1 December 2014
Over on my personal blog the other day I was talking in passing about a period in my life about 9 years ago when I took my best sport climbing grade from around 8b to 8c+ in about a year and a half. On Twitter, Sean picked up on this and thought that would be a good subject for a blog post. Here is the short answer:
I started fingerboarding.
But it’s not as simple as that. So here is the long answer. I was replying to Sean in 140 character stylee that I would explain but there are no secrets and the explanation would be nothing that isn’t in my book 9 out of 10. However, personal stories are always helpful if you highlight how the results link back to the underlying principles.
You might be tempted to take my short answer above and think if you just fingerboard, you too will climb 8c+. It’s unlikely to say the least. That’s because basic strength may well not be your weakness. I think it’s fair to say that most climbers would say they feel their strength level is a performance weakness relative to technique. I’ve spent much of my climbing coaching career repeatedly trying to convince climbers otherwise. In fact, in almost every climbing wall on a busy evening you’ll see climbers with enough strength to climb 8c+, but will never even get close to this grade.
What was slightly unusual about my background in climbing was how little I time I spent in climbing walls during that period. I climbed outdoors, year round. My staple diet of climbing was trying super technical projects at Dumbarton Rock. I really valued the fact that they could be cracked by exploring every subtle detail of the technique used to climb them in place of brute strength. When conditions allowed, I’d be teetering about on hard mixed routes, mountain trad, sport climbing, sea cliffs, etc, etc. I had built up a huge depth of experience as a tactician. In other words, if a project was 100% of my strength limit, I’d still have a 100% chance of succeeding on it. Fear of falling, redpoint nerves, mistakes on the lead, finding the best sequence were all things I’d put huge volumes of hours into developing. One thing I hadn’t really done was trained strength properly.
Training was only half on my radar really. I was just a climber having a whale of a time going outside and having adventures trying new routes in places I loved to be. But when I decided to sacrifice some of that to up my level a bit, my strength level was so poor that I had rapid results.
I decided to start in June 2005. The inspiration to start was realising I could climb the Requiem headwall if I really wanted it badly enough. Six days a week, I started the day with around 40 minutes of fingerboard (the same routine I published in 9 out of 10). Then I went round to the Dumbarton boulders and did endurance circuits for another couple of hours, followed by a ten mile run. Sometimes I’d go for a second run late at night, at a relaxed pace, just to wind down. At the weekend I went climbing in the mountains if the weather was good. I worked before and after my training, at home of course - a working from home job with flexible hours is a good catalyst for climbing performance.
I didn’t vary the training all that much for many weeks at a time, although the ‘real’ climbing days were as varied as ever. But I did start gently with the fingerboarding, building up very steadily for the first 6 weeks. And that was against a background of already doing a large volume of bouldering for a decade beforehand. Without these factors, I’d likely have got injured, not stronger.
After three months I went back to an 8c project I’d previously failed on and was completely shocked when I linked it first try from the second move to the top on my shunt in freezing conditions. Later in the winter I completed Font 8b projects at Dumbarton, Rhapsody the following spring, and my first 8c+ sport route shortly afterwards.
I can’t overemphasise the importance of the previous decade of building up those skills in being a solid all-round climber. The pure finger strength was just the final piece of the puzzle. The fashion in the popular climbing culture is very much revolving around physical strength right now. The underlying message is ‘let’s train like proper athletes’ and that means this kind of stuff. That’s great, but it is nothing if you miss the crucial toe-hook that knocks a grade off the problem, or you are so scared you crush the rock as soon as you are 20 feet above a bolt. The strength level generally among climbers these days is mind blowing. Training like proper athletes means being able to use every ounce of strength in your muscles at the right moment. While you might be able to one-arm a crimp in 6 months with nothing but a piece of wood above your doorframe, you can’t shortcut learning to be able to do something good with all that strength.