point. if you have ever taken an extended trip to just climb (at least a week), you have stared this demon straight in the face. how much time do you devote to one climb, when you only have a limited window to actually climb? should you sample more climbs at a lower grade and get more volume in? these are, no doubt, the burning questions in your mind right now.

obviously, there is no easy answer. there rarely is. but the easiest answer, in my mind, depends on one factor: how familiar are you with the area, i.e. its rock type and/or the style of climbing? if you’re visiting a new area, it is probably wise to step down the grade difficulty and climb for volume. this allows you to get used to the subtleties of the area and gives you a good base of “knowledge” for moving on that specific rock. but if you go back to an area that you have previously spent some time, the answer isn’t quite as easy to arrive at.

projecting something at your local crag is one thing. you can put time in on the climb intermittently, and there isn’t really much pressure (all things considered) since you can typically get to it at your leisure. for all intents and purposes you have “all the time in the world.” but several things can work against you when you decide to project something while on a trip: there is a finite amount of time; the time invested versus the payout or reward of sending may not be worth it; climbing a bunch of routes below your limit might be boring; there may be other people working the same route and you have to play nice with others, etc. thus the conundrum.

one thing working in your favor is that while on a trip, you are usually just climbing. you aren’t bogged down with the minutiae of the daily grind. you can tune out all that other stuff and focus a bit more on remembering beta, sequences, and details of one particular climb. you can get the necessary fitness and strength with few distractions.

ultimately it comes down to your level of confidence in your ability to send the route. this is not something you will know right off the bat. i would recommend getting on your chosen project route early on in your trip, ideally within the first few days. this way, you know what you’re up against in terms of style and difficulty. after you have been on it a few times, that confidence level will kick in (or not…), and in your own head you start to know if your goal is actually reasonable and attainable.

i have personally had both ends of this spectrum, oddly enough at the same place, the red river gorge. bear with me for a little longer, it’s story time!

flashback to early october 2010. i had a 10 day trip planned for the red. i had just finished a sunday shift at the north gym (9a to 6p), and right after locking the door, i hopped in my car and started driving east. i made it as far as columbia, mo, before the proverbial wheels fell off the bus and i had to stop. driving solo for that many hours after a full day is rough! after sleeping for a bit, i continued east and arrived in slade, ky, by 6p. i met up with some friends, drank whiskey, beer and ale8, then went to bed.

that next morning, feeling really rusty and stiff from the drive, we headed down to the ‘motherlode’.

madness cavethe madness cave at the motherlode

my intended project was ‘bohica‘ (13b), in the madness cave, a brilliantly steep route out a 45 deg angle wall with perfect 1- to 1.5-pad deep edges the whole way. it’s absolutely amazing.

so after warming up on a few classic routes (chainsaw massacre and ale-8-one) it was time to test the waters on bohica. the first burn was a junk show! the moves felt really hard, and i didn’t have the endurance to do more than 2 bolts at a time. i had my work cut out for me.

the next day, we went back to the ‘lode. it was time for me to get my endurance up in preparation of starting to link sections on bohica. so i decided that i was going to go for a no fall/no take day, and no pitch could be easier than 5.12a. so myself and my friend ‘little’ dan proceeded to knock out pitch after pitch of 12a and 12b for an entire day. i ended up doing 10 pitches, dan got in 12, and we thankfully had a no fall/no take day. completely worn out, but psyched with a good endurance day.

the next several days were spent working bohica, with a rest day tossed in there somewhere. each day i got on the route twice, and each day i was linking more sections, and getting high points. my confidence was building.

my final climbing day of the trip, i went out with my buddy nik. he also had a project at the ‘lode, so off we went. after warming up and giving nik a catch on his route, we walked over to bohica for the ‘hail mary’ attempt. first section of the route felt easy and robotic and with seemingly no effort, i found myself at the first rest, staring at the remaining 60 feet of that perfect 45 deg angle wall above me. after lowering my heart rate, i launched into the rest of the route. each move was executed with confidence and precision. there were no wasted movements, no second guessing. before i knew it, i was at the final rest looking at the last 15 feet and the anchors. i composed myself and fired. i made it to the anchor, clipped, yelled triumphantly, then lowered back down to the ground. i drove back to the house, packed up my stuff and started the drive home. success!

contrast that with my recent trip earlier this month. the first few days were spent getting used to the rock again, as it had been 3 years since my last trip. plus, my endurance these days feels fairly poor, compared to previous times and trips. everything felt hard. things that i had sent previously felt so much more difficult! i was up against a big challenge with extremely low confidence.

so third day, i got to check out my intended project: ‘swingline‘ (13d) at a crag called ‘the dark side‘. i did the moves first try on the route, and got incredibly psyched. it broke down as a 5.13a/b to a very poor rest to a legit v8 boulder problem. while i rested at the base of the route, i started thinking about what was actually necessary to send this thing. getting to the poor rest on link would have been a healthy goal, and probably doable. but to tack on a v8 boulder problem after that seemed daunting. after much internal debate, i decided that i lacked the necessary fitness to put it away in the amount of time left and ultimately had to walk away from it. i was bummed. this line is beautiful and inspiring, and a very sought after route. but it wasn’t to be. i found another fun line there, ‘tuskan raider‘ (12d) that i was able to send 3rd try. that ended up being my only real send for the trip.

Red_River_Gorge_Swingline_75075649_thumbnailswingline

while the trip as a whole was incredibly fun due to the good company of old and new friends, i consider the climbing side of it to be a bit of a failure. this was due to poor training before hand, leading to generally bad fitness, etc. i have to make sure that i am better prepared for the next go ’round.

so there you have it…both ends of the spectrum. success and failure. elation and frustration. in the end, you just have to look at the whole situation. sometimes you decide to throw your chips in, sometimes you throw the cards away instead and wait for the next round. someone famous once said ” you gotta know when to hold ’em, know…”. eh, never mind, you get the idea.

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proximity

a thought occurred to me as i was driving away from a local climbing area today: are certain climbing areas really good because they truly are that good, or are they only good because you live within a close proximity to them?

there are a few places that pop into my head as being truly amazing climbing areas. first on my personal list is the red river gorge, in eastern kentucky. when i lived in west lafayette, indiana, going to school at purdue university, i would skip class and drive the four hours just for a day of climbing. i’ve driven solo from denver to the red (18 hours drive time, with a two hour “power nap”), for a 10 day trip. i climbed 9 of those 10 days, and it was worth every minute and every mile. i have never regretted going there and i doubt i ever will.

another area that sticks out in my mind is yosemite. trad, sport, bouldering, big wall, “the valley” has it all! everything you could want is there, and people come from all over the world to sample the rock. lucky are the ones that also happen to live close by…or luckier still, the dying breed of the “valley rat” finding ways to squat and survive living within the park. but you plan big trips around yosemite, most people don’t just “pop in”. the few trips that i took there, i drove many hours with friends in a haze of cigarette smoke and coffee just to have a shot at climbing those monolithic granite domes.

also near and dear to my heart is rifle. i feel lucky to be so close to it, but i would gladly drive long distances to spend a good chunk of time there. in fact, every summer there is always an influx of strong dirtbag climbers from all corners of the country that live in the canyon. hell, in 2011 i was one of them. as far as sport climbing is concerned, it’s one of the best places to really test your mettle (as long as you climb under 5.15a). there is such a high concentration of difficult climbs, and such varied styles within the small and narrow canyon, that you shouldn’t get bored. everything is crazy convenient, with no approaches or hikes. you get to climb hard and be lazy at the same time. win-win situation if you ask me.

on the flip side, there are areas that are good because you live so close to them. the first one in this category that i can think of is clear creek canyon, just west of golden. i love clear creek. i have climbed more times there than probably any other area. but let’s be honest, if it wasn’t 30 minutes away from denver, it wouldn’t be a destination. not by a long shot. however, it allows you to get after-work sessions during the summers, quick training sessions on real rock, and offers hard enough routes to allow us normal climbers to push our limits. it’s a great place to have in our backyard, but world class?

now i know i’m going to take a lot of heat for this next one (DISCLAIMER: i am a wiener of a trad climber, and if given the choice, i will always choose to clip a bolt before i plug gear. i do plug said gear from time to time, more for an active rest day than to push my limits. take the following with a large grain of salt and a bit of humor), but another area that falls within the “good by proximity” category (for me) is eldorado canyon state park. i know that it is very historically significant, and don’t get me wrong, 9 times out of 10 i do have a lot of fun there. but i personally don’t think it’s as good as it was hyped up to be. the rock quality and overall size just didn’t live up to the mythical expectations i had in my own head. if it was any further away, i don’t know if i’d ever go. i’ll put it this way, if i had to drive the same distance that i drive to rifle (three hours worth), eldo wouldn’t be a thing to me. but being right outside boulder, it’s very convenient, and you can climb a lot of different terrain.

so i’m curious to know if you agree or disagree with any of my picks. or comment with your own favorites. or local haunts that wouldn’t be worth a sizable drive. we want to know where and why! and what’s the longest you have driven or would drive just to get your outdoor rock fix?

willful suspension of disbelief

willful suspension of disbelief…according to wikipedia, this can be “seen as the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises.” you might now be asking yourself, “what does this have to do with anything here in the gym” or “how does this even remotely relate to climbing?”

it might take a little bit, but i can explain. the short, vague, non-helpful explanation is that it relates to route setting.

the long explanation:

when you, our customers and members, come into the gym, you see specific features everywhere (layback crack, offwidth crack, stem chimney, pin scars, etc.) and you most definitely see routes going through and around all of these. and you probably think (sometimes) “that seems really contrived, why would i stay on these bad holds when i can reach that feature instead.”

as route setters, we of course see these same features, but we see them in a different way. we don’t necessarily see them as continuous. in other words, we block out the other parts of the feature in order to achieve the particular flow or movement for our climb. if we didn’t look at the features this way, we would be limited with what we could set and would always have to be hyper-cognizant of the proximity to said features. for example, in the front canyon at the north gym we have a really good layback crack; at the south gym right by the front desk we have a splitter crack. if the climbs we set near these always had all features on from bottom to top, it has the potential to be essentially the same climb every time. we would be doing you a disservice by allowing this to happen. we want to mix things up and keep you on your toes (no pun intended).

so it takes a willful suspension of disbelief in order to see the routes in the same way we do. using your imagination and “pretending” that only the specific taped-off portions of a feature exist, not the full thing, is necessary at times. our hope is that it yields more interesting climbs with more satisfying movement and body positions. of course, nobody is going to stop you from climbing straight up the crack. but honestly, how many times could you continuously climb it before you got a little bored 🙂

geeking out on climbing

i believe i am reaching a new level of climbing geek-dom with this post. i started thinking about the different shoes i have worn over the years. this lead to me thinking about what shoes i was wearing for certain sends and milestones and breakthroughs. i was surprised, and somewhat embarrassed, to realize that i remember a large number of these shoe-milestone combinations.

flashback to christmas 2005, and i’m on a trip to the southeast, climbing at horse pens 40. my whole goal for the ten day trip was to do a v5. i had a pair of mad rock mugens (the all white ones) that didn’t fit my feet quite right. so i went to the general store and talked to big mike and walked out with a pair of evolv defy’s. during the remainder of the trip, i managed to send ‘bum boy’ (v4) and eked out my first v5, ‘slag’.

now it’s the summer of 2007, i’m living here in colorado and have been putting in some time in boulder canyon. i sent my first 5.12a in a pair of five ten anasazi velcro’s. fall of that same year, i sent two 5.12s on the same day (in rifle, no less) in a pair of la sportiva testarosas. first 5.13a, again, the testarosas.

fall of 2009, and i’m in kentucky at the red river gorge for two weeks. probably my best two week stretch of climbing, with several 5.12b flashes, two 5.13a redpoints, a 5.12d onsight (just the highlights). the weapon of choice this time around was a pair of five ten dragons.

recently, evolv has supported me and over the last several years have helped me break into new grades (optimus prime lace up, talon, shaman).

you get the idea…a lot of brain power and space dedicated to something with no value whatsoever, but for some reason i remember these things.

i’m sure everyone has their own neurotic tendencies when it comes to climbing. feel free to post comments with your own habits and neuroses…

The Vicarious Send

Projecting a difficult route or boulder problem is a finicky beast. You can invest so much mental and physical energy, so much time. And you might not even send the damn thing. Thoughts of self doubt and failure will inevitably creep into the forefront of your mind. You suffer for it, and put everything you have into the sole objective of climbing something from bottom to top without taking or falling. And even though you might feel like you’re out there by yourself, I can assure you that you do not suffer alone.

Personally, I have been battling injuries and just haven’t felt healthy in a little while. But I still like to get out, even if it’s just to belay. My friend Hip-Hop has been working and projecting a climb in boulder canyon called ‘vasodilator’ (13a). Speaking from experience, this route is NAILS hard! It’s technical, burly, insecure and even run out. This rig has it all! He committed to working this thing, fought tooth and nail to get belayers and battled weather conditions. The hike isnt crazy hard, but it certainly isnt easy, either. And there isn’t much else up there, with the exception of a 12a and a new 13+. I could tell Hip-Hop wanted this one bad…so I decided that walking up that hillside with him to be a belay slave was in the cards for me.

All told I made the trip three times, and the first two saw progress and highpoints, and more learning and familiarizing with the route. But the clock was ticking, as this particular crag has seasonal closures for raptor nesting. So the day before the closures went into effect, we cruised up there one last time. Weather-wise, it was damn near perfect hovering in the low 50s with barely a cloud in the sky. Today had to be the day!

The typical warm-up ritual ensued, and we talked strategies. Efficency coupled with purpose and no hesitations. After the proper amount of rest and a snack, Hip-Hop was on his way. He breezed through the bottom part with ease, with no wasted motions. I shouted up reminders and encouragement, and he floated through to the final rest before the true crux. I thought he would rest there for quite a while, so I grabbed my phone intending to snap a picture or two. Looking through the camera, I realized, to my horror, that he was already on the move. Precision and accuracy brought him through the insecure and powerful crux and eventually to the chains. I have never seen someone so happy to clean their draws off of a route.

Even though I did no climbing, I was just as happy that he had sent. I invested my time, too, and to see that it helped was incredibly gratifying. To witness all the progress, and regression at times, offered a very different perspective. We all know what it’s like, personally, but to see it from an outside perspective and to be in a position to give advice was pretty cool.

So while I’m fighting to get healthy, I’ll just have to bask in the sending vicariously. And who knows, these karma points may just build up to something…

the 1%

climbing grades. so subjective. so arbitrary. yet so important, even though no one wants to admit it. it’s one way of gauging our progress and validating ourselves as climbers. no one wants to climb strictly for the numbers, but let’s be honest, who doesn’t relish in the accomplishment of breaking into a new grade?

and there are definitely milestone grades. if you have sent 5.10, you probably remember the first one you did. same thing with 5.11. then there is the mythical grade of 5.12.

i still remember the first 5.12a i sent after coming back from my shoulder injury. it was a level of climbing that i didn’t think i would get back to. i would have been happy being able to project that grade. in fact, that was my goal back then, to be able to do the moves. but i found a climb in boulder canyon that suited my style, worked it for a little while, then one day i sent it. i couldn’t believe it! i thought that i had broken through some imaginary barrier…that i had accomplished something. i had reached a level that, in my head, many people don’t reach. which brings me to the question: how many people in the united states that call themselves “climbers” have climbed 5.12? what is the percentage?

let’s kick up the difficulty a notch. i remember when i sent my first 5.13a. i had been on “sonic youth” (a clear creek canyon classic!) three times previously and went down there again to work out some moves. even though i was carrying a forearm pump the likes of which i had never encountered before, i screamed and grunted my way through the final crux boulder problem and somehow clipped the chains. 5.13 was never on my radar, and i was just as surprised as anybody else that i actually sent one. it was unbelievable to me, and it took a while for this accomplishment to set in. but it again begs the question: how many people in the united states that call themselves “climbers” have climbed 5.13a? what is the percentage?

being here in the front range of colorado definitely skews our perspectives. everyone knows a lot of people that climb 5.12. everyone knows probably a handful of people that have climbed 5.13. everyone knows at least one person that has done 5.14. but we live in one of the american climbing meccas. there are so many crazy strong climbers here, that our percentages are off compared to the rest of the country. so when looking at all the “climbers” in the united states, at what grade does the “1%” apply to? in other words, what grade have only 1% of all u.s. climbers sent?

i’ll end with one final note…because we do live in an area with such a dense concentration of strong climbers, it is very important to not let your own personal accomplishments get overshadowed. climbing is hard. climbing 5.10 is, in the grand scheme of things, hard. so just because the person next to you is warming up on 5.11, don’t let that discourage you from being proud about your sends or trying hard. feel free to spray about it, because you know you did something.

hard or easy for the grade?

what makes a route hard or easy for its specified grade? how can one route rated 5.10d (just as an example) be so much easier or harder than another route also rated 5.10d?

unfortunately, the answer is not simple.  many factors contribute to a route’s difficulty, and many of these factors can combine in odd and unique ways.  let’s list some of these factors:

  1. hold size: obviously, the smaller the hold, whether for hand or foot, the harder it will be to use.
  2. hold type: jugs, crimps, slopers, pinches
  3. hold orientation: in order of easiest to use…straight down pull, side pull, undercling, gaston (reverse side pull).
  4. wall angle: this one is subjective.  the angle can range from slab (less than vertical), to vertical, to overhanging, and depending on your specific physical strengths and weaknesses, any of these could be harder than the other.
  5. distance between holds: the farther apart they are, typically the harder the move.

once you start looking at combinations of these factors, things get complicated.  so when evaluating the grade of a route, it is extremely important to think about and consider all of these factors, especially as they relate to what your own strengths and weaknesses are.  i will use myself as an example.

i am not a very good ‘technical’ climber.  when things get less vertical and the holds get small, i tend to climb quite poorly.  i started climbing at the red river gorge, in southeastern kentucky.  for those of you that have climbed there, ‘technical’ is not really the name of the game.  techniques such as ‘grip it and rip it’ or ‘yank and yard’ are much more suitable.  so when more than that is required, things get difficult for me.  but i know this about myself.

so, in rifle, where the lines are steep and powerful, i have redpointed 5.13c.  in shelf, however, where the lines are vertical or slabby, and the holds are thin, requiring delicate balance and movement, i have only redpointed 5.12b.  quite a disparity! but i adjust my expectations accordingly.  in rifle, if i don’t on-sight or flash 5.12a, i’m upset.  but when in shelf, i shift my expectations, and am happy just to do 5.12a.  and believe me, it doesn’t happen often! to be such a talented climber as to be good at all styles, i believe, is a bit of a rare thing, especially as the climbing gets more difficult and the grades increase.

“how does this relate to what happens at the gym,” you might ask.  well first and foremost, it is important to remember that grades are very subjective.  there are so many climbers of differing sizes and strengths.  if the routes in the gym were to stay up for a really long time, we would eventually get a true consensus on what the grade actually is.  much like long-standing routes outside, that have become ‘benchmark’ routes of their respective grades.  but, we don’t have that luxury inside.  you, our customers, would get bored with the routes and all the holds would be really greasy.  plus, we (the routesetters) would be out of jobs!

the second thing to take away from this is that with many different setters, we have many different setting styles.  sometimes there are very straight-forward climbs, and sometimes there are more technical and devious climbs.  sometimes you’re making big moves on big holds, other times you might have to trust bad foot smears with small hand holds.  one setter’s style might be typically hard for you, while another setter’s style might just suit you to a ‘t’.  different strokes for different folks.

the third thing to take away from this is that if a route isn’t ‘straight-forward,’ perhaps it can teach you something.  i think this point is extremely important.  this is up for debate, but i believe that by the time you hit 5.12c, perhaps 5.12d, you have seen all the different types of moves you will encounter while climbing.  as the grades get harder, you will see more difficult combinations of these moves, and the holds will most likely get smaller and/or farther apart.  to me, this means that even if you have redpointed up to 5.12a or 5.12b, you can probably still learn a thing or two (or more).

with that in mind, some routes that we set might have movement that is either completely foreign to you or seems to be really difficult for your typical style of climbing.  it doesn’t necessarily mean that the route is harder than the suggested grade.  it could be perfectly reasonable movement for the grade, and this could be an opportunity for you to get introduced to it.  these situations can prove that grading something at or above ones limit is really difficult.  realize that as you get more acquainted with a certain grade (read: climb that grade A LOT), you can more accurately assess the grades around it.  this, of course, takes time.  and if you think about it in simple terms, who is more ‘qualified’ to comment on something graded 5.10d: someone who has climbed over 100 5.10d’s in different areas and gyms *or* someone who has climbed 5 5.10d’s at one area or gym.

so before you mark a certain grade on the customer rating sheets, think about all of the factors touched on above.  doing so can help the grades in the gym be a little bit more consistent.  of course, we (as setters) aren’t perfect.  but we don’t miss and/or sandbag our grades ALL the time…