27 April 2010

Chasing numbers versus breaking barriers

Peter commented on my last post:
“What about the fact that some (many? most?) climbers are in this game for the sheer fun of it?

It seems to me (from my bumbly-level vantage point) that chasing numbers is 99% drudgery, so many climbers naturally plateau at the point of maximum fun for least effort (however you define those two dimensions).

Tangentially, a few climbers I've known who've played the numbers game inevitably reach a performance plateau no matter how hard they work, and in a couple of cases that's been sufficiently demoralising that they've given the game away entirely.”

I started replying as a comment but thought it might be better as a whole point seeing as he raises such an important question.
Chasing numbers is 100% drudgery because numbers are meaningless. Improving at climbing is entirely different. Depending on how you go about it, it can be a source of endless and deep enjoyment and satisfaction, or it can be hellish.
It’s enjoyable and satisfying if you are oriented towards using all your skills to break the barriers and are good at measuring when you’ve broken them. It’s also enjoyable when you suddenly get an insight into how you have become stuck in your ways or limited in your ideas about how to improve. This is a constant battle (and hence enjoyment). Plateaus are not really frustrating because they are ever more challenging opportunities to play the next round of the improvement game. The early rounds, where all you have to do is show up as a young climber and your muscles get bigger are just the warm-ups. Once you hit your first plateau the game gets much more interesting and ultimately rewarding. More on this in the first chapter of my book.
It can be hellish if you think you are chasing improvement, but deep down you are really chasing numbers. You move from hollow victory to ever more hollow victory until you hit a plateau and realise at the bitter end your top number was no more satisfying than the first. That feeling would make any athlete throw in the towel.


Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

Numbers vs improvement: that's a subtle but very important distinction. Reminds me of something a yoga teacher once told me: "the journey is the destination" - seems like that could apply to climbing as well.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to think about and reply to my comment!

gian said...

any discussion about "chasing numbers" leaves me with the impression i didn't get some point.

ain't numbers supposed to be a description of "difficulty"? (an imperfect description ok)

Is being able to climb more and more difficult things a form of improvement?

Anonymous said...

In reply to gian

As an example you can chase numbers quite effectively by choosing routes that suit you. A good boulderer might choose to do a short and shit sport 8a at Raven Tor for example. Where's the improvement there? By contrast most Brits would find modestly graded Yosemite offwidths a challenge.


gian said...


what if that "short and shitty 8a" still proved to be a challenging and uncertain objective for your boulderer, maybe even a fun route to work on?

what if your boulderer is perfectly conscious that he sucks hard as an allrounder?

is looking after the highest possible expression of one's best talents a bad/dangerous attitude in itself?

my understanding up to here is that the bigger danger in "chasing the numbers" is getting in a vortex of self lies (ultra soft touches, small and big cheats, mistaking occasional peaks for solid long-term gains, etc). And then one day reconsider many achievements in a honest way and discover they were "false" in a way.

Are there other dangers to be considered?

Ian said...

Off-topic, but just noticed your recent Twitters, Dave:

If you ever need help with the CSS, feel free to shoot me an email... been making things look good with CSS for a while now.

Dave MacLeod said...

Thanks everyone! Another post on this on my main blog now.

Ian - putting a new site up in a day or two and really keen for any feedback or problems anyone finds.