Interview with Master Rock Climber Kris Solem

I recently interviewed Kris Solem, a rock climber who has some unique insights into rock climbing training. He’s been climbing for nearly four decades and in that time has honed his mental and physical training. He shares some of what he has learned with me in this interview.

Key insights from Kris:

  • Avoid mindless workouts to train the brain-body connection. Train 100% in the moment.
  • Take care in selecting the routes you aspire to. Find ones that get you excited, but not anxious. Success breeds success.
  • Practicing yoga and Pilates both, can give you excellent breath control, which can translate into improved climbing.

Read the full interview with Kris:

Q:  How long have you been climbing?

A: I started climbing in the Gunks in 1973, so that makes 39 years. I was living in New York City, attending music school and I was a bicycle racer. One of the guys on the cycling team was a climber and we got to be pretty good friends. He had told me about climbing, but when his brother who was his regular climbing partner moved away, all of a sudden he put his sights on me. He took me to the Gunks and I was blown away. It changed my whole life.

Q: Was it really that quick to fall in love with climbing?

A: I was a music student at the Manhattan School of Music and learning how to play the trumpet.  I planned on being a symphony trumpet player. At that time, in the ’70s, my parents often took me to see the New York City Ballet and it was just unbelievable. Balanchine was the creative director and Rudolf Nureyev was still dancing. I got to be pretty good at watching the dancers and could tell when somebody had a great night. I learned about being in the moment and what it meant to project emotion with movement.

When I went climbing in the Gunks with John to do our first climb, we were walking along the Carriage Road and we came to the base of what I later learned were two climbs named Nosedive and Retribution. There was a small group of people standing around the start of those climbs and John stopped me and told me to be quiet and watch. Remember that at the time I was going to Manhattan School of Music. Each day, I polished my shoes and put on a suit and tie to go to school. So, I’m looking at this group of people that John has told me to observe. It’s 8:30 in the morning and one of them is drinking a tall bottle of beer, and one of the girls is smoking. They’re all dirty and disheveled and I’m thinking, “What the hell?”

This guy who is tied into a rope turns and he leads Nosedive. I was blown away. He knew he was being watched too. It turned out he was one of the top Gunks climbers at the time, Kevin Bein. He moved like one of the ballet dancers that I was used to seeing. I fell in love with the movement of climbing before I had done a single route.

Q: How about your background or your progression through climbing from that day to today?

A: The way I progressed was relatively slow because I was taught by people with very strong traditional climbing ethics. When I started climbing in the Gunks, I jumped up to climbing 5.9 pretty quickly. After that, I didn’t really progress a lot until I moved to California, which was ten years later.

When I got to California I started bouldering at Stoney Point, and immediately fit right into the crew there, which was great for me. On my first time there a guy named Bob Kamps spotted me as a newcomer, took me under his wing and gave me the tour.

Those guys pushed my level. It was like a wakeup call. I moved into an apartment near Stoney Point so I could be there all the time. That enabled me to have a day job and still climb a lot.

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

A: It’s the most important factor for me. For me, if my mental state is not operating properly, I don’t even want to go climbing. I don’t even enjoy it. I also think that the mental aspect of climbing begins with the route you’ve chosen to try.

A climbing partner of mine, Eric Erickson, instilled in me the understanding that one of the most important things to succeeding on a climb is picking the right route.

Success breeds success. So, as you progress in your climbing you look to build successes, which in turn helps build confidence.

Q: So with the mental aspect of climbing being so important, can you tell me about a time that demonstrated to you just how important it is?

A: As I said, I was getting into the career of being a symphony trumpet player and it may sound weird, but trumpet playing is kind of athletic. If you’re in a symphony orchestra and you’ve got a piece of music, say, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, there’s a timeline to the whole event. There’s a precise beginning and an end. And there’s an element of risk.

If you have a fear of that risk, you’re not going to be a good trumpet player. The fear of public performance got kind of burned out of me pretty early on as a performer. I think that trumpet playing did more to clean up my approach to the mental aspects of climbing than climbing did.

Q: So how do you mentally train?

A: For me, the best mental training happens in combination with physical training, so I do them together. I avoid mindless workouts, where people are riding a bike and watching TV, or working some machine and watching TV. I find training techniques that demand 100% of my attention.

The exercises in Pilates are choreographed in such a way that you can’t do them well unless you’re entirely focused what you’re doing. So it’s kind of similar to climbing in that regard. If you’re climbing something that’s challenging you, you better not be thinking about balancing your checking account. All of that useless noise isn’t going to help you do well.

There have been times when I was all wrapped up in problems at work or home, and in those situations, I’ve shelved the climbing for a while, until I get those affairs in order.

Q: Previously, you mentioned to me that you have had some big challenges that kept you from climbing, and nearly killed you. Can you tell me more about this?

A:  I was born with a birth defect in my brain called an AVM, which stands for arteriovenous malformation. What it means is that an artery in my brain that was supposed to do what arteries do, which is divide and then divide again and then divide again and divide again, and eventually become capillaries, didn’t. Instead, it turned directly into a vein.

Usually when this happens to people it’s catastrophic. It’s a pretty rare situation, but it happens just often enough that there are pretty good statistics. They figure that one in 350,000 people is born with some kind of an arterialvenous defect in their brain. In that group, the majority of those defects are on the surface of the brain, because that’s where a lot of the arterial structure is. Mine was deep inside, and interfered with the motor control cortex in the right side of my brain.

So, that whole motor control cortex on the right side of my brain really never developed. But my body worked perfectly anyway, all of my life, because the brain is very plastic and other parts of the brain pick up the functions.

It’s like when you have an older person who has a stroke, they can relearn certain skills. It can be very difficult for a mature adult, but for me, I wasn’t even born yet, and I was already rewiring myself. So for 54 years I was highly functional, I had no idea there was something very wrong with my brain.

Then one day out of the blue I had a convulsive seizure. I went to the doctors, and an MRI revealed this AVM in my brain which had grown to a size of 3.5 cm! A team of neurosurgeons at UCLA destroyed it with precisely focused radiation. I developed inflammation of my brain as a side effect of this treatment which really screwed up the motor control for the left side of my body. At first I couldn’t even tie my own shoes. My left arm atrophied, and the obliques on my left side started to fade. For a couple of years I was in a pretty bad way.

I was working with a hand therapist that the doctor prescribed to help me get control back. I’d show up at her office and she’d make me do hand exercises and I’d get frustrated, a poisonous emotion. I wasn’t making great progress until I started working with a yoga teacher who taught me how to do the same exercises, but in a meditative way, combined with breathing. It was a huge release, because the frustration went way, and I started to see progress.

Q: We talked a little while ago about anxiety and how it can hold us back. Can you describe your ability to manage anxiety before you attempt a hard climb?

A: I don’t tend to be anxious before a hard climb. I think it goes back to the choice of a route. If I’m looking at some climb that makes me feel a lot of anxiety, I tend to think I’m not ready for it. It probably also comes from trumpet playing, because if you’re a professional musician, you have to be able to play whatever they pay you to play. In other words, if somebody calls you up on the phone and says, “We need you to play the Second Brandenburg,” well, that’s like 5.13. To get your paycheck, you better deliver a performance. If you have any anxiety about being able to do that, you’ll be better off turning down the engagement. I’ve turned down quite a few engagements with the rock.

Q: How do you warm up for a route?

A: It kind of depends on the climb. I really like to be on my feet for a while, so I like climbs that have an approach. I’ve got this series of 21 exercises. It only takes 10 minutes to do, but it’s a joint mobilization series, and I do it every day. What you do is you start with your fingers, and then wrists, and then elbows, and then shoulders, and finally your back. So you work from the ends of your upper extremities to your center.  Then you start with toes, to ankles, to knees, to hips, and again your back. You go from your lower extremities to your center. It makes me really aware of all the parts of my body, how they feel and how they move.

As far as warm up climbs, I like to do something at a level which is not too far removed from whatever my goal is for the day. I’ll pick a warm up climb on which I am very confident, but when I move on to my goal, I don’t want the gulf to be too big.

Q: I think a key to climbing well is to conserve energy. So, is there a specific way that you train your ability to rest, recover and relax while climbing?

A: For me, this comes mostly from my breathing. If I’m in control of my breathing, I’m in control of my body. I train my breathing through Pilates and yoga. In the form of yoga that I’ve been taught, you’re breathing through your nose, and you’re taking long, deep breaths in, hovering with your lungs full, and then taking long timed exhales. You arrive at the end of a movement and your lungs are empty, and then you hover there with your lungs empty. You never close that glottal stop. Your next move begins and you fill your lungs.

Pilates teaches breathing without ever releasing the connection between the bottom of your rib cage and your inner thighs. A yoga teacher, like the one I work with, is very happy to see you let your belly open up and take a deep breath in there, while a Pilates teacher is going to want you to keep those ribs and the front abdominals absolutely flat and engaged, “belly button to the spine.” You think about breathing into the back. So they’re two very different disciplines.

They’re complimentary from the standpoint that I love having the control of the feeling of where the breath is going from yoga, and I love having the control of maintaining that core engagement and still being able to really breathe deeply from Pilates. They’re different, but they co-exist beautifully.

Q: How about training your footwork?

A: Two things come to mind; strong feet and flexibility. I keep my feet healthy and strong by being barefoot as much as possible. I also stand on my toes a lot or on one foot, while doing things like brushing my teeth or cooking. And of course one of the main ideas of Pilates is to have both flexibility, and to be strong through your entire range of movement.

Really beautiful footwork also requires creativity and imagination.

Q: Do you use visualization in your training?

A: This is a great subject, and the short answer is yes, all of the time. Quality of movement is a very important concept for me. This probably comes from my days watching the ballet, and it has always been important to my style of climbing. And of course during rehab from neurological trouble this subject took on a whole new meaning for me.

Let’s say first that visualization can mean different things. For example, at a bouldering area you might see a climber standing at the base of a boulder problem rehearsing a sequence of moves while standing there looking at the rock. They are visualizing themselves doing the moves, imprinting what they will do when they are on the rock. One can also visualize while in a meditative or contemplative state. These kinds of visualization are useful tools, but my concept of visualization as it relates to quality of movement is something else altogether: seeing yourself moving in real time as you are actually doing it.

In Pilates this is called the mind – body connection, and we train to constantly nurture and develop this connection. This is done by creating choreographed sequences of exercises, much like a sequence of moves on a climb, which can only be mastered by a person who is entirely focused and “in the moment.” This kind of visualization can be transcendental, leading to the experience which athletes describe as being on the outside looking in. It is a kind of control and precision, rooted in concentration and focus, which enables one to imagine movement, and create movement as we imagine it in that very moment.

This is the very thing I love about watching great dancers, it is what attracted me to music performance, and it is what I look for every time I climb. Honestly, I cannot always get into that space, but I think that mindful training disciplines and practices like Pilates, Yoga, martial arts and so on are great ways to become more aware of, and to train this powerful connection.

Q: Have you ever had trouble remaining focused while climbing?

A: Generally not, but one time comes to mind. I was free soloing in The Needles in California. I was on the second pitch and was above the crux section. Mentally I was done with the climb and was in a disconnected state as if the thing was behind me, when I slipped and very nearly fell. I caught the slip, but it was one of those moments when all the skin and all the bones in your body just jolt. It was like getting a big electrical shock.

It woke me up big time and I started yelling at myself. And that worked. That was a big loss of focus, which could have killed me.

Q: Can you describe how you physically train?

A: I do about two hours every day of something. I have lots of variety in my training. I mix it up with Pilates, free weights, TRX machine, rowing machine work, and hiking. I try to climb three days one week, four days the next. I meet with professionals twice week, a Pilates teacher and a yoga teacher.

I used to train with very specific goals in mind, a particular climb or mountain trip. But I’ll be 60 this year, and so now my overall approach to training and fitness has changed. I don’t try to go through cycles where I am aiming for a real performance peak in, say, three months. Rather, I want to be reliably fit and injury free all the time. So instead of setting and sticking closely to some designed regimen, I listen to my body every day and do what I feel like doing. I am however very locked in on the subject of diet, but you’ll have to go over to to read about that.

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