Interview with Master Rock Climber Mark Hudon

Mark Hudon is an accomplished rock climber, having done many early ascents of long free and aid climbs in Yosemite and other places. Of special note are Mark’s early (1979) free attempts of The Salathe’ Wall, his 5th free ascent of Astroman (5.11c, 1977), his 2nd ascent of Tales of Power (5.12b, 1977), his 2nd ascent of The Phoenix (5.13a, 1978) and his 15.5 hour Nose in a Day at age 53, where he led every pitch. Mark is also a prolific contributer to http://www.supertopo.com and has written extensively about how to aid climb.

Tips from Mark

  • Having confidence in your climbing is key to climbing hard routes. I am extremely confident in my ability to climb 5.11, whether at a bolt or 25 feet above my last protection.
  • Learn how to use your feet. Footwork is essential to moving efficiently over rock.
  • Learn how to be relaxed while climbing. Control your mind, control your heart and relax.
  • Forget the number, forget the ego, forget your friends, improve and broaden your base of climbing experience.

Full Interview with Mark

Q: How long have you been climbing?

A: I started climbing in 1972 when I was 16, so this is my 40th year of climbing. A boyfriend of my sister, who was a couple of years older than I, wanted to get into rock climbing. I was a Boy Scout, and of course I wanted to climb Mount Everest and so I thought, “Well, I need to learn how to rock climb.” So, he and I went up to North Conway in New Hampshire and we took a couple of lessons from the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. I was rabid with rock climbing from then ’till now.

Q: So it was an instant love with the sport?

A: Yeah. I’m not a very big guy and back then in the ‘70s you had to always qualify for sports. There wasn’t a lot of sports that I could participate in. When I started climbing, I was immediately good at it, and so I thought, “Wow, here’s something I can do and here’s something I’m good at.”

Q: You ended up spending a lot of time in Yosemite, right?

A: I spent a few seasons in Yosemite. I climbed there for five seasons and then I just thought, “I really do want some stuff.” I was tired of living out of my backpack. I moved to Reno with a climbing partner that I met in Yosemite, Max Jones, and I ended up living with his family for a couple of years. I learned to be a carpenter, and I spent the next 13 years as a carpenter.

That job gave me lots of flexibility to climb. I did get out of climbing for a few years when my wife and I moved to Hood River, Oregon to wind surf.  Then someone asked me to build them a climbing wall and I got back into rock climbing again. We’re only two hours north of Smith Rock and for the next seven years I was a rabid sport climber and climbed every 5.9, 5.10, 5.11, 5.12 and half of the 5.13s at Smith.

Then I sort of burnt out on sport climbing. I ended up meeting a guy named Bill Wright through the internet. He wanted me to give a slide show and I said, “You set up the slide show and I’ll come out and give it.” He set up this slide show in Boulder and I flew out there. We climbed the Naked Edge in Eldo and the Diamond on Long’s Peak. About three months after that he and I flew to Yosemite and did the north face of the Rostrum and the west face of El Cap, and I just realized that I didn’t really care about climbing 5.13, I just wanted to climb long, multi-pitch routes.

Now I’m on this big wall climbing jag.

Q: It sounds like you’re reinventing things to kind of keep it interesting for yourself.

A: Things change over time. Years ago, it was all about climbing fast and hard. Now the whole point is to do it slow and have fun. Really relax and climb a couple pitches a day, but really hang out and enjoy being up there.

I’m not 18 anymore. My feet hurt and I’m not as strong as I used to be. I still like to climb hard, but I can’t climb like I used to.

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

A: It’s 99% of the game for me. I’ve always been hideously confident. If I tell you that I can do something, then I can do it. I’m not bragging or anything, I’m just very aware of my abilities. I’ve done thousands of 5.11 pitches, and so if you and I are going to go do a 5.11 route, you’re going to say, “Mark, can you do this?” And I’ll go, “Yeah, I can do it.”  I’ve climbed so many 5.11s that I can just put the whole worry about climbing 5.11 out of my mind. I don’t have to be in top physical shape to climb 5.11. I can rely on my confidence and my years of experience.

Q: Can you recall a time that demonstrated to you just how important your mental state is to your climbing?

A: Max and I did this route called Space Babble on Middle Cathedral Rock. It’s got some run out 5.11 and I led the crux and it was going well, when we came to this one 5.9 pitch that is about 150 feet long and the topo just says, “no pro.” It’s a 150 foot 5.9 pitch and has basically no protection. I thought to myself that I have not fallen on a 5.9 in many years, so I just climbed it. I didn’t even think about it. I just kept climbing and thinking, “Okay, don’t fall.”

Q: How do you maintain your focus while climbing?

A: I don’t let my emotions take over at all. To me it’s physics. You can stand on a little hold five feet away from a piece of gear and so why can’t you stand on that same little hold 25 feet away from gear. I trust in my ability to find rests and in my ability to stay calm and stay relaxed.

Q: How about when things do get really difficult? How does that change?

A: I just work every single little move, one at a time. If it’s really, really difficult, I’ll look at the next moves, and try to stand on my feet. If things are really getting hairball I could slither down a lot of rock and put in a bunch of gear and lower off. I’m usually not worried that I’m going to get hurt.

Q: Can you describe your ability to manage anxiety before you attempt a hard climb?

A: My anxiety does not keep me from doing climbs. It’s the other way around for me. When I pick out a climb I want to do, I just want to get on it. I can barely sleep, because I just want to go do it. I’m usually the most amped up guy at the cliff. I always want to lead the first pitch, because I always want to get off the ground. I always want to start climbing. I’m always the first guy up the trail, because I want to get to the cliff and I want to start climbing.

Q: How do you warm up for a hard climb?

A: On a trad climb you tend to be hiking to the base and the hardest pitch is usually not the pitch that’s right off the ground, so I use the approach as the warm up. When I was out sport climbing there were always warm-up routes. My sport climbing warm up was to lead climb a 5.11, then downclimb it, taking my draws with me. I might do this for one or two routes.

Q: Do you use any specific ways to train your ability to rest, recover and relax while climbing?

A: As far as resting and recovering, it does start with your mind. If your mind is going a thousand miles an hour, you can’t listen to your body. You can’t control your breathing, and you can’t slow down your heart. What I do, when I’m red pointing hard routes at Smith, is say to myself, “Listen to your heart and control your heart, control your breathing.”

Q: How about footwork?

A: I watch so many climbers that have lousy foot work. Many times their shoes are too big and they get focused on pulling themselves up with their arms. When I see this, I’ll often try and help by pointing out what’s wrong with their shoes, and I show them how to stand right on their big toes.

I see guys that wear out the toes of their shoes and that’s a dead giveaway that they aren’t using their feet. The good climbers don’t drag their feet up the rock, so the good climbers don’t’ wear out the front toe rand of their boots. They wear out that one little section right below their toe.

I tell people all the time, you walk on your feet all day, you walk on your legs all day, you probably couldn’t walk on your arms for five seconds.

Q: Yeah, that’s great advice. How about visualization techniques? Do you use any visualization in your preparation for climbing?

A: When I was a sport climber, I used to say that when I can accurately visualize myself doing the route, I would do it. By visualize, I mean imagine how hard I’m breathing, imagine how my feet hurt, imagine exactly how the handhold feels on my hand. Imagine exactly how the wind is blowing. When I can visualize every single move on a route, I can red point the route.

Q: What is your biggest challenge in remaining focused while climbing?

A: I don’t have any challenges being focused while climbing.

I always say that there are three facets to ability, and they are in increasing order of importance: strength, technique and desire. If you don’t have desire, if you’re not just born with desire, you can’t learn it and you can’t get it. You can develop your strength, that’s easy. You can learn technique too. Desire is what got me up climbing every other day for eight or nine years. Desire is what’s going to get me up my ten day solo next week on El Cap. I’m not the best climber in the world. I don’t have the best technique. I don’t have the most strength, but there are very few climbers that have more desire than me I do.

Q: How about your physical training? Can you explain what your physical training has been like over the years?

A: I’m a big proponent of endurance training. I think there’s too much focus placed on power training. Power training, if you don’t have the endurance base, is merely inefficient endurance training. There are guys at the gym who can do a two move 5.13 route, but they can’t climb 155 feet of 5.11, because they don’t have the endurance.

I start off my season lifting weights, not heavy weights, but I would do probably three sets of ten, and then move up to three sets of 15.

Then I would start to get on my climbing wall and I would do 45 minutes laps to build endurance. I climb with straight fingers, no crimping. I’ll climb 45 minute laps at a fairly difficult level but yet not get pumped. I’ve probably done a couple thousand 45 minute laps.

Q: You told me that you’ve done a formal phase training method in the past. How did that phased training work for you?

A: It worked really well. I would train so that I would peak and I would be so freakin’ killer strong. I would just crush routes. What I didn’t like is that after every peak, there is a valley. When I hit the valleys, I just had to rest. I’ve tried to minimize those peaks these days, just because I don’t go do those sport climbing vacations anymore. I tend to go do vacations where I want to go climb a lot of routes. I don’t need as high of a peak.

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

A: Use your feet better. Learn how to use your feet and learn how to be relaxed while climbing. Also, if you want to improve, forget the number, forget your ego, forget your friends, improve and broaden your base of experience. Learn how to use your feet, control your mind, control your heart and relax.

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