Sunday, October 12, 2014

Friction Labs Chalk Review

Friction Labs Chalk Review 

The logo for Friction Labs Unicorn Dust

For bouldering, there are three essential tools: shoes, chalk and pads. Of these three, shoes probably get the most attention which makes a certain degree of sense. But the fact is that most of us really have no clue about the nature of the stuff we put on our hands to keep them dry. I have been increasingly frustrated with the chalk manufactured and sold by the bigger names in the industry, noticing that its texture and drying power seemed "off" somehow. I was also concerned about the nature of the "drying agents" and the lack of transparency in regard to the actual ingredients involved. Some of this I addressed a few years back in a post called "The Chalk Review" 

Since then some better chalks have emerged including that branded and sold by Mammut which I have used successfully in the past. However the most interesting development is an entirely new company, based in Colorado, called Friction Labs which has basically taken the approach of creating and selling via mail-order pure pharmaceutical grade chalk designed specifically for different kinds of climbing situations.

Kevin at FL was kind enough to send some samples my way that I had the opportunity to try out over the past few months, mostly in RMNP and the gym. There are three varieties of texture called Bam Bam, Gorilla Grip, and Unicorn Dust. Across the board, I was struck immediately by the excellent "hand" of the different chalks, what I would describe as a dry and slightly tacky feel when your fingers rub together. This tended to remain the case when actually gripping holds even the slippery and conditions-dependent gneiss of Lower Chaos Canyon. Kevin at Friction Labs explained that the key is the high percentage of magnesium carbonate which acts to trap moisture inside the chalk. Other chalks contain larger amounts of calcium carbonate which lacks this absorbent capacity, not to mention other unspecified filler materials. I recommend you read the chemical analysis posted at the FL website, something that to my knowledge no other company has done previously.

Personally I preferred the chunkier harder texture of the Bam Bam variety but I recommend you try out each of the different textures to see which suits your skin and climbing style the best. The only caveat is the price as it is much more expensive than other climbing chalks. However the subscription plan price includes free shipping and handling, an arrangement which is a real plus in making sure you always have the good stuff at hand, so to speak. Otherwise if you are left at the mercy of the local climbing shop's stock, you may be stuck with one of the "other" chalks, something that I have found makes a real difference, especially if you are working problems right at your limit.

For serious climbers, I think this is a great development and a chance to help a small start-up providing a very high quality product and service at a reasonable price. If you are looking for an extra tool for getting better results from your valuable climbing time, I strongly recommend checking them out.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Rock Climber’s Training Manual: A Boulderers Perspective

Images from the cover and contents of The Rock Climber's Training Manual

Over the past decade, Mark and Mike Anderson, brothers with a lengthy and substantial climbing record across disciplines, have been developing a training protocol called the Rock Prodigy Training Method. It’s clearly having results. For example, Mark has emerged as a very strong climber, repeating various testpieces here in Colorado and in Utah and Oregon, as well as doing 5.14 first ascents in places like Clear Creek Canyon and Shelf Road. When their book The Rock Climber’s Training Manual (referred to from here on out as TRCTM) came out I was very interested to see what they would come up with. As a climbing book author myself, I understand all too well the challenges inherent in gathering and presenting what can be at times a very complex subject.

Fixed Pin Publishing very kindly sent me a copy of tTRCTM for review and I was immediately impressed by the richness and finish of the book. The writing is very clear and the organization logical and coherent. The basic premise of the book is that climbing improvement is a quantifiable process and that a climber who wants to improve has to base that process on a predictable plan with measurable goals and benchmarks. I think on this level alone the book is very successful.

TRCTM is primarily intended for mid-level to advanced sport climbers, an audience that is more likely to be interested in the kinds of progression outlined in its pages. This is both its strength and weakness, at least as far as bouldering is concerned. The front cover and indeed many of the illustrations throughout the book are from the Red River Gorge and Smith Rock, areas that emphasize continuous endurance climbing and in the case of many routes in Smith, relatively low-angle technical small hold climbing. The Smith Rock photos especially give the book a bit of a retro feel, since the progression in high-end sport and bouldering in America has been on relatively steep power-endurance routes such as at Rifle or problems like those found in RMNP or Hueco Tanks.

The gist of TRCTM is that following periodized cycles of training will result in the greatest gains for your climbing, something that has been at the heart of most training books in English since the groundbreaking (and surprisingly current) Performance Rock Climbing by Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann was published back in the 90s. Establishing levels of strength, power and power endurance by means of the hangboard and campus board along with regular trips to the gym are the heart of this training program. Reviewing the basic outline of the training programs in the book, I found the workout plans and tactics made sense, although I found the means by which one finds the optimal weight at which to train on a fingerboard not entirely easy to understand. I am terrible with charts and graphs, though. Everything is presented in a relatively logical and analytical fashion and this is reassuring to anyone embarking on a training plan. It’s a solid and comprehensive guide to getting better, no question, especially for sport climbing.

For the specific pursuit of bouldering however I think this book could stand some revision. Among other things I found curious was the proposition that hangdogging and refining beta while working routes was easier and more typical than in working boulder problems because the boulderer climbs from the ground. In actuality boulderers often work problems close to the ground with sit starts or steep features that allow stepping into crux moves or sections quite easily. Boulderers are obsessive with refining beta to a degree that might astonish some sport climbers unfamiliar with this aspect of the sport. A closer look at the practices at the leading edge of bouldering today would help iron out some of these issues.

In terms of training, bouldering is not just about adding more intensity or weight, it is also about mastering very different body positions, learning types of dynamic movement, coping with mental pressures, and developing effective tactics for safe successful attempts on problems, all in ways that will differ drastically from an enduro route in the Red. Boulderers need to closely understand complex heelhooking, kneebars, toehooks, and the overall intricacies of compression climbing. Dynamic movement, though key in bouldering, is given relatively small space in the text as a whole and not much in the (very short) section dedicated to bouldering. Of course in bouldering dynamic climbing is critical to success on any limit problem. The mental pressures of working out multiple limit moves that must be linked flawlessly are similar to sport climbing but take on a qualitatively different intensity in bouldering where success and failure can occur almost arbitrarily. In other words, if training for climbing can be described as a science, as TRCTM clearly intends, bouldering still feels more like an art where criteria for advancement seem qualitative and subjective.

Is TRCTM desirable for boulderers? Yes and no. Given the relatively short space dedicated to the sport in the book, it is clear that it’s not primarily intended for bouldering, though ironically bouldering is seen as critical in providing power for improving one’s sport-climbing level. However, for any climber looking for a current and comprehensive understanding of the basics of training theory as it applies to climbing overall, TRCTM is a great and relatively inexpensive place to start. The effort and diligence of the authors is apparent throughout and the publisher’s care in terms of layout and production is clearly evident. But for bouldering training specifically, it has significant limitations. The book on bouldering training hasn’t been written though I have been working on it a bit. Watch this space.