Climbing with Rhythm

Climbing-with-RhythmIn a recent Climbing Movement class I’ve been taking, the instructor talked about how climbing is all about climbing between rest positions. This got me thinking about something that I wrote about in Jeff Elison and my book, Vertical Mind (coming soon). The article that follows is a modified excerpt from the book, and focuses on how to build productive mental scripts which allow you to climb with more rhythm, which in turn will give you more endurance and have you climbing harder routes.

Climbing a route is a matter of linking together a sequence of movements that vary in difficulty, which are stacked one after the other. Some routes are long and some are short. Some are very cruxy and some require lots of endurance. For most climbers, a limiting factor in success on their project routes is their ability to have the required power at the required moment on the climb. I can’t even count the number of times that I have peeled off a climb because I was too pumped or fatigued to do a cruxy move. I do however recall working a 5.12c route in the Gunks named Project X. I had worked the route off and on for a couple years, knew all the moves, but just could not seem to link it together.

The day that I finally sent Project X, I did so on my 3rd run. On the first two runs I had fallen at the redpoint crux, just shy of the anchors where you have to use a couple slopey handholds to get to the “5.8 section” (as I called it – yeah, right). So, how could I have sent the pumpy crux after having failed on it twice already? The difference is that on my third attempt I had the route broken down into sections of climbing (all of which I knew how to execute) delineated by good rest positions where I could think about recovering and the moves to follow. The start was an easy, yet awkward climb up a pillar on good holds to a rest. The next section involved a layback up to a difficult undercling overlap and a decent layback stance. Then onto traverse right to a good hand-jam rest. Now the big move up to a marginal crimp with sketchy feet. With the clock ticking, the final challenge was to move up through the nubbly slopers to the “5.8 section” and the anchors. The key was in finding the rhythm.

This applies to on-sight climbing too, maybe even more so. The difference in on-sight climbing is that you need to determine where the next rest is, determine a strategy on how to get there without falling, and execute your plan. In this case, rhythm can often be more challenging to find because of the anxiety experienced when faced with a possible fall or failure on the attempt. It is critical to be able to shift quickly between thinking and action to avoid the energy sapping act of hesitating mid-sequence. It is critical to get into the rhythm of THINK-ACT-THINK-ACT… and so on. To help train yourself to get into this rhythm, I suggest using the SUPER process described below.

You can use the SUPER process to aid in decision-making in the moment, when you are faced with fall potential. You will need 30 seconds or so to run through this process, so it is not that useful in desperate situations, but the more you use it, the faster you will be able to execute it. In other words, this process is a script and, with practice, it will become faster and easier to implement in the heat of the moment. It will eventually be useful in desperate situations when you only have seconds to make a decision.

When faced with the decision of how to proceed, do the following:

  • Shift Focus: The first step is to shift your focus. Open your focus from a narrow, execution-based focus to an open focus where you take in all of your surroundings, notice every potential hold and determine your objective. Take the time to find the stance you’re aiming for, which likely is where you’ll clip the next bolt or place the next piece of gear. Examine potential paths and holds, looking to the left and the right, as well as directly up. Notice features, chalk marks, and boot-rubber marks. Take in your entire surroundings. As with all these steps, it will take time and repetition before you reliably execute this script to consistently focus your attention.
  • Understand: This is to understand the fall and the fall consequences. Are there objects to hit? Is there a lip of a roof to hit? Are there objects to swing into? Where will the gear be as you get to the next stance? How good is your gear? Are you uncomfortable with the gear and the fall? If not, improve the gear if possible.
  • Plan: Plan your strategy. If you’re comfortable with the fall, then decide on the strategy you’ll take to get to the next stance.
  • Execute: The next step is to execute the plan. Shift to narrow, execution-based focus. If you encounter something unexpected down low, retreat and rethink your strategy. If you hit the unexpected up high, remain relaxed, open your focus, determine your best option and execute.
  • Relax: Relax at the stance and place protection. Relaxation is a very general purpose script that applies to everyday situations.

Using the exercise consciously will help you create a strong script and the resulting of habit. Doing so will help you be able to shift effortlessly between thinking and acting, which in turn will improve your chances of success on your chosen routes

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