2 December 2010

Training for winter climbing - some thoughts

Donald King ready for a big pitch of weirdness on Unicorn VII,8 Glencoe

At this time of year, especially with the deluge of snow, everyone is suddenly psyched to get in their best shape for winter climbing (what? you mean you haven’t been training for months?!).
It’s funny to me how much the prevailing memes about training for winter climbing have changed since I started climbing. In the early nineties, some misguided old souls still trained for winter by walking up hills in the October sleet and bivvying out to harder themselves up. That, together with eating some extra pies to put on a good ‘storm coat’.
Fast forward to 2010 and everyone talks about nothing else apart from dry tooling, dry tooling, dry tooling. Who is right?
To gain some insight, consider the recurring training-for-climbing mystery of the underachieving board beast. ‘beasting’ is all the range right now in bouldeing. Get on the ‘beastmaker’, get ‘beasting’ and ‘beast’ your way to success. Except the strongest lads that are permanent furniture under the steepest part of your local climbing wall somehow aren’t the ones climbing the hardest climbs. ‘beast’ and ‘best’ are linked, but not the same. Right now in bouldering, technique is undervalued. I don’t see it changing for a few years yet. The attraction of the simplicity of pure strength training is too tempting for angry young men of the climbing wall.
Along with the rise in availability of dry tooling in the UK at least, comes a swing in the same direction (pun wasn’t intentional) - towards looking at the whole sport through the lens of how hard you can pull on ice axes. If you’ve ever been to a dry tooling comp, you’ll witness some eyebrow raising displays of lock-off strength, not usually from the winner of the comp. The winner won’t be the weakest thats for sure, but they’ll be the one who magically climbed the problem with the method that you just would never have spotted, and neither did anyone else (especially if they were too busy unleashing the beast). 
The pie eating, sleep out in a seet storm method represents the opposite extreme, both are probably equally ineffective at getting you up hard winter routes, if you use them in isolation.
So my appeal with this post is not to use either pie eating, bivvying in your garden or pull-ups on ice axes in isolation. The best winter climbers are the ones who have an uncanny knack of getting up just about any sort of weirdness you throw at them. In fact, if I could do only one type of training for Scottish style winter climbing, it would be to go and climb weirdness of all shapes and sizes.
The cruxes of winter routes are always weird. So if you melt your technical climber brain into that of neanderthal with nothing but ‘pull up and pull harder’ in the movement repertoire, you’ll fail. Winter climbing done well generally feels like a yoga workout in the cold. You’ll do a move you’d never even thought of before on every pitch. Train for this by climbing the weirdest things possible and do it well. Climb chimneys, loose rock, wet rock, slabs, V-slots, flared offwidths, sentry boxes, buildings, drainpipes, bouncy castles - whatever you see, climb up and over it. Only when you have the cat-like ability to climb any sort of feature that nature throws at you, will your tooling power really count.
Now that’s out of the way, some points about dry tooling:
1 The movement is very fast, similar to rock climbing. This is nothing like real mixed climbing. Climbing problems you have wired accentuates this problem and you’ll not develop either technique or endurance in the right way. Making up new problems on the spot and changing them constantly helps slow things down and keep you hanging on longer and learning to relax and save energy. The ice holds in the video below are one novel solution to this problem (a lot of people ask me where you can get hold of them - here!). You need to keep clean technique to make upward progress. Rushing at it will be terminally counterproductive, which is exactly the drill you need for the real thing.

2 People who do a lot of tooling tend to do it on roofs a lot and get hung up by learning roof tooling specific footwork tricks. That’s great if you are training for the cineplex, but if VIIs on Scottish mixed cliffs is the objective, then the key technical skill is to learn to keep the axe still no matter what other body part you are moving. The hooks on hard winter routes are poor and directional. It’s lack of awareness of axe movement as you reach ‘in extremis’ that causes a lot of the falls in real mixed climbs.
3 Be aware that most indoor tooling on resin holds is just hooking. That’s great practice, because it feels scary at first and once you are comfortable with thin hooks it’s a great confidence booster. But when I wee climbers who tool a lot on real mixed climbs, they miss all the obvious torques, steins, axe head and shaft jams and a myriad of other ways to use your tools that beardy mixed climbers from the 80’s were proper experts at.
4 Dealing with hooks on real mixed climbs often involves a bit of ice as well. Often the hook relies on a tiny bit of ice or frozen moss to work. If you mess around with it too much by taking your axe off it and replacing it, or just plain whacking the hell out of it, you’ll waste it. Learn to know when you have to use the first time placement or nothing. You’ll probably have to train that skill ‘on the job’. But the odd hour snatched on road cuttings or climbing thin-ice boulder problems at ground level while you wait for the roads to clear will teach you a huge amount about this kind of thing.
5 Falling off in mixed climbing is generally not cool. I’ve definitely noticed a trend for people falling off mixed routes more readily than when I started climbing. That’s all fine if you really know how to place safe gear in icy cracks. But if you don’t know what you are doing, don’t go throwing yourself off icy cliffs too readily. Be careful to keep the big separation in your mind between the dry tooling wall and the big scary real mixed climbs.

1 comment:

Ramon Marin said...

I agree that drytooling training doesn't translate 1 to 1 one for winter climbing in Scotland, although very useful to build the technique repertoire. In the case of continental or canadian mixed climbs is a different case, as the type and style of climbing translates almost 100% in my experience.

But yes, it's all about mixing it up, and make it specific to the routes you have in mind.