Rock Secrets: Tricks For Advanced Sport Climbing

Article by Dave Pickford
Monday 11th May 2009

How long should you rest before trying a hard redpoint, or going for that long sought-after onsight? What is the ideal length of a sport climbing trip? If you keep falling off the same move on a particularly hard redpoint, should you continue trying the route, or move on and leave it for another time? Are there other things important to success, such as what or eat or drink before a hard climb, or even the way you breathe whilst climbing it? And how can you most effectively prepare for a sport pitch that will require 100% of your effort and ability?

These are just some key questions in the huge and complex arena of sport climbing methodology. They are the sort of questions which, in my experience, every skilled climber has a slightly (but usually not radically) different answer to. When I was starting out as an ultra-enthusiastic teenager, I had absolutely no idea of the importance of these issues. And, had I been aware of them, I would have had no idea of how they should be correctly addressed. At that time I read everything I could get my hands on related to climbing technique, on which there is an extensive and growing library.

Lost In The Apocryphal Library...

Having been climbing for almost twenty years, I now realise that books and articles on how to ‘correctly’ hand-jam, crimp, or dead-point are of limited value, for two key reasons. Climbing technique evolves naturally as an individual progresses, and it also varies wildly between individuals. Many principles of good technique can be studied by observing good climbers in action. This practise also has a significant advantage over learning technique from instructional books: it enables the student to instantly correlate different techniques with different styles of route and rock type.

It is a bizarre paradox that the most useful information about climbing is that which generally receives the least attention: it is the crucial specialist knowledge that falls in the perpetual shadow of the grand themes of technique and training. In fact, within this specialist knowledge are the little, seemingly insignificant ‘rock secrets’ that can swing the balance between success and failure on your hardest climbs. The purpose of this new 3-part planetFear series is to briefly outline some of these key ‘secrets’ in relation to sport climbing, traditional climbing, and bouldering.

1: Resting

The great classical pianist Alfred Brendel once remarked that “silence is the basis of music.” If we were to translate this into a sport climbing analogy, we could say that (for an active climber training once or twice a week and climbing every weekend)) rest is arguably the basis of successful climbing. As Neil Gresham has pointed out, “all serious athletes [are faced with] the threat of under-resting”. Without sufficient rest, muscle fibres cannot properly repair themselves, which will lead to a dramatic decrease in performance and a significant increase in the risk of soft-tissue injury. With sufficient rest, the body miraculously regenerates tired muscle tissue through the extraordinary process known as supercompensation. This then leads to gains in strength and endurance, increased motivation, and a subsequent increase in performance. The key point here is that no athlete in the world can climb at their best without sufficient rest. There’s a medium-sized library of sports science research out there to illustrate why this is the case, but far less material exploring what exactly constitutes ‘sufficient rest’. This million-dollar question actually has a number of answers depending on both the quantity and intensity of your personal climbing structure.

Sport climbers enjoying a rest day in Spain. "All serious athletes [are faced with] the threat of under-resting” - Neil Gresham

Traditional Climb / Rest structure

2 days on / 1 day off / 2 days on / 2 days off.

This is a commonly used and very effective structure for weekend climbing: it allows you to climb hard over the weekend, rest for two days, train for two days, then rest again before your next weekend session. However, it must be pointed out that this type (or indeed any type) of resting structure should never be used continuously, or without variation. If you have had a very hard weekend’s climbing, you may need to rest for at least 3 days to feel fully fresh again.

Alternative Structures

3 days on / 1 day off / 3 days on / 3 days off (or more)

This can be a good structure for doing short-hit, week long sport climbing trips, allowing a much needed rest day to be taken mid-way through the trip. It works much better for onsight climbing, which is slightly lower-intensity, than for redpointing.  

2 days on / 1 day off / 1 day on / 1 day off / 1 day on / 1 day off /  3 days off

This more elaborate structure can work extremely well for hard redpointing. Quite a few climbers I know who regularly climb 8c and above use this type of structure for redpointing hard routes. It is possible of course to manipulate any structure according to how you feel on the day: if you wake up on what should be a rest day and feel strong and fresh, then climb today and rest tomorrow! Equally, if you feel really tired on what should be a climbing day, change your schedule and climb tomorrow. The most important point here, which I cannot emphasise strongly enough, is to never try and climb at your limit when tired. It will only lead to failure and frustration.

Two top resting tricks for redpointing

I discovered the following two tricks by accident rather than design, and they have proved extremely useful on several routes. If you’re redpointing something you find really hard, but don’t want to take two whole days off, but also feel you need a really good rest (which can be a common situation on sport climbing trips) then do the following. Don’t finish climbing too late, and relax in the evening. Rest the next day, and all of the next morning. Have lunch and even a siesta (!) if you feel like it. Go to the crag about four hours before sunset, (so between 4-6pm in the summer). Now warm up by doing the moves again on the route, including some links to get your breathing and pulse going. Rest for twenty minutes, then give it a blast. By optimising your rest time, you’ve given yourself a whole 48 hours off and also timed your redpoint perfectly for the cool conditions of evening.

Another useful trick is the ‘minute per metre’ rest trick. This rule of thumb means that between attempts on a given redpoint, you must rest one minute for every metre on the climb. I devised this method after noticing a requirement for significantly more rest between attempts on long endurance pitches (longer than 30 metres) than for shorter, power-endurance climbs.  

Vince Day finding flow high on the epic endurance pitch of Ironman, 8c, Sector Surgencia, Rodellar, Spain

2: Finding Flow

In their groundbreaking book Flow In Sports, Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi define the concept of ‘flow’ as “a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what one is doing, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions. So flow is about focus. More than focus, however, flow is a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has occurred. So flow is also about enjoyment. People associate flow with peak performance… [but] flow offers something more than just a successful outcome. This is because flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and in those moments we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing.

All top-performing climbers are masters at finding flow. Flow in sport climbing, in my experience, arises as a consequence of the following three things:

1) being fully rested
2) feeling confidant and relaxed
3) enjoying the climb itself

We have already dealt with the first clause, which is perhaps the easiest of the three key ‘flow ingredients’ to find. Confidence and relaxation arise from various sources. Firstly, you cannot ever feel confident if you’re scared of falling off. You need to do some fall training as a no. 1 priority: climb above a bolt with a clear, overhanging fall-out zone, and jump off. Then do it again, and again, until you feel completely relaxed above the bolt. Once you’ve got the confidence, relaxation on the route should be easier to achieve. Make sure the conditions are good (we’ll deal with this properly in section 3). And make sure the crag itself suits you.  I personally hate busy, noisy crags, so I avoid climbing at busy times or find a quieter cliff.  If you find very exposed routes intimidating, then don’t try to do your first 7b+ on the top tier at Malham, where you’ll have 300 feet of air below you once you get to the fifth bolt! Go to a less ‘out there’ cliff, where you’ll find it easier to relax. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, climb with people whose company you enjoy, and you feel relaxed with. There’s nothing worse than getting on a hard route belayed by someone who you don’t know that well, or who you feel is impatient or unsupportive of your ascent.

The author, having a liking for long outrageous routes over short nasty ones, finds flow whilst onsighting the 45 metre roof of 'Fun De Chichune' (8a) Grande Grotte, Kalymnos.

Finally, enjoyment of the climb itself arises from several interconnected factors. Most importantly, you should choose a hard onsight or redpoint project according to the style of climbing you most enjoy. If you most enjoy technical face climbing, don’t choose a roof crack as your hard project. I am often amazed by how many climbers get frustrated by routes because they don’t like the style of climbing they encounter. If it doesn’t suit you, don't get frustrated with it. Just find a different route!

Enjoyment also comes from being properly warmed up and having plenty of energy: don’t get on that grade-breaking lead from cold, or at the end of the day after you’ve done ten routes already. The final critical enjoyment ingredient is feeling motivated. If you try to send that big line when you actually feel like cruising the easier classic next door, you won’t enjoy it. So do the easier route first, have a look at the line whilst lowering off to get inspired, then lead it when you feel 'psyched'.

3: Climb In Good Conditions

PlanetFear blogger Bob Hickish sensibly avoiding the Spanish sun for a 7c onsight on a north-facing sector in Rodellar's Mascun Gorge

There is absolutely no point being fully rested and feeling on top form if you go straight out and get on that hard route in the wrong conditions. Climbing is an unusual sport in the respect that quite subtle changes in atmospheric conditions can have a massive, fundamental impact on the difficulty of a particular climb. Britain, with its frequently humid weather, can be especially problematic in this sense. With a bit of cunning it is usually possible to get on a route in the right conditions, in all but the worst weather. Unless it is winter and the air is crisp and cold, sport climbing in direct sunlight will make a hard route feel exponentially harder. Outside the chilly months, always time your ascent for when the cliff is in the shade. If it’s been raining and the air feels humid, avoid sheltered cliffs with smooth rock, and particularly caves, where the humidity will make climbing very unpleasant. Go to an exposed, normally cold crag with good friction instead. Conversely, if it feels unseasonably chilly and there’s a gale blowing, go to a more sheltered cliff instead of Gordale Scar, which can become a freezing wind tunnel on blustery days. And don’t forget to ask more experienced, better-travelled climbers about which cliffs to go to when: in the mysterious world of climbing conditions, Foucault’s dictum that “knowledge is power” has a universal note of truth.

4: Eat Well

Sarah Garnett and top Turkish climber Serkan Erkan enjoying some seriously calorific Anatolian kebab before a hard day's cranking at Geyikbayiri.

As Sonnie Trotter famously quipped in a recent edition of Alpinist magazine, we have passed the era of “anorexic climbers, over-bolted routes, and glued-together cliffs”. Eating well is vitally important for sport climbing. Hard sport routes combine a requirement for slow-burn energy (spending all day at the crag) with requirements for short term bursts of power. There are essentially three main aspects to effective climbing nutrition:

1) eat a healthy and well-balanced meal the night before you climb

2) have a decent breakfast, which ideally will include some protein and fat (to give you all-day, slow burn energy) as well as complex carbohydrates. Yogurt and eggs are worthwhile additions to a traditional muesli and toast combination, to give you more staying power.  

3) Take a good stash of non stodgy, power-giving energy foods to the crag. Eat little and often when you sport climb, and save the picnic for post-climbing tapas: sandwiches take too much energy to digest and will typically slow you down. My own favourite sport climbing foods are bananas and apples (which have a very high glycemic index, giving almost instant energy), and things like muesli bars or crackers, which take almost no energy to digest but are a good source of quick carbohydrate.

5: Know The Tricks Of The Trade

In advanced sport climbing there are a great many tricks that are used constantly, but rarely spoken about in the public domain. Many of these tricks are crucial for energy-saving; others are important in order to avoid injury. The list below is not comprehensive, but merely a selection of the most obvious and useful of these tricks.

1)    When working a hard route for the first time, pull on all the quickdraws and clip them with your free hand instead of clipping them as you would on lead. This conserves valuable energy, by allowing you to find the best clipping hold from a relaxed position. If the route is very steep, or has a roof section, you can use the last bolt as an undercut hold, by pulling out on the quickdraw. This again can save time and energy.

2)    Don’t try to do all the moves on your first go. If you’re trying something right at your limit, don’t worry if you can’t do every move on your very first attempt. A first attempt should be seen as an assessment of the route as a whole, of whether you like it enough to put the effort in, and of how long it might take you to successfully redpoint.

A tough fabric knee support, which shows the damage a strenuous knee bar on overhanging terrain can do to unprotected knees!

3)    If the climb has a strenuous knee-bar on it, wear either some really tough trousers (denim can be very good for this) or an elastic knee support, pulled up above the knee, if you’re wearing shorts. If you wear light cotton trousers or (don’t think about it!) only shorts, you won’t be able to use the knee-bar properly and therefore won’t get as good a rest as you will need.

4) Maintain motivation: don't burn yourself out by climbing too hard, for too long, on the same kind of routes. Personally I've come to the conclusion that (road-trips excluded) three weeks is an ideal length for a sport climbing trip to a particular area. This means you've got enough time to get fit, get to know the area, and have a good balance between days spent on redpoint projects, and days spent going for hard onsights; after three weeks intensive sport climbing, even with rest days, I'm normally ready for a week off!   

5) Look at the route from the ground: does the line zig-zag or go through a big overhang? If so, are there any bolts you should extend, skip, or unclip (by reaching below with the higher one clipped) on lead to make the rope run better? On very long pitches in excess of 40 metres, this kind of effective rope-drag management is crucial in order to give yourself a fighting chance high on the line.

Kevin Avery taking care to avoid rope-drag on the very overhanging lower section of Priez Pour Nous (8b), Gorge Du Tarn, France. Note the very long sling used on the bolt on the left under the roof. Without this kind of extension, the upper section of this massive (50 metre) pitch would be near-impossible due to rope drag.

6)    Tape up if it’s sharp: if you are trying to redpoint a climb with sharp pockets, tape up on the joints where you feel the most abrasion on your skin. This will prevent potentially painful ‘flappers’ later, when the pockets actually cut your skin, often with redpoint-terminating results!

7)     Make sure you have enough chalk. It sounds silly, but it’s an easy mistake to make. Don’t get to the crux at 45 metres and find you’ve run out of the white stuff; charge your chalkbag before you start climbing.

8)    Take only as many quickdraws as you need when onsighting: look at the line from below and count the bolts. If you can’t see them all, estimate the total number and take a couple of spare quickdraws. Taking far too many clips on a hard onsight will reduce your chances of success.

9) If the route has a hard move by the first or second bolt, pre-clip it. A very common (and totally acceptable) redpointing trick among sport climbers is to have the first or second bolt pre-clipped if there is a hard bouldery move at the start. This saves valuable energy that would be wasted clipping, and (more importantly) is much safer than trying to make a desperate clip 20 feet above the ground from a bad hold. The easiest way to pre-clip a bolt is by unclipping all the bolts above the one you want pre-clipped whilst lowering. When you pull the rope, the rope will then be hanging in the last bolt you left clipped.

10)  Are you falling off the same move repeatedly? Find a better sequence. Sacking off a route because you keep falling off a particular move is a bad reason for giving up on a project. Chances are you have the rest of the route wired. Undoubtedly you’re finding the move hard, but is your sequence the best possible one? If I fall off the same move on my second redpoint attempt as my first, I always go back up to try and find a better sequence. I have not yet found a route where I’ve not discovered a slightly easier or better sequence that my original one.

11) Always try to maintain a steady, deep breathing cycle on all but the hardest (or most anaerobic) sections of a climb. The better you breathe, the more oxygen your blood will absorb, which means you'll get less pumped. There are numerous situations in which simply being calm and breathing deeply on a shake-out will mean you can recover enough to push on to the top.

The next feature in the series, 'Rock Secrets: Tricks For Advanced Trad Climbing', will be published next month

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