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.