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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….

Swiss Preview

By Mark Anderson

I just returned from an amazing and exhausting 2 weeks in Switzerland with my family. We experienced easily the most diverse set of adventures yet among our trips to Europe, which I will recount in detail over the coming months, but first, here is a quick, whirlwind photo preview of the highest of the highlights!

The Matterhorn

The trip revolved around three major activties:

  • Hiking & Sightseeing
  • Via Ferratas (called “Klettersteig” in German)
  • Sport climbing

We accomplished all three several times over.

On the way to sport climbing at Lehn, with the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau in the distance.

We hiked below the legendary Eiger Nordwand and around the northeast flank of the Matterhorn. We enjoyed incredible sunshine and torrential rain, rode more cable cars than I can count, and stumbled upon fields of wild strawberries.

Below the many summits of Monte Rosa. The three most obvious summits are (from L to R) Dufourspitze, Lyskamm and Breithorn.

Strawberry fields forever!

Goat

We completed three outstanding Via Ferratas, including one on the side of the Eiger and one that traversed the lip of a 2000-foot deep limestone gorge. We swam in alpine lakes and skipped stones across many more. We scoured the country for a palatable granola bar.

Logan braving the unparalled Murren VF.

Swimming in Grunsee.

Ama cruising the Brunnistockli VF.

We climbed at four incredible sport crags (and one passable slag heap in an incredible setting), thrashed through fields of stinging nettles in search of others, and picnicked at the world’s most iconic bouldering destination.

Gimmelwald sport climbing.

Off the beaten path in Elsigen.

Fontainebleau

We cruised alpine slides, toured a chocolate factory, played Big Chess in a car-free village, spent quality time with old friends, and traversed the digestive tract of a Trojan Cow.

This Rodelbahn is so good someone died on it.

Apparently this is the Willy Wonka-est of Switzerland’s many chocolate factories.

Big Chess in Murren

How would you describe this, other than a “Trojan Cow”? Kids climb up a ladder through the cow’s butt, and slide down its throat. That’s the north face of the Eiger in the background.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a technical descent of the whitewater “Nala Inferiore” canyon, including a 50-meter rappel down a raging watefall—a totally wild and surreal experience.

Rapping a 50-meter waterfall in Nala Inferiore.

It’s daunting just thinking back on all the ground we covered, but I guess that explains why I’m so tired!

Stay in Zermatt long enough and you get sick of looking at the Matterhorn. This is from Riffelsee.

Corner Pocket

By Mark Anderson

The small town of Ouray, in southwest Colorado, is one of my family’s favorite places to visit. The town has everything we look for in a vacation spot—good climbing, endless rest-day activities, and a place for the kids to swim. With extra sweeteners like a great bakery, plentiful ice cream, the best scenery in Colorado, and heated pools, it’s the perfect road-trip destination.

The 4th of July parade in downtown Ouray. If you stand on the sunny side of the street, expect to get soaked!

This year our climbing focused around the aptly-named Pool Wall, an angling cliffband that looms above Ouray’s legendary hot springs pools. The rock appears to be stuck somewhere in the geologic process between sandstone and full-on quartzite (which is metamorphosed sandstone). It looks like the former, but feels and climbs like the latter. The rock quality varies a fair bit depending on the sector, but where its good the rock is quite good.

The Pool Wall. The Bay of Pigs sector is the clean lower wall in the center.

We primarily spent our time at the killer Bay of Pigs sector, which features a number of super-high quality face climbs. The Ouray community seems to have a proclivity towards stiff grades, and this was certainly on display. Some of my favorites were Empire of Dirt (5.10d), which culminates in a classic but no-joke slab crux right below the anchors, and the namesake Bay of Pigs (5.12b) which has excellent rock and weaves up the center of the sector on generally crisp edges (and a few committing slaps).

High on Bay of Pigs.

The highlight of my first day was scraping my way up Matt Samet’s standout route Breaking the Waves (5.13a) on my first try. The crux climbs over a Rifle-esque blocky bulge with powerful underclings that lead to a committing dyno, but the upper headwall is stacked with desperate stabs to thin edges. It’s easily one of the best sport climbs in the Ouray area, and perhaps the best of the grade.

For my next climbing day, I set my sights on an open project on the far left end of the Bay of Pigs sector. According to Jason Nelson’s fantastic book “Climbs of the Million Dollar Highway,” the route was bolted by my friend Luke Childers but never sent, and features a “small, sharp pocket” at the crux. When I stumble on opportunities like this, I’m both intrigued and apprehensive—I would love to contribute a first ascent to an area I enjoy so much, but I also don’t want to “waste” a few precious vacation burns on a route I may not be able to finish.

Pulling onto the headwall on the “open project.”

With a few good sends in the bag I figured it was worth the risk, especially considering how good the route looked from below. After an easy approach, the route climbs a slightly overhanging arête with well-spaced, rounded edges. The rock was a bit “muddy” from neglect, but with a light brushing, it cleaned up really well.

The business is a 12-foot bouldery stretch along the prow. In the middle of this section is a slightly incut mono pocket that angles to the left, creating essentially a PIP-joint-deep sinker sidepull for the right hand. This pocket was actually pretty easy to pull on, but it was also a “Keeper.” Meaning, if you fall with your finger in that pocket, you better yank it free before your weight comes onto it or else that pocket is going to “keep” your finger!

Yarding off the keeper mono.

The opening boulder begins with a big incut edge, but then nothing for the next 4 feet except an out-of-view, sloping 2-finger dish. Right off the bat I struggled to get off the ledge and established onto the prow. It’s really important to be patient in situations like this. When you know a route has been climbed, and you know the approximate grade, even if you can’t figure out how to do a move, at least you know the move goes (and should be within a certain range of difficulty, or else you’re “doing it wrong”). With a first ascent, you really have no idea. Maybe it’s been left undone because the move is V14?

Pulling past the sloping dish on the lower arête.

Fortunately having gone through this countless times gave me just enough confidence to keep at it until I figured out the right footwork to snag the dish. The upper boulder, yarding off the mono thread, is probably a bit more physical (certainly more finger-strength intensive), but much more straightforward to figure out. After sussing the final panel I gave the route a final brushing and rested for a redpoint attempt.

I climbed quickly to the ledge below the prow, bouldered up a couple moves to clip, and down-climbed to rest and chalk one last time. I powered easily up to the big edge, moved my feet onto the prow, and slapped for the 2-finger dish. I came up empty-handed, but got enough friction from my grating right hand to stop my descent before I sagged onto the rope. Try again: same result, still managing to arrest my fall with a hard left arm lock-off. I took a deep breath, leaned back to get a better view of the target, and tried one last time. This time I got just enough of the dish and bounced my fingers in. I made a quick slap to a rounded edge, snagged the mono thread and gingerly clipped.

The next crux is moving off the clipping stance with a huuuge reach off the mono. Fortunately due to its orientation I could lock it off below hip-level. My Mundakas did their job and I snagged the distant edge with minimal drama and all fingers intact. After a brief shake I snaked up the brilliant 5.11 headwall (well, 5.10 by Ouray standards, haha) and clipped the chains.

Unwinding from the big mono reach.

People often ask something to the effect of “The places I climb don’t have pockets, do I still have to train pockets?” Obviously, we don’t have to do anything in the context of training, but I try to encourage people to train a wide variety of grips and this route is a perfect example of the reason. If you aren’t training comprehensively then you are training weaknesses into your climbing. I haven’t had a goal-specific reason to train pockets for at least 5 years. Had I decided not to train pockets over that time I seriously doubt I would have been able to do that route, and certainly not 2nd go.

Logan enjoying another of Luke’s routes, California Stars (5.10a) at The Alcove sector of the Pool Wall.

Grade-wise, I always struggle to grade tweaky routes, but comparing it only to the mono-intensive routes I’ve done, I’d say its much harder than Manly Bulges at Shelf or One Love at Sinks, about the same as Todd Skinner’s Smoke Shapes (13d), and maybe a bit easier than Ghettoblaster (13d/14a) in the Frankenjura.

Many thanks to Luke for putting the route in. Luke’s done a tremendous amount of development all around Colorado, including at the Pool Wall, and we enjoyed a number of his routes during our trip. We always have a blast in Ouray and this trip was no exception. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to visit.

The northern San Juan mountains from the summit of Wetterhorn Peak.

Corner Pocket

By Mark Anderson

The small town of Ouray, in southwest Colorado, is one of my family’s favorite places to visit. The town has everything we look for in a vacation spot—good climbing, endless rest-day activities, and a place for the kids to swim. With extra sweeteners like a great bakery, plentiful ice cream, the best scenery in Colorado, and heated pools, it’s the perfect road-trip destination.

The 4th of July parade in downtown Ouray. If you stand on the sunny side of the street, expect to get soaked!

This year our climbing focused around the aptly-named Pool Wall, an angling cliffband that looms above Ouray’s legendary hot springs pools. The rock appears to be stuck somewhere in the geologic process between sandstone and full-on quartzite (which is metamorphosed sandstone). It looks like the former, but feels and climbs like the latter. The rock quality varies a fair bit depending on the sector, but where its good the rock is quite good.

The Pool Wall. The Bay of Pigs sector is the clean lower wall in the center.

We primarily spent our time at the killer Bay of Pigs sector, which features a number of super-high quality face climbs. The Ouray community seems to have a proclivity towards stiff grades, and this was certainly on display. Some of my favorites were Empire of Dirt (5.10d), which culminates in a classic but no-joke slab crux right below the anchors, and the namesake Bay of Pigs (5.12b) which has excellent rock and weaves up the center of the sector on generally crisp edges (and a few committing slaps).

High on Bay of Pigs.

The highlight of my first day was scraping my way up Matt Samet’s standout route Breaking the Waves (5.13a) on my first try. The crux climbs over a Rifle-esque blocky bulge with powerful underclings that lead to a committing dyno, but the upper headwall is stacked with desperate stabs to thin edges. It’s easily one of the best sport climbs in the Ouray area, and perhaps the best of the grade.

For my next climbing day, I set my sights on an open project on the far left end of the Bay of Pigs sector. According to Jason Nelson’s fantastic book “Climbs of the Million Dollar Highway,” the route was bolted by my friend Luke Childers but never sent, and features a “small, sharp pocket” at the crux. When I stumble on opportunities like this, I’m both intrigued and apprehensive—I would love to contribute a first ascent to an area I enjoy so much, but I also don’t want to “waste” a few precious vacation burns on a route I may not be able to finish.

Pulling onto the headwall on the “open project.”

With a few good sends in the bag I figured it was worth the risk, especially considering how good the route looked from below. After an easy approach, the route climbs a slightly overhanging arête with well-spaced, rounded edges. The rock was a bit “muddy” from neglect, but with a light brushing, it cleaned up really well.

The business is a 12-foot bouldery stretch along the prow. In the middle of this section is a slightly incut mono pocket that angles to the left, creating essentially a PIP-joint-deep sinker sidepull for the right hand. This pocket was actually pretty easy to pull on, but it was also a “Keeper.” Meaning, if you fall with your finger in that pocket, you better yank it free before your weight comes onto it or else that pocket is going to “keep” your finger!

Yarding off the keeper mono.

The opening boulder begins with a big incut edge, but then nothing for the next 4 feet except an out-of-view, sloping 2-finger dish. Right off the bat I struggled to get off the ledge and established onto the prow. It’s really important to be patient in situations like this. When you know a route has been climbed, and you know the approximate grade, even if you can’t figure out how to do a move, at least you know the move goes (and should be within a certain range of difficulty, or else you’re “doing it wrong”). With a first ascent, you really have no idea. Maybe it’s been left undone because the move is V14?

Pulling past the sloping dish on the lower arête.

Fortunately having gone through this countless times gave me just enough confidence to keep at it until I figured out the right footwork to snag the dish. The upper boulder, yarding off the mono thread, is probably a bit more physical (certainly more finger-strength intensive), but much more straightforward to figure out. After sussing the final panel I gave the route a final brushing and rested for a redpoint attempt.

I climbed quickly to the ledge below the prow, bouldered up a couple moves to clip, and down-climbed to rest and chalk one last time. I powered easily up to the big edge, moved my feet onto the prow, and slapped for the 2-finger dish. I came up empty-handed, but got enough friction from my grating right hand to stop my descent before I sagged onto the rope. Try again: same result, still managing to arrest my fall with a hard left arm lock-off. I took a deep breath, leaned back to get a better view of the target, and tried one last time. This time I got just enough of the dish and bounced my fingers in. I made a quick slap to a rounded edge, snagged the mono thread and gingerly clipped.

The next crux is moving off the clipping stance with a huuuge reach off the mono. Fortunately due to its orientation I could lock it off below hip-level. My Mundakas did their job and I snagged the distant edge with minimal drama and all fingers intact. After a brief shake I snaked up the brilliant 5.11 headwall (well, 5.10 by Ouray standards, haha) and clipped the chains.

Unwinding from the big mono reach.

People often ask something to the effect of “The places I climb don’t have pockets, do I still have to train pockets?” Obviously, we don’t have to do anything in the context of training, but I try to encourage people to train a wide variety of grips and this route is a perfect example of the reason. If you aren’t training comprehensively then you are training weaknesses into your climbing. I haven’t had a goal-specific reason to train pockets for at least 5 years. Had I decided not to train pockets over that time I seriously doubt I would have been able to do that route, and certainly not 2nd go.

Logan enjoying another of Luke’s routes, California Stars (5.10a) at The Alcove sector of the Pool Wall.

Grade-wise, I always struggle to grade tweaky routes, but comparing it only to the mono-intensive routes I’ve done, I’d say its much harder than Manly Bulges at Shelf or One Love at Sinks, about the same as Todd Skinner’s Smoke Shapes (13d), and maybe a bit easier than Ghettoblaster (13d/14a) in the Frankenjura.

Many thanks to Luke for putting the route in. Luke’s done a tremendous amount of development all around Colorado, including at the Pool Wall, and we enjoyed a number of his routes during our trip. We always have a blast in Ouray and this trip was no exception. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to visit.

The northern San Juan mountains from the summit of Wetterhorn Peak.

Slice of Time—New Eldo 5.14b

By Mark Anderson

Injuries suck. Last October I (partially) tore my forearm flexor muscle. At first the injury was relatively minor, but like a climber, I kept climbing and training hard on it for several weeks, and so it evolved into something more troublesome. I spent the next five months or so rehabbing the muscle, thinking I was close, aggravating it, and starting over again (over this process I eventually developed a solid rehab approach which I will describe next week).

By early April I was starting to feel healthy again. My latest batch of hangboarding ended strong, I was campusing without restrictions, and my bouldering was progressing rapidly. It was time to shake off the rust with some actual rock climbing, so I started considering options.

Eldorado Canyon

I hadn’t trained with a particular goal route in mind—the goal was to get 100% healthy. I decided I needed a route hard enough to inspire a proper effort, but not so hard as to be overwhelming or beyond my current, not-exactly-tip-top shape. Mike was coming to Boulder the following weekend, and we wanted to take advantage of the rare opportunity to work a project together, so we tried to find a worthy objective nearby.

I scoured my Black Book (actually a spreadsheet—nobody reads books anymore), and was reminded of an old abandoned line in Eldorado Canyon.  Eldo is a narrow canyon composed of colorful Fountain Formation sandstone, and stacked with thousands of multi-pitch trad climbs, including legendary classics like Bastille Crack, Yellow Spur and The Naked Edge.  It was the epicenter of Colorado climbing for many decades, until the sport climbing revolution took over and the best climbers moved on to other crags.

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Slice of Time climbs the center of the shaded, left-leaning panel.  Nobody wants credit for this photo.

The line we had in mind follows a sheer panel of slightly overhanging stone on the upper end of Redgarden Wall. This incredible panel first caught the attention of Christian Griffith and Chris Hill, who made the initial forays onto the wall, but the big prize remained unclimbed. I first noticed it in 2008 while climbing nearby classics Ruper and Green Slab. A few years later I finally got around to hiking up to the wall to properly scope out the line from the ground, but other priorities kept it on the backburner for several more years.

Now was my chance—for the first time in many years, I was relatively fit with no particular objective in mind. I had no idea how hard it would be, but I was willing to waste a day to find out. Mike was up for it too, and so we dusted off our trad gear and set out.

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About half-way up the towering wall. Photo Mike Anderson.

We were instantly impressed with the quality of the route. Its literally 40-meters long, almost to the centimeter. It overhangs about 5 meters in that length, and except for a single 1-meter-deep bulge, it is sheer and continuously around 5 degrees over vertical. It’s a beautiful panel of clean stone that begs to be climbed, and the rock is among the highest-quality I’ve encountered on the Front Range.

The movement is outstanding, albeit rather 1980s in style—precise technical edging with grippy holds and challenging footwork. It generally gets harder as you ascend, interspersed with numerous rests. The climbing opens with fun 5.11 jugs, then engaging 5.12 climbing that makes for a nice chill warmup, to a good shake below the bulge. The business is the final headwall.  This headwall begins with a couple bolts of easy 5.13 to clear the bulge and gain a crescent-shaped, right-facing arête/dihedral feature that offers intricate liebacking and arête-style movement, reminiscent of the mid-section of Smith Rock’s uber-classic Scarface.  The headwall culminates in a desperate forearm-bursting boulder problem 120-feet off the deck. Simply put, it’s a King Line.

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Low on the Headwall, just over the short bulge, traversing into the shallow dihedral. Photo Mike Anderson.

Between the two of us we were able to work out all the moves on the first day. It’s really helpful having an engaged partner to work these things out with—especially one who is pretty much the exact same size and shape, has the same climbing style, and similar strengths and weaknesses! We felt the route was possible, and we were both completely stoked. We set our heads to the primary challenge of shuffling our increasingly busy schedules to dodge the erratic spring weather and find enough opportunities to put it all together.

While we felt it was feasible, we were both a little concerned about the low-percentage nature of the crux moves, and the fact that the crux was so high off the deck. It was hard enough to do these moves off the dog, how would they feel after 120+ feet of climbing (and rope drag)? As we made the long trudge back to the car, we reminded each other of similar climbs, with low-percentage, distant cruxes, that we had each overcome in the past. It’s easy to forget that the process works, especially if you haven’t been through it recently. Over the next few days we eventually convinced ourselves, for the Nth time, that routes really do become easier with practice.

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Mike working up the shallow dihedral. Photo Mark Anderson.

Despite some interference from the weather, eventually it all came together. We were consistently waltzing up the lower wall, arriving at the headwall “without the hint of a pump” (as our hero Alan Watts would say). Once we added a couple servings of Try Hard, the route went down.  After putting our heads together we’ve settled on the name “Slice of Time” for the full panel.

Besides a pair of sends, the process of working the route produced several really important side-effects. The first was that it gave me something to strive for again, for the first time in about six months. I’m accustomed to having tangible goals, and without them I struggle to find motivation.  Working the route made me feel like I was a climber again.

Additionally, having a legitimate objective in the balance gave me the extra push I needed to complete my recovery. Often we struggle to overcome the mental impacts of injuries—we “hold back” for fear of re-injuring ourselves. By the end of the process I was training every facet of my fitness without restrictions, and pining for a send rather than obsessing over my forearm. I recall hiking back to the car one day and realizing that, at no time during the previous session did I think about my forearm. It was the first time in six months I’d gone more than a few minutes without thinking about it. Slice of Time was exactly the distraction I needed to get back to normal, both physically and mentally.

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Mike entering the crux of Slice of Time, ~120-feet off the deck. Photo Mark Anderson.

Finally, the best outcome of the process was climbing with Mike. Despite living in the same state, we rarely climb (hard) together because we both have our own agendas that send us in different directions. We spend the odd day together on less-serious objectives, but I think the last time we worked a proper project together was literally ten years ago. It was really fun, not only to spend time together, but to geek out over micro-beta, weather forecasts and redpoint tactics.

We’re both really stoked to climb such a stellar line, especially in such a historic venue.  We’d both like to thank the many folks who put effort and hardware into realizing this route over the years.  It’s an instant classic and should become a popular testpiece for the canyon, and the entire Front Range.  The best compliment I can think of to recommend the route is: its so good, it reminds me of Smith Rock.

Better Beta: 5 Ways to Break Through

Fall is sending season. Time for breaking into that next grade, sending that nemesis rig, and time for some good old-fashioned try-hard. Sending at your limit is all about the details – the micro beta, the mental game, and every iota of body tension you can muster.

With that in mind, here are 5 (often overlooked) tips for breaking through and sending your fall project.

TIP 1: Expose yourself to different styles

“I think exposure is the most important. If you vary the type and style you climb a lot, you’ll have a larger repertoire of knowledge to apply while climbing.” – Drew Ruana

 

TIP 2: Movement over Strength

“Focus on movement. A common misconception is that you need to be strong to climb hard routes, but being GOOD at climbing is so much cooler, and more efficient.” – Alex Johnson

 

TIP 3: Eliminate Worry So You Can Focus

“I think its a systems check. We’ve all tied a figure-eight knot so many times. We do it without thinking and yet a lot of people get nervous when the route starts getting hard above the bolt or cam and they worry about things they shouldn’t be – like their knot or belayer. Take the extra second on the ground to check your partner, have them check you, and test a piece if you need to. Make sure that when the time comes, you’re already totally confident they’ll work the way their supposed to. Who knows, you maybe would have sent through that slippery crux section if you were 100% focused on the moves and not at all focused on something else.” – Jason Haas

 

TIP 3: Practice Makes Perfect

“In general, I think climbers (both new and really old) don’t take time to PRACTICE climbing. We often tend to jump on the hardest thing we can get on, and that’s not effective. We should spend more time on slightly easier terrain, practicing the movement and other skills needed to climb well.” – Mike Anderson

 

Ari Novak Ice Climbing - Miami Ice - Cody, Wyoming

TIP 5: Master the Mental Game

“Jeff Lowe once told me 90% of climbing is above the shoulders, and I agree with him. Approaching climbing with the right mental approach and honest competency earned by learning and working the craft is key. Your greatest hopes and dreams can be achieved. If you put a climb on a pedestal it will stay there. If you put a climb on your level and work your ass off you’ll be on top of it faster than you think. It’s as much about attitude and vision as it is about the necessary physical strength to just get up something. Earn it both inside and out. To me ice climbing is not just about the external journey but the internal journey.” – Ari Novak

Striking Distance

By Mark Anderson

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Mark Anderson on the first ascent of Striking Distance, 5.14b, Gaudi Wall. Photo Derek Wasiecko

Last year I stumbled upon a rad little north-facing cliff I’m calling the Gaudi Wall (for famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi).  In fact the wall is not exactly “little”, with pitches up to 38 meters.  The rock is super high-quality Gneiss–I would argue some of the best in Colorado.

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Entering the burly crux of Striking Distance, 5.14b. This route has incredible stone and really rad movement. Photo Derek Wasiecko.

I put in about 20 routes on this wall in spring/summer 2017.  This is easily the best crag I’ve developed and I’m really proud of it.  Last weekend I polished off the last of my original lines–an outstanding lightning-bolt seam in a sheer, 20-degree overhang called Striking Distance.  The line starts with really gymnastic, sequential and technical liebacking to a good rest, followed immediately by a boulder problem featuring super-burly underclinging that I figure is around V11 in its own right.  My main objective over the last month was just to get some mileage on rock while passing the time until I’m ready to start training for the Fall season.  This was the perfect route for some roped bouldering, but to my surprise it started coming together despite the summer heat. On Sunday I lucked into an unseasonably cold and windy day and everything clicked on the second go.  I spent 11 days on the route spread over a year, and in that time I only linked the crux boulder problem one time–during Sunday’s send!

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Ben Lindfors climbing On Till The End, 5.13c.

I’m working on an informal print guide for this wall and a few of the other crags I’ve been developing since 2015 (more on this to come in a few weeks, or months, but hopefully not!)  I’m apprehensive about publicizing the crag because the access route passes through a residential area which could cause conflicts. If you have the opportunity to visit this place, please be courteous to the local residents, carpool, drive slowly and keep the stereotypical obnoxious-climber-behavior to a minimum.  In the mean time, here are some photos of some of the Gaudi Wall’s best lines. Enjoy!

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Derek Wasiecko toppint out The Underflinger, 5.12b. 

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Evan Howell flashing Wrench Wrun, 5.12a.

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Mike flashing Oh Wow!, 5.12a

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Ben Lindfors in the high crux of On till the End, 5.13c.

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Derek New crushing The Underflinger, 5.12b.

More Sport Climbing in the Dolomites

By Mark Anderson

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Fantisilandia, 7a+, Becco d’Ajal

Now that I had figured out which characteristics to look for in Dolomite sport crags I was much more psyched for the upcoming crag days.  One crag that piqued my interest is called “Rio Gere” and was merely 4 Km from our Condo in Cortina. Though the book raved about it, a quick recon of the area left me skeptical.

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Rio Gere–a massive boulder in the forest just east of Cortina.

The cliff is a mixture of yellow, fractured stone and (at that time) heavily seeping pocketed flowstone. Since I was unsure of its quality, I left it for the afternoon of a big hiking day when I was already tired. I began the session with the old strategy of climbing the dry yellow stone, which went as expected—I sent everything, but felt dirty afterwards. I decided I would have more fun slipping out of muddy water-sculpted pockets than teetering up dusty choss, so I climbed a set of flowstone lines that all turned out to be incredible, despite the mud.

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Climbing rad (but muddy) flowstone pockets on Che Pizza, 7b+, Rio Gere.

I also learned that by taking my grade down a few notches I could pretty much climb through a shower head without falling, and when I clipped the chains I felt a real sense of accomplishment. There was no question—I was having more fun climbing the best rock, even if it was wet. That made the choice of the next crag obvious.

IMG_1774aEasily my favorite crag of the trip was Beco d’Ajal—a group of massive boulders just outside of Cortina. Of the crags I visited, this is the other contender for “best sport crag in the dolomites,” and really, the distinction would depend heavily on taste. While Laste is more of a vertical technician’s dream, Beco d’Ajal is all about the steep overhanging pockets. The best comparison I can think of is Sector Cascade at Ceuse. Though not as tall as Ceuse, the cliffs are completely covered in sculpted flowstone jugs.

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No Worries, 7a+, at Beco d’Ajal

The crag is guarded by a burly 45-minute uphill trudge, but it was well worth it. As expected, pretty much everything was wet, but by now I was quite used to climbing through it. The scenery from the cliff was spectacular, looking onto the Tofana Group and Cortina, and the climbing was incredible. If I had one day to be teleported to any cliff in the world, I would go there (when its dry!), Becco

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Fantastic, 7b+ Becco d’Ajal.

For our last day we were all pretty tuckered out, so I selected a cliff with a short drive and even shorter Approach. Crepe de Oucera (Alti) was not quite up to the level of the previous three crags, but it was really good. It’s a favorite of the Cortina locals thanks to its short approach and southern aspect. The climbing here is generally near-vertical with lots of pockets, reminding me of the more pocketed rock at Sinks or the less-featured walls at Ten Sleep. This felt like a more traditional European crag with easy access, well-worn stone and lots of options. Though only one route really blew me away (a 12b called Cuba Libre), it was refreshing to climb some high quality dry rock for a change.

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White Line, 6c+, Crepe de Oucera.

There were a number of other intriguing crags we didn’t visit due to seepage. If I return in drier conditions I would definitely make return trips to Beco d’Ajal and Laste, but based on what I saw, I’d also like to climb on these crags:

– Sass Dlacia: steeply overhanging walls of pockets

– Malga Ciapela: less-steep, techy flowstone

– Tridentina/Eiszeit: Overhanging pockets

– Cinque Torri: Well-traveled/historic collection of large boulders tilted in wild directions

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Cinque Torri

All told, I really enjoyed the sport climbing. Given the amount of rock and variety I think it’s a very worthy destination for sport climbers, certainly worth considering for those looking for a holistic vacation with options for other adventure-oriented activities. That said, try to visit in the Fall when the rock is presumably less wet!

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Fantisilandia, 7a+, Becco d’Ajal.

Coming Soon: more non-sport-climbing adventures in the Dolomites!

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