28 November 2010

Tactics: Climbing in the cold

On my main blog I just added the video above about a new 8b I did in Glen Nevis. It was climbed in temperatures of Minus 2 or 3 with a light breeze. I thought it would be a good idea to write a post about working around the cold for doing redpoints like this. The tactics are fairly simple:
1 Start off very warm. Make sure you wear enough clothing so you arrive at the crag at the point of overheating. This way, by the time you’ve faffed and put your gear on, you’ll be at the right temperature to start climbing, instead of freezing already and ripe for an injury or at least a cold pump. If there's no walk-in, you'll have to go for a good 10 minute run in your duvet instead, even if you just got out of a warm car.
2 Warm up on the project. Go bolt to bolt, still dressed in your warm clothes. Make sure you finish by doing a medium difficulty link that gets a bit of a pump on and leaves you feeling a little overheated.
3 Lower down and don’t stand still. It doesn’t matter (for most people anyway) how big your duvet jacket is, if you stand still in the cold for any length of time, you’ll struggle to keep warm enough muscles and fingers to go for your redpoint. Ideally your light pump will have been recovered from after about 15 minutes. During that time don’t stop - get everything ready, blow on your hands, run and jump around. And then get your shoes back on and go for it. You don’t want your heart rate to drop towards resting at all in the whole session.
4 If you do need to stand still, usually to belay. You’ll need to fully warm your body up again. Walk off for a good ten minutes and then power back up the hill to arrive at the crag really hot. By the time you have your shoes on and tied in you’ll be set. Jumping around at the crag to re-warm doesn’t usually cut it. It follows that sport climbing sessions in the cold are much better done in blocks, i.e. Your partner belays you for a whole session with warm-up and redpoints before switching and they re-warm by walking somewhere else for their session. It’s pretty hard to do it swapping belays without a lot of aerobic work in between.
5 Hands - They’ll start off warm from a gloved and duvet clad walk-in. Keeping a warm core is by far the biggest thing you can do to stop them getting too cold and to rescue them if they do. Ideally you don’t want to have gloves on after your warm-up because it’ll soften your fingertips too much. Instead, keep the heart going and jam your hands in your roasting hot armpits to keep them warm before you go for the redpoint. If they aren’t roasting hot, go back to point 4. If it’s short route (like 15 metres) you’ll be fine, but any longer or with a shake out during the redpoint and numb fingers will be a problem even if you started off with hot hands. A ‘teabag’ style handwarmer in your chalk bag is often enough, and was used in the video above. Make sure you open it at the start of the session as they take a good while to reach maximum temperature. You might want to supplement it with the armpit treatment on your shake out if it’s a really good rest.
So, nothing complicated really. Where people go wrong is they just cant resist the temptation to stand still if they start to feel cold, or they go for a jog but not nearly for long enough. Enjoy your cold rock sessions!

18 November 2010

Avoiding pulley injuries - the hard and easy ways

In the comments of my last post, John asked about how to avoid crimping all the time and hence reduce the build up of stress and microscopic damage that leads to pulley tears. 
Of course there is the short answer of ‘just openhand everything’ and you’ll get better at it. When it comes down to it, that’s what you have to do. It’s not easy to take the temporary drop in climbing grade while you gain openhanded strength. Most climbers who’ve not had pulley injuries yet are miserably weak at openhanding and really have to take a hit. But it’s your choice - it’s only your ego you have to beat.
I’ll make a very detailed case in Rock ‘til you drop not only for why you must do it, but all the ways you can make it easier on yourself. However, since you’ll have to wait a little longer for that, here are a few headlines for now:
- ‘It’s just training’. The biggest enemy of changing habits like crimping is that climbers are always trying to compete, even in training. When you go to the climbing wall, you cannot bear to do something differently to normal because you’ll have to take a grade hit for a while. And maybe your training isn’t going perfect anyway so you are trying extra hard to the standard you’ve become accustomed to. There is only one way around it; stand back and realise that you are just training. You are just pulling on plastic blobs. Who cares what the number is? If you think other people do, you’re kidding yourself. Sure it’s ok to compete once in a while. Climb openhanded most of the time, and allow yourself to crimp when it really matters. If you don’t, you’ll only have to later when your broken pulleys won’t let you do anything else.
- Get off the starting blocks. If your openhanded strength really is that spectacularly rubbish in comparison to your crimp strength, you could get yourself off the starting blocks by a little supplementary fingerboard work with a 4 finger and 3 finger openhanded grip. Use the protocol I described in 9 out of 10. After 10 or 20 sessions you shouldn’t have to take such an ego hammering blow when you climb for real with an openhanded grip. But don’t forget that the subtleties of the movement are realy quite different than when crimping; getting comfortable with openhanded needs both the strength part as well as actually learning how to climb with it on real moves.
- Know the score. A lot of people I’ve coached reckon they just aren’t cut out for climbing openhanded. They usually invent a reason like the shape of their hands or the length of their fingers. Rubbish. If it feels weak, it’s only because you’re weak. And the only reason you’re weak on this grip is because you don’t do it. I challenge anyone to climb solely openhanded for 20 sessions or more and still tell me it doesn’t work for them.
- Do it on easy routes first. Very experienced or expert climbers have a disadvantage in that their habits are very set and egos expect very consistent performance. But the advantage they have is that a lot of the movement decisions are quite automatic. Someone who climbs 8a+ can probably do a 7c while having conversation. So there is room on easier routes during warm-up or mileage climbs to concentrate on learning a new technique like openhanding. 
Crimp everything and you will suffer for it down the line. Don’t worry about it too much - most people have to learn to openhand the hard way (post-injury). But injury is arguably the most wonderful motivator for changing the way you climb. That’s what happened to me. At 17 I scoffed at openhanded climbing. 5 years of constant pulley injuries later I couldn’t believe how much better it is than crimping on the vast majority of holds.

12 November 2010

Injury therapy in Margalef

About a month ago, on the crux sidepull of Muy Caliente E10 6c, I tore a ligament in my DIP joint of my left index finger. I spent the rest of my week long trip there climbing openhanded on it, or at least not using my thumb on half-crimps. Thankfully none of the other routes I did needed any crimping.
After I got home, I spent the next three weeks climbing solely openhanded on my board, bouldering outside or sticking to slabs on trad, even if pretty hard slabs. The tear was immediately painful on crimping, slightly painful on half-crimps but totally fine openhanded. This was all going fine, although the intensity of training on my board was probably still a bit much for it. What is always needed in this situation is a change of scenery.
A couple of weeks hard climbing in the steep walls and roofs of Margalef was exactly the therapy I needed. The point here is that the injured part must be relatively unloaded for a good several weeks to give it a chance to progress and form a strong scar. But doing nothing tends to cause that healing progress to falter. Choosing climbing that will keep everything moving, responding and basically stimulated means healing progresses faster. So the goal is to look for a type of climbing that is kind on the injury but lets you climb hard and keep your fitness. In the case of this particular injury that simply meant climbs that don’t need crimps, or at least that only need them rarely and you can get around it. A lot of the time it’s exactly the same with pulley tears. 
In two weeks of pocket pulling on routes F8b and up I didn’t aggravate the injury once but gained fitness and gave the finger a good stimulus to heal. It totally worked, and now at the end of the trip it’s feeling painless testing it on hard crimping.
Of course that doesn’t mean it’s gone. I’m sure if I spent a week crimping my way up some British limestone face climbs, it would soon go backwards again. It just means it’s made great progress, and with a few more weeks of the same and no mistakes, it should be getting more and more resistant to full normal climbing.