Interview with Master Rock Climber Katie Lambert

Katie Lambert is an accomplished rock climber with credits to her name including free climbing the West Face of Leaning Tower(V 5.13b) in a day in Yosemite Valley, free climbing the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (V 5.12b) in a day in Yosemite, redpointing the Tuolumne Meadows testpiece Peace (5.13d), the first female ascent of Kepper of the Flame (5.13) in Yosemite, and the first female ascent of Fight Club (5.13b)  in Owens River Gorge. IMG_9630

I interviewed Katie about her training, focusing on how important her mental state is to her climbing performance. Below, I’ve summarize a few items that I took away from my interview with Katie, followed by the entire interview.

Insights from Katie Lambert:

  • Rock climbing is nearly 100% mental. Being in a calm state, yet psyched to climb a route is my ideal state.
  • Experience in a wide variety of climbing has really helped me.  Doing steep sport climbs, boulder problems, and spicy trad routes have all helped me become a well-rounded climber.
  • For me, the climb starts with the approach. I try and remain calm on the approach and this helps me prepare for the climbing.
  • I have a theory that we tend to fall when we don’t know what the next hold is like. I train my endurance on an overhanging ladder that helps me push well into a deep deep pump state.
  • To climb better, climb a lot on different kinds of rock on routes with a wide variety of challenges.
Full Interview with Katie:

Q: So how long have you been climbing?

A: The first time I went climbing I was 15. I lived in Louisiana, where there isn’t any outdoor climbing, so any climbing I did from the age of 15 to 20 was mostly in the climbing gym. I didn’t get serious about climbing until my early twenties.

Q:  How did you get from that start to where you are today?

A: From the first time I went climbing at a summer camp in Boone, North Carolina, I fell in love with it. I absolutely knew, then and there that I wanted to dedicate my life to climbing. I went back home to Louisiana, and at that time a climbing gym opened up in the town near where I lived.  I started to go to the climbing gym a couple times a month. I did this for about five years. Around then met some people who were also into climbing and we would take road trips to places like Sand Rock in Alabama and the Climber’s Ranch in Austin, Texas.

When I was 22, I moved to Austin and really got into climbing. In Austin, there were tons of steep overhanging routes, which were really fun. There was also pretty good bouldering. And right outside of town is Enchanted Rock. I spent a couple of years living in Austin, but I eventually felt like I had climbed everything there and I longed for bigger things, and that’s when I moved to Yosemite in California.

Q: What was it like moving to Yosemite?

A: I had to re-learn how to rock climb. Even though I had done some climbing on granite at Enchanted Rock, those climbs were relatively small, and there was a lot of texture and grip there. When I came to the Sierras, I found that things are much larger and they’re much more polished. It was like I had never climbed before. I went through a whole year learning how to climb here.

Once I got into a groove, things started to happen more naturally and it wasn’t such a struggle anymore.

I was also really fortunate to become best friends with Ron Kauk, and he has been one of my best mentors as far as climbing is concerned.

Q: So what type of climbing do you like to do now?

A: I really love sport climbing steep, overhanging limestone. I also love technical routes. I love crack climbs, where the gear is spicy and you really have to keep it together. I love high-ball bouldering. I guess, I love it all and I do it all. I value being a well-rounded climber.

Q: How important is your mental state to your climbing performance?

A: I would say 100%. It’s of 100% importance to me, because if I’m not totally psyched about a climb, then my performance is not going to be good at all. I might not even get on the climb.

Q: Can you recall a specific instance that demonstrated to you the importance of the mental aspect of your climbing?

A: There is a route in Yosemite called the Direct North Buttress on Middle Cathedral. It’s a classic route rated 5.10. My boyfriend and I had talked about climbing it for years, but I had heard horror stories about it. When we went to do it, I wasn’t so excited to do it. He really wanted to do it, so I went with him. As we got higher and higher up on the route, I was getting less and less psyched, and I was actually becoming quite fearful.  The route is way below what I was capable of, but things were starting to become really hard for me because I was so nervous.

We were halfway up the route and he said to me, “You know, it’s not very fun being up here with you. I can tell that you’re not psyched, and if you want to go down you should just tell me and we’ll go down.” To which I replied, “I do want to go down. This is like the last place in the world I want to be right now.” So we got out of there.

A creepy thing is that when we were back down on the ground packing everything up, there was a rock fall on the route and it fell just to our left. If we would have been up there I’m not sure what would have happened.

Q: So that’s a situation where the climb was well within your ability, it was in a beautiful place, a place you love, but your head just wasn’t into it.

A: My head wasn’t in it, and I couldn’t convince myself otherwise.

Q: How do you mentally train?

A: I do a lot of visualization, especially if I’m projecting a route. I like to visualize myself doing every single move, doing them fluidly and reaching the anchors. If I start to get distracted while I’m visualizing, then I’ll start over. My mind will just start wandering and I work to try and keep it focused. I’ll be visualizing that I am halfway up the climb and my mind will all of sudden start thinking about what I had for breakfast yesterday.

I also try and be really calm before I start a climb. I try to approach a climbing area very calmly. For me, the approach is the start of a climb already. I want to feel really good and fluid and calm, which helps me when I tie in and start up a route.

When I arrive at the climb, I’ll just sit down and have a drink of water and look at my surroundings, because I find that if I’m nervous while I climb, it’s going to come out in my movement and it’s not going to be as fluid as I want it to be. I start over gripping and get pumped.

Q: There are times when you’re anxious, I’m sure, like everyone else, and do you have any things that you do to manage that anxiety?

A: If I’m anxious because I’m about to go up on lead and I know it’s going to be hard, I’ll start waving my arms around in circles. If I can start moving around a little before I get on the climb, it helps me harness that anxiety and put it like in a good place.

Q: Do you have any warm up rituals?

A: I definitely like to warm up really well. I’ll do some 5.11s or 5.12s that I can start to move around on. I like to get in four pitches before I try something really hard. Four pitches that are relatively easy for me. I also stretch every morning. It’s crucial for me now. I used to never stretch before climbing when I was in my 20s, but as I’ve gotten into my 30’s, I’m a bit more stiff.

I try not to overstretch. I have heard that stretched muscles won’t generate as much power.

Q: I’ve been reading a lot about that myself, and I think there is a lot of misinformation out there. I think stretching is in general good for you. From what I can ascertain, you don’t want to do much static stretching just before you’re trying to do something very powerful. Vigorous static stretching can actually reduce your muscles’ ability to generate power for about an hour afterward. But if you’re doing it in the morning, I think it’s nothing but good for you. Look at yoga. Yoga is formalized stretching, and it has done the world of good for me and many others.

How do you prepare in the 20 minutes prior to a hard climb?

A: I make sure that I’m well-rested and ready to go. After I’ve done my warm-ups, I rest about twenty minutes before I get on my project. I like to eat sugar of some sort, like dried fruit, before a hard climb to keep my energy level up. I drink some water and make sure my belayer is psyched. I try and make sure I’m like in a good space and that I have everything I need.

Q: Do you have any specific ways that you train your ability to rest, recover or relax while climbing?

A: I have an overhanging ladder in my backyard that I use for training. It about 25 feet tall and has two-by-fours for rungs. The top of the two-by-four is like a big hold and I have smaller wooden edges fastened to the front surface of the two-by-fours. It’s at about a 50 degree angle and I do laps on it. I go until I’m beyond pumped. I have this theory that we fall when we’re pumped because we get confused, because we’re not quite sure what the next move is, or what the next hold’s going to be. When you know what the next move is, you can keep going. You can climb into that pump and maintain it.

This ladder has taught me a lot about managing a pump. I could be on my tenth lap and I’m just flamed out of my mind, and there’s just no possible way that I can hold on, but I just make myself keep going, and find that I can hold on. That was a breakthrough for me. Now, if I am on a route and I’m pumped and I think there’s just no way I can hold on and make the next move, I can refer back to all the times I’ve been on the ladder and I think, “I can make this move. I know what that hold’s like, so just go.” It really works.

Q: How about resting techniques?

A: When I come to a good res, I’ll stay there about two minutes. I’ll rest until I really feel like I’m recovered, and if I am unsure, I’ll get out of the rest and I’ll pull on some of the holds like I’m going to start climbing again. If it feels like my grip’s not strong, I’ll go back into the rest.

Q: Do you have any specific things that you’ve done or that you do to train your footwork?

A: I think that climbing in Yosemite valley has helped my footwork, because it’s all about standing on your feet on terrible smears and little edges. Besides that I don’t really train my footwork.

Not much an emphasis is put on good footwork anymore and this is reflected in the climbing shoes that are available on the market. Most of the shoes are incredibly soft.  I personally like climbing in stiff shoes. My go-to shoe for Yosemite is the Kaukulator, which is a high top and it’s board blasted.  Even if I’m sport climbing my go-to shoe now has become the Scarpa Vapor. They’re downturned, but the toe box is board lasted, so they’re stiff.  I can edge really well with them.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you have in remaining focused while you’re climbing and how do you manage it?

A: People yelling up at me while I’m climbing really distracts me. If I’m struggling at a crux and they yell up at me, “C’mon, you got it, you got it,” that is super-distracting for me.

I try and tune it out, and I also ask people ahead of time to not yell up at me.

Q: How much time per week do you spend training and can you describe what in general you do?

A: I really need to be super fit for climbing in Yosemite valley, so I do lots of running and cycling. I probably average four cardio workouts a week. I have two hang boards that I work out on, and I’ll do those workouts the night before a rest day.  I probably get on the hang board about three times a week.

If it’s been raining, like this big storm we just got, I will training on the ladder for two days in a row.  It’s almost equivalent to two climbing days, and then I take a rest day. Training is definitely super-important for me, especially for maintaining finger strength.

Q: Can you describe your strategy when you’re in the process of working a climb?

A: I’ll go try and lead a project and I’ll check out all the moves. I’ll make sure that I can do all the moves within the first couple of tries on it, since I’m kind of short and there are some climbs that don’t suite me. If I can’t do all the moves, I’ll just let it go and find another project. I don’t get hung up on a climb that doesn’t fit me.

If a climb fits me, I’ll keep trying to lead it every time I go there. If while working it, I lead it and I don’t send it, I’ll give a couple of top rope laps to learn the route without having to worry about the falls. After I’ve done that a couple times, then I’ll keep going for the red points until I send it.

Q: How about any other advice for people looking to improve their climbing?

A: I say just climb a lot. The more you climb, the better you’re going to climb. The more you can climb on different types of rocks and routes, the better you are going to climb.

Q: Are there any resources that have helped you in your climbing?

A: A book that’s been really helpful for me and my climbing is Thinking Body Dancing Mind. It’s a Tao approach to sports.

It’s about following your intuition, about maintaining your calmness, about visualization, about keeping a positive mind. It teaches how to avoid negative self-talk. If you’re falling off a climb, and you’re thinking, “I just suck.” You would never tell that to your friend, so you shouldn’t tell that to yourself, because it’s detrimental to you.

Another thing I like about this book is that you don’t necessarily have to read it cover-to-cover, you can just flip it open to individual sections. It’s organized as a nice reference.

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