Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Easy Circuit Training: One Road to Climbing Better

Reading about training for climbing, you can get the impression that the key ingredient is effort, expending energy and building power. While I would agree that such training is a vital part of becoming better at bouldering, for many a steady diet of such climbing becomes counterproductive leading to plateaus and stagnation. My remedy for this situation is to spend a few sessions doing lots and lots of easy yet creative climbing.

At Flagstaff Mountain, behind Boulder, where I spend a lot of time bouldering, there is a great concentration of boulders and formations offering a seemingly infinite number of problems at very easy grades. Within a few hundred square yards, I can find 30 or 50 short problems that allow movement of virtually any type on all kinds of holds and features, ranging in difficulty from 5.6 to V5. So occasionally I will spend 30, 45 minutes or more climbing continuously on this kind of terrain, never stopping to figure out moves or try the problem twice. I also try to work in downclimbing and traversing to connect problems, always trying to maintain the flow of movement.

Why does this help make you a better climber? It works in a number of ways. First, you are spending time climbing instead of sitting around, moving gear, chatting with friends, taking off shoes, etc. So you are upping the volume of climbing considerably and aiding in general aerobic conditioning. In one of these typical sessions I am probably logging between 400 and 600 feet of climbing in under an hour. Second, by emphasizing continuity of movement, you are building better balance and smoother transitions between moves and stances, the kind of movement skills that can help considerably in much harder contexts. Third, you are experiencing multiple climbing situations in rapid succession and problem-solving quickly as you move through them, a learning exercise that allows much faster ascents and even flashes of harder problems. Fourth, you are building in greater variety of grip and body positions, helping prevent injury and strengthening little used muscles. Fifth, by building the sense of flow in a comfortable and low-stress way, you are aiding the formation of robust subconscious muscle memory that will assist you when you are tired and under stress, as in a problem at your limit. Shaping practical and productive movement patterns that you can maintain even in marginal situations is what climbing training is ultimately about.

Circuits can't replace the hard work of developing the pure strength required in developing finger and arm power. But they can help train that power to work more productively and can allow a good training day when the "snap" just isn't there. You can also use this kind of training as a great warmup, provided you keep the difficulty very low and don't get pumped. One key is continuous uninterrupted movement, which when you think about it is very rare in most bouldering sessions. The other is avoiding repetition of problems you have wired in the same order and the same beta. Seek new problems, contrive different sequences, and constantly see possibilities for new easy problems in order to keep the session fresh. Varying pure power sessions with a few of these easy circuit days may be just the remedy for that heavy burned-out feeling from too much training.

A warmup/endurance circuit at Flagstaff from peter beal on Vimeo.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Breakthrough Bouldering Clinic Recap

After some speculation whether anyone would show up, I had at least 10 people at the Boulder Rock Club last Thursday night for a clinic that went close to two hours. I started off explaining my philosophy of climbing better, namely paying better attention to what you are doing and understanding why. To me this is the essence of maximizing your potential as a climber and yet is so hard to do well. Then we had a little bit of falling practice. Much like in sport climbing, safe effective falling technique is crucial to feeling confident trying moves. Because trying harder moves is the key to doing harder problems, I wanted the participants to feel free to fail safely.

After the opening part, I had people move through a relatively easy but steeply overhung sequence getting them to think about body position,foot placement and speed. I am not trying to critique their climbing so much as open up other possibilities for thinking about climbing. Then we tried a long dyno type move, working on seeing the differences that momentum and foot placement can make, as well as speed of execution. Another harder problem was used to illustrate the need to make the most of good foot choices to use smaller handholds.

Finally I made some suggestions about effective bouldering gear, especially slippers, as many intermediate boulderers use shoes that are too stiff and take too much time to put on and take off. I also showed them what makes a good crashpad (representing Organic!) and why you need one (or two, really). I answered a ton of great questions.

I had a few chalkbags to distribute, courtesy of Chris Danielson at Trango climbing, and some free chalk, courtesy of Metolius, as well. I will be working on the schwag for the next clinic, for sure. Where to hold it next is the question.

I think the comments of one BRC member (on my previous post) said it best:

"I was lucky enough to go to the clinic, and it was great. Thanks for all the good advice! I thought it was a great balance of on-the-wall work, and mental training. I got some new perspective on trying hard, redefining failure and success, and some great training and technique tips. I'm ...trying to break out of the v5/6 grade, and I got a lot out of it. I'd go to another one of these in a heartbeat."

Definitely looking forward to doing more! If you think your gym might be interested, let me know.

Friday, December 3, 2010

BRC Bouldering Clinic Next Thursday December 9

I am very psyched to be offering my first public clinic on bouldering at the Boulder Rock Club next Thursday evening from 7 pm to 8:30. This clinic, titled Breakthrough Bouldering, is intended to help the serious boulderer or roped climber make the next step in proficiency and difficulty. If you are a boulderer who has had trouble getting out of the V2 or V3 grade, I will offer some ideas on how to self-assess and take concrete steps to improve. My primary focus will be on the psychological and mental paths that can be explored in conjunction with better utilization of physical strength, hoping to dissolve the artificial distinction that too many climbers make between the powers of mind and body.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Some Thoughts on Injuries

As promised, some draft material on the subject of injuries:

How injuries happen

Injuries happen when you have done something wrong. This is obvious enough. The question is what exactly? To begin thinking about this constructively, remember that climbing is about moving a large physical mass, i.e. your body, using relatively small and potentially vulnerable body parts. When climbing is done correctly, you don’t notice this basic truth as it can be masked by strength, good technique, balance, and sometimes plain luck. When the weight of your body is loaded poorly onto vulnerable joints and muscles and tendons, trouble starts.

The causes of this are basically two-fold; bad technique going into the move caused by inadequate training or planning and trying moves that are dangerous regardless of technique.

An example of the former would be attempting to lock off a small crimp at the end of a long day of bouldering. You are tired, under-hydrated, and not moving as cleanly as you could. As you try the move, a poorly-placed foot pops off a small edge, causing you suddenly to load the crimp very hard in an eccentric fashion. At worst, you may actually hear a tendon pulley snap, other times you may feel a slight strain that allows you to continue climbing and unknown to you, actually make a bad situation much worse. If you had backed off and come back when fresher, the move would have been trivial. If the pulley hadn’t snapped but you felt something wrong, had stopped climbing and iced the affected region immediately, you might be up to speed in a week or two. Instead you might have a nagging injury lasting months, even years.

An example of the latter situation is trying a move that isolates a body part in a way that forces a load onto that part that it is not designed to handle. The classic example is a one finger pocket. No matter how strong or careful you may try to be, there is no way to guarantee you will not hurt yourself on that kind of hold. Another is doing a move that involves using a gaston high overhead or making a very long reach sideways. Both these positions involve a considerable risk to your shoulder joint, especially the rotator cuff assembly. Another is latching a hold after a huge feet-cutting dyno. The impact and subsequent swing are potentially very hazardous to shoulders, regardless of strength or technique. These kinds of moves can be anticipated and avoided but occasionally you will want to do a problem that requires their use. Just as in the first case, planning and preparation are vital.

To avoid climbing injuries, the first rule is always warm up well on a sufficient amount of easy to moderate climbing or, if that isn’t accessible, an adequate amount of exercise to get your heart and respiration rate up and your body temperature elevated a bit. The second rule is never try individually hard moves when tired. This applies to training as well as in the field. For safe healthy bouldering you want to operate at your peak in the window between warm-up and fatigue, recognizing when you have peaked and adjusting your activity accordingly. During this window, you want to stay hydrated and fueled as this allows both better performance at the peak period and quicker recovery once you have quit for the day. My advice, despite the stories of heroic sends, 5th day on and on the 20th try, is never climb to exhaustion. You are only teaching yourself to climb poorly when tired, a habit that is not easy to break. It also opens the window to injury on otherwise easy problems and moves, the type of climbing which is in no way worth the sacrifice of a climbing season to achieve.

Monday, September 13, 2010


One of the most important factors governing success on a problem is that of adaptation. The human body and mind are incredibly flexible and responsive yet the demands of a boulder problem at our limits typically surpass our capacity to handle change. One of the attractions of bouldering is slowing the process of learning down and ironing out as many individual bumps in the road as possible before attempting to link the problem. Yet it is easy to forget that every attempt is an effort at getting mind and body to respond appropriately to the challenge before it and that the adaptation process is seldom linear.
Ferdinand Schulte on Bierstadt V9/10

By way of an example, when was the last time you did a somersault or forward roll? For many adults, such an exercise seems unfamiliar disorienting and uncomfortable. But when you were a child such antics might come as second nature. The need to keep equilibrium while spinning is rarely used in adult behavior, just as most bouldering movements are rarely used in everyday life. To the extent that you can allow your instinctive self to follow the patterns of movement set by the holds and shape of the problem is the extent to which a solution will come quickly. Selecting the correct answer is not merely a logical process but a holistic one involving inspiration, belief and acceptance and a willingness to accept change and adapt to it as quickly as possible. In nature, organisms must adapt or face extinction. In bouldering we must do the same or face failure and frustration.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Spotting in Bouldering: Some Do's and Dont's

As mentioned in the previous post, with the advent of crash pads, the game of bouldering changed drastically in the mid-1990s. For many problems, spotting became a non-issue.The use of of crashpads took the sting out of many previously committing problems.However, risk is still a big part of bouldering and spotting is an essential part of managing it. Any number of twisted sprained or broken ankles testify to this basic truth; every fall in bouldering is a ground fall. A good spot can provide the margin of confidence needed to succeed on the problem and maybe  never even put the spot to the test.

To make the spot successful, a few basic rules need to be followed and they can by summed up as follows using the SPOT acronym: S=Stance, P=Preparation, O=Observation, T=Tactics

By stance, I mean the way in which a spotter stands relative to the climber. Generally the spotter wants to be standing close to the climber, with legs apart, knees bent with hands positioned just above the climbers center of gravity. The footing should be secure and reliable and nothing should threaten to interfere with the movement of the spotter.

By preparation, I mean that the landing area has been cleared of extraneous stuff and pads arranged for maximal use and effectiveness.

By observation, I mean that the spotter is continually observing the climber and the terrain, being aware of any changes in the situation that may affect the safety of the climber.

By tactics, I mean that both the spotter and the climber have a plan in place to maximize the effectiveness of the tools and people at hand to ensure a successful ascent.

A good spot on Tommy's Arete V7 RMNP
The photo above shows a good spot in action on a problem where it really helps.Tommy's Arete V7 in Rocky Mountain National Park is a steeply overhung problem that goes over a very uneven talus landing. Several pads are required to prepare the base to a minimal level of security. To further complicate matters, a large boulder rests just behind the problem, offering a backslapping slide down to the pads from the last crux. In the photo, climber Tara Kramer is being spotted on this last section in perfect form. The spotter's hands are at rib level, ready to guide her into the pile of pads at the base. Just out of the frame, a pad has been hung on the steep slab behind the problem, offering some protection in the event of a fall. While Tara didn't get the problem in this session, she tried it in the confidence that a safe outcome would be the likely result, regardless of whether she topped out or not.

In the next post, more on special spotting situations and some thoughts on how to fall better.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Spotting and Bouldering: A Changed Paradigm

Although the advent of crashpads has significantly altered the nature of spotting in bouldering there is no question of its importance. In this post I want to discuss briefly the nature of spotting back in the day and how it has changed.

When bouldering in America was initially practiced seriously, in the late 50s through the mid 70s, it was a ground-up affair. Even if topropes were occasionally used, the attitude was that falling was a sign that the climber needed to start over. Rarely did climbers hang in place anywhere and pre-inspection was almost unheard-of. This, along with the absence of prepared landing surfaces such as pads, meant that even low problems could be very serious indeed. Although mats were used in gymnastics, which is where much of the idea of bouldering came from, they did not find wide acceptance in climbing until the mid-1990s. Even today, I will encounter older climbers who refuse the offer of a pad, even though their body language on the problem says they could really use it. Spotting was so important then because the ground was so hard and irregular on even the most level and clear landings that an unbroken fall of even just a few feet could twist an ankle or break a heel.

My theory is that spotting, also typical of gymnastics, was acceptable at that time because it mirrored in some sense the climber-belayer relationship typical of roped climbing and preserved a sense of ground-up adventure. This view might explain why pads were slow in being adopted. Certainly, the technology involved in pad manufacture or use is trivial and climbers could have been using them much earlier. Spotting in the pre-pad era consisted, much as it does now, primarily of stabilizing a climber's landing or directing the climber to a safer landing. However without a pad the consequences of a poor spot were potentially much more severe. This is perhaps why many classic problems from this era were rarely dynamic, steep compression affairs but instead more typically vertical or slightly overhung face climbs, problems that usually allowed a certain amount of time to climb down if possible or at least fall with some advance notice. Thus spotting was done in the manner typical of highball spots today, providing moral support as much as anything else.

Today, the situation is quite different on many problems. The crashpad has rendered spotting in many situations irrelevant as the climber moves above a sea of pads a few inches below her back. Indeed, on many steep problems, there is no room for a spotter anyway. A plethora of pads removes the need to direct the climber as he can land anywhere safely, even in a talus field, if the pads are placed well. Spotting has become for most a kind of lost art, rendered obsolete by new approaches and equipment.

That said, spotting remains a valuable skill in a number of situations. The ability to keep a climber upright and reasonably stable during impact can make you a valuable companion and bouldering partner and the ability to communicate this skill to others may save your own skin in a bad situation. More on how to fall and how to spot in the next post.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Gripping Positions: Which is Best?

One of the most important but overlooked aspects of climbing is the position of the hands on the holds. Typically beginning climbers do whatever comes naturally when they get started and unfortunately this often means crimping.

Crimping is by far the most mechanically strong grip to use in climbing but it is also the most injury-prone hand position. The raised knuckles exert far more force on the tendons in your fingers, making the likelihood of strain or tearing much greater. Therefore, it's advisable to work on consciously adopting the safer open-hand position.

I find myself inclined to use the open-hand position most of the time. In this position, the fingers are extended, allowing a more passive gripping of the hold,as seen here.
This is the first move of a V11/12 called Clear Blue Skies. I am using a crimp position for my right hand and snagging the first hold in an open-hand position. However, the next move involves a powerful and somewhat awkward cross to another edge for my right hand. The open-hand position's primary weakness is gaining height in a static position. Its passive attitude makes it hard to easily bend and lock off the pulling arm. Therefore, for the next move to work, I have to shift from an open-hand to a crimping position, building up enough body tension to make the next move. I find I often will make this transition in the course of a move, starting open-handed and then crimping to gain height. A good example is seen in these two photos of Jimmy Webb on the notoriously crimpy European Human Being V12 at RMNP. A powerful reach to a crimp is begun in the open-hand position with the tips of three fingers grabbing the hold.

After getting good contact,Jimmy sets up for the last move in a full crimp. A full crimp helps gain the necessary distance to the obvious left hold he is aiming for. It also helps resist the "barn-door" effect that this move produces as the climber's center of gravity shifts to the left.

Another option is an intermediate position between the two extremes. This can be seen in this photo of my setting up the last move on Clear Blue Skies.
The last move on this problem is a fairly powerful dyno off a poor left edge. The right hand is better but stays low. And, in order to set up for the move, I will first need to move my right foot up. An intermediate position allows me to minimize effort while hanging on to reset my feet and also allows a quick transition to the full crimp position for the final throw.

Sometimes part of the difficulty in a problem is mastering the exact position of your hand on a given hold and potentially needing to transition through different grip positions as you move. Often you will find yourself doing unlikely things such as crimping a sloper or openhanding a severely incut small edge. Find what works best for you and don't hesitate to try all alternatives. Even just an inch of height gain can mean success so find the grip that lets you get it. However don't forget the dangers of intense full crimping. The power it offers can come with a high cost. Be careful.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


If there is one thing every boulderer ultimately wants, it is more power. Power in the most basic physical sense, is the ability to apply force quickly. Obviously power helps in so many ways, whether pulling hard to generate force for a long dyno, or rapidly latching a bad hold, or pressing into a mantel. However power can also be misapplied easily. Climbing is such a technique-oriented sport, that almost regardless of the move or position, it generally pays to be very attentive to how power is used.

If you are misusing a foothold for instance, you may be creating a situation that no amount of power can resolve. In fact by overapplying it, you may be running the risk of serious injury as you load tendons or muscles unprepared for the impact. A good foot placement can drop the weight your fingers must bear by half or more. A very small edge can support a substantial proportion of your body weight, even on a steep wall, especially if your core muscles are properly brought into play.

It should always be remembered that in most positions in climbing, you are dealing with loads on your arms and fingers well below body weight. It may feel otherwise sometimes but the truth is that climbing is not gymnastics. Therefore, it is always helpful to use strength only as needed and concentrate on the accurate and efficient application of the force you can already muster. Alexander Huber once famously said, as he was getting ready to free the Salathe Wall on El Capitan, "It's OK, I have power to waste." He was kidding of course. Few climbers have demonstrated the powers of analysis, concentration, and preparation as he has over along and illustrious climbing career. However, the truth is that much of the time we are all doing just that, wasting power. We waste it learning the moves, overcoming fear, dealing with frustration, and imitating our friends.

Being aware of what you are doing and feeling is the best way to overcome the temptation to burn up power. Sure sometimes, to make a hard problem happen, you want to step on the gas. And in actual training, careful overload is the key to building strength. But in the course of actually doing a problem, most find they wind up using far less power than they thought necessary. "The problem felt easy," is a common refrain, the reason being that the climber thoroughly understood what the problem required. Some might assert that power is power but I tend to agree with Francis Bacon who famously wrote, "Knowledge is power."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Perhaps one of the most important skills to cultivate as climber is balance. When climbers hear the word, they associate it with lower angle, delicate slab moves, the kind of technical climbing not widely associated with modern bouldering. However, with a little thought, even the most strenuous and steep problem will be affected to a great degree by a deeper understanding of balance. The even steady distribution of weight can prove the key to success not just on a single crux but provide the margin required to link harder moves in a row.

By way of an illustration, consider this move on the Left El Jorge (V11) where Ryan Young is relying heavily on a left heelhook to achieve a long reach off the right hand. The climber has to pull in hard with both the hand and the left leg but crucial to success is finding the right situation for the hips and knee angle so that the load is balanced correctly. When it is, the core muscles just suck the climber into the wall, allowing a better chance at making the reach. Often such seemingly strenuous moves wind up somehow "just happening" much to the frustration of climbers who may spend many tries attempting to recapture that moment. Closer attention to the sensation of balance and equilibrium in this situation may save much time and energy in the end. For shorter climbers a good sense of balance may be key to finding the extra inches needed for a long reach and for taller climbers it may help ease the bunchiness typical on certain types of moves.

In any case, balance is not just necessary, it is part of having fun while climbing even the hardest problems you can. Part of the feeling of flow that is often associated with success comes from a sense of equilibrium and lightness as you distribute everything just right and find the moves much easier than usual.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

From the Ground Up

One of the greatest things about bouldering is the sense of exploration, in all senses of the term. There is geographical exploration, finding new areas and new problems, and physical exploration, progressing through techniques and grades. But the most significant to me is the sense of emerging self-awareness that persists throughout the career of a climber. The relationship of self to a greater world, even universe, is an aspect of bouldering that a few have documented, even written about, especially John Gill. Recently this has dropped into the background as new techniques and approaches favoring the quest for difficulty have taken precedent. But even in the midst of a hard session or even move, be open to the possibility of reflection upon what you are doing.

There is so much to discover and learn, even in an instant. The wind and sky, rushing clouds, the bracing rush of clear mountain air or the mystery of dark humid forests; all contribute to a feeling of relating and cooperating with nature, where struggle is replaced by understanding and obscurity by clarity. Things cohere and focus on the way from here to there, if you let them.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Getting Started

One of the repeated themes in the book will be getting off on the right foot, to save effort and time and avoid common beginner mistakes. What is funny is how often I continue to make mistakes and try to learn from them. As a beginning climber you spend a lot of time learning the basics, figuring what works, how it works, and why. At some point you would assume that phase would be done. But as with any great game, it is never done. There is always a new wrinkle or angle to explore, a method to try, an approach to consider. Getting started in bouldering is not about learning the rules, but learning about how to respond to new situations that don't fit the rules as you previously understood them. It's as much about being open to the possibility of being completely wrong so that you can figure out what's right.

I have been learning a lot this summer in Park and a lot of it not just about climbing. Proper hydration and eating have proven to be essential as well as pacing my hike to the boulders. Reading the weather and timing my visits has been useful. Most of all, especially given the complexity of the holds and features there, I have had to look at the rock in a comprehensive way, studying the options and being more flexible about my response to them. If someone tells you how to climb something, definitely consider that advice, but always follow your intuition. It's there for a reason.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


If there is a quality that allows success in bouldering, however you want to define success, it is perseverance. It is the ability to take repeated falls, make the long approaches and wait out the rain, deal with the soreness and fatigue, and want to get back out there as soon as possible. I have been learning a lot about this at Chaos Canyon this summer. Hiking in with 2 pads plus gear and camera, measuring success in micro-quantities, always wondering about the weather; it's not been easy. And so far one V8 for all that effort. Yes other rewards have been trickling in as well. Weathered pines against bright blue sky, clear alpine streams, and always the sense of  majestic space beyond the mass of the mountains. I may not attain my goals this season; that is a risk one has to take. But climbing is more than just grabbing a grade or a number. It is a process like carving jade, requiring patience, commitment and perseverance.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Book's Origins and Intentions

I have been blogging on climbing and bouldering more specifically for about three years but never thought of really doing anything more permanent than that until the editor at The Mountaineers emailed me about doing a book on the topic of bouldering. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity and after talking with her at Outdoor Retailer and getting a book proposal together, we agreed on a contract and moved ahead. Blogging has worked out remarkably well in this instance.

The strange thing is that no other major publisher has put a book out on the topic in quite a while. The two primary contenders are John Sherman's Better Bouldering and Bobbi Bensman's book, both dating from the mid to late-1990s. The sport has changed so much since then in terms of equipment, technique and training that the books, and I admire both the authors, are now effectively obsolete. While I am not at the leading edge of bouldering in terms of my personal climbing level, I feel I can clearly articulate what the new school is about, what makes bouldering so special and how to begin and improve at the game. I will be inviting contributions from leading boulderers and of course photographers to illuminate this fascinating game.

I will present a historical perspective in the book but I will be primarily concerned with how things are done in the present, and look to the future, especially with an eye to the environment and preserving the playground which we all depend upon for bouldering. I will be less concerned with the stylistic prescriptions and competitive attitudes that plagued earlier eras of the sport, focusing instead on giving climbers the tools they need to climb their best. By all means comment or email me with your suggestions. Ultimately I hope this book will be built by a community, even if I write much it myself.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Bouldering Book

This blog is a companion site to my book on bouldering, now in progress, to be published by The Mountaineers Books. It will be part of the Mountaineers Outdoor Expert Series with a planned publication date sometime in 2011. I will be posting frequently on matters related to bouldering, including equipment, technique, training and much more. Visit often as I will be updating it with sections from my book. Happy bouldering!