Pete Whittaker and I untied and sat down at the top of El Capitan. My hands were bloody, swollen and covered in the tattered remains of my tape gloves, every muscle in my body was throbbing with fatigue and I had a huge grin on my face. It was the middle of the night and we had both just succeeded at free climbing all 31 pitches of Freerider, in 16 hours and 45 minutes. I was over the moon, and despite the fact I was just the practice guinea-pig for Pete’s free-rope-solo of the route a week later, it was a huge personal achievement.
I had been intensely training for the route for 4 months, but so much more went into my success than just that. Succeeding on Freerider in a day was the culmination of years of practice. Literally thousands of hours spent actively perfecting movement technique, trad gear placement, mental focus, tactics, nutrition and the hundreds of other variables that affect success or failure. I sometimes worry that regimented training gets blown out of proportion when people consider climbing goals, when physical conditioning is only a small part of the overall picture. Being an unashamed climbing nerd, I think about these things a lot, so I’ve compiled a list of 10 non-training tips to ensure success on your next project, be it a sit start boulder problem or a multi-day big wall…
- Pick the right goal! For a good goal you need three things: you can’t do it right now, you might be able to do it in the future and you’re absolutely psyched out of your tiny mind to go and do it!
- Don’t get injured. When you’re really absorbed by a project it’s easy to overdo the training, and one thing that will definitely hinder your progress is a long layoff from injury. It’s important to think about the bigger picture of why you might pick up an injury; bad sleep, poor nutrition, dehydration, stress, lack of focus, and overtraining can all be contributing factors. Most importantly listen to your body, if anything feels tweaky, take it easy!
- Climb outside, a lot! Climbing is a hugely skill based sport and it takes a long time to build up these skills. This is evidenced by world class performances from climbers well into their 40s or 50s (Steve Maclure and Stevie Haston come to mind), this does not happen in a sport like running! There is always something new to learn, some tiny detail that you may have overlooked that’ll make that crux move feel magically easy. As well as getting out climbing often, it’s equally important to make the most of the days you do get. It’s obvious that someone who does 20 routes every time they go out will improve 10 times faster than someone who does 2 and then slopes off to the pub… ;).
- Choose intermediate goals. Write a list of climbs in a similar style to your big objective. As you work your way through these, you’ll build strength and skills for that specific type of climbing. This works especially well if your project is far way or out of condition, as you can choose intermediate goals that are more accessible.
- Don’t just periodise your training, periodise your life! You want to arrive at your project in the best state possible, both physically and mentally. Remember that your climbing and other aspects of you life are interconnected; changes in one will affect the other. If you are really serious about your project, consider lessening your workload and commitments elsewhere during the time when you are gearing up for the big send. At the very least be kind to yourself, don’t plan to have your most intense training period coincide with a project deadline at work when you’re likely to be busy and stressed.
- Work on your fear of falling I suspect irrational fear of falling holds back 90% of climbers to at least some extent. It’s normal and good to be afraid of falling, the problem comes when that fear holds you back from pushing yourself above safe and harmless falls. Unfortunately the only way to get over this is by falling off, a lot. A method I use if I’m feeling hesitant above gear is to stop clipping anchors and start jumping off onto the last clip. Do this on every climb and it’s a good way to clock up air miles quickly!
- Plan your attack. When Pete and I set off on Freerider we had everything in place to give us the best possible chances of success. We had water, food caches, ropes, taglines, cams and shoes stashed at strategic points on the wall. We had pared the rack down to an absolute minimum. I knew the location of every piece of gear I would place in the first 24 pitches. We knew what sections we would simul-climb and who would lead every pitch. We planned our start time to mean we reached different points on the wall at specific times based on the position of the sun in the sky. This mindset doesn’t only apply to big walls; be smart, be tactical.
- Try your absolute hardest on the day, even when things don’t go to plan. Despite all of our planning we climbed faster than expected and arrived at the crux pitch, a 7c+ slab in the middle of the wall during the hottest part of the afternoon. It isn’t a perfect world and things never go exactly as you expect them to.
You arrived at the crag late and only have an hour before dark?
The crux hold is wet?
You forgot your sequence and got wrong-handed?
A dog ate your lunch?
Try anyway! You never know what’s going to happen.
My best mind-set for setting off on a hard climb is to be totally prepared to fail, even expecting to fail, but excited and determined to try my hardest anyway. As the Spanish say “A Muerte!”
- In order to succeed on a climb at your limit you need to be totally focused. Stand in front of the route, clear your mind of all other concerns and visualise each sequence you’re going to use and how it’s going to feel in each position. Then execute, calm and confident, like an assassin…
- Enjoy it! The only reason you’re doing this is for fun. Remember why you started in the first place, climbing is awesome!