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What it took to climb 5.12 (7a+)

11 Aug

Four years ago while sipping scotch with Ben and Will, I commented half jokingly that I was never going to be a good sport climber.  Will instantly shot back,

“Bullshit.  You’ve never tried”.

I was completely dumbfounded.  I looked at Ben and could see he was waiting for my reply.

“What?”, I questioned.

“You’ve never tried”, Will repeated.

He then launched into a 4 star rant about how I had never devoted a summer to sport climbing, let alone climbed continuously throughout the year.  Roughly ten minutes later, when Will’s berating finally ended, I shot a quick glance to Ben, who had an unknowing look on his face.

“You’re absolutely right”, I conceded.  I had never tried.

Sure I went climbing regularly but I wasn’t really trying.  I took the easy way out.  I toproped whenever someone else was willing to lead.  I climbed the same routes regularly.  If I was leading and my knees where at a bolt I would take instead of going for it.  Basically, I sucked at sport climbing because I deluded myself into thinking that I was trying, when really I was giving 50% most of the time.

This summer marks my fourth summer of focusing on sport climbing.  Sometimes it seems ridiculous how much time I spend climbing routes thirty metres or less while living in a place with great alpine climbing.  But I realized years ago that the best mixed climbers are good sport climbers.  I’ve spent a little time in the ‘pine and I plan on taking my new rock climbing skills into the hills.  It’s part of a plan.

So, although 5.12 isn’t very hard in the big picture, it’s still a worthy goal which many people have trouble attaining.  Eric Horst still sells many copies of How to Climb 5.12. I read the book and yet my climbing languished for years.  Here is what it took for me to break the barrier:

  • Go climbing

Are you climbing 3 days/week?  Are you trying hard 3 days/week?

If not, don’t bother to read how to books on climbing, don’t worry about the latest supplement or what a world cup climber does for their training program.

You need to climb, consistently and regularly.

  • Realize that 5.12 isn’t hard

If you haven’t climbed 5.12 you are probably scoffing at this claim.  If you have climbed 5.12, you are probably giving a knowing nod.

I first realized that 5.12 wasn’t hard in Spain.  People in Europe routinely warm-up on 5.12.  Many crags don’t have any easy routes and if they do, are not very good routes.  As a result people warm-up on routes much harder than the routes most people on North America will ever send.  If 5.12 is your warm-up and your project, you will learn to send it much faster (see below).  Open your mind to the possibilities.  This is most important to realize.  Repeat after me:  “5.12 is not hard”.

  • Boulder

When you boulder you climb cruxes over and over.  If you boulder regularly, when you come to the crux on a route you will have the strength, skill and confidence to send.  Bouldering makes you stronger faster.

  • Always lead unless you are injured

Do not toprope.

Unless you are headpointing (if you don’t know what headpointing is, don’t toprope), you should be leading.  Learn to hold on at all costs.  Surprise yourself by climbing further than you thought you could.

  • Try climbing routes obviously too hard for you

If you want glacially slow progress, climb choss while trying to work up through the grades one letter at a time (it’s what I did for years).  Instead, whatever grade you want to climb, try something much harder.  When you go back to the easier route, you will be stronger and it will seem easier because you have perspective on something harder.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

  • Climb tactically

If you are trying to send a route at your max, explore it the first time.  Stick clip the first bolt if advisable to avoid a ground fall.  Climb from bolt to bolt in order to work out the best sequence for you.  Don’t get flash pumped early in your climbing session.  Once you have memorized your sequence for the route, piece it together.  When you are climbing at your limit, getting one hold higher is an achievement.  Cherish it.  Unlock the mystery of how your body needs to move on the rock.

  • Find mentors

I’ve been exceedingly lucky to have great climbing mentors.  Until recently, it was a mystery to me why great climbers would let me climb with them.  Ben recently revealed the secret: “You’re a good belayer”.  Not exactly what I want to be known for but it goes to show that if you’re fun to hang out with and belay well, you’ll always have climbing partners.

Belaying aside, every climber I’ve ever met loves to see someone try hard.  Find someone who climbs harder than you and then emulate them, giving all the effort you can.

William, thank you for pointing out that I hadn’t tried.  I hadn’t.  Oh, and Benjamin, thanks for letting me belay you all these years.

The author, exceedingly happy in a sea of choss.

The author, exceedingly happy in a sea of choss.

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