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How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 5)

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 5: Proper Practice for Climbers Part 2

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back! Few have the perseverance to suffer through my pedantic rambling for even one post, let alone 4!  If this is your first lesson you can find Lesson 1 here.

In Lesson 4, we analyzed the Deliberate Practice (DP) model and discussed how best to apply it to rock climbing. In many ways, climbers are way ahead of other fields when it comes to applying Ericsson’s DP model. For instance, most redpoint climbers have learned from example, or trial and error, to apply most of the tenets of DP.

Furthermore, Ericsson states that many fulltime athletes and coaches “have never taken the time to identify those aspects of performance that they would like to improve and then design training methods aimed specifically at those things.” (p.248) He also states that the method of identifying weaknesses and working to improve them “is not widely recognized, even among experienced teachers.” (p.165).

Although I’m skeptical that these practices are as rare as Ericsson claims, he points out, correctly IMO, that a great many athletes, even professional ones, practice in a group environment, in which all athletes perform the same drills, etc, regardless of whether those areas need improvement. It seems that even beginner climbers generally understand the concept of strengths and weaknesses, and for pragmatic reasons, the vast majority of us plan our training individually, targeted at our own specific weaknesses and goals. So in a lot of ways the training methods climbers use are relatively sophisticated, especially for such an “immature” sport.

That said, I would argue that almost no climbers truly adhere to the Deliberate Practice model except a handful of kids on the very best-led competition climbing teams (with the defining factor being access to regular, high quality, on-site coaching).  It’s worth noting that generally, those kids who are exposed to DP-like training get really good really quick. We tend to attribute their rapid improvement to their youth. Surely youth is an important factor, but perhaps the fact that they are actually honing their craft the way other experts do is an important factor too.

So what else can we do to optimize our approach to climbing? Below are a few other areas, in addition to following the DP model, where climbers can benefit (for excruciating details on how to apply DP, see Lesson 4):

  • If You Don’t Have A Coach, Get A Good Book: We just noted the apparent impact of good coaching on youth climbers. Unfortunately that won’t solve the problem for those of us who have minimal access to effective, on site coaching. However, Ericsson states it is possible to overcome the lack of coaching if the practitioner has sufficient knowledge of expert training methods. For example, climbers could overcome the lack of coaching by reading and following the guidance of a high quality instructional manual (such as the RCTM).
  • Perform Less, Practice More: As mentioned earlier, Ericsson believes that “Performance” should be distinguished from “Practice,” and generally speaking, practice is what makes you better (he goes so far as to say that performance “doesn’t count”). This is because during performance, the goal is not improvement, but survival. During performance we don’t use the feedback loop to stop and correct mistakes. Climbers compound this problem because, as Dave MacLeod says in his masterpiece “9 Out of 10 Climbers”, we are performing all the time (or at least we behave as though we are). We are always trying to send, even during warmups, even on plastic, even during drills (to the extent that any climbers perform drills), and especially when anyone else is watching. This may be a big mistake. The counterpoint is that ‘always striving to send’ teaches us to try hard and battle against adversity. Those are beneficial skills. However, when we battle through to the end we miss many opportunities along the way to stop and correct mistakes. It would be better to set aside times when it is ok to stop and correct mistakes—when that is in fact the objective, rather than sending—and set aside other times (ie, important “performances”) when the goal is simply to send.
  • Don’t Practice Failure: (This isn’t a lesson from Peak, but it fits here and it’s worth reiterating).  Imagine a typical climber working a difficult project. They start from the ground, climb until they fall, and then practice the move that spit them off, failing 2 or 3 more times on that move until they finally stick it, at which point they continue to the top and call it good. From the brain’s perspective, the climber just practiced how NOT to do the move 3 or 4 times, and how to do it correctly 1 time. Which movement pattern will be remembered and which will be discarded by the climber’s confused brain? When you fail at a move you are practicing failing. During the golden age of my sport climbing career, when near-limit sends came fast and furious, I used a 3-to-1 rule of thumb for working hard moves: for each time I failed on the move, I tried to do it successfully at least 3 times. There is nothing magical about that particular ratio, but the point is, any move you are trying to master should be executed correctly more often than incorrectly, ideally far more often. As the holds on my projects have gotten smaller and sharper, it’s been increasingly difficult to maintain this tactic, and I’m sure my projects have taken longer to complete as a result.
  • Avoiding & Breaking Plateaus: Ericsson’s observations indicate that people stop improving in a given field only when they stop trying to improve. Some give up on improvement because the practitioner runs into a stubborn performance plateau (which are common to every skill-based activity). Perhaps they can’t muster the motivation to break through the plateau, or perhaps they mistake the plateau for the limit to their “potential” (as noted previously, Ericsson is now convinced there is no such thing as “potential;” our potential is what we make it (p162)). If you desire continuous improvement, you must be prepared to encounter and overcome performance plateaus. Based on his observations, Ericsson suggests the best way to break through plateaus is to try one or more different training methods until a more effective method is found. He notes advanced athletes pre-empt these plateaus by regularly switching between training methods (this strategy is the basis of the periodization used by the Rock Prodigy method, described in the RCTM).
  • Online Message Boards Have Value:At its core, deliberate practice is a lonely pursuit,“ Ericsson says (page 176). My hangboard room has a similar quote from NFL Quarterback Drew Brees: “Trying to be great can be lonely sometimes.” Certainly, trying to become an expert climber is a lonely endeavor (compared to recreational climbing). Although surely unpleasant, loneliness is not a problem in itself, but lack of motivation can be a huge problem. Ericsson notes a common reason people stop improving is that they lose motivation. A sense of isolation from the larger community can undermine motivation. A great way to build and maintain motivation, Ericsson says, is to join a group of like-minded folks that can provide camaraderie and encouragement. The key is to find a group with similar goals and similar levels of commitment. Given the small number of serious climbers, your best bet may be a virtual community. Obviously many IMBs are rife with negativity and apathy—these should be avoided. If you’re looking for a community of climbers who are stoked to improve, always positive, and bursting with effective training strategies, check out the Rock Prodigy Forum.
  • Practice Trumps Talent: In chapter 8, Ericsson discusses research on IQ among experts at strategy games (such as Chess). The surprising conclusion was that among a group of elite youth chess players, high IQ actually seemed to be a slight disadvantage. The reason was that the lower IQ players tended to practice more—from an early age chess required more effort for these players, and so they learned to put in that effort, whereas the higher IQ players could succeed with relatively little effort, and so their practice habits were not as well developed. This is a common story in athletics—the small guy/gal who learns to outwork everyone to compensate for his/her lack of “talent.” So ya, there are climbers out there with more “talent,” but do they work as hard as you? Do they work as smart as you? You can decide the answers to those questions.
  • Expert Preparation is Intrinsically Valuable: Ericsson’s final point, one which I agree with wholeheartedly, is that the lessons learned from attempting to develop expertise in any field, however trivial, apply broadly to the rest of one’s life. That is, even if the physical act of climbing an inanimate rock wall is itself totally frivolous, there is still tremendous merit in developing expertise in climbing. That is because the knowledge & experience gained in your endeavor to become an expert can be applied in other aspects of your life that may have more value. I have experienced this many times in my own life. The lessons I learned wrestling in high school helped me become a better runner in college. The lessons I learned running helped me become a better climber. The lessons I learned as a performance-oriented climber make me a better employee, a better spouse and a better father. Those last two things in particular have far more value than anything I can ever do as a climber, and it makes those ~5,000 hours of climbing practice incredibly valuable.
  • Read Peak: My final point is simple: get a copy of Peak and read it! It’s one of the best improvement manuals I’ve read in years. If you heed its lessons it will make you better in climbing and in life!

How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 4)

Lesson 4: Proper Practice for Climbers Part 1

By Mark Anderson

Now that we understand that we all possess tremendous untapped climbing potential, just waiting to be exploited, how can climbers specifically go about unlocking that potential? Ericsson’s work in Peak not only provides tremendous inspiration, but also general frameworks for improvement that can be applied to nearly any endeavor. The Purposeful Practice (PP) and Deliberate Practice (DP) constructs, described in Lesson 1 of this series, are the most obvious:

Deliberate Practice (DP):

  • Is Purposeful Practice:
    • Has well-defined, specific goals
    • Is focused
    • Involves feedback
    • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone, (to the extent that it is generally not fun)
  • And…
    • Exists in a highly advanced field, following known, effective training methods
    • Produces and depends on effective Mental Representations
    • Depends on advancement of fundamental skills

Ask yourself, how many of these boxes do you check in your preparation for climbing? It’s likely we can all improve our practice rigor in just about every area described above. Let’s consider each one individually, and how we can improve:

  1. Effective Training Methods: If you’ve made it all the way to Lesson 4 of this series, I’m assuming you are at least aware of the Rock Climber’s Training Manual, and you are following some sort of structured, well-conceived, effective training method. If not, do that first! Note, Ericsson’s idea of an “effective training method” is one with proven success in developing expert level practitioners in the given field. I argued previously that there may be no expert climbers, and by Ericsson’s standard, climbing may not be “a highly advanced field,” but we can still follow the examples of prior top performers. For example, we all know that Gullich, Moffatt and Moon set new standards by diligent use of the Campus Board. So we can assume that is an “effective training method” (at least until something better is discovered to supplant it).
  2. Specific Goals: This is an area in which I believe climbers do very well, both on a macro scale (i.e. training for a specific goal route), and a micro level (going into a particular training session with a specific objective in mind, such as “to improve Power Endurance”). Again, this assumes you are following a structured training program.
  3. Is Focused: Here, climbers fail on multiple levels. Ericsson tells the tale of swimmer Natalie Coughlin who took her performance to the expert level (ultimately winning 12 Olympic Medals) by simply focusing on her stroke rather than “zoning out” during her endless lap swimming. Top musicians, chess grand masters, and other experts do much of their training in complete isolation, where they can focus completely on the task at hand. Few climbers do this ever (even when we do, we often inject external distractions like phones and music). More often than not, we train in a social environment immersed with distractions. Step one is to turn off your phone during training sessions. I think music is ok if it serves a “white noise” purpose (helping to drown out other potential distractions rather than interfering with your focus). The worst thing we do is talking while climbing. You absolutely cannot climb at your best while carrying on a conversation, yet climbers attempt this frequently. Stop! When you are working a route, or attempting an on sight, you must be completely locked into that task. That said, when hanging on the rope during a beta-sussing session, it can be beneficial to discuss your approach with your partner (or other equally engaged observers), but any conversation should be directly relevant to your efforts on the route…
  4. Involves Feedback: …Which leads us into Feedback. Climbers very rarely receive actionable feedback. If we are highly attuned to our performance, we may notice we did something wrong (but then we don’t stop to fix it anyway). Ideally, your climbing would be observed by a skilled coach who could identify errors and provide other feedback when appropriate. Few of us have that option, but nearly all of us climb with partners who can perform that role. As discussed in the RCTM, I believe as a community we need to expand climbing partnerships to encompass more than the bare minimum task of keeping your partner from decking. Your partner should serve as your on-site coach, and you should return the favor. He or she is in the best position to evaluate your focus, effort, and execution. Encourage your partner by asking for feedback. Be specific in your questions: how was my footwork on the slab? Did I look relaxed or frantic? Was I trying my best to latch the dyno? Were my hips tight to the rock or did they pop out like I was bracing to fall? Set a good example by offering feedback, in a kind and constructive manner.
  5. Outside Comfort Zone: Ericsson says “the hallmark of DP” is trying to do something that you cannot do, and practicing it over and over, focusing on how you are doing, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. Here again, many climbers excel. Likely due to the readily quantifiable nature of the sport, performance-oriented climbers are constantly trying routes they cannot do and practicing them over and over in order to send the next grade (at least during the redpoint process). That said, there are exceptions, most often on either end of the experience spectrum. The first are less experienced climbers who haven’t learned how to try hard on a rope yet. If you are one of these, observe more experienced climbers and follow their example. The other end of the spectrum are highly experienced climbers. These climbers (myself included), have the potential to fall into a rut, where they are doing the same activities (and sometimes even the same routes) over and over again, just going through the motions without truly pushing boundaries. If you find yourself doing the same warmup routes over and over again, or falling in the same place on the same project over and over again, it might be helpful to mix things up and face some new challenges. Finally, Ericsson notes truly effect practice is generally not fun, and if it is fun, you aren’t improving as much as you could be. This applies to some climbing activities and some climbers (most would argue hangboarding, Linked Bouldering Circuits, etc are not strictly “fun”). I will stop short of advocating that you suck whatever fun remains out of your climbing, but if you really want to be the best, consider that the best in other fields have done exactly that.
  6. Mental Representations: We didn’t really address Mental Representations in the first lesson, but Ericsson believes they are the key to expertise. These are “mental structure[s] that correspond to an object, idea, collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.” For example, if I list: Labrador, Poodle, Golden Retriever, your brain automatically classifies these items as dogs. You don’t need me to tell you they are dogs, nor do you need to consciously decide they are dogs—it’s subconscious. That’s a mental representation about animals. Peak actually uses a climbing-specific example, noting that experienced climbers automatically group holds by type (crimp vs pocket vs pinch, etc)—a very basic mental representation for climbing. Greater quality and quantity of mental representations enables quicker and more accurate decision making. With respect to climbing, this may be most applicable to sussing beta on our goal routes, either on sight or when preparing for a redpoint. The more we are exposed to different successful sequences, the easier it will be to identify such sequences in the future. Consider that chess experts spend most of their practice time studying the game play of previous masters, trying to predict the best move for a particular situation, and then comparing their solution to that of the master (instant feedback!) Climbers never do this, but we could. We could look at a route that is unknown to us, but has one or more known “solutions.” We could try to predict the correct sequence, and then compare our solution to the beta used by expert climbers. Doing this once or twice will not make a difference but doing it hundreds or thousands of times could vastly improve one’s route-reading ability. One thing we know doesn’t work—bumming the beta from someone else without really trying to figure it out for yourself. Yet this is the most common method of acquiring beta on a difficult project. If I had a strong passion for on sight climbing, I would do what I described above. Instead I have a strong passion for redpointing, so I have spent the past 20 years figuring out beta the hard way–by myself–on a wide variety of routes. By doing so I’ve developed highly advanced mental representations for unlocking beta, and this has allowed me to snag first ascents of many routes that much stronger climbers couldn’t “figure out.” (Such as: Siberian Express, 14c, Slice of Time, 14b, Beretta, 14b, Flight of the Phoenix, 14b, Charlie Don’t Surf, 14b, Double Stout, 14a, Captain America, 14a, Where Paradise Ain’t So Crowded, 14a, Prowler, 14a, Corner Pocket, 13d, Harlot, 13d)
  7. Fundamental Skills: Ericsson uses this element to highlight the importance of a good coach or teacher. In fields like music, students must learn certain fundamental skills correctly, so that they can build on those skills in future, more difficult lessons. A weak fundamental base will handicap the student until those fundamental skills are corrected. Climbing is no different and we’ve all seen strong climbers who never learned proper footwork and so on. Ideally we would have coaches who could identify any fundamental weaknesses in our climbing. An alternative is to honestly evaluate your own climbing to identify such weaknesses. This is actually pretty easy in climbing—all you need to do is climb on a wide variety of routes (in terms of style, steepness, length and hold type). Compare your performance across these styles. Where your performance suffers, you have found a weakness that needs work.

That concludes our analysis of the Deliberate Practice model. However, there is a lot more to gain from Peak than simply the practical application of Deliberate Practice. We will explore those nuggets in the final lesson….

How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 3)

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 3: The First Expert Climber

In Lesson 2, we discussed how Anders Ericsson’s findings in Peak apply to athletics in general.  The next question is, to what extent does Ericsson’s work apply to climbing? As discussed in Lesson 2, the vast majority of Ericsson’s research concerns activities I described as “entirely or primarily skill-based.” Chess is a good example of an entirely skill-based activity, requiring no physical ability beyond that to move the chess pieces around the board. Digit memorization doesn’t even require physical manipulation of chess pieces. Music is primarily skill-based, but there is a physical element involved in order to manipulate the instrument.

So then, is climbing a “skill-based” activity? Many smart climbers often say that it is. Climbers have debated this semantic question for decades and I do not intend to resolve the question here, but merely ask it another way: Is the skill element of climbing so overwhelming (relative to the physical component) that we could say categorically that research conducted on chess players applies (even approximately) to climbers?  Surely not.  So we can’t just assume every lesson in Peak applies exactly to climbing, but we can still apply a great deal. We just need to identify which lessons are beneficial to climbers.

Let’s consider Peak’s implication that there are (virtually) no limits to human potential. Does this apply to climbing? I assume there is some absolute physical limit beyond the scope of our imagination, but I agree with the practical point–we are likely far from reaching the limit of human climbing potential. To illustrate this, I present the following thought experiment concerning Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule:

Let’s say for the sake of argument that 5.14a is an “expert” climbing level. Here’s some rough math showing the number of hours I spent “practicing” to reach that level:

  • Required 7 years of training from the time I became serious about climbing
  • On average, each year consisted of 3 training cycles
  • Each training cycle required 91 hours, broken out thusly:
    • Base Fitness Training: 1hr x 15 sessions = 15 hours
    • Strength Training: 2 hrs x 10 sessions = 20 hours
    • Power Training: 2 hrs x 10 sessions = 20 hours
    • Performance: 3 hrs x 12 sessions = 36 hours
    • Rest: 0 hr x 10 days = 0

Therefore, I required (very) roughly 1,911 hours of “practice” to reach the 5.14a level. Note, however, Ericsson says performance doesn’t count as practice (because you aren’t correcting errors, you’re just trying to get through it the best you can).  756 hours of that 1911 was spent climbing outside on rock.  Depending how one climbs outside, a good portion, likely the vast majority, of those 756 hours would not meet Ericson’s definitions of practice*.  So the number might be closer to 1200 hours.  Granted, this is only one data point, but I don’t believe this quantity of practice is absurdly low for a 5.14a climber (we’ve all heard anecdotes of guys like Dave Graham climbing 5.14a in far less time, sometimes within a year of climbing).    [

*Note also, that I spend a fair amount of time visualizing climbing, reviewing film of myself climbing, studying guidebooks and instructional texts; Ericsson might consider some of this time practice, but it is not counted here for the practical reason that I don’t have a good record or estimate of how much time I’ve spent doing it.]

The obvious conclusion from this thought experiment is that 5.14a is NOT an expert level!  By the standards of very well-developed fields, 5.14a would be entry-level. Consider that the amount of “practice” detailed above is only around 10-20% (depending how you count outdoor climbing days) of the time invested by Ericsson’s 20-year-old music students!  [Another possible conclusion is that climbing is so far from being a skill-based activity that hours of practice are meaningless, but I doubt this is correct.]

Let’s consider what happens when we raise the standard. If we set the arbitrary level of climbing “expertise” at 9a (5.14d) instead of 5.14a, the results aren’t much more convincing. I required 16 years of dedicated training to reach the 9a level, or approximately 4,368 hours (again including 1,728 hours of “performance” that Ericsson might not count, and excluding many hours of “mental” practice that he likely would count).

So one may argue that 9a ability is at best about half-way to expertise, by the standard of truly well-developed fields, like music or chess. I’ve been at this for 20 years, yet I’ve still (at best) only put in about one-quarter as much time “practicing” as a typical international soloist musician. Clearly I’ve been slacking! The lessons here is that it’s likely I can still get a bit better at climbing.

Clearly as a species, humans can get much better. Even the leading American climbers of my generation—Sharma, Caldwell, Graham—didn’t start climbing (seriously at least, in Caldwell’s case) until their mid-teens, a decade later than experts in other fields. The Adam Ondra generation, the first generation to start climbing seriously at a young age, may be the very first to possess even the potential to put in the same amount of “practice” time as experts in other fields.

Of course, that assumes those few who started young actually spent those years effectively. Perhaps you’re thinking, “thanks to books like the Rock Climbers Training Manual, climbers train much more effectively and efficiently than musicians, so therefore we can acquire expertise with far less practice time.”

Consider that musicians in large numbers have built their lives around their craft at least since the time of Mozart (born in 1756 and pursued music full-time starting at age 4). Since then some 10+ generations of musicians have honed more efficient and effective practice methods to stand out from their peers, and then subsequently passed the most effective methods down to future generations.  Climbers have only started to do this in any meaningful way during the last generation or so. Granted, we can learn from other fields, and the internet helps spread information quickly, so it won’t take climbers 250 years to get to where musicians are today, but it won’t happen overnight either.  Perhaps Ondra, Alex Megos, and other climbers of their age have the opportunity to put in expert-level practice time, but even then, climbers will have a long way to go to catch up to the focus, practice methodologies, and proficiency of musicians.

The bottom line is, these numbers suggest the sport of climbing is incredibly immature. Climbers have a very long way to go to approach “expertise” as Ericsson describes it. There is surely still tremendous untapped potential for climbing within the human machine.

You might be thinking, “how does it help me to know that in 50 years, my 8-year old great grandson will be warming up on 5.14d before he tries to onsight a 5.16b?” It helps to know that there is some yet-to-be-discovered training method that will (someday) enable 8-year-old kids to onsight 5.16a. If you know it exists, then you might be inspired to look for it. Imagine if you had access to that training method right now.

In other words, some of that ‘untapped potential for climbing within the human machine’ will be realized by forcing our descendants to start practicing seriously at earlier and earlier ages. As an individual athlete, it’s too late for you to benefit from that change in approach. However, much of that untapped potential will be realized by improving practice methods, evolving Mental Representations, increasing dedication/motivation and enhancing focus. These are all things we can leverage right now as individual athletes. Using the key takeaways from Peak, we will discuss how to do that in Lesson 4….

How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 2)

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 2: (Almost) Anyone Can Become an Expert Climber

When we ended Lesson 1, we were pondering the main theme of Anders Ericsson’s excellent new book Peak:

There are no limits*, it’s never too late to start*; You can be anything you want to be* (with the right kind of practice)

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Ericsson makes the argument that natural talent, potential, genetic advantages, etc, are largely a figment of our imagination, and should never be seen as an excuse or discouragement in striving to reach ones goals. He reinforces this notion with multiple entertaining anecdotes of alleged savants, which he then attempts to debunk. He drives the point home with even more anecdotes of Nobel Prize Winners, master musicians, and champions of various contests who worked incredibly hard, making painstakingly slow progress, before achieving their triumphs, showing that much of the time, success that might appear to stem from “talent” is in reality the result of enormous amounts of hard work.

I agree wholeheartedly with Ericsson’s practical point—you shouldn’t let your genetics or perceived lack of talent stop you from pursuing something you love. If you love Scrabble, you should do everything in your power to become the best Scrabble player you can be. You may well have what it takes to become World Scrabble Champion. If you love rock climbing, you should pursuit it with all your heart—but I seriously doubt any more than a tiny fraction of us have what it takes to become a climbing world champion.

Herein lies the major conundrum of Peak from the perspective of the performance-oriented rock climber. Ericsson has spent his lifetime studying experts, and his book is filled with inspiring tales, but almost all of these are in fields that are primarily, if not entirely, skill-based. Peak makes a compelling case that genes and “talent” have little, if any, impact on skill-based activities. However, performance rock climbing is very much an athletic endeavor, and it is very much influenced by tangible, physical characteristics. It is more than a skill to be learned, like chess or digit memorization. [Note, that is not at all to say climbers cannot benefit from Ericsson’s impressive knowledge—we absolutely can, which we will discuss shortly.]

Do Genetics Matter?

Genetics do play a role in athletics. Ericsson points this out a couple times, stating, “the only two areas where we know for certain that genetics affects sports performance are height and body size.” (p. 218) While Ericsson seems inclined to minimize this fact, I would argue that body size is significant to virtually every sport. We know forearm length is pivotal in how fast a pitcher can hurl a baseball; we know ankle diameter, leg length, and hip width are crucial to “Running Economy” in distance runners, and we know Strength-to-Weight Ratio is a critical factor in climbing (and it is inversely proportional to body size).

Furthermore, simply because we only know a single fact for certain, does not mean that no other facts exist, waiting to be discovered. It just means we don’t know for sure (yet). There is a great deal we still do not know about how genes interact and influence physical traits. Surely there are other genetic factors that impact sports performance (including rock climbing performance), such as muscle fiber twitch, even if they are yet to be proven, for certain.

Does Age Matter?

Now that we’ve acknowledged there are indeed some genetic factors influencing athletic potential, can you still become an expert (in whatever endeavor in which you have the genetic potential to be an expert) at any age? Ericsson also concedes that certain physical abilities must be developed while young, before bones fully calcify, specifically citing throwing range-of-motion in pitchers, and hip turn-out in ballet dancers (p.196). Surely there are other abilities, not yet identified, that must be developed while young. Even if there aren’t, I know plenty of adult climbers who lament their poor hip turn out!

Does this mean you can’t reach Expert Level if you start late? Ericsson’s research suggests your brain can acquire new, complex skills at any age. Whether your body will be able to execute those skills at an “Expert Level” depends, it would seem, on the activity in question. The more physically-demanding, the harder it will be; the more well-developed the activity, the harder it will be. Certainly a late start is not ideal, but theoretically someone with next-level training methods and sufficient determination could overcome a late start, especially since we are so far from reaching human limits in most fields….

Are There Truly No Limits?

Obviously there are limits. If there were no limits, humans would have the theoretical ability to run a 100m dash faster than light speed. However, this is where Peak is the most convincing. Time and again humans have shattered boundaries that were previously viewed as absolute limits by discovering new practice methods and greater determination. While humanity will never run at light speed, our notions of what are “expert” or even “impossible” are likely wildly wrong. Remember, just a few decades ago experts assumed the human limit for random-digit memorization was around 20, yet now we know it’s over 200. So we were off by a factor of 10!

Therefore, considering what we know about genetics, aging, and human limitations, within the context of athletics, perhaps it would be better to phrase Peak’s theme thusly:

Limits are so distant and unknowable as to be virtually irrelevant; a late start can be overcome through superior training; You can be almost anything you want to be (with the right kind of practice)

Now that we have a general idea how Peak applies to athletics at large, to what extent do Ericsson’s findings apply to performance-oriented climbers? What are the Performance-Oriented Climber’s key takeaways from Peak? We will delve into that in Lesson 3….

How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 1: Anyone Can Be An Expert in Anything*

I recently finished reading Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise, by renowned researcher Anders Ericsson (and Robert Pool). Those familiar with The Rock Climber’s Training Manual (RCTM) will recognize Ericsson’s name from our chapter on Skill Development. Ericsson is well-known as a leading researcher on expertise. He has spent his career asking what sets experts apart and what does it take to become an expert in a given field? Among practitioners—those seeking expertise in their own chosen pursuits—Ericsson is known as the creator of the “Deliberate Practice” model for skill development.

[Among lay-people, Ericsson is perhaps most widely known as the source material for Malcom Gladwell’s erroneous-yet-ubiquitous “10,000 Hour Rule,” which suggests it requires approximately 10,000 hours to become an “expert” in any given pursuit. Ericsson goes to some lengths in Peak to distance himself from this “rule” (see page 109), noting firstly that 10,000 hours was merely an average, for a specific skill (violin), with a wide range, and secondly that this was only the average amount practiced by age 20—international soloists would have practiced far more, upwards of 20,000 hours, and most importantly, that the quality of one’s practice is far more important than quantity.]

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Ericsson has studied or worked with all manner of experts—old/young, those who started early/late, “talented”/un-“talented”—in an impressively wide range of fields, including music, chess, scrabble, sports, memorization and even taxi driving. Peak lays out Ericsson’s work as a researcher, highlighting many key studies that informed his understanding of expertise and what it takes to achieve it. The text is filled with fascinating anecdotes of various trials conducted and experts examined, spanning an incredibly diverse set of skill-based activities.

Among the most incredible is the story of Steve Faloon, a student hired to participate in a digit-memorization study. Initially Steve could reliably remember 7 or 8 random digits—typical for most people. By the end of the study, two years later, Steve shattered world records by recalling 82 random digits! Did Steve possess an amazing hidden talent for memorization? Unlikely. Using Steve’s experience as guidance, his friend Dario Donatelli exceeded 100 digits. Now that people realize what is possible the world record stands over 200 digits. Steve set a new standard because he possessed a willingness to persevere and a guide driven to push his limits (Ericsson), not because of some amazing, innate ability.

Another is the tale of the Polgar sisters. Their parents, psychologists who studied geniuses, were so convinced that any child could be made into a “genius” with the proper rearing, that they decided to prove this with their own children. They selected chess as a medium, because of the ease with which a chess player’s ability can be measured (relative to music, languages, or mathematics—other areas they considered). Susan, the oldest, become the top-ranked female chess player in the world at age 15, and went on to become the first female Grand Master. Amazingly, she ended up as the least accomplished chess player among her sisters!

Or consider Paul Brady, who taught himself to have “Perfect Pitch” (the ability to correctly identify single musical notes, a skill possessed by approximately 1 in 10,000 people). Scientists had previously believed this ability required special “talent,” and even then could ONLY be developed in the very young. Brady did it at age 32 by discovering a novel training method and applying it diligently over merely 57 days.

These anecdotes demonstrate several truths:

  • The human mind and body are incredibly adaptable, at all ages (though surely, Ericsson concedes, more adaptable in youth).
  • Our pre-conceived notions of what is “Humanly Possible” are often incredibly incorrect
  • “Talent”, or lack thereof, is far less important in developing expertise than most believe
  • All it takes to become an expert is drive, determination, and the right kind of practice

These are incredibly inspiring insights, and rightly so. In a nutshell the main theme of Peak (in my words), which Ericsson hammers home convincingly and returns to frequently, is this:

There are no limits*, it’s never too late to start*; You can be anything you want to be* (with the right kind of practice)

So then, what is the right kind of practice? Ericsson presents two recommended practice methodologies:

Purposeful Practice (PP):

  • Has well-defined, specific goals
  • Is focused
  • Involves feedback
  • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone

For most of us, Purposeful Practice is about as close we get to optimizing our “practice” (more on this to come).

Deliberate Practice (DP):

  • Is Purposeful Practice:
      • Has well-defined, specific goals
      • Is focused
      • Involves feedback
      • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone, (to the extent that it is generally not fun)
  • And…
      • Exists in a highly advanced field, following known, effective training methods
      • Produces and depends on effective Mental Representations
      • Depends on advancement of fundamental skills

Practically, both PP and DP will develop and depend on Mental Representations (“a mental structure that corresponds to an object, idea, collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.”)

The key difference between the PP and DP, is that Deliberate Practice ideally occurs under the tutelage of another expert in the field (who is also an effective teacher/coach), who can provide feedback, identify problem areas, and recommend the most effective training methods for improving in the given pursuit.

So if that’s all it takes to be an expert, why is the world full of Jacks-of-all-trades and Masters of none? Ericsson argues that most people who practice correctly only stop improving if they stop trying to improve. Most people just get tired of it, lose motivation or focus, and then stagnate, which further drains motivation, etc. In his view, if you never stop trying, never stop applying the method of Deliberate Practice, you will never stop improving. The logical conclusion, which Ericsson, highlights, is that there are essentially no limits to human ability, only limits to motivation/focus, etc.

That’s incredible news, if true. If it makes you a bit skeptical, you’re ready to investigate that pesky asterisk, which we will do in Lesson 2….

Whitewater Canyoning in Switzerland — Nala Inferiore

By Mark Anderson

Dark and foreboding anyone? How about some 45 degF water at 9am? Photo Rob Radtke.

Dark and foreboding anyone? How about some 45 degF water at 9am? Photo Rob Radtke.

The primary motivation for our trip to Switzerland was to visit my friend Rob and his family, who had recently moved to Zurich. I first met Rob in 1999*, on my first day of active duty in the Air Force. We roomed together for several years and shared many crazy adventures and near-death experiences during the fearless era of our early 20s. Rob introduced me to Arrested Development, Family Guy, and College Football, and I introduced him to climbing and canyoneering.

[*Oddly enough, Rob and I crossed paths 5 years earlier, unbeknownst to us—we were both Cross Country runners in High School, and although I lived in Oregon and Rob in Michigan, we both ran in the same race at the 1994 Junior Olympics National Cross Country Championships in Reno, Nevada]

Rob and I in one of our first canyons together, Neon Canyon, UT, in 2003.

When we told Rob we were coming to Switzerland, he immediately proposed a canyoning excursion in the Ticino region, just north of the Italian border. This was truly a special opportunity. I’ve probably descended a good 100 canyons, all across the Colorado Plateau, and even in the Blue Mountains of Australia. While the desert southwest is stacked with world class slots, one thing it lacks is whitewater canyoning (those with continuously flowing water). Despite 25 years of canyoning, I’ve only done two flowing slots, both of which were quite mellow compared to Rob’s proposal.

Rob’s guidebook was bursting with amazing options, but we honed in on the Nala Inferiore itinerary, above the tiny village of Osagna. We picked this one because it was among the few that made both the list of “spectacular canyons” and “short canyons.” It appeared to have great narrows, incredible rappels, and outstanding scenery. The guidebook described it as “one of the most famous and beautiful canyons in Ticino…an intense route that presents the sort of technical passages canyoners dream about…one of the most spectacular aquatic descents in Ticino that will leave you with lasting memories.”

Waterfalls above the village of Osagna, in southern Switzerland. Photo reluctantly taken by Kate Anderson.

Once we had a canyon picked out, the next challenge was finding suitable conditions. Water flow is critical in these canyons, and the entire region is regularly closed to canyoning due to high water. It rained quite a bit during our trip, and the canyons were forbidden the first couple times we inquired (fortunately there is a hotline you can call for status). Finally, on our last day in Switzerland, the canyon was open. Rob’s wife graciously offered to babysit, so Kate, Rob and I hopped in the car and zoomed down to Ticino.

Kate and I rigging the first rappel into the slot. Photo Rob Radtke.

After assessing the water level at the bottom of the canyon, we hiked up the steep valley floor to the entrance rappel. The canyons here don’t waste any time—unlike Utah canyons, which are pancake flat by comparison, this slot drops 180m in 450m of travel—a 40% average grade! There was no opportunity to ease into the water either; the first rappel was 30m straight down into a massive swimming pool. The water was not as cold as it could be for a country enveloped by glaciers, but it wasn’t warm either!

Kate making the entry rap. Photo Rob Radtke.

I did my hyperventilating doggy paddle to a lodged boulder at the far end of the pool, clipped into the anchor, and waited for Kate and Rob to join me. For the most part, the canyon had zero walking—you were either rapelling, or swimming. Usually the swim would end at the lip of a pothole or some other chockstone, at a precarious stance with water flowing right over the falls into the next rappel. The upper half of the canyon was neither comforting or secure; it was clearly the sort of place where an unprepared party could get into serious trouble.

Kate rapping somewhere in the upper half of the canyon. Photo Rob Radtke.

The next hour was spent on four more rappels, ranging from 15-25 meters, followed by long, cold swims through the narrow, foreboding slot. Generally the rappels were pretty easy and not particularly intimidating, but the swims were challenging in the cold water with heavy packs, especially entering the pools on rappel, trying to unclip without dropping anything, while treading water.

Kate trying to decide if this is Type 2 or Type 3 Fun. Photo Rob Radtke.

After the fifth rappel the canyon opened and there was an easy exit to the right. Kate took the opportunity to cut her losses and headed back to the car at this point. It was a good decision, with the two most challenging rappels coming up next.

Kate cruising one of the few straightforward rappels. Photo Rob Radtke.

Rappel number 6 is straight down the incredible-yet-daunting 50-meter waterfall that Nala Inferiore is most known for. This rap starts easily, down a smooth groove tube a bit off to the side of the main flow, with the water stream fanned out wide. About halfway down the rap, gravity forces you directly into the water stream. As you descend beyond this point, the force of the water falling some 40-meters onto your head becomes riveting. I paused for a moment to absorb the situation and spontaneously, hysterically, burst out laughing. It was such a crazy, wild, ridiculous position to be in. It was both incredible and absurd. Why would anyone do this? Why wouldn’t you, if you could?

Almost half-way down the skull-pounding 50m rap. Photo Rob Radtke.

By the end of the rap, water was raining down everywhere in massive quantities. I had to time my breathing carefully to avoid mouthfuls of water. Mercifully, right at the end of the rap, a large cave appears to the right that offers an eerie stance, sheltered from the torrent. I unclipped from the rope here and Batman-ed the rest of the way into the pool so I wouldn’t have to mess with the rigging in the pool.

Another shot of the 50m rap. Photo Rob Radtke.

After yet another frigid, oxygen-sapping swim we arrived at the 7th rappel, which turned out to be the most difficult. Although “only” 25 meters long, this rappel drops over a car-sized lodged boulder, resulting in a freehanging/overhanging rappel right through the main water course. There was no way to avoid the full force of the river, and at one point I unwittingly titled my head to the right and got a firehose straight into my ear. Lesson learned! Once I could touch the canyon walls again I was able to direct myself out of the main stream and the rest of the descent was a breeze.

Enjoying one of the spectacular-yet-mellow rappels of the lower canyon. Photo Kate Anderson.

After the two crux rappels, the canyon’s character changed completely. The slot widened, the pools became shorter, and the rappels much more straightforward. The chasm was no long dark and intimidating, but now open, bright and welcoming.   We quickly reunited with Kate, who was waiting for us on the canyon rim, and then made four more easy and uneventful raps to the final swimming pool.

Rob, just down-and-right-of-center, jumping the last bit of the final rappel. Photo Kate Anderson.

It was an incredible experience and one of the most unique I’ve had in a canyon. It was a lot different than canyoning on the Colorado Plateau—the scenery is totally different (and not as good in my opinion). On the other hand, the swimming pools were not steaming cesspools of fermenting cow shit either (although some of my best mates would argue that adds to the charm). I relish the opportunity to do something different, and Nala was most certainly that. After desceding Nala Inferiore, I mostly felt contented and stoked to have been given the opportunity to experience such an amazing place in good company. It was one of the top two highlights of the trip and to do it on the last day really wrapped everything up in the best possible way. Thanks Rob for the incredible experience and hospitality!

Teaching the kids to play Ultimate Frisbee beside the Rhine.

Swiss Sport Climbing Part 2: Off the Beaten Path

By Mark Anderson

While I really enjoyed the world-class routes at Lehn and Gimmelwald, I place great value in going to new places. On these whirlwind trips to Europe I try to cover as much ground as possible, so I see virtue in going to a crag I haven’t seen before, even if my research suggests the new place may not be quite as good as the old.

Elsigen.

Elsigen.

With that in mind, I decided to forego a second day at Gimmelwald in favor of another limestone crag I’d just recently heard about called Elsigen. This west-facing cliffband is about an hour’s drive from Lauterbrunnen, and accessed by a short cable car ride. The rock is super high-quality limestone, mostly of the gray sticky & sometimes prickly variety. Although about half the routes were wet, there was still plenty to occupy us for a day, including (mercifully) some great warmups.

Zweierlei, 7a+, Elsigen.

 

Prisma, 7b+, Elsigen.

Every route I climbed was excellent. The climbing is generally just over vertical, with fairly intense cruxes but enough continuity to keep the pump going all the way to the chains. My favorite routes were the towering 7a+ (12a) Zweierlei, which climbs impeccable gray Verdon-quality stone, the classic Prisma (7b+/12c) with its burly undercling crux, and a super crimpy, in-your-face 7c+ (13a) called Panther in a Cage.

Panther in a Cage, 7c+, Elsigen.

Panther in a Cage, 7c+, Elsigen.

The views at Elsigen were spectacular, although to be fair, every single crag we visited on the trip had spectacular views—that’s just the nature of Switzerland. Although not quite as spectacular as Gimmelwald, for the typical travelling climber Elsigen is probably a much better destination for limestone cragging simply due to the greater variety of grades. It was certainly more popular than either Gimmelwald or Lehn (which was not really “in-season” during our early August visit).

After climbing at Elsigen, we popped over to the next valley east to check out the incredible Oescheninsee.

Before we knew it our short week in the Lauterbrunnen Valley was up, and it was time to head south for the jet setting village of Zermatt. Another “car-free” village, Zermatt is the typical jumping-off point for the Matterhorn, and it swarms with camera-toting tourists hoping to get a cloud-free shot of the iconic peak.

The Matterhorn from the “5-Seen Weg” hike.

Alpenhorns in Zermatt.

Like everyone else, we were also here to see and hike around the mountain. Zermatt is not known for its sport climbing, nor can I recommend it. It’s an uber-ritzy ski-town, like Aspen or Vail on steroids. It’s not exactly climber-friendly or family-friendly, but this was my first time in Switzerland and I really wanted to see the Matterhorn. In hindsight, I would have preferred to wait for a promising forecast and then just make a day trip to Zermatt to get a quick look at the mountain and then spend our time somewhere a little less spoiled.

Eschelbalmen from Zermatt. There is a climber in red on the lower left, and another in a dark shirt climbing the central black streak.

Fortunately there is a sport crag right above town—like, right above town—you could jump onto the nearest chalet’s roof from the crag base. This small cliff, called Eschelbalmen, is comprised of some pretty mank metamorphic stone covered in a very thin coating of calcified flowstone that sortof holds everything together. It’s not a destination crag, but its passable for a desperate OCD climber who is paranoid about falling out of shape over a 3-day break.

Warming up on Butchered at the Bitch, 7b, Eschalbalmen.

Like all Swiss crags, it has amazing views, but the best thing going for it was a really chill, relaxing vibe. The base is a beautiful grassy meadow, and you can even pick raspberries between burns. I’m not going to waste too many electrons recommending it because its not worth that, but suffice to say, if you are in a pinch, its better than nothing (or bouldering, haha).

Fun with Pano mode. This is the Monte Rosa massif, just south of the Matterhorn, which is quite a bit more interesting in my opinion.

Obligatory reflection pic, this one of the tiny ponds around Riffelsee.

We put in a pretty quick session here after a long day of hiking around the northeast flank of the Matterhorn, including a quick dash up to the Hornli Hut at the base of the iconic Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn. The shortness of the routes meant it was easy to pack a lot of burns into a short period of time. The highlight of the day was a 7c (5.12d) I did called Victoria, which apparently starts by scaling the roof of the small hut at the base of the cliff. I made a good effort on the 8a (13b) THC, but came off when I failed to spot a mungy roof pocket at the end of the crux.

Cruxing up Victoria, 7c, Eschelbalmen.

The best part of the session was putting up a bunch of routes for Logan and his buddy Sam on the crags highly-featured and low-angled southeast face. They had a great time swing around, scrounging for berries and generally messing around.

Logan crushing at Eschelbalmen

With the Matterhorn in our rear-view mirror, we headed back north to stay with my friend Rob’s family in Zurich. Nothing in the immediate Zurich vicinity caught my eye as far as a climbing destination, but Switzerland is small enough (and Zurich central enough) that we had plenty of good options within a short drive.

Zermatt has a sweet kid-focused rope course that all the kids loved.

I really wanted to visit a crag in the village of Engelberg I learned about just before we left called Schlanggen. This compact cliff sits at the back of a beautiful alpine valley and is stacked with 60-some tightly packed routes and linkups. At over 40-meters tall and continuously slightly overhanging, this white-and-blue-streaked limestone buttress is a paradise of endurance climbing.

The Schlanggen cliff just outside of Engelberg. Rather wet on the day this was taken, but it was almost completely dry two days later.

My friend Rob and I split from the families to make a quick stop there on our way back from Zermatt. Many of the blue streaks were partially dripping with water, which limited the options somewhat, but there was still plenty to do. The rock is pretty unusual for limestone, and any given route will likely contain some tricky sloper climbing, pockets of all varieties, and intense crimping. It took a while to get used to the style, and in typical fashion I struggled to scrape my way up the 5.11 warmup. After that things started coming together.

Attempting Onan, 8a, at Schlanggen.

I cruised up the outstanding 7c+ (13a) Zollo del Lachel, which required some intense pocket cranks and pumpy edging. Next I set my sights on the masterpiece No Time for Wanking (8a/13b). This incredible route opens with a 7b+ entry pitch to a good rest, before tackling a gentling overhanging pillar of velvety gray flowstone. The crux is a devious and reachy sequence working off a sharp undercling crimp to reach distant gastons. If you scrape your way through this bit, you are rewarded with a long, pumping exit, slapping franticly between big slopers, culminating in a desperate mantle onto a holdless-shelf just below the anchor (or at least, that’s how it was for me, haha). The pitch was absolutely phenomenal and easily the best route I did in Switzerland.

Low on No Time For Wanking, 8a, Schlanggen. Could you imagine being in such a hurry?!

In short, I loved climbing at Schlanggen—it was hands-down my favorite stop. With one climbing day left I was torn between the prospect of returning, or visiting the super-highly-recommended crag Voralpsee in eastern Switzerland. While I really wanted to go to Voralpsee, and likely a first day climbing there would have been better than a second day at Schlanggen, I also wanted to take the kids up one more Via Ferrata, and there was a good looking kid-friendly route only a few miles from the Schlanggen cliff.

How can you say I made the wrong choice? Amelie cruising the Brunnistockli Via Ferrata.

By our second visit the rock had dried up completely, providing a bunch of “new” routes to try. Once again the routes did not disappoint. Everything I did was excellent, but the best route of the day was the towering, 35-meter Mousse au Thon (7c+/13a). This classic endurance climb was stacked with hard sections split by good rests, culminating in a long, burly boulder problem out the 30-degree overhanging visor right at the lip of the cliff. My beta was essentially to bare down like a mofo on some tiny sharp crimps and slap for the chalk marks. Fortunately I hit everything well enough to get to the top.

High on Mousse au Thon, 7c+, Schlanggen.

Overall I really enjoyed the sport climbing I did in Switzerland. The country is not particularly know as a sport destination, and its hard to recommend it to the pure climber over more traditional destinations like Catalunya, Provence or the Mediterranean islands. However, if you are looking for crags that are a bit less polished, or climbing isn’t the primary focus of the trip, Swiss climbing has a lot to offer and there are few better all-around destinations.

Rest day visit to the legendary Aescher Hotel above Ebenalp.

 

High Wire Act: VF Murren

By Mark Anderson

There were two activities on the Swiss trip that were the unequivocal highlights. This was the first one. I’ve done about 10 Via Ferratas now, and this was hands-down the best I’ve done. It has spectacular scenery, incredible position, interesting apparatus and it’s well-designed and maintained.

VF Murren culminates in a spectacular hanging bridge that spans a massive, 1500-foot-deep chasm. This shot was taken from the cable car that runs between Gimmelwald and Murren.

For most well-travelled climbers, the typical Via Ferrata will seem mundane, if not completely boring. Not so VF Murren! While never physically challenging by climbing standards, the exposure on this route is no joke, and will get the attention of even the most grizzled El Cap veteran.

The west wall of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. The village of Murren is sunlit and visible in the far upper left corner—the VF starts in Murren and follows the lip of the massive cliff to Gimmelwald (which is south, or left in the photo).

To appreciate the route, it helps to understand a bit about the surrounding geography. The Lauterbrunnen Valley, located about 10 miles south of the bustling outdoor mecca Interlaken, is perhaps best described as a limestone version of Yosemite Valley. Although not quite as deep or long as Yosemite Valley, the upper rim of the gorge is studded with cloud-piercing glaciated peaks, including the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau.

The village of Murren, and the massive cliff it sits atop—from the top of the Eiger Rotstock. The VF Murrent starts in the village and traverses the lip of the cliff towards the south (left in the photo).

The valley hub is the village of Lauterbrunnen, which can be accessed by car, train, etc. The lower valley is renowned for its 2500-feet-tall limestone walls and ubiquitous waterfalls. Atop these walls, along the rim of the canyon, are a serious of tiny, “car-free” hamlets, accessed by train, cable car, or a combination. Two of the more well-known are the hamlets of Murren and Gimmelwald (home to the world-class sport crag of the same name).

Logan starting the second 3-Wire Bridge.

The VF Murren traverses the lip of the west side of the canyon for two kilometers, from Murren to Gimmelwald. It weaves in and out of forest as the terrain dictates, but in the key spots it is literally right on the lip of a 2000-foot tall cliff. It’s like stepping out of a dense forest onto a small ledge on the side of El Cap with nothing but air beneath your feet. It is so perfectly exposed that there is literally a BASE jumping platform built into the route!

Logan heading towards the business.

I was really psyched to check out this VF, but I wasn’t sure how Logan would handle it. He’s very brave, but that’s a lot of exposure, and in my experience it can really take some getting used to. There’s a big difference between climbing your way up to a really exposed position, allowing your mind to acclimate as you steadily ascend versus just walking out to the edge of a cliff, and it’s hard to know how someone will react to that situation.

Entering the incredibly exposed lip traverse.

The route begins with a long stretch of easy hiking through forest, protected by wire. A series of downclimbs along stemples takes you out to the top of the cliff, where the route gets right down to business. The most exposed stretch comes pretty early, traversing an intermittent ledge system. The walls drop straight down here, with nothing but air for 2000 feet. For a brief stretch the ledge disappears and stemples lead across the void. This is not the technical crux, but surely the psychological crux.

Logan never seemed concerned about the 2000-foot drop. Should I be worried about that?

It turned out my concerns for Logan were completely unfounded. I don’t think Logan would have even noticed the exposure if I hadn’t pointed it out. He cruised it all with a smile on his face, and if anything I struggled to keep up with him while taking pictures and managing the rope.

Me in the same spot as above. Note the arcing line of stemples up and left from my head.

After the lip traverse, the route heads back into the forest for a while, eventually leading to a “Monkey Birdge” (or “Three-wire Bridge”) that crosses one of the many waterfalls. Logan wasn’t quite tall enough to reach between the wires on this one, so I rigged it as a Tyrolean for him and pulled him across.

Logan Tyrolean traversing the first 3-Wire Bridge.

More wire through the forest leads to what I felt was the physical crux, a series of 4 long ladder down-climbs, the last of which was slightly overhanging. Since we had sport-climbed at Gimmelwald earlier in the day, I was doing the VF with my entire sport-climbing kit on my back, 70-meter rope included. After a morning of struggling to grasp Gimmelwald’s biceps-bursting routes, I found that last, overhanging ladder to be rather taxing!

Logan cruising the long ladder down-climb.

Once again, Logan had no issues and didn’t think it was hard despite my whining. Next came a shorter 3-wire bridge, which Logan was able to traverse on his feet. Another long stretch of hiking leads to the highlight of the route, and the most incredible VF feature I’ve ever seen, a massive hanging bridge (aka “Nepalese Bridge”).

The incredible hanging bridge.

I don’t know the exact dimensions, but I’d guess the bridge is over 100-meters long, and crosses a chasm over 1500-feet deep. This was the first obstacle that gave Logan pause. Sadly he’s already a bit jaded and hard to impress, but when he came around the corner and laid eyes on the hanging bridge, he was in awe.

Logan starting across the bridge.

Contemplating the view.

The view down!

Despite its impressive engineering, the bridge was quite rickety, and the hand wires were hard for Logan to reach, so he took his time traversing the wobbly catwalk. Eventually he became comfortable and cruised the second half of the crossing.

Once on the other side, it’s a brief, steep walk along cow pastures to reach the Gimmelwald Cable Car station, followed by a quick zip back down to the valley. Of all the activities we did on the trip, this is one I would absolutely do again. This should be considered a must do for any capable visitor, no matter how jaded by rock cliffs you may be, and the great news is that it’s super easy to tack-on at the end (or beginning) of a day climbing at the fantastic Gimmelwald cliff. Its possible to rent VF gear in Murren if you don’t have your own, just be sure to save some arm strength for those ladders!

Watch our videos of the Murren VF here:

Klettersteig on the Flank of the Eiger

By Mark Anderson

“Klettersteig” is German for “Via Ferrata” (which is Italian for “Iron Way”).[LINK TO INTRO-STYLE VF Post]. Klettersteigs have existed in Switzerland for decades and they have some of the best in the world, including the best two I’ve ever done—the Eiger Rotstock and Murren via ferrats. The Eiger Rotstock route is not particularly noteworthy in terms of exotic apparatus such as Monkey Bridges or Ziplines, but because of its incredible position.

The Eiger Nordwand (aka Eigerwand) on the left, and the Eiger Rotstock on the right (with its summit just up and left of the signpost. The via ferrata more or less climbs the large gulley just right of the center of the photo.

The Eiger Rotstock is a sub-peak along the northwest ridge of the Eiger. It’s several thousand feet lower than the Eiger, but sits adjacent to the main peak’s infamous and iconic North Face, dubbed the “Eigerwand.”

The Eigerwand.

The Eigerwand may be the single most notorious mountain face in the Alps, if not the world, having claimed the lives of some 65 climbers. It was the scene of an unprecedented series of accidents in the mid-20th century as the Continent’s best climbers struggled to climb it. The news reports of these attempts, heroic rescues, and tragedies made the face world-famous to people from all walks of life, and the climbers involved in became household names.

It was eventually climbed in 1938 by Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vorg, Fitz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer (author of Seven-Years in Tibet). Harrer’s book The White Spider, which details his ascent as well as all other attempts, successes and disasters on the face through the mid-1960s, is among the most classic pieces of Mountaineering literature ever written. And of course, the face was the setting for Hollywood’s undisputed best-ever climbing movie, The Eiger Sanction.

A view of the 6 ladders that start the Rotstock VF.

I suspect my hard alpine days are behind me, but as a student of climbing history, I had to get a look at this face, and the Eiger Rotstock Via Ferrata provides an excellent vantage point, in relative safety. The route winds up the notch between the Rotstock and the Eiger proper, essentially climbing the lower quarter of the Eigerwand’s west arête. The position is absolutely spectacular, and provides a taste of exposure and commitment with nearly complete safety.

Logan cruising the ladders.

Logan cruising the ladders.

Our adventure started with an early morning train ride from the spectacular Lauterbrunnen Valley up to the Eigergletscher station just above the hamlet of Kleine Scheidegg. From there a brief contouring hike leads below the Eigerwand to the start of the Klettersteig.

Just above the end of the ladders, with Kleine Scheidegg visible below and to the right.

Just above the end of the ladders, with Kleine Scheidegg visible below and to the right.

The Klettersteig itself is straightforward and not particularly interesting. It begins with six metal ladders, followed by mostly steep hiking (with a wee bit of easy scrambling) on generally good rock, almost 100% protected by cable.

Entering the big gulley.

Besides the phenomenal views, the best part of the excursion was taking Logan up on something reasonably resembling a proper mountain. He was psyched to reach a real summit and loved the exposure. It’s a great day out in the mountains with not much more risk than any alpine hike. For perspective, I’d say it’s a lot safer than the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion.

Near the Rotstock summit (up and right).

The descent from the Rotstock follows the lower section of the Eiger’s West Flank route, and provides unobstructed views of that route, all the way to the summit (when its visible). From our vantage point the route looked pretty fun and moderate in dry conditions, with some interesting scrambling on generally good rock.

Logan on the Rotstock summit, with the Eiger West Flank (and route) behind.

On the summit.

Check out Logan’s video of the Eiger Rotstock via ferrata here:

The descent went quickly and we rendezvoused with the rest of the family back at the Eigergletscher Hotel, then hiked down to Kleine Scheidegg (which was not much more than a large gift shop). After refueling the kids with ice cream we continued hiking north along the crowded “Panoramaweg” trail to the Mannlichen Cable Car station and zipped down to Lauterbrunnen. It was a great tour of the Eiger region and one that I’d highly recommend to anyone who wants an intimate look at the Eiger without taking much risk (or dragging a bunch of alpine climbing gear around).

Amelie and the Jungfrau.

Swiss Sport Climbing Part 1: The Giants

By Mark Anderson

Switzerland isn’t particularly regarded as a sport climbing hotbed, but there are a few crags that are well-known on the world stage. We were able to visit two of the country’s premier sport crags, both located in the Berner Oberland region around the outdoor adventure mecca of Interlaken—Lehn and Gimmelwald.

Beautiful views and buttery limestone at Gimmelwald.  Photo Logan Anderson.

Although not much more than an hour’s commute apart, these two crags are completely different. Lehn is hidden in a pine forest right above Interlaken, with tall, white walls that don’t look particularly special from the ground. The sandstone has a very grippy texture, but generally forms slopey holds that require precise body positions. The best routes overhang up to ~20 degrees and feature long, sustained, and uber-pumpy sequences. The long cliffband offers over a hundred routes and a wide range of grades from 5.9-ish to mid 5.14.

Climbing Knallfrosch, 7b, at Lehn.  Photo Logan Anderson.

Gimmelwald is perhaps Switzerland’s most well-known crag, and certainly the most photogenic. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve almost certainly seen a picture of it. It’s nestled at the end of a remote alpine valley; accessed by cable car and a long walk. The main cliff overhangs in a steep swell that is streaked in beautiful blue and orange, with a backdrop of picturesque, snow-capped peaks. The routes overhang anywhere from ~30 to 120 degrees, and are known for bouldery-yet sustained climbing that produces major pumpfests. The climbing here pretty much starts at ~5.13-, and doesn’t really get good until the 5.13+ range. [Note, there is another crag at Gimmelwald, called “Sector B”, that offers routes in the 5.10-5.12 range. I did not climb at Sector B, but I inspected it closely, and based on that inspection, and visits to other Swiss crags, I would discourage anyone from climbing at Sector B—there are far better 5.10-5.12 sport crags in Switzerland!]

The view from Gimmelwald. Photo Kate Anderson.

Lehn was the first crag we visited on the trip, essentially straight from the airport with major jet lag. Based on a general lack of information and its unassuming look, I had pretty low expectations for the climbing. I jumped on a 6c (~5.11b) to warmup and quickly found myself using every trick in my bag to sketch my way up the thing. The slopey, insecure, oozing style of climbing was a major shock. Body English is paramount, as is trusting your feet on polished bumps.

Lower on Knallfrosch, Lehn. Photo Logan Anderson.

Despite my struggles, I couldn’t deny the crag’s quality. The rock was impeccable, if hard to read. As I progressed to harder routes, I found the grades felt more reasonable and the climbing only got better (struggling on warmups was a theme throughout the trip—I don’t know if this is due to nonlinear sandbagging, jet lag, or a combination of the two!).

Schweizerhalle, 7b+, Lehn. Photo Logan Anderson.

The best route I did was a tall, uber-classic 7b+ (5.12c) called Schweizerhalle. This is a world class route, not quite as good as, but reminiscent of, Orange Juice at the Red. The climbing started with big moves between slopey, pumping jugs, leading to a final battle up a long molasses streak. The holds slowly morphed into small, angled edges requiring sequential gastons and crosses weaving to the top of the wall.

Entering the high crux of Schweizerhalle, Lehn. Photo Logan Anderson.

I was pretty lukewarm on the crag until I did this route, which really convinced me of Lehn’s quality. European guidebooks rarely offer any sort of quality ratings, so sometimes we visitors need to bumble around in the wilderness until we stumble upon the goods!

The Eiger Nordwand from the approach to Lehn. The lower half of the wall is obscured.

My experience at Gimmelwald was pretty much the opposite. I had found a lot of info on the crag and a lot of hype. The crag looked phenomenal and my expectations were correspondingly high. Although the scenery and position were every bit as good as advertised, I was disappointed in my climbing.

Teufelskuche, 7c+, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

Roughly half the routes were dripping wet due to an early morning deluge, so I was pretty limited in my warm-up options, at a crag that is already known for its lack of “moderates.” The crag’s classic 7c+ (5.13a) Men at Work had fixed draws and was dry through the lower half, so I attempted to warmup on that. I really struggled to find a rhythm—it seemed like I was constantly off-balance and out of sequence.

Men at Work, 7c+, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

Next I tried Teufelskuche, the crag’s other dry 7c+. This time it went a little better, but not by much. I couldn’t deny the quality of the rock, but frankly I wasn’t enjoying the climbing.  When the climbing is awkward, its hard to know if that’s due to the rock or the climber. This section of the cliff generally consisted of stacked, sloping rails that all slanted down to the left, such that the climbing was generally slopey liebacking with all the footholds sloping away. I was constantly battling against a left-ward barn-door and I never felt relaxed or comfortable.

Teufelskuche, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

I had been warned before I left that the climbing at Gimmelwald really doesn’t get good until the 5.14s. Once I had confirmed this to my satisfaction, I decided to jump on something a bit harder, and found what turned out to be an incredible 8a+ (5.13c) called Surfer’s Paradise—the sector’s namesake.

Surfer’s Paradise, 8a+, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

Surfer’s Paradise climbs a huge, 45-degree overhanging swell of blue limestone, characterized by big moves between water pockets. For the most part the pockets were big and incut (and mostly dry). The bottom section involved really cool footwork, with overhead heel hooking and toe-camming passing a big hueco. The route never really eased up and ended with some really big, burly throws between well-spaced 3 and 4-finger mini-buckets.

Surfer’s Paradise, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

By the time I lowered off, I could appreciate why this crag was so well-regarded. The setting is unmatched and when the climbing is good, its really good. Unfortunately the grades are pretty exclusive, which probably explains why the routes appeared relatively untraveled. I felt fortunate to get to experience a taste of what the area has to offer, but I was also content and excited to check out some more obscure Swiss crags…

…Coming soon: Swiss Sport Climbing Part 2: Off the Beaten Path

Paraglider over the Lauterbrunnen Valley, with the Eiger (L) and the Monch (R) behind.

Alias

Mark Anderson

Hometown

Evergreen, CO

Motivation to Climb

Stunning rock features and beautiful lines of impeccable stone draw my attention and captivate me. In my experience, the most beautiful lines at any crag are usually among the most difficult. Such formations inspire me to become the best climber I can be, so that I can experience the best routes around the world, and walk in the footsteps of the legendary protagonists of our sport.

Most Memorable Climb

In 2004 I made the first onsight ascent of The Free Route on the Totem Pole in Tasmania. The climb is located quite literally at the edge of the world, ascending the most dramatic free-standing tower you could imagine, shooting up over 200 feet out of the heaving Tasman Sea. It was just me and my wife, alone in the middle of nowhere. I can still taste the sea spray and vividly recall the sense of joy at pulling onto the summit block.

Favorite Climbing Spot

Variety is the spice of life, and so I like to climb on all types of rock. My favorite place to climb is the new crag I haven’t been to yet. I love to travel, and climbing has taken me to countless amazing places around the globe. Despite my wanderlust, I still think Smith Rock, Oregon is the single best crag I’ve ever laid mitts on. It has some of the most dramatic landscape on the planet, and world class sport and trad climbs at every grade from 5.6 to 5.14.

Bio

I’m an “all-around” climber, having climbed on four continents, established numerous first ascents, freed El Cap, summited Denali, red-pointed 5.14c and on-sighted 5.13b. I enjoy unlocking new ways to overcome the physical and technical challenges that climbing presents. I love contemplating, developing & testing new methods of training, and I recently co-authored The Rock Climber’s Training Manual for Fixed Pin Publishing. I enjoy helping other climbers unlock their physical potential by providing training guidance and coaching. My wife Kate and I have two children, Logan, who turned three years old in January 2014, and Amelie, born in the summer of 2013. As a “weekend warrior” I face many of the same obstacles as most regular Joes, and I hope that my success can help fellow climbers aspire to new heights. My family and I live in the beautiful mountain town of Evergreen, CO, and I frequent many of the Colorado Front Range crags. I enjoy establishing new routes of all styles, and in the last few years I’ve put a lot of my energy into developing cutting edge sport routes at some of my favorite crags.

[full bio]

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