climber

Category Archives: Rifle

Training for 9a – Part III

By Mark Anderson

This is the final installment in a multi-part series about my training for Shadowboxing. For the first installment click here.

Wolfgang Gullich famously exclaimed “climbing is so complex!” after a winter of hard training failed to yield the desired results. Many factors need to come together simultaneously to complete a route truly at your limit (that’s one reason it’s often more productive to operate below your true limit, because it provides some margin for sub-optimal weather, power, skin, shoe rubber, fitness, etc).   By the end of the May/June season I felt like I was capable of attaining the power and endurance needed to climb the route, but I needed them to better coincide. My power had come and gone too early, while my endurance arrived too late.

Standing below the world's first 9a, Wolfgang Gullich's legendary "Action Directe."

Standing below the world’s first 9a, Wolfgang Gullich’s legendary “Action Directe.”

This illustrates how difficult it is to perfect your fitness for a totally unique route when there are so many variables at play. After 15 years of practice I still managed to screw it up. The challenge is to optimize your physical ability for the moment when your technical knowledge of the route’s moves is sufficient to send. My friend Lamont Smith calls this “The Race.” Initially on a long project, your knowledge of the route, and ability to execute the moves is poor, but these increase steadily as you attempt the route more and more (eventually your rate of technical improvement slows and then stagnates, and then often reverses as resting for a presumed send takes priority over rehearsal, and you spend less and less time practicing the moves).  As you learn the moves, spending more and more time on the rock, and less time in training, your physical power typically declines. Late in the campaign, as you approach technical proficiency on the route, your power may be rapidly fading.

In order to “win the race”, you need to learn the moves well-enough to send before your power declines to the point that you can no longer execute them regularly. This is why I’m often willing to end a campaign when my progress stagnates—I know that when I return in the ensuing season, with tip-top power, the send will come much more easily. Obviously body weight, environmental conditions, and Power Endurance (PE) are enormous factors in The Race as well. PE generally improves throughout the campaign, improving as power fades. Environmental trends depend on how you’ve scheduled your season, and may or may not be in your control depending on other life factors. Ideally everything goes according to your plan, and your technical knowledge of the route, power and PE are optimized during a window of good weather.

In June 2016, my timing was off. By mid-June I finally achieved sufficient technical knowledge and PE to send the route, but by then I no longer had sufficient power or suitable temperatures. However, that season and the previous taught me how to execute the moves and how to develop the power and PE I would need. I felt confident I would be technically able to send very early in the fall campaign, thanks to previous experience and copious film study. I could count on suitable and steadily improving sending temps. I just needed to re-vamp my early-season training so that my power and PE peaks coincided better.

My approach wasn’t radical, I simply adjusted the timing of the Non-Linear Periodization strategy I had been using as maintenance training for the last several years. Typically at the conclusion of my Strength Phase I would complete a 3-4 week Power Phase (that included no significant PE training). At the start of my PE/Performance Phase I would gradually introduce PE training following Limit Bouldering sessions. I experimented with moving this up slightly during the May/June 2016 season, and for the Fall 2016 season I began PE training just before the start of my Power Phase.

Fall 2016 Training Schedule.

Fall 2016 Training Schedule.

Initially my Strength Phase was pretty much completely normal (ideally I would have started a few days earlier, but a work trip prevented that). The end of the Strength Phase and beginning of my Power Phase was quite unusual. I decided I wanted to be fit-enough to send by the second outdoor weekend of the season (23-25 September), and then backed out a PE training “start date” by analyzing my May/June schedule to estimate how many weeks it would take to get my PE up to standard. During that season, I got my first one hang 31 days after my first PE workout, so I scheduled my first Fall 2016 PE workout for August 26th, 30 days before September 25th and roughly three-quarters of the way through my Strength Phase.

That first PE workout was just a primer (consisting of only one set)—an opportunity to see where I stood and re-learn the moves of the circuit, hopefully without digging a big hole that would undermine my remaining hangboard sessions. I planned to do my first full-blown PE workout the following week (on September 1), but bizarrely high humidity that dampened the holds in the barn prevented me from completing the first circuit. Instead I moved the workout to September 5th, the day immediately following my last hangboard session. Taken in isolation, that workout wasn’t spectacular, failing 50 moves into the third set with 4:00 rest-between-sets. In retrospect I should’ve been happy to do as well as I did less than 24 hours after a hangboard workout.

I began my brief Power Phase three days later, including one NLP workout per week (consisting of the same activities and timing I used in May: warm-up followed by ~80 minutes of Limit Bouldering and Campusing (total), then finishing up with 3-4 sets of the 52-move circuit (and Supplemental Exercises)). I noticed immediately that my PE had hardly declined at all over the summer. As such, I was super aggressive in reducing the rest-between-sets from workout-to-workout—merely eight days after the first full-length PE workout I had slashed the rest period in half (to 2:00), matching my best effort from June! I dropped it again to 90 seconds the following week, just a few days before my target Fit Date.

From a PE perspective, things went perfectly, but there is a downside to this approach. In my experience it doesn’t allow enough time, energy or focus to really improve power. First, you have to limit the length of your Limit Bouldering and Campus sessions so you have enough time and energy for the PE work, and second, you enter each subsequent workout a bit more fatigued than usual (from the PE training). These impacts make it difficult to advance during the power portion of the workouts (I feel like by the time I’m 100% warmed up, it’s time to move on to the next activity). Thirdly, power and endurance are mutually exclusive from a muscle-fiber-recruitment perspective, so training one will necessarily inhibit the other. In short, with so much emphasis on PE during the Power Phase, you’re fortunate to re-attain your previous power peak.

For example, during September my first power workout (on September 8th) was excellent, probably my best first-power-workout-of-the-season ever. The next workout was lackluster, but the third workout (on September 13th) was stellar, easily among my best power workouts ever. I crushed many of the Lazy H’s testpiece boulder problems and matched my campus board PR on only my second try of the session. However, by September 20th I was complaining in my training journal that my left elbow was beginning to ache and I “didn’t seem to have a lot of pop.” I regressed in my bouldering and campusing, eventually cutting both activities short to save energy for PE training.

Based on my experience, I wouldn’t recommend this approach for short-term power-intensive goals, nor for long-term power improvement. NLP works well for re-producing simultaneous peaks of various types of fitness, but it is far from ideal if you want to actually improve upon previous peaks. Had I not spent the winter and spring improving my PE peak, it’s highly doubtful I would have reached that level of fitness so quickly, and with so few sessions, in September 2016. Personally I think the winter/spring PE training was critical, and this approach would not have worked without it.

The same goes for power—I already had sufficient power for the route when I first tried it in 2015, so each season I just needed to re-create that power, rather than reach a new level. This allowed me to sacrifice some effort in that area and re-direct it towards PE. The catch is that power-wise, I essentially coasted through the latter half of 2015 and the entirety of 2016. That is, my power did not improve at all for ~18 months as a result of this approach. That was a tremendous sacrifice, and generally not a wise one for the long-term thinker (although my strength, as measured by hangboard workouts, improved substantially over this period, so I may have a new reservoir of power potential to exploit during future Power Phases).

Another oft-overlooked downside to NLP is that it takes a lot of time and energy. It’s exhausting and hard to sustain for more than a few weeks. If you want to experience that ambiguous phenomenon referenced by all training books known as “burnout”, try NLP for a while.   It’s probably best left to youngsters with boundless energy and few serious commitments, and should only be used sparingly by grown-ups. In my view the type of NLP schedule described here makes the most sense for those who are near their lifetime peak, working a lifetime goal route with no margin, already have their route dialed, and are prepared to send in a short window. If you need to work out moves and sequences, you’re better off with a more typical periodization approach, at least initially. Once you feel you’re within striking-distance of a send, switch to NLP to get that last little bit of PE you need without neglecting power entirely.

The other major risk in this strategy was that my Fall 2016 season was engineered to produce a very sharp, but necessarily very short performance peak. The entire season was an enormous gamble. I wouldn’t have 6 weeks of consistent fitness to work out sequences, wait for weather, or get my lead head in order. If I weren’t technically ready to send, or the weather didn’t cooperate, or I bobbled all my opportunities, I could count on my fitness crashing back down to baseline within only a few weeks. If I couldn’t capitalize on my fitness, I’d have to wait another 7 months to try again.

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

Mark Anderson making the third ascent of Shadowboxing. Photo Mike Anderson

Fortunately during the Fall 2016 season events unfolded according to my plan. On my first go back on the route I matched my previous highpoint.  Aside from a bit of technical rust, it seemed like I picked up right where I left off endurance-wise, along with much better power.  It still wasn’t easy, but I sent the route on September 23rd, one climbing day before my target Fit Date. It took every ounce of technique, power, endurance and effort I could muster to send it on that day. Was it worth the cost? That’s a great question….

Training For 9a — Part II

By Mark Anderson

This is the third installment in a multi-part series about my training for Shadowboxing. For the first installment click here. For the second installment click here.

Visualization is an important part of any hard ascent, but the picture in our mind is often overly idealized. We imagine everything going flawlessly—executing the sequence perfectly, in optimal weather conditions, feeling fantastic the entire time. I do this because I doubt I have enough margin to scrap my way up the climb, instead thinking that if I’m going to do it, every factor will have to converge perfectly.  Conversely, professional coaches and athletes in major sports often speak of overcoming adversity, such as unfair officiating, weather that doesn’t favor their game plan, or unlucky bounces. I thought about that a lot through the long winter, and tried to prepare myself mentally for the hurdles I knew I would face (such as poor conditions), plus others I wasn’t anticipating.  I needed to be prepared to roll with the punches, rather than fold the first time something didn’t go my way.

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

Mark Anderson making the third ascent of Shadowboxing, 5.14d/9a.  Photo Mike Anderson.

If you asked me at the end of May, I would probably say that I failed miserably in this endeavor. At least, I failed to anticipate the scope of my trials. It started with a bout of the flu that hit at the worst possible moment: three days before I was set to get back on the route for the first time in seven months. I was reduced to oblivion for 60-straight hours, and feeble and woozy for four days after. This resulted in a day of lost training and two sub-par days on the route, but more importantly, about a 10% reduction in strength and power that I was never able to recover.  The next blow was seeping rock that was much worse than I anticipated. When I first returned in May roughly 1/3 of the holds in the lower half of the route were wet. Not that it mattered–I was so wrecked from the flu I was lucky to link ten moves in a row that first weekend!

Training schedule for my May/June season.

Training schedule for my May/June season.

The next weekend went much better. But when I climbed up into the crux the first day of the third weekend I discovered a key undercling was totally gone. The rest of that day was devoted to re-solving that section. The final straw was tweaking my back while rolling over in bed that night (one of the many perils of aging).  It was beginning to feel like the season was cursed–I was half-way through it and I hadn’t even matched my Fall highpoint on the route. I summarized my mindset at the end of the weekend thusly:

“Way not psyched at end of day. Felt like I had so much promise heading into Friday, and then the broken hold took the wind out of my sails, and then again, after that was resolved, tweaked back was the next blow. Depressed and searching for motivation. Trying to wrap my head around the idea that I’m unlikely to send this season.”

Unfortunately that wasn’t my low point. Over the next two days I waffled constantly about whether or not to continue on the route. June was imminent, and I expected the temperatures to sky-rocket at any time. Was it helpful to keep at it when I wasn’t making progress? Even if sending this season was unlikely, would continuing on the route improve my chances of success in the upcoming Fall, or was I just training myself to fail, wrecking my confidence and killing my motivation?  This all came to a head during my weekly indoor training session at the end of May.

By this point I was using Non-Linear Periodization to maintain Strength and Power while emphasizing Power Endurance (PE) training, by following this program:

  • Warm-up:
    • 10-min ARC on 10-35 degree overhangs
    • 10 min Warm-up Boulder Ladder (including V2, V3, V4, V5, V7, V8)
  • Limit-Bouldering (25-35 minutes*, including sending up to V11 and attempting up to V12)
  • Campusing (25-35 minutes*, beginning with 1-3-5-7 and working up to Max Ladders)
  • Linked Bouldering Circuit (Attempt 4 sets of 52-move Extended Green Traverse, reducing Rest Between Sets from 4:00 to 90 seconds)
  • Supplemental Exercises, ~30 min total/2-3 sets of:
    • Advanced 1-Arm Rows/1-Arm Pull-ups/Explosive Pull-ups
    • Front Levers
    • Biceps Curls
    • Lateral-to-Front Raise
    • Shoulder Press
    • Wings
    • Ab Rolls from Rings
    • Rotator Cuff Exercises with Theraband

[* Varied such that the total time, including warm-up, LBing and Campusing are limited to ~80 minutes]

In general, my PE training was progressing nicely, picking up where I left off in March. I continued to attempt 4 sets of my new 52-move circuit, starting with 4:00 rest-between-sets, and reducing it as the season progressed. However, my power training went from phenomenal to dismal after the flu. I was never able to recover my power since my weekend forays on the route were too taxing to allow for sufficiently intense mid-week indoor sessions (in retrospect, it may have been wise to delay my outdoor climbing in order to re-hone my power after the flu, but at the time I felt pressed for time with summer heat a few weeks away).

On that last day of May, my bouldering and campusing were particularly poor, and I ended both segments much earlier than planned. At that moment I was ready to abandon the rest of the season. I went for a short walk, weighing the pros and cons. I decided there was no advantage in quitting at that moment—I could use the PE training either way, so I should at least complete that part of the workout. I went on to have my best PE session ever, sending the first three sets of my 52-move circuit with 2:30 rest between sets (roughly a 1:1 duty cycle). That was enough to re-kindle my psych. I decided I should go out for at least one more weekend.

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

At the “Crimp Crux”.  Photo Mike Anderson

The first day of that trip I finally exceeded my Fall 2015 high point, and on the next climbing day I got my first one-hang, falling at the Crimp Crux. I matched this new highpoint on the next go. That day the rock was completely dry for the first time that season, which certainly helped, but the biggest factor was that my endurance was significantly better. Overall my May/June PE training went better than expected. During my last PE workout of the season I sent the first three laps of my 52-move circuit with only 2:00 rest-between-sets. I was certain my experiments and efforts over the winter had paid off, and my endurance had reached a new level—sufficient to send the route.  Unfortunately I learned that PE alone was not enough. Although I managed to one-hang the route four more times, I found myself falling more and more often on a powerful dyno in the lower third of the climb. My endurance was at an all-time best, but my Power Peak was long gone. By mid-June it seemed I was stagnating (if not regressing) on the route. The forecast predicted a steady 10-15 degree temperate hike, so I decided to end my season.

I never fell on this powerful dyno in the first half of the May/June 2016 season, but by mid-June I was falling on it regularly—a clear sign of waning power.

I never fell on this powerful dyno in the first half of the May/June 2016 season, but by mid-June I was falling on it regularly—a clear sign of waning power.  Photo Mike Anderson.

I was disappointed that I didn’t send, and I still wonder if I made the right call, throwing in the towel when I was arguably quite close. It’s hard to know and easy to second guess. To be fair, I think a younger, less-determined me would have retreated much earlier, prior to achieving the 1-hang that re-kindled my motivation. Had I quit during that workout at the end of May, I might have never come back to the route. In retrospect, I think preparing myself for some adversity prior to the start of the season allowed me to persevere long enough to squeeze out every last drop of adversity that frustrating canyon has to offer.  When I returned in September 2016 it had nothing left to give me–I had already taken all of Rifle’s best shots. Furthermore, the consistent one-hangs I earned in June were crucial to motivating my training over the summer. I had learned how to develop the necessary endurance to link the route. I had learned that I was capable of sending, even in sub-optimal conditions. I just needed to better time my power and fitness so the two converged simultaneously. Orchestrating that would be the focus of the long hot summer.

Training for 9a – Preface

by Mark Anderson

This is the first in a multi-part series about how I prepared and trained for my ascent of Shadowboxing in Rifle Colorado. For background on the route and details of my ascent, please read here.

The decision to embark on a multi-season redpoint campaign should not be taken lightly. It’s a huge investment in time, energy and motivation. It also comes with a tremendous opportunity cost, meaning the time devoted to a single mega project could otherwise be spent working and sending many other routes, that offer a wider variety of moves and growth experiences. Not to mention the fact that even after a year or more of effort, you might not send!

I’d been stuck at 5.14c for a few years, and had been thinking for a while that sooner or later I would need to test myself on the next grade up. I wasn’t in any particular hurry—I was still improving, and so I figured the longer I put it off, the better prepared I would be. That changed in the summer of 2015, when inspiration and circumstances converged to create the right opportunity.

The first step in any major escapade is selecting an appropriate objective. Despite my admonishments to the contrary in the Rock Climber’s Training Manual, the underlying goal was to climb the grade, 5.14d (or 9a in Old Money). Routes of such grade are fairly few and far between in North America, so I didn’t have a ton of options to choose from.

Selecting the optimal goal route can be critically important. A good long-term goal route will have the following traits:

  • Inspiring enough to keep you motivated through several training cycles, even when the end is nowhere in sight.
  • Logistically convenient enough to allow as many opportunities as possible to attempt the route. Factors such as typical weather, length of climbing seasons, approach and geographic proximity all come into play.
  • High quality, so you are psyched to get on the route day after day (or at least you don’t dread getting on it)
  • Non-threatening (from an injury perspective), so you aren’t accumulating injuries throughout the process.
  • Challenging, yet still possible.

I had a few ideas in mind, but there is one guy who knows the American 9a landscape better than anyone else (so much so, that he created a website for it: http://usa9a.blogspot.com/ ). I put my initial thoughts together and asked Jonathan Siegrist for his recommendations, considering where I live, my climbing style, and strengths and weaknesses.

Jonathan's masterpiece La Lune climbs the right side of the arching cave.

Jonathan’s twin Arrow Canyon masterpieces La Lune and Le Reve climb the right side of the arching cave.  Note the sloping belay stance.

The primary factor for me was logistics. Jonathan thought the most suitable routes for my style would be one of his lines in Arrow Canyon (Nevada), La Lune or Le Reve. Unfortunately those routes are about a 12-hour drive-plus-approach away, each way, with a belay off a sloping ledge that would be marginal-at-best for my kids. We also discussed Algorithm at the Fins (Idaho), which seemed perfect for my style, but is probably more difficult to reach than Arrow Canyon (and likely hard for the grade).  Eventually we narrowed it down to Colorado’s two 9a’s (at the time), Shadowboxing and Kryptonite.

The latter was the first 9a in America, and easily its most popular (based on the number of successful ascents). I’m a huge climbing-history nerd, so it was the obvious choice. It climbs out the center of a massive cave known as The Fortress of Solitude, only about 5 miles (as the crow flies) from Rifle, and similar in style—steep, burly and continuous.

xxx

The Fortress of Solitude, with Kryptonite roughly marked.  On  the lower left you can see the top of the steep scree fields that mark the end of the approach.

Unfortunately the Fortress sits at the top of one of the most notorious, soul-sucking approaches in Colorado. I made a trip out in late July to see what the approach would be like with kids: nearly impossible without a helicopter. The crux is several hundred yards of loose scree and talus, which you ascend by “Batman-ing” up a series of fixed ropes (while your feet skate in the steep debris). I could probably devise some scheme of shuttling backpacks-stuffed-with-kids to make it work for a few climbing days, but there was no way I could expect to get them up there 10+ times per season. It was equally unlikely to expect I could arrange babysitters, or sucker other partners for the number of trips I would need. That left Shadowboxing….

Based on what I knew of the route, it didn’t seem particularly well-aligned to my climbing strengths, but I figured its proximity to home and ease of access would make up for its sub-optimal style in the long run. I decided I would commit the first four climbing days of my Fall 2015 season to attempting it, and if I felt it was a poor choice at that point, I would retreat and consider other options.

Shadowboxing.

Shadowboxing.

Through seven weeks of hangboarding, campusing and limit bouldering, I wondered about the route. What would it be like? Was I in the ballpark? Would I be able to do the moves? Would I like it? Finally my first day on the route arrived…and it was rough. There were at least 10 moves I couldn’t do (although so many of them were consecutive, it’s hard to get an accurate count). My journal entry for the day says, “Got pretty worked–many moves I couldn’t do and pretty much completely baffled by the dihedral crux and undercling crux. Pretty overwhelmed/discouraged at the end of it all.”

Typically my first day on the rock at the beginning of each season is relatively poor, and so it was this time. By the end of my second day I’d gotten good linkage through the easier sections and done all the moves but one, the infamous crimp move. I stuck that move twice on day three, and by day four I had linked the entire route in four sections. I had made a ton of progress during my 4-day litmus test, and so with nothing better to do elsewhere, I decided to continue working the route.

The rest of that Fall 2015 season included many ups and downs. One day was entirely consumed working out a single frustrating foot move. At various points I had bleeding splits on the first pads of the index, middle, and ring fingers of my right hand due to one particularly sharp crimp. I acquired a number of nagging aches and pains in my shoulders, biceps, elbows and back from the many thuggish undercling moves low on the route.  While I two-hanged the route on my fifth day, that metric never improved over the next eight climbing days. By late October my highpoint was creeping up the route at a rate of about one move per weekend. I could do all the moves consistently, and link long sections with relative ease, but I had hit a wall where my endurance was concerned.

A looong way to go....

A looong way to go….   Photo Mike Anderson

As November approached, it seemed like I still had an outside shot of sending that season, but in retrospect I realize that was naïve–I was nowhere close. I needed a whole new level of endurance, not something I was going to acquire on the route over the course of a couple weeks.  Eventually weather, illness and previous commitments mercifully converged to provide an obvious stopping point.

As we made our way east over the Rockies for the last time of 2015, I was optimistic. I had made great progress and learned a tremendous amount about the route, and my capabilities relative to it. I could to start to see myself as a 9a climber.  I would need better upper body strength, and vastly improved endurance to have a puncher’s chance, but now I knew where my weaknesses lay, and I had six long wintery months to attack them.

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 vision for the Trango athlete team is to find climbers who embody our brand’s values and support them in their climbing endeavors. We focus on the character of the climber, their passion for the sport, and their desire to contribute to the community.

Meet the Team

Featured Events

There are currently no upcoming events.

All Events

Partners

The American Alpine Club American Mountain Guides Association Access Fund Leave No Trace - lnt.org

Archives

Authors

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestmail
eGrips Tenaya Fast Rope Descender

© Trango - All Rights Reserved