Category Archives: Effort

40 Climbing Lessons

by Mark Anderson

A few years ago Steve Bechtel gave me an article called “40 Years of Insight” by strength Coach Dan John.  The article is a list of 40 lessons Dan learned in his 40 years of coaching strength athletes. I liked it so much, I keep it on my nightstand and re-read it periodically.

I can’t imagine I’ll have anything interesting left to say once I have 40 years of coaching experience, but as of today I’ve been on this planet for 40 years, so I decided to write my own version—40 lessons I’ve learned about climbing in 40 years of life. Nobody will agree with all of them, but hopefully everyone can find some use for at least one of these. [Warning: this is a bit of a novel, so you might want to break it up over a few days (Mark D)]

1. Set Goals—We need to reach for the stars if we want to have the slightest chance of reaching our potential. How we do that matters. Many people confuse dreams with goals, but there is one major difference—dreams almost never happen. If you want to get things done, you need realistic stepping-stones and an executable plan to progress between them. Establish a plan, follow the plan. That’s how you get things don

2. It’s Never Too Late—to take up climbing, learn a new technique, develop new strength, rehab a nagging injury. Every few years I discover another aspect of my climbing I’ve neglected and start improving it. In my late 20’s it was power endurance, in my early 30’s it was contact strength, then it was upper arm and shoulder power, then core strength, and most recently I found I had improved so much everywhere else that power endurance was once again a (relative) weakness. Whatever it is that’s been holding you back, start training it today. There’s still plenty of time to reap the benefits.

3. Baby Steps—Big improvements aren’t made in big leaps, they’re made in many baby steps, over years. You can go incredibly far using baby steps, but you have to take a few steps every day, to the best of your ability, for a long time. The good news is, you have plenty of time, the rock isn’t going anywhere.

4. We Don’t Climb in a Lab—I’ll take a real-world anecdote over a laboratory study any day. The climbing studies that have been done thus far are incredibly primitive and rarely (if ever) representative of real-world rock climbing. I couldn’t care less if a training program produces great results in the lab. The point is to get better at climbing rocks, so I follow programs that produce results on the rock. If a program has demonstrated the ability to do that, it’s a good program. If someone is trying to sell you something, the only question to ask is, “how many letter grades did you improve when you used this program?” You don’t need any laboratories, scientists, or double-blind studies. If they can’t answer that question convincingly, save your money.

5. The Weekend Warrior’s Best Weapon is Good Time Management—When I first started working I got a day planner with the Ben Franklin quote: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” In our 20’s, the Anderson mantra was “Maximize Fun,” which was a euphemism for waking up before sunrise, taking no breaks, and finishing after dark so we could cram as much climbing/mountaineering/canyoning into a day as possible. If it didn’t suck by the end of the day, then we failed. I don’t have many days like that anymore, but I am constantly hustling from task to task to clear space for climbing, bolting, or training. If you want to have it all (and you should), it really helps to be as efficient as possible in your daily life: plan ahead, stay on task, do simple things quickly, and do them right the first time.

Maximizing Fun on Lotus Flower Tower. We summited in the dark and got back to camp just before sunrise the next morning.

6. Big Fish Need Big Ponds—If you’re already the best climber in your gym, move! We need rivals to push us, heroes to inspire us, and mentors to show us the way. If you’re the big fish in your pond, find yourself a bigger pond that will give you room to grow. Moving to Colorado in 2008 was the make-or-break moment of my career. While I was incredibly excited about all the new rock, I also doubted my ability to ‘survive’ in a place so stacked with talented climbers. Frankly it started pretty badly. Everything seemed sandbagged, and for the first time ever I was waiting in line to try 5.14s. I enjoyed few successes in those early years, but ultimately it invigorated my climbing, forcing me to become much better.

7. Attack Your Weaknesses Directly—The best way to solve a weakness is to pick a goal route at your limit that perfectly exploits that weakness. You will have no choice but to ensure that correcting the weakness is your #1 priority in training. When I first started working 5.12’s, my footwork was terrible. I picked several projects at Smith Rock (where footwork is paramount), and although the process was initially terribly frustrating, the payoff has been enormous. Solving a weakness is not an extra-curricular activity, it has to be your primary focus.

8. Be A Maverick,—If you want to be as good as everyone else, do what everyone else does. If you want to be better than that, you have to do something different. For literally years, I was the only climber in my gym who used a hangboard (and everyone looked at me funny).

9. Invest in a Training Space—It’s ironic that as commercial climbing gyms have become increasingly prolific, they’ve also become increasingly useless to performance-oriented climbers. Second to making the decision to start training, the next ‘best-decision-I-ever-made’ for my climbing was building my own training facility. It finally allowed me to train the way I want, with no excuses about walls that are too steep, holds that are unrealistic, or poor route-setting. It puts me in complete control of my training. I don’t have to dodge birthday parties, heinous temperatures or primetime crowds. It has everything I need, and if it doesn’t it’s my own fault.

10. Keep a Journal—Preferably multiple journals. I have reams of training log sheets, detailing every rep and set of every workout I’ve ever done. I have a “Training Calendar,” in which I forecast planned training and climbing sessions, and summarize them for each day, after the fact. I have a blog where I bore you all with grandiose accounts of significant (to me) adventures. I also have a spreadsheet capturing every 5.12-or-harder route I’ve ever climbed, another one for every first ascent, and detailed notes in all my guidebooks. These are my most treasured possessions. They are invaluable for entertainment, lessons learned and most-importantly, planning future training.

Jonathan filling out his logsheet during a winter training session in Las Vegas.

11. Get Into A Routine—The trick to sticking with a training plan, or maintaining discipline in general, is to have a routine. We’re all busy, and faced with obstacles that can interfere with training. If you have to shuffle commitments and make decisions on the fly, you’re sure to sacrifice training more often than you’d like. A predictable weekly schedule with few surprises may sound boring, but it’s the best way to ensure you accomplish your training goals for each day. That’s the key to making steady progress. Once training becomes a regular habit, something you expect to do, something you plan around, rather than something you have to plan for, discipline comes easily.

12. The First Step Is the Hardest—The hardest part of every workout is taking that first step towards the gym. Everyone has days when they just don’t want to train. A good way to overcome this inertia is to commit to at least doing a little something on every training day. In my experience, once you get warmed up, you usually find the motivation to go ahead with the scheduled workout.

13. Quality Over Quantity, or Intensity Over Duration. I’m a firm believer that in climbing, power is generally much more limiting than endurance. Even when it isn’t, nobody ever complained about having too much power. So it makes sense for most climbers to favor power in their training. Additionally, intense training takes less time. But the best reason to favor it is that it takes less out of you, so you can get a lot of training stimulus without digging a deep hole that requires extensive recovery. Fortunately this can be applied to endurance training as well—one ARC set done with intention and focus beats three sets of going through the motions any day. Whatever your training goals, train the best you can, for as long as you can, and then call it a day. Piling on a bunch of junk miles at the end will only make things worse.

Applying the proper intensity during a hangboard session.

14. Stick to What Works—The people who experience the most consistent, steady improvement do the same general things for years and years. Bouncing around between plans makes it impossible to optimize your training, because you’re never doing anything long enough to evaluate its effectiveness. Find something that works for you and stick with it. For a really long time. Make subtle tweaks as you learn and grow, but a solid system will continue to produce steady gains for decades.

15. Love the Process—The reason I’ve been able to get through ~400 HB workouts is that I love hangboarding (on some level). If you don’t love hangboarding, find something you do love and figure out how to make it work with your training program. In any field, those with the most staying-power love the preparation as much or more than they like the performance.

16. An Ounce of Prevention—…is worth a pound of cure -Ben Franklin. If you’re reading this it’s a safe bet you already know the importance of preparing your fingers for rock climbing. Additionally, pretty much every climber I’ve ever known has had elbow and/or shoulder problems at one time or another, sooner or later. The good news is that it takes very little effort to reduce the risk of injury to these crucial joints. The first step is to use good form in your training (especially hangboarding and campusing), keeping your elbows slightly bent and shoulders tight. Second, end each session with a few minutes of prehab exercises (for shoulders, try push-ups and internal and external shoulder rotations, and for elbows, check out this article). Finally, stretch your forearms after each climbing or training session.

17. Core Strength Costs Nothing—We all know that your fingers can never be too strong for rock climbing. The problem is that our fingers are incredibly fragile; they must be trained carefully, and then allowed to recover for long periods between sessions. While core strength takes a backseat, it is very beneficial. It’s also very easy to train without detracting from finger training, so there’s no good reason not to do it. You can train your core every day, or on off days (from finger training) if time is limited. In my experience a little bit of core strength goes a long way, opening up a new dimension of exotic and gymnastic rock climbs.

18. Take Care—I can’t remember how times I’ve hurt myself doing mundane things like unloading groceries, putting my kids in their car seats, or even sleeping in an awkward position. Be precise and thoughtful in everything you do. Don’t overgrip when climbing, or when opening doors. Sleep flat on your back. Practice precision movement and situational awareness all the time—don’t be clumsy, oafish or inattentive. Down climb when bouldering. It’s a good drill for regular climbing, a good skill to have for on-sighting, but most importantly, it will save your joints.

19. Injuries Aren’t the End of the World. When you have a serious injury, it always feel like the end of the world, or maybe just the end of your performance climbing career. Any athlete who wants to be the best they can be is going to push the limits of their body. If you flirt with the line between maximum improvement and injury, eventually you will cross it. Looking back, I’ve had four major pulley strains that could have been “career ending” had I chosen to accept that outcome. I’ve had countless tweaks in collateral ligaments, elbows, back, shoulders and knees. Many of them seemed devastating at the time, but none of them held me back in the long run. Train smart, take measures to avoid them, but if an injury occurs, remain optimistic and believe that you can recover 100%.

20. Logistics Matter—I’m a planner. I envy those who can roll up to the crag without a worry and crush 5.15, but that’s not me. I over-think everything, then think about it some more. Many great climbing projects have failed because some mundane detail was overlooked, and that’s what keeps me up at night. Mike and I scrapped our way up a lot of things we shouldn’t have because we’re really freaking good at planning. Whether you’re embarking on an alpine style ascent in the Karakoram, Nose-in-a-Day, or a weekend of sport climbing, create a detailed plan, walk through every possible outcome, and make sure it’s viable. Practice this when you’re young, and it will pay off when your life becomes more complicated. The skills I learned preparing for expeditions in the Alaska Range came in really handy once my climbing excursions become truly daunting (visiting sport crags with kids).

21. There Are No Secrets—If someone is trying to sell you the “secret” to better performance, run away. All the information you need to excel at climbing has been around for years, in books, journals, and/or the interwebs. The 80’s were the Age of Innovation, and while much knowledge was lost during the more recent Age of Grunting, you can still find the wisdom of yesterday in any number of great resources (such as: Wizards of Rock, Revelations, Beyond the Summit, Fingers of Steel, Performance Rock Climbing, A Life in the Vertical).

Photo: Nick Clement

22. Ration Your Skin—It’s literally your interface to the rock. Think about how much you care about your climbing shoes. Your skin is ten times more important. Skin care is 99% prevention. Once you have an issue, it’s probably too late (and you’ll spend ten times the effort on the “cure,” which will be one-tenth as effective). Get a skin care kit and use it daily. When on the rock, pace your efforts and conserve your skin. Check it whenever you’re hanging on the rope and quit while you’re ahead. Once its gone, it will be much more costly waiting for it to heal than it would have been to quit 5 minutes earlier.

23. Get up Early—You get the least crowds, the best climbing conditions, and the most beautiful light.

24. Invest in a Good Partner—The greatest asset for long-term success is a good partner. The best partners are dependable, provide moral support on and off the rock, and do the little things (like bringing your shoes over when you lower off). Those types of partnerships don’t just happen, they have to be nurtured. I’ve had a lot of great partners that deserve credit, including Mike, Fred, Janelle, Chris, Bobby, Ben, Marcus, Rob, Rick, Lee, Steve, Vern, Marc, Gabe, Grace, Lamont, Shaun, Adam, Mark, Evan, Boer and Kevin. My wife Kate is the very best possible partner. She’s the secret to my success.

25. Go Against the Grain—Climb in unpopular areas, at off-peak times. Once there, do unpopular routes. You get the place to yourself, you don’t have to wait in line, and you’ll be forced to learn a variety of techniques on many different types of rock. You also learn self-reliance and aren’t misled by everyone else’s bad habits (or bad beta).

Kate and I atop the Moai after climbing Sacred Site, 5.10-

26. Mileage Over Difficulty—We master moving over stone by doing lots of it, not by doing a few harder moves many times. When I was breaking into 5.12 I would routinely climb 15 pitches per climbing day and never less than 10, whether I was climbing trad or sport. I stretched my partners’ patience, but it made me a better climber. If technique is your weakness, forget about projecting routes at your limit for a few years and just try to climb as many pitches per day as possible when you go outside. Visit as many different crags as possible and climb the widest variety of routes. These routes should still be challenging, but nothing that takes more than 3 tries to send. You can and should still train systematically indoors, but when you’re outside, climb for volume.

27. Figure Out the Beta Yourself—I’m all for doing things the easy way, most of the time. If I‘m loading a sack of bricks into my car, I’ll certainly take the easy way.  When I’m trying to improve myself, I’ll take the hard way. The easy way to get the beta for your project is to watch Youtube videos or other climbers. That may get you to the chains faster, but figuring out the beta yourself will make you a better climber.

28. You’ll Never Send What You Don’t Try—In 2008 I was climbing at the Left Flank in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge with Mike. I was having one of those great days of onsighting—I hadn’t fallen all day and I’d sent a number of hard-for-me routes up to 12d. I was debating out loud the pros and cons of risking my precious final onsight attempt of the day on the classic 5.13a Table of Colors (a grade I’d never onsighted before). Mike said “You’ll definitely never onsight 5.13 if you never try one.” At some point, if you want to do hard routes, you have to try hard routes. I’ve surprised myself many times, including on that day in 2008. It’s understandable to have reservations or anxiety. Anytime you try something truly challenging, your risk failing in spectacular fashion, but you have to give yourself the opportunity to succeed or you never will.

29. Less is More—Generally, climbers climb too much, train too much, and rest too little. Particularly with training in vogue and so many coaches offering new exercises, we tend to add more and more training volume without taking anything away. If you’re lacking “pop,” you’re not psyched to train, or packing for the next climbing day feels like a chore, you’re likely over-doing it. I tend to follow my training plans religiously, and the thought of skipping a workout is heresy. In retrospect, I’ve found that dropping in an extra rest day here or there has only ever helped, and often it’s made my season. Whatever climbing problem is bringing you down, there’s a good chance an extra rest day will help solve it.

30. Conserve Your Energy—It takes a tremendous amount of energy to climb at your limit (especially after age 35). The biggest jump in ability I made in the past decade came when I took a temporary break from rest-day aerobic exercise in 2011. The result of that break was so profound it’s now permanent, except for one or two months a year of cycling in the summer. I miss the daily meditation of trail running and cycling, but not as much as I like climbing a letter-grade harder. If you’re doing any extra-curricular activities, they‘re likely detracting from your climbing performance. Whether those activities are worth the impact is a judgment call for you to make, just realize its having an effect.

31. Eat Lots of (Lean) Protein—I’m not a nutrition geek. I’ve read a fair amount about it and figured out how to lose weight when I need to and feel strong while performing. If I had to summarize my recommendations in one short sentence, it would be: eat lots of lean protein. This will fuel your physical gains, provide plenty of energy for day-to-day life and suppress the glycemic response that causes over-eating. Yes, you also need some carbs and fats, but unless you have an exclusive sponsorship deal with Starkist Tuna, chances are good you’ll consume sufficient quantities of both without thinking about. You can make this pretty complicated if you want (calculating grams per body mass, ingesting at regular intervals, protein shakes just before bed time on training days), but following this simple suggestion will get you most of the way to your climbing goals.

Sea bugs are a great source of lean protein.

32. Pay Attention When You’re Belaying—Obviously you have someone’s life in your hands. Take that seriously. Furthermore, from a performance perspective, engage in your partners’ climbing. Discuss their beta, study their movement, offer suggestions and invest in their success. You will liven up the monotony of belaying, your partner will appreciate it, and you’ll learn a lot in the process.

33. Learn to like Falling—There are climbers who enjoy falling. If fear of falling is an issue for you, don’t be satisfied with barely tolerating it. Take it a few steps farther, to the point that you actually like it. Then trying hard will be second nature. This is constantly a work-in-progress for me, but when I’m climbing my best, falling is fun.

Falling off at the Crimp Crux–an experience I was all-too familiar with. Photo Mike Anderson.

34. Write Down Your Beta—Once I started writing beta down, it forced me to really think about how my hips and shoulders were involved in generating movement, and that propelled my technique to a new level. Get into the habit of writing down your beta in narrative form, at least for crux sections. It will help you think through how you’re moving and why. If you have any gaps in your sequence, or limbs that aren’t contributing, that will become immediately apparent.

35. Belief is Essential—Half the benefit of all the endless training sessions I do is convincing myself I can yard on a 1/8” crimp, lock-off a 1-pad mono to my nipple, or link 30 more moves when I’m pumped out of my mind. Remember what you’ve endured in training and take it with you to the crag. The same for working a project. Build belief you can send it by sticking the crux move, doing it again, and then linking through it. It’s ok if you don’t believe at first, you can put in the necessary work to build your confidence over time. But you won’t have a prayer of sending until you really do believe you can.

Belief is essential!

36. Expect Adversity. Every climber will face adversity. How you deal with adversity will determine how close you get to your potential as a climber. That’s true for a given route or for your career as a whole. It’s easy to be psyched and work hard when things are going well. It takes a lot of guts to persevere when everything is breaking against you. The closer you get to your potential, the more adversity you will face. You’ll be closer to your physical limits, and so constantly flirting with injury, illness and burnout. You’ll also need all the external factors to go your way (they rarely will). The good news is that most of my greatest successes came shortly after crushing defeats. The failure showed me what it would take to send and motivated me to work extra hard for the re-match.

37. Don’t Solo—There’s nothing harder than trying to explain to a late-teens/early-20’s male climber that they really don’t know everything, and they really will see the world differently when they (truly) grow up. In the classic Western movie Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s character Will Munny says, “It’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” Consider that when you solo, you aren’t just risking your present life, you’re risking your future life—a life that likely will be filled with joys and wonders you can’t yet imagine (to say nothing of the impact on those who love you). Do the future-you a favor and rope up. Even if you (absurdly) assume climbing is infinitely more valuable than every other part of life combined, think of all the climbing you’ll miss out on if you break your neck. It’s simple math, soloing’s just not worth it.

38. End On A High Note—Whatever your highpoint, be it a new hangboard PR, best onsight or sending a hard project, chances are whatever follows will be a letdown. For many years I would “celebrate” after big sends by attempting to onsight some route I had been longing to climb. I always struggled and I almost never sent. The worst part is that I was then bummed for failing the onsight instead of stoked for sending my much-more-significant project. Eventually I figured out that we don’t get very many “best moments,” so it’s wise to savor them.

39. Be Present—Yoda’s initial evaluation of Luke Skywalker was spot on: “This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing…” Focus on the task at hand, give 100% of yourself to it, whether during a hard send, while training, or life in general. If you’re watching the sunset, open your eyes and absorb every ray of light. During workouts, focus on recovering and prepping for the next set between efforts, rather than staring at text messages. When you’re struggling to figure out a crux sequence, don’t covet the next route over, wondering if it might suit you better. Absorb yourself completely in the route immediately in front of you. Make yourself available to give your best effort.

40. There’s More to Life Than Rock Climbing—I hope everybody has at least one opportunity in life to completely immerse themselves in their passion. I dirt-bagged for a little over a year in my twenties. I’m glad I did. At the time, it felt like the ultimate life, but in hindsight it doesn’t hold a candle to the life I live now. At some point it’s wise to open yourself up to other opportunities. Life will offer a multitude of diverse experiences. Shun none of them. I’ve sacrificed a lot of experiences because I couldn’t skip a workout, or I needed to rest up for a hard redpoint attempt. Looking back on roughly 25 years of this, the thing that strikes me is how few of my memories involve actual climbing. My favorite climbs aren’t the hardest climbs I’ve done, or the climbs that got the most press. The moments that stand out are the places I visited, the wildlife I saw on the approach, and the people I shared it all with.

Mark Anderson Sends Shadowboxing, 5.14d

by Mark Anderson

On Friday, September 23rd, I reached my lifetime sport climbing goal of climbing a 5.14d.  Actually it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a “lifetime goal”, since for the vast majority of my life I never dreamed I’d be capable of climbing a route so hard. That changed last summer.  I was at the International Climber’s Fest in Lander, WY, listening to Ethan Pringle’s inspiring keynote address about his journey to send Jumbo Love.  He spent seven years working the route, including 18 days during the Spring 2015 season in which he eventually sent it.  I had never spent 18 days on any route ever, even spread over multiple seasons or years.

Mark Anderson making the third ascent of Shadowboxing, contender for Rifle's hardest route.

Mark Anderson making the third ascent of Shadowboxing, 5.14d.  Photo Mike Anderson

My takeaway from Ethan’s talk was that I didn’t know the first thing about commitment. Not on the scale that sport climbing’s elite practice it.  I routinely hear tales of top climbers spending scores of days, over many seasons or years, to send their hardest routes.  I had never even tried to do that.  I typically picked projects that I already knew I could send, and expected to do in a single season.  Never once had I clipped the chains on a hard project and thought “that’s the hardest I can climb; I can’t climb any harder”.  Instead I most often felt a deflating “well, that was easy” as I casually finished off my dialed project. Never once had I selected a goal route expecting it would take multiple seasons to send, if I were able to send it at all.  If I wanted to find my true limit, some day I would have to try something hard-enough that the outcome would be uncertain.  To have any chance of succeeding, I would have to commit to an all-out effort despite the very real possibility that it could culminate in utter failure.

I had been enjoying life at 5.14c for a few years.  While I’m still making gains through training, frankly, the pace is glacial.  At 39 years old, it’s unlikely I can count on suddenly becoming a significantly stronger or more powerful climber. If I’m not at my lifetime physical peak, I’m pretty close to it.  Furthermore, I have two young kids, and I don’t want to plan my family’s lives around hard sport climbing for much longer. It was the right time to make an all-out effort, to put my 20+ years of hard-earned knowledge and ability to the test.  I needed a worthy goal.

In the American grade scale “5.14d” may not sound much better than 5.14c, perhaps not worth an extra special, once-in-a-lifetime effort. But most of the world uses the French scale, where 5.14c is “8c+”, and 5.14d is “9a”.  The Ninth Grade is a magical threshold.  Wolfgang Gullich separated himself from the other protagonists of the sport climbing revolution with his ascent of the world’s first 9a, Action Directe.  It’s what every top sport climber around the globe aspires to, and clearly worthy of a special effort.

Shadowboxing climbs the gently overhanging sweep of porcelain limestone directly across from The Eighth Day.

Shadowboxing climbs the gently overhanging sweep of porcelain limestone directly across from The Eighth Day.

After several weeks of research and deliberation, I settled on Rifle’s hardest route, Shadowboxing, a phenomenal, slightly overhanging 40-meter wall of underclings, slopers and edges. The route was originally bolted in the 90’s by Nico Favresse, tried by many, but left to collect dust until Jonathan Siegrist arrived in 2011 to bag the first ascent. This attracted more suitors, until a key hold in the crux crumbled, leaving the route’s status in question. Jonathan eventually re-climbed the line to prove it would still go, but despite attempts by most of Rifle’s best climbers, no further ascents came until Jon Cardwell put it together in August 2015.

That history provided plenty of unnecessary intimidation for me. I don’t have a great track record at Rifle.  I’ve failed there more than at any other crag.  I’m best suited for thin, technical lines where I can stand on my feet and use my tediously cultivated finger strength.  The burly, upper-arm intensive thuggery of Rifle has sent me slinking out of the canyon with my tail between my legs more often than I care to admit. So I decided to give it four days of reconnaissance, and then re-evaluate.  At the end of those four days I was still psyched to continue, and soon after I was hooked.

Shouldery, burly climbing low on the route. Photo Mike Anderson.

I spent 13 days working the route in the Fall of 2015. I made a lot of progress, including many routine “2-hangs” but wasn’t truly close to sending. I did, however, gain some confidence that I could do it, eventually. I returned in May 2016 for another 12 days of frustration stemming from the flu, perpetually wet and seeping rock, broken holds and a tweaked back, ultimately devolving into oppressive heat. Despite my laundry list of excuses, I made significant progress, most notably a handful of one-hang ascents. By mid-June I was failing more often than not about seven hard-but-not-desperate moves from the end of the difficulties. As the summer heat squashed my chances, I could honestly say I was close. But I would need to wait several months for decent conditions to return to the canyon.

Over the summer I trained, adjusting my program so that I would arrive physically ready to send when I returned in September. It worked.  In training I was experiencing the best power of my career simultaneously with the best endurance of my career. Normally those peaks are separated by 4-5 weeks. On my first go back on the route I matched my previous highpoint.  I knew I was physically strong and fit-enough to send, I just needed to re-gain the muscle memory for the route’s 100+ moves.

Thursday night we checked into our hotel, with the Friday forecast showing a 40% chance of rain, mostly before noon. The next morning it was partly cloudy with a scant few sprinkles, but a sickly dark cloud loomed ahead as we approached the crag.  We arrived to a steady rain. Shadowboxing was still dry, except for the last two bolts of 5.10 climbing.  But based on the forecast, we expected the rain to stop within a couple hours, so we decided to wait.  Four hours of hyper-active pacing later, I was pulling out my hair to climb.  The rain seemed to be ebbing, but water streaks had streamed down the top third of the climb, soaking the thin edges and pockets surrounding my previous highpoint.  I decided the day would be a loss anyway, so I might as well get started, regardless of the wetness, figuring I could at least rehearse the lower cruxes in preparation for redpoint attempts on Sunday.

Surprisingly by the time I finished my warmup, the upper panel seemed dry. My first go of the day was solid, resulting in my 8th one-hang, but with some encouraging micro-progress on the “Crimp Crux” that ended the burn (along with the seven previous one-hangs).  The fickle move is a long rock right on a slippery foothold to reach a shallow crimp/pocket.  While certainly difficult, I realized my troubles with this move were more mental than physical.  After failing here so many times, I had trained myself to expect it–to brace for the fall instead of focusing on my execution.  After I fell I rehearsed the move a couple times, making a point to move off the hold as soon as I grabbed it, instead of bouncing and adjusting my grip until I had it latched perfectly.

At the "Crimp Crux", eyeing the shallow crimp/pocket that had eluded me on 8 one-hang ascents.

At the “Crimp Crux”, with my left hand on the “Pinch Plate”, eyeing the shallow crimp/pocket that ended eight redpoint attempts.  Photo Mike Anderson.

I rested about an hour and tied back in for my last attempt of the day. I cruised up the opening slab, over a short roof, then into the business.  I flew past a series of crux holds, each one representing the doubts and tribulations I eventually overcame to master them in previous seasons. I was going well, confident I would reach the rest at two-thirds height.  Once there, I implored myself to try hard and remain focused at the crimp crux–just keep cranking full speed ahead until you fall off.

Eventually I went for it, feeling the first wave of pump doubt about ten moves higher. I kept motoring, paddling my hands and feet toward the Crimp Crux. I stepped up to the hovering, thin panel of rippled limestone, and grabbed the sloping and thin “Pinch Plate” with my left hand.  This time I completely committed to latching the crimp–I tried hard and focused on doing the move correctly.  I hit the shallow crimp–not especially well–but I didn’t care and I didn’t hesitate.  Instead I immediately rolled it up, and proceeded, fully expecting to fall on the next move—a sideways slap to an incut slot—but I didn’t.  The key piece of beta turned out to be: TRY FUCKING HARD.  Don’t give up, and don’t hesitate. If you hit the hold, however badly, just keep going.  Assume you have it good enough, until gravity says otherwise.  That’s not always the right beta, but it was right on that move, on that day.

I had finally done the Crimp Crux from the ground, but there were plenty of hard moves remaining.  I felt pumped but I kept charging. I stabbed for a shallow three-finger pocket and latched it.  As I moved my left foot up to the first of two micro edges, my leg began to shake.  I stepped my right foot up to the next micro edge, and it too began to shake.  I got my feet on as well as I could despite the vibrations, leaned right, and stabbed left for a half-pad two-finger pocket, again  expecting to fall.  I latched it and pulled my trembling right foot up.  Now I hesitated.  The next move was really hard.  While I’d never reached it on redpoint before, I’d had plenty of nightmares about falling off here.  And now there was no denying–I was absolutely pumped.  I took a good look at the target (a 4-finger, incut half-pad edge), settled in my stance, and with zero reluctance I slapped for it, putting 100% effort and concentration into the latch.  I hit it accurately, but I had a lot of outward momentum to stop.  I had it well enough though.  I bounced my fingers on, amazed that I stuck it.

Next I had to high-step my left foot into the incut slot. It felt incredibly hard for a foot move, but I got it on there, somehow.  By now my elbows were sticking straight out. I noticed I wasn’t thumb-catching with my right hand like I ought to, but it seemed too late to correct.  Now the only thing to do was huck for the jug and pray the friction was sufficient to keep me on the wall. Somehow it worked, but I wasn’t home free yet.  I was pumped out of my skull and had one more long throw to do.  As I was wiggling my left hand into the best position on the jug, I could feel the lip crumbling under my fingers.  Not good!  I kept it together despite an evil impulse to give up and jump off (saying take wouldn’t have helped, I was now ten feet above the last draw!).  I squeezed a few fingers of my right hand onto the jug so I could adjust my left hand and clear the new formed debris.  I pulled up into position for the throw and hesitated for an eternity, fruitlessly kicking my flagging left foot around in hope of some purchase.

I felt my momentum fizzling and my hips sag.  As I imagined my pathetic, sorry-excuse-for-a-climber-carcass hurtling towards the ground after failing to even try a 5.9 dyno, I heard, for the first time, the shouts of encouragement from the gallery of climbers warming up at the Project Wall. At my moment of greatest doubt, although not uttered particularly loud, I heard clearly, as though he were standing next to me, Dave Graham* calmly urge “Allez”.  I can’t explain it.  It wasn’t the word but the way he said it–like he was talking to himself, and sincerely wanted me to do it.  That was the difference, and in that moment I chose to do it.  I slapped up and stuck it.

[*the first American to climb Action Directe, and one of the first three to climb 5.15]

The end of Shadowboxing's lower crux section. Photo Mike Anderson.

The end of Shadowboxing’s lower crux section. Photo Mike Anderson.

The desperation of the last sequence and support from below forced an excited “YEAHHH!” out of me once I realized I had the hold. I rested on the jug for a long time, or rather procrastinated, terrified that the 20-feet of climbing remaining, which were exposed to the full fury of the rain, would be wet or covered in silt from the runoff. Although the climbing was only 5.10 in this section, it’s very insecure, balancy climbing on non-positive slopers. In the end it was trivial–the holds were neither wet nor dirty.  I methodically worked up towards the anchor, with no drama, clipping the anchor easily, exclaiming “Wooooohoo!  You’re my bitch Rifle!” –the last word on an up and down love/hate relationship with Rifle.  To have my greatest triumph there, even though it came at an absurd cost, was incredibly satisfying.

And it was my greatest triumph. Obviously, objectively, it’s the hardest rock climb I’ve done. I spent roughly twice as many days on it (28) as any other project, at the time of my physical peak. But the real challenge was mental. Jonathan named the route “Shadowboxing” as a nod to its lack of shade. But the name took on a different meaning for me, the dictionary definition. It became increasingly clear as the process evolved that I was fighting myself. Physically, I was able, but mentally I was not prepared to accept that I was good enough to climb such a hard route. Overcoming that barrier and sticking with it to the end was the most mentally difficult thing I’ve ever done—harder than the Cassin Ridge, finishing a marathon off the couch, Boot Camp, or the endless drudgery and starvation of high school wrestling. Never have I had to persevere through so much persistent failure, so many setbacks, over so many days and multiple seasons. So many times I could have quit, and I would have been well-justified in doing so. But I kept going. Each off-season, I looked at fat Mark in the mirror and wondered if I’d be able to regain my form in time for the next season. Each time I did. The day of the send was a microcosm of the entire campaign. So many things didn’t go perfectly, so many moments of doubt or indecision crept in to derail my focus. But I kept moving towards the goal, and I was rewarded for it.

Falling off at the Crimp Crux--an experience I was all-too familiar with. Photo Mike Anderson.

Falling off at the Crimp Crux–an experience I was all-too familiar with. Photo Mike Anderson.

When I first got to the ground, someone asked how long I’d been working the route, and I said “So long I’m embarrassed to say”.  I am slightly ashamed of how long it took.  From a performance improvement perspective, I’m skeptical that was the best way to spend an entire year of my climbing life, even though that is precisely the experience I signed up for.  Still, despite my excessive sieging, the route never really got any easier.  During the process I (or others) broke at least seven holds that I can remember.  If anything the route got objectively harder.  That difficutly forced me to train far harder, and sacrifice far more than I ever have for a sport climb.  As a result, I got significantly better. I stayed focused and determined despite countless setbacks and distractions.

That’s the great thing about a stretch goal—it forces you to stretch yourself in order to reach it. It wasn’t an experience I enjoyed, but it is was the experience I needed if I wanted to know my limit.  As I clipped the chains, I never once thought “well, that was easy”. Instead, I reflected on how hard I worked over the last year, and marveled at how hard I tried in the moment of truth. I’ve never had to try that hard during a redpoint. I’ve never successfully linked so many consecutive 50/50 moves. I doubt I ever will again. That was a special moment, the culmination of a special year. From the admittedly narrow perspective of this one moment in my life, I can truly say, that is the hardest I can climb.

Below Shadowboxing after the send. Photo Shaun Corpron.

Below Shadowboxing after the send.  I’m told hangboarding doesn’t cause forearm hypertrophy. Someone please tell my camera.  Photo Shaun Corpron.

PS, I have to thank my wife Kate. If you ever wonder how it’s possible for me to climb so much with two small kids, the answer is Kate. She takes up the ample parenting slack that my climbing creates. This project was particularly burdensome. Kate endured interminable belay sessions, interminable rest days, and my interminable whining over every little setback. I simply could not have done it without her. Thanks also to my brother Mike who constantly pushes me to be better than I ever think I’m capable of (and for the photos and belays). Thanks to Trango for supporting me despite a year of meager results, to Shaun Corpron for the belays, and to all my friends on the Rock Prodigy Forum who shared their wisdom and support with me.

The Beta

by Mark Anderson

Fred Gomez cool and collected on his send of Smooth Boy, 13b, Smith Rock, OR.

Fred Gomez cool and collected on his send of Smooth Boy, 13b, Smith Rock, OR.

Last week I had to upgrade to a new binder for my training records.  The old one was full.  This is actually my fourth or fifth binder.  My first binder was just an old manila folder.  The oldest sheet in my binder is a hangboard log for a workout I did in June 2003.  I was training before that time, but either I did not write down what I did, or (more likely) I misplaced those records.  Since that first workout I’ve added 347 more hangboard sheets–one for each workout, plus an inch or so worth of campus, ARC, Linked Bouldering Circuit and Supplemental Exercise sheets.

The oldest hard-copy sheet I have, for a hangboard workout in June 2003.

The oldest hard-copy sheet I have, for a hangboard workout in June 2003.

After a few seasons of training, I upgraded to my first three-ring binder: red, 1”-thick with D-rings (super plush!).  This most recent binder is 3” thick and lasted me almost a decade, but now it’s bursting.  My new binder is 4” thick, but I think I’m going to split my records into two binders—one for hangboard logs, one for everything else—so I don’t have to keep moving it between the barn and my hangboard room, and to increase capacity in each binder.  Hopefully this approach will last me through the next decade.

This is what perseverance looks like. Each blue tab represents a season of training, although I’m slacking on adding tabs—the most recent one is from Fall 2012.

This is what stubbornness looks like. Each blue tab represents a season of training, although I’m slacking on adding tabs—the most recent one is from Fall 2012.

One of the most common questions heard at the crag is “what’s the beta…?” or “how did you do that one move?”  Well, if you ask me, here is my answer—in the many chalk-dust-covered pages of those creaking binders.  In other words, the beta is: do lots of thinking and lots of hard work.  Do a little bit of each of those things every week.  Then continue that month after month, season after season, year after year.  Keep doing it.  Do it  even when you don’t really feel like doing it.  Every page in that binder represents a decision point:  whether to do what is presently the most satisfying, or to invest temporary discomfort in the hope of future returns. Training is a ‘long con’–you will not see results in one week, or one month. There is no quick pay-off or silver bullet.  You have to keep at it for years.  It may be monotonous, it certainly isn’t glamorous and it often isn’t fun.  But if you do stick with it, if you follow through, you will be rewarded.

And that—with all sincerity—is how I did ‘that one move’.

Anderson Brothers Interview at PaleoTreats

Anderson Brothers thinking about training.

Anderson Brothers thinking about training.

Earlier this week Mike and I were invited on Nik Hawks’ podcast over at PaleoTreats.  PaleoTreats is a web-based mail order company that makes delicious and nutritious desserts for active and health-conscious folks.  In their own words,

“…We’ve been making foodie-approved Paleo desserts since 2009. We are serious about flavor, texture, ingredients and Paleo. Yes, all of them. We’ve shipped around the world, from Australia to Afghanistan, and we’ve ironed out all the kinks of getting a great dessert to your door.”

Nik’s podcast isn’t really about that though.  He’s interviewed an impressively diverse group of folks covering the gamut from elite athletes, to coaches and nutrition experts, focused on a wide variety of sports.  He’s really interested in the pursuit of excellence, and the common factors that make athletes successful, regardless of their athletic vocation.  Our podcast covered a variety of topics, including:

  • Goal-Setting in life and sports
  • How to develop the ability to work hard in yourself and your kids
  • The time and place for skill development in climbing
  • What we’re most proud of (in a training sense), and what we would change about the RCTM
  • How self-esteem (or lack thereof) has impacted our motivation and success
  • The next big innovations in climbing training

(Pretty much the only thing we didn’t talk about is food)

Check out the podcast here!

This photo has nothing to do with the adjacent text. Sticking the crux dyno on Nailed It, 12d, at the Sterling Wall.

This photo has nothing to do with this blog post. Sticking the crux dyno on Nailed It, 12d, at the Sterling Wall.

More New Routes and the Paradox of the First Ascent

After I finished Born on the 4th of July there were two more unclimbed lines remaining at The Bunker. The first, dubbed “Charlie Don’t Surf” by Rock Climbing Clear Creek Canyon author Kevin Capps, was one of the five lines bolted by the crag’s original clandestine developer. It was presumed to be un-sent. The other was a line I bolted at the end of last summer, the last obvious line at the crag—a directissima climbing straight up the center of the cave between Valkyrie and Full Metal Jacket.

Charlie Don’t Surf

Charlie Don’t Surf

With Born finished, my next priority was Charlie. I attempted Charlie many times over several days in June 2014. It was the route that first lured me up to The Bunker, rumored to be 5.14, and with the best rock of the legacy lines. The route is fairly short, beginning with big jugs on gradually steepening rock. There’s a steep bulge at mid-height, where a finger-tip seam emerges, running vertically, eventually flaring into a big right-facing corner. The left face of the corner is composed of brilliant quartzite, laced with incut dinner plate jugs (this is where Apoca-Lips Now! joins Charlie).

Charlie Don’t Surf is the on the left, the new addition is on the right.

Charlie Don’t Surf is the on the left, the new addition is on the right.

The climbing is probably in the 5.11 or low 5.12-range, except for the steep bulge in the middle. The rock is starkly unfeatured over this steep, 6-foot section. The obvious feature is the seam, which is flaring and slick, with rounded edges. It offers few useful fingerlocks, all of which are incredibly painful due to a sharp-edged layer of patina coating the crack walls precisely at cuticle depth. There are a few face features, but they are well-spaced.

Attempting Charlie in June 2014.

Attempting Charlie in June 2014.

I was never even close to doing the route last summer, but I felt there were just enough features that the route should go. I was no longer in top shape by that point, and conditions were on the warm side, so I decided to leave the route for a later time, when I was fit and the rock was cool. As I suspected, when I tried the route this spring, with a fresh perspective, better fitness, and crisp conditions I was able to suss a new sequence and put it together over the course of three days.  Situations like this always leave me scratching my head over the grade. I typically grade things based on the time it takes me to send, which I believe is the typical method. However, if some portion of that time is spent on a dead end, how should those days be counted?

Finishing up the brilliant quartzite panel on the first free ascent.

Finishing up the brilliant quartzite panel on the first free ascent.

The current trend seems to favor only considering the physical difficulty in the grade, ignoring any technical skill or creativity required to solve the movement puzzle (especially now that beta for everything under the sun is easily found on Youtube). First Ascensionists aside, there is no way to know who has made the effort to deduce a sequence, and who has scammed it from someone else, so how can such effort be rewarded in the grade? Yet once you pare away the skill element, all that remains to consider is the bare minimum amount of strength required to execute the moves (with perfect beta, which required no effort to attain). Free climbers have been struggling with this conundrum for decades. It explains why uber-beta-dependent crags like Smith Rock seem sandbagged, and mindless jug-hauling crags (pick one) seem soft. Regardless, it strikes me as a sad state of affairs, and I can’t help but feel like we are failing to capture an essential element of climbing difficulty. I long for the simpler, pre-internet days of John Gill, John Bachar and Jerry Moffatt:

I was trying a Bachar problem at Cap Rock one day and getting nowhere. The man shows up.

‘This is hard, John, how do you do it?’

He wouldn’t tell me.

‘What? What do you mean you won’t tell me?’

He wouldn’t tell me. Bachar reckoned he had got this trait from John Gill; never tell anyone how to do a problem. Let them figure it out, because it’s part of the problem. I kept trying different methods and getting nowhere. All the time Bachar stood there in silence, watching me flail. I couldn’t believe it. A few days later I was there again with a friend of Bachar’s, Mike Lechlinski.

‘Oh yeah,’ Mike said. ‘Bachar hooked a heel around the corner there.’

I tried it. With the heel hooked, supporting some of my weight, the holds all worked, and I soon did the problem. Later that week, I went up there again. Chris was there. He had heard me talk about the problem and had fancied a go.

‘Hi Jerry. How do you do this, I can’t quite work it out?’

‘Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, Chris.’


I wouldn’t tell him. What an idiot. Sorry Chris. It was the only time we fell out in six and a half months.

– Jerry Moffat, Revelations p. 62-3

I happily accept that a more difficult climbing experience is part of the first ascent process, but it doesn’t solve my practical desire to select a grade that will capture the effort required, and yet stand the test of time. So with this massive, spineless caveat, I estimate the bare minimum amount of strength required to execute the moves is typical of that required by many a short, bouldery 5.14a. Don’t expect it to feel so “easy” if the periodic seepage washes away my chalk marks and you have to suss the sequence yourself 🙂

Next I moved on to the final un-finished route in the cave. When I put in the bolts I knew it would be good. The rock is great, and I expected it would yield a hard, continuous line, perhaps in the 14a-range. After a brief slab approach, the route stems up an overhanging corner to a good ledge rest. The business begins just above, with big reaches, kneebars, a few dynos and even a handjam to clear a series of steep overlaps. After this section you get another great rest below a 12-foot, curved ceiling. The ceiling is the kinda thing I used to abhor, but now quite enjoy, requiring huge, committing moves, funky footwork and a fair bit of inverted crawling. It seems that just about every move on this route is hard enough to be interesting, and yet there are no stopper moves. Despite a number of great rests along the route, the pump builds and builds throughout, culminating in an exciting finish on slopey jugs, in a stratospheric position.

Pulling through the sustained overlap section at mid-height.

Pulling through the sustained overlap section at mid-height.

On my first attempt I sussed all the sequences fairly quickly, which left me a bit disappointed. This is the grand paradox of the first ascensionist. When attempting to climb an existing route, the grade is essentially a fixed quantity. When you begin the project, you typically have an idea of how long the campaign should take, based on your past experience with routes of the same grade. If you send more quickly than you expected, you feel like a rock star, with the satisfying feeling that you must have improved recently, and are now a better climber than you realized. If the send takes more time than expected, you wallow in self-pity over your pathetic skill and fitness 🙂 Most grade-chasers (myself included) are constantly developing and re-enforcing this ego-gratifying mindset, which encourages us to pull out all the stops to send things as quickly as possible.

The first ascent situation is completely reversed. You have no (legitimate) preconception of the grade when you begin the campaign. It is totally undefined, and as discussed earlier, will be determined largely based on the amount of time required to send. The longer it takes to send, the better justification you have for proposing a high grade. So if you want the route to be hard, the longer it takes, the better.

Sticking a long dyno near the start.

Sticking a long dyno near the start.

This is a major advantage of new-routing. If your underlying desire is to constantly improve, then you should seek challenges, and revel in encountering them, but the standard route-repeating mindset is at odds with this attitude. When trying to repeat routes as quickly as possible, if you encounter a route that is more challenging than anticipated, you are often disappointed when you realize the route will take more time and effort than expected (possibly impacting other plans for the season). That mild disappointment is harmful enough, but it gets worse. Occasionally we go way out of our way to select routes we expect to be less challenging because we want to increase the odds of an ego-pleasing quick send. So while we should be seeking challenges, we sometimes make it a point to avoid them.

Beginning the final obstacle, a 12-foot concave belly-shaped roof.

Beginning the final obstacle, a 12-foot concave belly-shaped roof.

Conversely, when I’m doing a new route, with no grade attached or pre-conceived notion of how long the effort should take, I’m genuinely happy to find the route is more challenging than expected. “A hard route is good to find”, I frequently remind myself. It’s a much more constructive approach to the redpoint process, but it has the potential to inspire less than optimal effort towards completing the first ascent, assuming you want your first ascents to have relatively “hard” grades, which I certainly do (for example, one might drag their feet during the redpoint process so they can later say, “this took X days, therefore it must be at least Y grade”).

The Zen-Climber would not care what the grade ends up being. He would make an honest effort throughout the process, and let the grade take care of itself. But we all know certain grades are just plain better than others. The local 12a gets way more traffic than the 11d next door. And so it goes for 12d/13a and 13d/14a. All first ascensionists want their routes to be popular, and it’s a simple fact that the d’s don’t get the same attention as the a’s. I surely make too much of this distinction, but once you’ve put up enough 13d’s it becomes hard to ignore.

Groping for better holds near the top of the cave.

Groping for better holds near the top of Fury.

I can’t claim to be a Zen climber, but I will say that the ego-gratifying, send-as-fast-as-possible mentality has been so firmly pounded into my skull that I couldn’t “throw” a redpoint attempt if I wanted to. Once I’m on the sharp end, a different Hulk-Mark takes over and my conscious self is just along for the spectacular view. So for better or worse, I sent Fury on my second go (over two days), resulting in what could not be fairly called any harder than 13d (and may end up at ‘c’), no matter how badly I wanted it to be 5.14a.

Despite this mild (and undeniably shallow) disappointment over the grade, I was completely stoked on Fury’s quality. It’s a mega line, long and sustained, with heaps of interesting movement, great rock, and a peerless position. It’s a great addition to the canyon—easily one of the best 5.13+’s—and one of the best lines I’ve discovered.

Topo of The Bunker with “my“ routes highlighted in yellow.

Topo of The Bunker with “my“ routes highlighted in yellow.


Germany Part II: Getting Blasted!

Editor’s Note: This is Part II in way-too-many-part series on Mark’s trip to Germany.  If you missed Part I you can check it out here.

The next day was our first sight-seeing day, which we spent visiting a trio of so-called “Medieval Villages”. Nördlingen, Dinkelsbühl, and Rothenberg have been fastidiously preserved to maintain the look and feel of a walled city from the middle ages. The narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets are lined with quaint buildings and Gothic churches from as far back as the 1300’s. By dumb luck it so happened that each village seemed more interesting than the last, culminating in Rothenberg’s elaborate fortifications.

Wandering around Dinkelsbuhl, which is “impossibly charming” according to Lonely Planet. We agreed.

Wandering around Dinkelsbuhl, which is “impossibly charming” according to Lonely Planet. We agreed.

Kate, Logan, and Amelie peeping through the city walls of Dinkelsbuhl (look closely).

Kate, Logan, and Amelie peeping through the city walls of Dinkelsbuhl (look closely at the window closest to center).

The family exploring Rothenberg.

The family exploring Rothenberg.

The highlight for Logan was running along the top of the fortress walls. I was looking forward to a taste of the famous “Schneeballen” (snowballs) pastries: strips of dough balled-up, fried, and coated in various frosting or powdered sugar. Structurally these are impressively tough, and so the beta for eating these treats is to smash them up into crumbs inside the bag, and then eat the crumbs. Most shops have a hammer on-hand for this purpose, and Logan was quite keen to help with the smashing (and eating). They looked delicious, but the taste turned out to be fairly bland and dry. I didn’t go back for seconds.



After getting worked on Wallstreet, I had a consolation prize in mind. I was stoked to visit a free-standing limestone tower called Rabenfels (“Raven’s Rock”). My first exposure to the Frankenjura, some 15 years ago, was a 90’s climbing film by Michael Strassman titled “Rock”. The film follows Hans Florine to Arco, Italy in 1994 to defend his World Speed Climbing title. Along the way he visits the Frankenjura, the Dolomites and Elbsandstein climbing areas. One scene shows Austrian Wolfgang Leeb climbing a 5.13b called Westside Story on an otherworldly limestone pinnacle.  Leeb tops out the route, then casually plops down on a hand-made bench on the summit!  I thought the tower looked beautiful, and for some reason I got a real kick out of the bench gag. I really wanted to climb something on Rabenfels (and find out if the bench is still there).

The southeast aspect of Rabenfels.

The southeast aspect of Rabenfels.

In 1986, after a winter spent writing the landmark Sportklettern Heute, Wolfgang Gullich left his mark on Rabenfels with his ascent of Ghettoblaster, hailed as the first upper-tenth grade route in Germany, and one of the hardest routes in the world at the time (Gullich had established Punks in the Gym, the first X+ or 5.14a precisely 51 weeks earlier). Ghettoblaster follows a streak of 1-pad deep water pockets up a 6-meter stretch of 25-degree overhanging limestone on the west face of Rabenfels.

Ghettoblaster (with the green rope) climbs the steep west face of Rabenfels.

Ghettoblaster (with the green rope) climbs the steep west face of Rabenfels.

Ghettoblaster was my back-up plan, but I was more than a little intimidated by it, especially after my experiences over the first two days. According to Gullich’s biography, around the time of its first ascent, prolific Frankenjura route developer Mylan Sykora said that Ghettoblaster “was a route on which no other German climber [besides Gullich] had even the slightest chance.” This was apparently due to the extremely powerful crux, a huge lock-off/deadpoint between a pair of monos. I love pocket climbing, and I love monos, but I’m really not all that good at climbing on them.  That is to say, pocket climbing is not really one of my strengths. I’m much better on crimps and technical sequences than I am with pure pocket power. Sykora’s assessment gnawed at me. Would I have the finger strength to do this move? Maybe the Frankenjura style of climbing was way over my head.

Belayer’s view of Ghettoblaster, which follows the pink fixed draws up the right margin of the gray streak.

Belayer’s view of Ghettoblaster, which follows the pink fixed draws up the right margin of the gray streak.

We showed up bright and early on Tuesday morning. We were finally adjusted to the European timezone, and we were anxious to get going because we had a long drive planned for the afternoon (for two days of sightseeing in the Bavarian Alps). The tower was big and ominous, but the surrounding landscape was much different from what I pictured in my head. The pillar extended from a steep hill, and the back or north side of it was surrounded by dense forest. The south side was clear-cut some time ago by the industrious and prolific Franconian logging industry, and was now partially re-grown.



We dropped our packs below some moderate-looking lines, and I scrambled around the corner to locate Ghettoblaster. It looked stellar, but much shorter than I imagined. The tower is maybe only 50 feet tall at the west buttress. The first 20 feet was a slab and the last 10 was easy scrambling up the cap rock. This was going to be bouldery for sure! The forest was quite damp, but the route looked completely dry. Unfortunately the cliff base was super muddy and steeply sloping—no place for kids—but higher up, maybe only 30 feet away, I found a covered hiker’s shelter, the perfect playground for the kids.

The perfect hang for Logan and Amelie. Amelie (in the red on the lower right) is practicing her favorite pastime: climbing up and down stairs. Logan is mesmerized by the Kindle.

The perfect hang for Logan and Amelie. Amelie (in the red on the lower right) is practicing her favorite pastime: climbing up and down stairs. Logan is mesmerized by the Kindle.

We did a number of outstanding warmups on the south and east faces of the tower, including a 3-star 5.11 named Katalysator and a Kurt Albert 12a called Auerbacher Weg. Both routes consisted of long glorious cranks between sinker pockets. Something about this place was special—all the routes seemed to be fantastic. The rock was much more featured than the other crags we had visited, the position was great, and we had the whole place to ourselves (that turned out to be the norm for our trip). It has a slightly adventurous feel with the looming summit, and it was one of my favorite crags of the trip.

Warming up on the classic Katalysator. Auerbacher Weg is immediately to the right.

Warming up on the classic Katalysator. Auerbacher Weg is immediately to the right.

Once I was ready we moved the crew around to the northwest side of the tower and I jumped on Ghettoblaster. After a slabby and then somewhat technical start, the difficulties hit abruptly as the wall kicks back. The climbing is in your face, with burly cranks on shallow, sometimes sharp pockets. This was still only my third day on real rock since early July, and it was clear that I wasn’t mentally ready to try hard on sharp, tweaky holds. Perhaps this timid attitude contributed to my earlier shortcomings. I was struggling just to get established on the overhanging panel, and I realized I needed an attitude shift. I needed to get aggro. I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore the pain. I knew I was strong enough to do these moves, I just needed to try harder.

The intense opening moves of Ghettoblaster.

The intense opening moves of Ghettoblaster.

It seemed to work, or maybe I just needed a bit more warmup, but whatever the case, I started going for it more, committing to moves, and as a result my accuracy improved and I was suddenly latching pockets that I previously struggled to reach. I worked out the lower bit and was soon at the crux. The sequence is pretty straightforward. From a good stance at a pair of two-finger pockets, with the third bolt at chest level, you make a big reach right to a good two-finger, stand up, and then place your left middle finger into a deep, but not terribly positive mono. Hike up your feet, grab a shallow intermediate 2-finger with your right hand, hike up your feet again until your hips are about level with your left hand, and then stab at full extension into the high mono pocket, which is also deep but neutral.

Beginning the crux with a static reach to a left hand mono.

Beginning the crux with a static reach to a left hand mono.

If you stick that move, you shouldn’t fall. After matching your left hand to a shallow two finger pocket, you have to make a desperate slap to a horizontal break, but it’s a good hold. From there, jugs lead to the anchor, just below the cap rock.With the beta sussed, I took a break, watched uselessly while Kate fed the kids lunch, and went through the beta in my mind. There were a lot of tough, low percentage moves just to reach the crux. It was a boulder problem, but it was a fairly continuous one. Honestly, I would be lucky just to reach the crux.

Setup for the crux move:  a big deadpoint between monos.

Setup for the crux move.

Eventually it was time to go again. I waltzed up the scoop to a good stance just below the steep wall. I took some deep breaths and summoned my inner rage. With my jaw clenched, I launched up the wall, climbing with controlled fury. It was perfect. I hit every hold just right. My skin was screaming—I felt the pain, but I didn’t let it affect me. I just kept trucking, moving from one bad hold to the next. I couldn’t hang out on these holds, but I could just barely scratch and claw my way past them. I reached the crux, bounced in my left hand, stood up high, and slow-motion stabbed precisely into the pocket. I bounced, matched and slapped to the horizontal break. YES!

Latching the high mono.

Latching the high mono.

Once I clipped the anchor I continued up onto a vegetated ledge. There’s a 5.8-ish route to the summit of the tower on the north side, but it was soaking wet, so this was my big chance to top out. There’s no gear past the anchor, so I gingerly ran it out up wet holds and bushes. Twenty feet above my last piece of pro I mantled onto the summit. The bench was still there! The backrest was missing, but I took a brief sit and admired the view. It was the perfect place to be.

Screen grab of Wolfgang Leeb on the summit of Rabenfels, from the film "Rock".

Screen grab of Wolfgang Leeb on the summit of Rabenfels, from the 1996 Michael Strassman film “Rock“. Note the vintage wardrobe: Boreal Vectors, skin tight shorts, tank top, and mullet!

Check back soon for Germany Part III: Chasing Waterfalls

It’s All Semantics

How often have you visited a climbing forum and stumbled upon an endless debate over some trivial matter like the definition of “is”?  It seems that many of us would rather argue about training terminology than actually train.  This pre-occupation with semantics can be a real distraction from the truly important matters (like the phone number for Rock and Resole), and yet, some questions come up again and again:

  • What is the real definition of “power”?  The physics definition doesn’t seem to fit the physiology definition–which is correct?
  • Are isometric contractions really isometric?
  • Is campus training “truly plyometric”?  

Many of us (myself included) have fallen victim to this mentality in the past.  Maybe the problem is that proper climbing training requires so much recovery and down-time that all us training fiends have nothing better to do than argue about this nonsense 🙂

Castle Valley, Utah

This photo won’t make you a better climber, but it sure is nice to look at.  Castle Valley, Utah, Photo Mike Anderson.

Regardless, the answer to all these questions and many others is a resounding: WHO CARES!?  None of these things have any bearing on the practical matter of how you should train!  When consider such questions, only one thing matters:  will doing [suggested training activity] make me a better climber?  No amount of arguing grammar, spelling, syntax or word use will make you one bit better as a climber.  To improve, you need to do some work.  And no, I don’t mean the Physics definition of work (= Force x Distance).  I mean the good ol’ fashioned kind that predates even Sir Isaac Newton.

We all know what we mean when we talk about climbing power.  We all know that relative to a bicep curl, a dead hang is isometric, and it’s pretty darn close–definitely close enough–to what we do over and over again on the rock.  It doesn’t matter if campusing is “plyometric” or “gullichometric”.  “Plyometric” is a made up word used to describe an arbitrary category of exercise.  All that matters is that it works for climbers, and so you should do it! 

I like to say that sports physiology is a lot like religion.  We all agree on 98% of the dogma, but we fight endless crusades over the 2% we disagree on.  That is silly.  If you’re following any kind of training program, documenting your results, and making adjustments, you’re head and shoulders above the vast majority.  Don’t waste so much energy obsessing over which program is the best.  There is no single approach that is optimal for everybody.  Find something that works for you and tweak it as you learn more about how your body responds to training.  If you sit around waiting for armies of scientists to definitively prove which training method is ideal, you will never get anything done.  Your great-great-grandkids will be long dead before that happens.

The work being done by Sports Physiologists is certainly important, and it is certainly worth some attention.  New theories need to be tested, but there are just too many variables in climbing to expect exact transference of studies being done on athletes in the big money sports.  Anyway, it’s highly doubtful some Silver Bullet set/rep/rest protocol is going to turn you into Adam Ondra overnight.  Even if a study “proves” this or that (which never happens anyway), the “proven” method may still not work for you.  You will still need to try it out for yourself to see if it works for your body.  The vast majority of the time, things that really work have been used for decades by athletes in many sports.  These methods were discovered and refined by athletes themselves, through trial and error, not by a scientist toiling away in a lab.  If you want to find the secret to optimizing your training, get out to your gym and try something new!  Document your results and let us know how it goes.  That is the best way to discover new information, not reading Physiology Journals or arguing on internet forums.

Three cheers for Eva Lopez, Dave Mcleod, Doug Hunter, Eric Horst, Udo Neumann, Wolfgang Gullich, and Tony Yaniro!  Hooray for anybody who is out there trying new things and sharing their findings.  I like the Rock Prodigy program because it works for me.  I know that it works for many other people too, and it might work for you.  But there are other programs out there that work too.  That’s great!  Shop around if you like, try a few different things, and find something that works for you.  If you’re satisfied with the results, then stick with it, that’s awesome!  As long as you’re doing something pre-meditated and you’re tracking your efforts, you’re way ahead of the curve.

Reflections on the Time Value of Climbing Ability

Readers of the RCTM should by now be familiar with our concept “The Time Value of Climbing Ability” (if not, you can read about it on page 12). In a nutshell, the more you improve, the easier climbs at a given grade become to send, and therefore, you can send them more quickly. So if you invest your time in improving, rather than investing that time in trying to send, the resulting improvement will payoff in the ability to send much more quickly in the future. This may sound simple and obvious, but lately I’ve noticed that some really smart climbers have trouble embracing this concept.

Smith Rock.

Smith Rock.

For many climbers, the unrestrained desire to climb all the time will be their undoing. This becomes particularly apparent when injuries and rehabilitation are involved, but rehabbing from an injury and improving are really just different ends of the same spectrum. Imagine “Jake” has a minor ligament strain in his ring finger. Jake also has a road trip scheduled for early fall. Laying out his training schedule it becomes clear that he won’t be in shape for his fall road trip unless he compresses his re-hab and skips all the extra rest days his Physical Therapist recommended. So that’s what he does, and three weeks in his “minor” ligament strain is now a minor tear, and a major bummer. It will take Jake 6 months to get healthy again, assuming he’s ever able to find the patience he couldn’t muster a few weeks ago.

That’s hypothetical but I see it all the time in real climbers (and in myself). We have a short-term goal that we are obsessed with. In the grand scheme of our career, it’s just another route, but at present it’s the most important thing in the world. Often there really is no sane reason for this single-mindedness, but we want to have it all so we push and push until something snaps. The irony of this is that what seems really important and life-changing in the present often seems far less significant with the passage of time.

My first Smith Rock 5.12 was the “first pitch” of a route called Heinous Cling (aka “Lower Heinous”), front and center in the legendary “Dihedrals”. I first attempted this route many times on toprope over the summers of 1995 and ’96. Once I was onto the training thing, I returned in 2001 and eventually sent after several days of work. It was a big deal for me. I had done a couple other routes that might be 5.12, but this was the first I had done that was solid at the grade. Also it was at Smith, a crag I revered above all others.

In 2007 I was at Smith to work Scarface. Each day before heading over to the base of my project, I stopped off at the Dihedrals to run up Lower Heinous for my daily warmup. I’ve probably done the climb more than 30 times by now, and I’ve done nearly 700 5.12s. Thinking back to the time I spent struggling and fretting over my first few 5.12s makes me laugh. If I only I had known how trivial it would become with time.

I’m not saying that such ascents are meaningless. We all need to go through the process of slaying these dragons, building confidence to try harder climbs, as well as learning better strategy and tactics as we overcome the struggle (and accept the occasional failure). Furthermore, the joy of striving towards and achieving a goal is essential to fueling further effort and progression. I wouldn’t be where I am now had I not gone through the process of selecting, training for, and achieving short-term goals time and again. It’s a delicate balance, made more precarious by the influence of our Egos and our desire to constantly exceed our abilities. I’ve certainly found myself on the wrong side of the equation at various times, and in some cases I’ve paid a hefty price for my lack of patience.

My first 5.13, Goliath, took six climbing days and the better part of the season.

My first 5.13, Goliath, took six climbing days and the better part of the season.

If you find yourself constantly sacrificing your long-term interests in favor of the climbing opportunities immediately in front of you, you may very well be undermining your own development. This can manifest itself in many ways. For some climbers, its perpetually selecting slightly too-hard redpoint projects that devolve into mutli-week or even multi-season campaigns of downward-spiraling fitness and motivation .   Other climbers love climbing so much that they sacrifice recovery periods. They think a little bit of “easy” climbing on a rest day, or before a workout, won’t hurt. As a result, they carry a little bit too much fatigue from one workout to the next, permitting only mediocre effort during the workout, culminating in lackluster improvement. [Perhaps that little bit of extra climbing is worth it. That’s a personal question, but I would say certainly not! There are other ways to have your cake and eat it too. For example, carve out a week at the end of your Performance Phase for these less demanding objectives. Then when it’s time to train your can really focus on training.]

It’s taken me a while to get to this place, but these days I’m rarely in a hurry.  I know I’m always improving, so the longer I wait to attempt a goal route, the easier it will be.  Sometimes I want a more difficult challenge, or I want to reach for something that is a bit beyond me (or more often I mistakenly think something is closer to my grasp than it really is), so in those situations I will be more aggressive.  But most of the time, I’m quite content to focus my energy on the day-to-day task of getting just a little bit better every day, waiting for my goals to come to me.

Don’t be in such a hurry. Take the long view. Chances are you have many good years ahead of you. Use the time you have right now in such a way that will produce the most results in the long term. If you stick to your plan, follow through with diligence, the results will come. Whatever route or boulder problem you’re stressing over at this moment, don’t worry about it. It’ll come together, and then eventually it’ll become a cooldown, and then maybe even a warmup. One day you will marvel that you ever thought it was hard.

Trainer to the JStars: Part 2

This is part 2 in a two-part series about our experience (so far) training Pro Climber Jonathan Siegrist.  You can check out “Trainer to the JStars: Part 1″ here.

We had learned quite a bit the first time around, and by the end of his first cycle, Jonathan was training completely independently, though occasionally asking the odd question about this or that exercise, or schedule tweak. For his second cycle we knew he would need very little hands-on coaching, but we helped design his training schedule to ensure his performance peak would coincide with his spring climbing trip.  That timing can be very tricky to optimize, especially for athletes who are new to periodic training, and don’t have years of detailed training schedules to pull from.  Once we developed a good training schedule, he embraced the program whole-heartedly and required very little direction. That’s one of the reasons Jonathan is such a great athlete to work with. He’s not a robot, he wants to be in charge of his training. He questions everything and wants to know why we do things a certain way. It’s really been a collaboration, and we’ve all learned a tremendous amount as a result.

Quote5By mid-March, Jonathan had begun training for his spring objective: the world’s most legendary 5.15, Realization (aka Biographie), at the mega-crag Ceuse, in France. The route is long, climbing overhanging 2 and 3 finger pockets up a beautiful blue streak of limestone. Recently a hold broke on the opening boulder problem, raising the difficulty of this crimpy section from “V8” to “V11”. [Editor’s note: when Jonathan describes the grade of something, it’s often helpful to add a number or two to get an accurate sense of the difficulty.] This section was really difficult the last time Jonathan tried the route so we wanted to make sure his crimp strength was at its best. To optimize Jonathan’s chances, he would need improved power, excellent pocket strength, and elite fitness.

The Ceuse Massif.  Likely the best chunk of exposed limestone on the planet.

The Ceuse Massif. Likely the best chunk of exposed limestone on the planet. Photo Mark Anderson

Jonathan returned to Boulder at the end of March to focus on his training. He completed several weeks of hangboard training and supplemental exercises, with some indoor bouldering and route climbing mixed in. At the conclusion of his Strength Phase, he did a two-week Power Phase of Limit Bouldering and Campusing.

Jonathan filling out his logsheet during a winter  training session in Las Vegas.

Jonathan filling out his logsheet during a winter training session in Las Vegas.

Jonathan arrived in France in late April. The initial period was extremely exciting. We received weekly updates on his progress, moments of minor success, and various setbacks related to weather, departing partners, and skin. He made huge progress right off the bat.   He was crushing the initial boulder problem, and by his third day he was climbing into the redpoint crux.   Jonathan described this as a 7-move “V8” (ya right!), requiring accurate movement between intricate 3-finger pockets. This section would prove to be the key to the route.

Quote6By the end of the second week, he was climbing to the last move of this boulder problem, but his skin was seriously suffering. The weather was also extremely uncooperative. One of the cool things about training is that it provides you with a clear record of your improvement. Even if you’re unable to send your goal route (because the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can’t get partners, or some other factor you can’t control conspires against you), your training logs provide quantifiable evidence of your improvement. Still, we’d all prefer to send anyway!

Realization is located on the Sector Biographie, which is the tallest and steepest section of cliff near the center of the photo.

Realization is located on the Sector Biographie, which is the tallest and steepest section of cliff near the center of the photo.

At this point I would wake up anxiously every morning and run to my Gmail hoping to find a “just sent!” message from France. I was on pins and needles, following his Twitter feed, hoping for any update or hint of his progress. I wanted so badly for him to send after watching all the hard work he had put in, but I felt totally helpless. By the end of May you could sense his frustration with the project. He had gotten so close so quickly, and then everything seemed to turn against him. I knew he could do it if he stuck with it, but how long can someone persevere in the face of so much adversity, especially when they’re surrounded by lifetimes of world class routes to distract them from their goal?

Quote7As the calendar flipped to June, I gave up hope. I was actually pretty bummed about it. I felt like I had failed somehow, like I messed up the training plan in some way. Considering his initial success, it seemed in retrospect that he had peaked too early, and that was on me. I didn’t realize how harsh the weather would be when he first arrived, so I wanted him ready to crush from day one.

Then on the morning of June 2nd I opened my inbox and saw this: “Hey guys! I imagine you’ve seen, but I sent Biographie yesterday. It was a long and emotional ride – as I expected. In the end my skin was battered, but I was well rested. I honestly think that despite how terribly frustrating my skin issues were, that it was important to my success because I NEVER would have rested so much if my skin was good to go. Thanks so so much for all of your help over the last few months. I certainly owe a percentage of credit to you guys for the motivation and training advice – so thanks.” [You can get more details and Jonathan’s perspective on his ascent here and here.]

I was strangely euphoric for several days after. I feel like there are many pro climbers out there who just lucked into their success, either through amazing genetic gifts, parents who supported their climbing from an early age, or some mystery formula I haven’t figured out. Jonathan is not one of those guys. He works extremely hard. More than that, he searches for solutions. He leaves no stone unturned in his quest to improve. He uses his mind along with his muscles to make himself better. Watching him go through this transformation over the past eight months, watching him make sacrifices and give up things he loved (like running), I feel like he really earned this—he deserved it—and I was so happy to see him get the big payoff. Since his send, Jonathan has been on a rampage, sending a 14c/d, 14c, two 14bs, and two 14a’s (including a 14a flash). I’m sure there is more to come before he returns to the States in July.

As this initial phase of our collaboration comes to an end, Jonathan is poised to re-shape the American climbing scene. He’s still only just now learning how to get the most from his training. I’m certain he will be getting substantially stronger in the coming years, and it’s a tremendous honor to have played a minor part in that.

Note: If you haven’t already heard it, we highly recommend Jonathan’s Podcast interview with Neely Quinn on Jonathan talks extensively about his collaboration with us and the results of his new training approach. The podcast was the source of many of Jonathan’s quotes in this article.

*All quotes are from Jonathan’s personal correspondence, blog posts, and the interview with Neely Quinn.


Trainer to the JStars: Part 1 – New Post on!

Check out my new post on “Trainer to the JStars – Part 1″ over at

“Over the past six months we’ve been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to train one of America’s most accomplished sport climbers. I can say unequivocally that the experience has been one of the highlights of my varied climbing career. It’s every coach’s dream to work with the very best athletes within a given sport, and we are no different. While we have tremendous confidence in our program, and its long track-record of producing results for mortals like us, we’ve long ‘fantasized’ about recruiting an elite-level guinea pig for some next-level experimentation. Would it work for a top-level athlete? Can it be adapted to the full-time climbing schedule of a legit pro? There was only one way to find out, but we needed a strong climber with an open mind….”  Continue Reading

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